NOTE: See the updates at the end of the post.
Congratulations, Phoenix. You've officially destroyed one of the nation's best urban mountain biking areas. And you managed to do it on the down-low.
By the time I started mountain biking in 1992, the Papago Park trails were the gathering place for local riders looking for a quick post-work or -class ride. Whether you were new to the sport or one of the fastest racers around, Papago Park was there for you. It was up to the task of being a venue for everything from 12-hour races (edit: I had a case of 12-hour brain when I wrote this … 12 Hours in the Papago stayed in the Tempe and Scottsdale portions of Papago) to ad-hoc races
No longer. Here's what I've been able to find out:
- Most of the trails on the Phoenix side have been bladed from the singletrack mountain bikers love so much to an eight-foot-wide (just my eyeballed estimate) superhighway. The surface is unpaved and covered in loose pebbles. The berms in the corners are also gone, so forget about sustaining any sort of speed into a corner. In places, there are even slabs of concrete, presumably for drainage.
- There appears to be no motive.
No existing trail user benefits from this destruction. My only guess is that this is some bizarre, mishandled effort to improve the area's
wheelchair accessibility. I could support that – but why destroy the existing asset for the majority of users when a separate wheelchair-accessible trail network is an option? UPDATE: I've seen some talk in the Facebook group referenced in a few paragraphs that this might be a way to lure more 5k trail races to Papago.
- Rumors of Starbucks and other silly money-grab theme parkization (my new word) of Papago Park have been around for quite awhile now. It seems the public heard about this for so long that they stopped believing it, and didn't monitor the situation closely enough. Notice that the trail destruction happened during the summer months, when most cyclists switch to road biking or head up north to cooler climates. There's also no news coverage, with this being the closest mention to the topic. There was no signage explaining anything or asking for input.
- I'm to blame. But so are you. So is every single mountain biker who may have knownabout this, and didn't expend all energy possible to organizing the people who use and love these trails. This speaks to a need for a far more organized and engaged cycling community. I'd also really like to know what the International Mountain Bicycling Association would say about the quality and sustainability of the new pseudotrails.
- It's not too late. Seriously. A Facebook group has formed to mitigate the damage. And imagine if enough of us stand together and demand that Phoenix build new mountain bike specific trails. The business case is there if you look to the progressive thinking of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, which turned itself into a regional draw for cyclists by expanding its trail network. Then-Supervisor Rand Hubbell put McDowell Mountain Regional Park on the national mountain biking map – maybe someone equally intelligent at the city of Phoenix could do the same. Step One: Go find the people who hand-built the Fantasy Island North Singletrack and get them to work their magic at Papago. The result would be even better than the current – sorry, make that former – trails.
Let’s see how Phoenix handles this, and how it explains the lack of public notice. I’d also like to see how they analyzed the trail user groups to figure out whether this would actually benefit anyone.
Ray Stern from the Phoenix New Times is following this situation. Expect balanced, well-researched reporting from him. It’s what he does. And while it’s great to have bloggers and social media users squawking, it’s a huge benefit to haves someone with the time and resources to dig into city documents and present other sides of the story. Not to mention using those resources to right the situation.
Ray’s found that at least one off-road wheelchair user really digs the revamped trail. And some other disabled trail users do, too, judging from the social media conversations. Meanwhile, I think too many mountain bikers are howling “tear it out and make it the way it was” and polishing their pitchforks. I favor a solution that would create something unprecedented: A venue that includes a resource for off-road wheelchair users to have fun and maybe even compete (sign me up as a race volunteer and trailbuilder, already!) and integrates a purpose-built, mountain bike-specific singletrack network. Given FINS and its amazing trail design and execution, this is possible with a minimum of resources. The biggest challenge is finding the political will. And jeez, mountain bikers … stand with disabled trail users, FFS.
This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!