Moving From Rider to Advocate
This blog is the second of a three-part series featuring parks in the Mid-Atlantic region that have become beloved places to ride for local mountain bikers and cornerstones for their respective communities. Read Part 1 here.
Photos by Kiel Perez
Highbridge Park in New York City is a neighborhood gem which confounds expectations of city parks and urban mountain biking. The 130-acre park is located in Washington Heights, in the northernmost part of Manhattan. The park gets its name from the High Bridge, the city's oldest standing bridge which connects Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx.
Highbridge Park is full of surprises. For starters, it has over a hundred acres of natural forest sitting on rock cliffs that overlook the Harlem River and the Bronx. The park is home to eight playgrounds, three ball fields, an olympic-sized pool, rock faces for bouldering, and a pumptrack suitable for beginners and advanced riders. There are also three miles of gnarly, technical mountain bike trails hidden in plain sight.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about the park is how it has fostered a dedicated community of riders, builders, and advocates. In a city of 8.5 million people, known for its individuality, fast-paced nature, and trying to get everything done in a “New York minute,” Highbridge cuts against this stereotype. The park has become a gathering place for mountain bikers who understand good trails take time and collective effort.
Manhattan’s first MTB trails
The three-mile trail system was a concerted effort by the New York City Mountain Bike Association (NYCMTB), Concerned Long Island Bicyclists (CLIMB), and New York City Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks), with thousands of volunteer hours going into construction. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation provided $100,000 in funding for trail construction.
The Highbridge Park trails were opened to the public in May 2007, making them the first and only sanctioned mountain bike trails in Manhattan. While three miles may seem short, the variety of features on the trails is impressive. City residents can hit jumps and drops, get a taste of XC riding, and catch some river vistas from rock cliffs without having to leave the borough. Accessible by subway and multiple bus lines, Highbridge is the perfect gateway into mountain biking for folks who are unable to drive to trails outside the city.
The most ridden portion of Highbridge is the dirt jump park, which was designed and built by IMBA Trail Solutions with current and former pro riders Judd DeVall, Jeff Lenosky, and Kyle Ebbett, and with the help of local volunteers. NYCMTB has added features over the years, with new additions slated for Spring 2023. There is something in the jump area for everyone. For beginners, there is a pumptrack and flowline with intro-level jumps. The progressive intermediate section develops into a mini slopestyle inspired course with several tables, step ups, and berms.
As the trails were being built, a community was also created. The community that has developed around Highbridge now provides stewardship for the land, education for riders and volunteers, and a sense of belonging to those who seek it.
A community of trail stewards
IMBA Local Chapter NYCMTB maintains the bike infrastructure in Highbridge and hosts a monthly trail work day. After putting in shovel time, volunteers have access to NYCMTB’s fleet of mountain bikes. Being able to borrow bikes and helmets lowers the barrier of entry to mountain biking for folks who may not be able to afford a bike of their own or may not have the space to store one. NYCMTB keeps their bikes, gear, and tools in a storage container on the perimeter of the trail.
“We've found that having a regularly recurring trail work day has been successful in attracting new volunteers. Our monthly events are incentivized with a free mountain bike share, skills clinics, and group rides. These dates have become quite popular, consistently drawing up to 20 or more participants from across the city who are learning what it takes to build and ride progressive bike park terrain,” said Christopher Trombley, President of NYCMTB.
The organization also has a crew of regular volunteers. One of them is sixteen year-old Jonsly Sanchez who lives in the neighborhood and calls Highbridge his backyard.
“When I first started going [to trail work days], I didn’t feel like I needed to be there. But the more time I spent there, the better I felt about it. Now if I don’t help out, I feel like I’m committing a crime,” Jonsly said. "That feeling of working on a project and getting it done, that feeling of accomplishment when you build something, it just feels good. After we built the jumps, knowing I helped build them and knowing I can ride it just makes me feel good.”
A sense of belonging
The park has become a space where folks from all walks of life, including Jonsly, can find a place where they belong. Jonsly emigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic when he was six years old. He first saw riders hitting the jump park when he was at a cousin’s birthday party in Highbridge. After watching numerous mountain biking videos on YouTube and convincing family members to pitch in for a 99-dollar bike, Jonsly finally hit the Highbridge trails.
“When I first started riding, there was this huge group of jumpers riding at the park. I was super intimidated and a little scared because I saw the bikes they had and I saw the bike I had. I felt like I just didn’t belong there,” Jonsly shared.
“But the people there, even those really experienced, took the time to show me a little bit of what to do and what not to do. They invited me out to ride along with them, and that just made me want to keep riding there. The more I rode, the more I realized it’s just about having fun. Now, if I go to the park and no one is there, I get a little upset,” said Jonsly.
He later saved up for a mountain bike and learned how to fix bikes. According to Jonsly, working on bikes was a stepping stone to auto mechanics.
“I’m in an automotive school in Brooklyn where I’m learning more difficult mechanics. The knowledge I learned on my own for bike mechanics, they go hand in hand. A lot of things in cars I can understand easier because I worked on bikes. Mechanics just comes easy to me,” he said.
Looking forward to a new season
There’s a lot around the berm for Highbridge Park. NYCMTB wrapped up their build season in late November with a group ride and barbecue for volunteers. Despite the strong wind and frigid temperatures, people gathered at the trailhead to commemorate a year of riding and building trails. While burgers cooked on the grill, Christopher pointed out the dirt to be moved come spring.
NYC Parks is a close working partner of NYCMTB. The agency has been very supportive of NYCMTB’s efforts and receptive to programs that are free and provide a public service to parks and the neighborhoods they serve. A few programs are already lined up.
“This season we'll be working with NYC Parks and other trail conservancies to push our trail stewards through their nature trail maintainer certification program. This new program creates long awaited, city-endorsed guidelines for trail maintenance on which volunteers can build their trail maintenance skills,” said Christopher.
NYCMTB is also working with NYC Parks on a four year capital plan that will bring state of the art bike park infrastructure to Highbridge.
“The improved consistency of the riding conditions and decrease in maintenance needed to keep the jumps and pumptrack smooth and safe, will free up a considerable amount of our resources,” Christopher said. "This newfound capacity will be spent expanding and improving the resiliency of the mountain bike trails, and will allow us to plan new programs and events.”