On a hot fall day last October, I sat at a trailhead in a state bordering on disbelief. I had just finished a lap on the East Rim Trail in northeastern Ohio, and I couldn't decide which element of its novelty was more improbable: that I had flown from my home in the Colorado Rockies to mountain bike in Cleveland—and loved it; or that I had just ridden a ripping flow trail in a national park.

I looked around at my riding partners, a mix of locals and professional trail builders who were working to complete the last of the trail. Their looks all seemed to say the same thing: We told you it was legit!

No, it was not the North Shore or an alpine spaghetti strand under big peaks. But thanks to 15 years of bush-beating advocacy, you can catch air on purpose-built, National Park Service-approved tabletops 30 minutes from LeBron James' house—in view of nesting bald eagles. Let that sink in.

Not all that long ago, Cleveland was the definition of environmental disaster. The surrounding natural world was such an afterthought that the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, a tipping-point event that led to the creation of the EPA and Clean Water Act. Now, that same river weaves peacefully through Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), past beaver marshes and coyotes and, as of early May, when the bulk of the 10-mile East Rim network is slated to open to the public, the metro area's unlikeliest draw in a resurgence few saw coming.

Suffice it to say this is not your parents' Rust Belt city. Cleveland's tourism promoters tout their 21 breweries and weekend boating on Lake Erie and the fact that visitation has outpaced the national growth rate for seven straight years. But as we catch our breaths before taking another lap through the maple and oak forest, it becomes obvious East Rim is more than a tourist attraction. The trails—four in all by the time everything opens later this year, including two technical downhills for freeriders—have transformed the city's two-wheeled identity. "It's like working in a shop back in the mid '90s again," said Brent Forrer, 43, who owns All-Around Cyclery down the road from the trailhead. "Everyone wants mountain bikes."

 

Kevin Marzahl leads a friend into the woods, escaping the Cleveland craziness for trails he helped build.

The roots of the renaissance date to the early 2000s—and, not insignificantly, they coincide with a crucial realization among those involved with the park, which was formed in 1974. "We're kind of an old white person's park, and we knew that needed to shift," says Patty Stevens, director of capital projects for the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which raises money and advocates for the park. "We wanted more younger, athletic people."

When the Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Association, or CAMBA, formed, they did so with the specific intention of building trails in a pair of metro parks and the area's crown jewel of open space: CVNP. They spent the first few years establishing their brand, amassing a skilled volunteer base and building trust with land managers. Their quantitative goals were ambitious—to create a regional network of 100 miles linked by the mostly gravel, flat and straight Towpath—and required remarkable patience.

Jeff Seelig (left) balances riding with trailbuilding. Seelig, along with many other volunteers, has been an important part of making the East Rim trails come to fruition.

Despite the fact that CVNP includes 125 miles of trails, none of the natural, technical singletrack was open to cyclists. Which meant poaching was rampant. "That was your only option to ride," says CAMBA trails director Jim Olander, who started riding in Cleveland in 1995. Nevertheless, in 2006, park officials agreed to revisit their 25-year-old master plan and see if mountain biking could fit. Later that year they committed to building a trail. It still took three years for the planning meetings to begin.

Along the way CAMBA became an IMBA chapter, and when the park finally granted permission to begin construction, CAMBA hired Indiana-based Spectrum Trail Design to make sure the final product honored all the work it took to get there. Unlike other trails, funding was not a problem for East Rim. REI contributed a $15,000 grant to help finish Edson Run, add overall improvements to the East Rim trails and fund work on phase two: Lamb Loop. With REI’s help the Conservancy raised a whopping $626,000 from a diverse range of donors, notably the Knight Foundation, which contributed $250,000. "It totally invigorated our funding," Stevens said. "A guy in his 50s handed us a check for $10,000 one day. He said, 'I love this trail.'"

Marzahl stands tall—proud of the trails he was part of creating.

Stay low, go fast. Marzahl leads the way.

The first phase, a 2.3-mile loop officially called the East Rim Trail, opened in November 2015. It drew so much interest that the parking lot had to be expanded. Two years later, I arrived to test the second phase, Lamb Loop. Phase 3, a.k.a. Post Line, a mile-long descent through a rock quarry, and the final segment, Edson Run, are the gravity tracks.

The ripple effects are already being felt. According to CAMBA president Stephen Metzler, the group's membership has grown by nearly 30 percent since East Rim opened, and they are hopeful it will attract riders from Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. "It's a golden era," Olander said. "It's crazy the options we have now."

Stephen Metzler, CAMBA’s president, has seen the mountain-bike association grow exponentially since its partnership with the national park.

The historically bike-averse National Park Service is still coming to grips with the idea of purpose-built mountain bike trails, says CVNP landscape architect Kim Norley, who has overseen construction of the East Rim system. But so far the benefits clearly outweigh the detractions. Volunteers post daily Twitter updates on the trails' condition and whether they're open or closed, which has won over the park's natural resources staff. "It's brought a whole new group of people in," Norley said at the trailhead. "It's really expanded our volunteer base. I think everybody's been pleasantly surprised."

That includes locals who can access the trail from their neighborhoods and have taken up mountain biking simply because it's available now. Stevens said she received an email from a formerly sedentary man who said East Rim changed his life. Norley stopped by the trailhead one day and got to talking with two guys who'd driven six hours to ride it. "They came all that way for a 2.3-mile loop. A 2.3-mile loop!" she said last fall. "They were like, 'This is amazing. We've ridden it four times and we're going again.'"

Perhaps most telling, an additional dozen miles of new trail in CVNP has already been charted on GPS. The park superintendent, Craig Kenkel, hopes the network will put northeast Ohio on the map as a national fat-tire destination. Those who have ridden East Rim believe in its potential to do that and more.

"It's kind of a stepping stone for the future of mountain biking," said Jeff Seelig, who works for Spectrum and rode with us in October. "We're showing we can be sustainable and responsible in a place where we used to be unwelcome."

RIDE CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK:

As with any metro area, lodging options are abundant. If you can live without the hopping downtown scene, book a room at Stanford House inside the park. A former farmhouse built in 1840, Stanford is the closest thing Ohio has to a backcountry hut. It sleeps 30 and rooms range from $65 (for two bunk beds with a window) to $175 (for private quarters with your own bath). It includes a fully equipped kitchen and sprawling grassy grounds to lounge or do yoga. Plus, you can ride to the trailhead (conservancyforcvnp.org). After lapping East Rim, head to the Winking Lizard for giant draft beers and world-class wings—not to mention a live iguana that greets you at the door. (winkinglizard.com). Also, the local REI store will eventually be leading rides in the area as part of its cycling program. Check out the full slate of cycling classes here.

This story was brought to you through a paid partnership with REI. 

The Stanford House is a quick ride from the trailhead.