Of all the places in the country that have community bike parks, you’d think Southern California would be near the top of the list. With its rich riding culture, vocal trail advocacy and year-round riding weather, you’d expect there to be a pumptrack or dirt jumps at every corner. But unfortunately that’s never been the case, at least not in San Diego.
San Diego County, which begins along the Mexican border and extends as far north as the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, has always had a vibrant riding scene—but is sparse on community bike parks. The San Diego Mountain Biking Association took note of this years ago—we’re talking a decade—and wanted to do something about it. They saw the riding centers, pumptracks and bike parks popping up all over the country and the benefits places like that had on the riding community. For six years, the SDMBA lobbied and advocated for a bike park to be built in San Diego County without much progress.
But that’s not to say nobody was listening. About four years ago, Supervisor Greg Cox of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors took notice of what SDMBA was trying to make happen. A vocal advocate of cycling in his own right, Supervisor Cox became a champion of SDMBA and of what would later become the Sweetwater Bike Park, which celebrated its opening weekend in Bonita, just east of San Diego, on January 4.
Working alongside the county and San Diego Parks and Rec, the SDMBA started slowly putting plans for the Sweetwater Bike Park into place. “I think that we, SDMBA, worked really hard to make sure that once we got some champions and we got some momentum that it was going to done correctly,” said Susie Murphy, Executive Director of SDMBA and driving force behind Sweetwater. Creating a bike park isn’t as simple as bringing in machines and carving out some jumps—SDMBA did extensive research to learn what had worked, and more importantly what had not worked.
“Sometimes they’re [bike parks] are built with a lot of enthusiasm but they’re not planned in a way where they’re a quality place that riders will come to over and over and over again. And also sometimes they’re built without a plan for their resources to deal with the maintenance and the ongoing operations,” said Murphy. To address the latter hurdle, SDMBA partnered with San Diego Parks and Rec, which is known for their community involvement. This way, SDMBA felt that whatever bike park would eventually be built would have the backing and resources to be successful.
To tackle the former problem, they held public meetings to determine what should actually be built—what did people really want to ride? SDMBA wanted to make sure that the park wouldn’t be a one-weekend wonder, they wanted to ensure people would be stoked to ride the park for years to come. With 4 acres to play with, there was a lot of space to work with. Plans for multiple jump lines, a pumptrack and skills park took shape. The next hurdle was how to build it all.
One of the other lessons SDMBA learned in its research was the importance of finding the right contractor to do the actual moving and shaping of dirt. Due to this, San Diego County used a two-step bidding process when hiring a contractor—the first step of which was a pre-qualification to ensure that the contractor had experience building bike parks.
This lengthened process turned out to be the right one, and Devin Schneider of Schneider Grading was hired to build Sweetwater Bike Park. Schneider is known in San Diego County for his private pumptracks and other bike-related builds, and seemed to be the perfect person for Sweetwater. During the build, Schneider and his team brought their bikes along with shovels and machines, and after each feature was made the team rode it to make sure it actually worked. If it didn’t, they got back in the diggers, adjusted things and rode it again. Build, ride, adjust, repeat.
The result of Schneider’s efforts has been likened to a rideable sculpture park.
The perfectly shaped jumps and berms are covered with Soil Tak, the same packing material used on BMX tracks to make them ultra-compact and smooth without using concrete. While it does require ongoing maintenance, like any dirt-based build, the Soil Tak gives the Sweetwater Bike Park a look and ride quality rarely found elsewhere.
Looking to the future, Sweetwater has quite the backing for ongoing maintenance. The park is built on an unused lot owned by the county, which happens to be situated next to Sweetwater County Park. Both the bike park and county park will be managed by the county; employees will be responsible for day-to-day tasks at Sweetwater like trash removal, parking, weather closures and basic maintenance. SDMBA volunteers can also take two-hour shifts through the Bike Park Ambassador program to greet riders, answer questions and make sure everyone is wearing a helmet. For maintenance projects, volunteers go through the county as well as SDMBA, which covers the volunteers with the county’s liability insurance.
SDMBA aren’t stopping at Sweetwater either, there a few other areas in the north part of the county that are looking at bike parks as well, said Murphy. By the sounds of it, San Diego County might not only be treated to one bike park, but we might also just see them start to pop up all over the area. To that we say, it’s about time.
This article originally appeared on Bikemag.com and was republished with permission.