Dialing it in indoors
A day at Ray's Mountain Bike Park
It is the day after Thanksgiving and every place I go there is Christmas music - except here the speakers are blasting the heavy metal that male 20-somethings seem to enjoy. I'm at Ray's Mountain Bike Indoor Park (www.raysmtb.com) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just 90 miles from Chicago. Although the weather this November day is mild, suitable for a bike ride, at Ray's the biking is like nothing I've experienced outdoors.
I've been curious about mountain biking ever since a customer from my bike shop days said that for him, mountain biking was close to a religion. I've read about the popularity of mountain biking and know about the availability of fat tire bikes with suspension from all the major bike manufactures, (full suspension BSOs, a.k.a. bike shaped objects, are even sold at "marts") and the movement to build mountain biking trails in national, state and local parks. The 35,000 International Mountain Biking Association members can't be wrong, so there must be something to this mountain bike craze and I want to experience the rapture.
This is the second year Ray's has been open in Milwaukee. There's another location in Cleveland, Ohio. Both are only open in the off season, October through April. They are located in former big box stores. Aisles of shelves and merchandise have been transformed into multi-level cycling meccas - brightly painted paths and simulated obstacle courses of logs, rocks, bridges, climbs, decents and jumps. Ray's only allows mountain or BMX bikes, you can bring your own or rent one, and the facility accommodates all levels of mountain biking experience. It even has events to attract women.
Since I am a nervous beginner afraid of falling and breaking a bone, I stuck to the beginner areas in the Milwaukee park. The Yellow Brick Road wound around the entire facility on the ground level. There was a novice area with simple (for youngsters, but not for me) obstacles where you can practice biking berms and rollers, over a simple log, through a bed of rocks, jump across a gap, and into a crash pit. I spent most my time here and had the area mostly to myself.
Some riders at the park had on a lot more protective equipment than the basic helmet that Ray's requires, including knee and elbow pads, protective clothing and full face helmets. I saw daredevils fall off their bikes, so be advised: mountain biking is a dangerous sport. But with the proper precautions and practice it is really fun challenging yourself to maneuver your bike around tight turns, onto a rail and across a teeter totter.
The designers at Ray's replicated the experience biking on man-made forest trails, but there were also thrills not in the milieu of Mother Nature. I enjoyed watching dudes riding up a bike elevator, on a sliding walkway and into a foam pit.
The truth is if to really enjoy biking on dirt, you need good bike handling skills. Ray's is the ideal place to develop them in the off season. On a practice run you know what is coming up; you can ride it over and over until you've got it. If you find it fun indoors, imagine the excitement mountain biking in the great outdoors.
Sign me up for the congregation of the leafy tree!
Sharon Kaminecki, former owner of the Earth Rider Cycling Boutique & Hotel in Brodhead, Wisconsin, is now a project manager in the health care industry, a bike commuter and recreational road rider living in Chicago.