By Sal Ruibal
Photos: Chris Nystrom
We've all seen the type: Shaggy looking guys hanging around the playground at the local park, whispering to the fresh-faced kids headed for the Little League ball field.
"Pssst, lil' dude," they say. "Check this out. It'll make you feel ten times better than playing baseball. First one's free, tell your friends."
That was the scene at Rockburn Branch Park in oh-so suburban Elkridge, MD. Prissy kids in dry-cleaned lacrosse and soccer uniforms skipping across artificial turf while Mom and Dad hauled the Ding-Dongs and juice boxes to the bleachers.
Up high on the hill overlooking the whole sports complex is the hangout of the shaggy ones, no uniform unless you count dirty jeans, t-shirts and torn-up sneakers as a uniform. The helmets hanging from the handlebars of the 20-inchers are plastered with stickers.
There's a ragged line of sorts, kids waiting for their turn at the goods, the big rush, the fast escape from life as adults define it.
Up here, above the Baltimore suburbs, kids are getting their first tastes of adrenaline, but its all 100% natural. They're flying on dirt berms and flailing on rock gardens, catching big air and going sideways on dirty berms.
This is the Rockburn Skills Park, a pocket-sized piece of Heaven for kids – and some adults who think like kids – to hone their chops on some righteous routes. In an area the size of two mini-mansion back yards, they are teaching each other the skills needed to shine on the nasty, rocky, rooty singletrack at neighboring Patapsco State Park, the flipping and flying on the famed "495" dirt jump complex 20 miles away on the Beltway in Virginia and the insane downhill courses that pepper the nearby Appalachians.
The Skills Park, which opened June 2, is the gateway drug that gets them hooked. No longer the goofy outcasts, they're ruling the roost, pulling backflips and 180s while their jealous cohorts are running around chasing a ball while a coach and parents are yelling at them. The kids with the clean cleats look up and hear the laughter and wish they were up there.
"We wanted to provide a place where riders of any age or ability could practice and improve their confidence and skills including basic handling, turning, braking, climbing and descending," says Melanie Nystrom, a longtime local MTB racer and the park's liaison with M.O.R.E. (Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts).
Features of the park include a Pump Track with a low-risk circuit for a wide-range of skills; Flow Trail that includes universal trail symbols, small rollers and berms as well as flow features with table-tops, berms, rock drops; a Descending Trail that has some log technical features; a rock-armored Uphill Trail and a easy uphill return trail that takes riders back to the top.
M.O.R.E. partnered with the International Mountain Bike Association and the local Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks to design and build the park. Financial support also came from both local and national sponsors including Clif Bar, Diamondback, REI Columbia and many more local companies.
On the day I visited, the pocket park was a beehive of kids zooming around the various courses. Skill levels varied widely, but in keeping with bike culture, the better riders helped out the newbies and everybody was having a swell time, even when trying to climb the big rock garden named "Melanie's Madness" in honor of her big effort to get the project done.
Dave Ferarro, President of M.O.R.E. and Melanie Nystrom pose in front of one of the park’s well-designed signs.
One feature of the skills park is its comprehensive signage. There's a lot going on in a very small space, but the big sign explains everything in an easy-to-understand way. Each trail has a small sign with symbols and colors designating degree of difficulty. If more MTB and dirt jump sites spent time on good signage, it's a bet that more people would gravitate to them.
I tried the trails and was impressed with how much riding I could cram into 30 minutes. The flow of riders is almost continuous but it never seemed crowded. My big-suspension rig was way too plush to get the proper propulsion, so next time I visit I'll ride Patapsco on the big dualie and Rockburn Skills Park on the rigid BMX cruiser.
As much as us old-timers might want to keep our crazy sports as out of the mainstream as possible, you can't hold back the tide of kids who want to rock the trails on a bike. With the National Interscholastic Cycling Association building mountain biking as a high school sport and skills parks popping up next to soccer fields, it is inevitable that jumping bikes on dirt will become a widely accepted sport. Just don't tell the kids that; it'll spoil their fun.