Moving From Rider to Advocate
This blog is the third 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 and Part 2.
Photos by Kiel Perez.
“We have a diverse trail system in one of the most diverse areas in the world,” says Michael Vitti, President of the Concerned Long Island Mountain Bicyclists (CLIMB), when describing the mountain biking trails in Cunningham Park.
Queens, New York is one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas on the planet. It’s a borough of 2.4 million residents, with almost half the population being foreign born. Straddling the Clearview Expressway and sandwiched between the Grand Central and Long Island Expressways in Queens is Cunningham Park, a 358-acre space with picnic areas, ball fields, and mountain biking trails that are as diverse as the folks who ride them.
On any given weekend, you can see riding clubs of Colombian, Filipino, Korean, and West Indian mountain bikers on the trails. “Almost all communities are represented on the trails,” Michael said.
Cunningham has about equal parts green, blue, and black diamond trails, catering to beginners as well as skilled riders looking for a challenge. What Cunningham lacks in elevation, it makes up for in technical features. “We like to keep riders on their toes,” Michael said, describing the tight and twisty trails and myriad of rocks, log rolls, skinnies, and short, sharp climbs throughout the 10-mile trail. The system also has pumptracks and a jump park which are heavily used by local BMXers.
The diversity of trails and variety of riding experiences in Cunningham attract mountain bikers of all ages and riding abilities.
A diversity of ages
It’s common to see friends and families biking together in Cunningham. Riders of all ages spend hours sessioning the jump park and pumptracks. The park is also a venue for Trips for Kids (TFK) programming and training grounds for NYCranks, New York City’s only National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team.
The TFK MTB Ride Club, which aims to provide mountain bike experiences and environmental education to kids ages 8 to 18, meets every other week in the summer and fall. They started riding in Cunningham when the trails opened in 2007. According to Andree Sanders, Director of TFK NYC for the past 21 years, the group’s philosophy is “people excel when they are having fun.” She added, “TFK programs are designed for the full spectrum of riders with the goal of developing your passion for mountain biking. To facilitate this, TFK invites parents to participate with their children in our programs. We also have equipment available if needed.”
NYCranks is part of TFK programming and is designed to provide riding opportunities and training for more advanced riders. The team does about a third of their practices in Cunningham Park. “It is one of the more technical trails around. The trails spur in such a way that the returns are close to the entrance, allowing riders to loop and session a skill specific area,” said Andree.
TFK has gotten thousands of kids on bikes. Andree, aptly nicknamed the Bike Whisperer, has personally helped young riders build confidence to overcome obstacles on and off the trail. She has also inspired women across the country to find freedom on a bike. It was Andree who dreamed up International Women’s Mountain Biking Day at the IMBA UPRISING event in 2018.
NYCranks, which started with six riders in 2014, is now getting ready for the spring NICA race season with 25 athletes. Many former TFK participants have gone on to enroll in colleges with cycling programs, some of them returning to coach the team or help with community rides.
“Cunningham Park is an amazing place to train and ride. It has something for everyone, from the first time rider to the most advanced riders. The versatility of the park really allows us to tap into the energies of the kids and help to create lifelong cyclists,” said Andree.
A diversity of riding abilities
When riding in Cunningham, keep your eyes peeled for features peppered on the side of the trail. Optional log rolls, rocks, and skinnies provide a different riding experience each time. The jump park is also purposely built to provide progression for riders of all skill levels.
Mountain biking coach Anson Wellington, who holds clinics in partnership with NYCMTB and leads group rides around New York, uses various features in Cunningham to demonstrate proper riding and bike handling. Describing some of his favorite spots in the park, Anson said, “There’s a trail called Jet Line that’s a mix of jumps that cascade down the side of a hill. There are also log rides and roll downs that I like to take people to. In the new section, there’s a series of quad logs that are spaced out and you have to ride over them. I use those as a simulation for rough terrain.”
Anson was introduced to mountain biking when he was 15 years old, and since then has made lifelong friends through the sport. He considers mountain biking to be a strong part of his life and hopes to share his passion for riding through his coaching company A Plus MTB, which he started during the pandemic.
According to Anson, it’s common for riders, regardless of ability, to get frustrated when trying to learn something new. But, at the end of the day, we’re all progressing. “I tell people, be patient with yourself, pause and understand why you’re frustrated, break things down, then focus on the steps you need to do to get it done. You can take this to your life too,” said Anson. “We’re always learning and progressing.”
Progress for Cunningham Park trails
When the ribbon was cut and the Cunningham trails were opened to the public in 2007, the park commissioner exclaimed, “Mountain biking is no longer a crime.”
CLIMB, an IMBA Local Affiliate, and Peak Bicycle Pro Shop had a big part to play in legalizing mountain biking in New York City and getting trails on the ground in Cunningham Park. Jerry Emerson, owner of Peak, started biking in Cunningham 25 years ago when there were two miles of unsanctioned motocross trails and the park was littered with garbage and abandoned cars. There was a growing demand from the community for quality mountain bike trails and a well-maintained park, so CLIMB and Peak got to work.
The trails were hand built with the help of IMBA Trail Solutions and volunteers from Green Apple Corps, AmeriCorps, and Friends of Cunningham Park. In an old video interview, Michael said, “We had to go through every department in New York City Parks and get their approval. We offered to build the trails and maintain the trails at no cost to the town. Cunningham Park became what it is today through the partnership of the local bike shops, and Jerry and Joani at Peak.”
Over the years, Peak has organized fundraisers and donated $25,000 as well as bikes, helmets, and prizes towards Cunningham. “We love the park. We are very proud of it,” said Joani. Peak has also become a hub for mountain bikers to gather, share stories, and get more riders to visit Cunningham.
“Every Sunday morning we were doing rides. After the ride, people would come back here because they broke something on their bike,” Joani laughed. “We would have barbecues in the lot right here. People would come and bring their lunches and talk about riding. So with any newcomers to the shop, a conversation would start. It’s like a barber shop. Everyone is talking about the latest, greatest place they rode or the latest, greatest thing they did on their bike or to their bikes. People just come to hang.”
Joani has noticed more riders from out of town visiting the park. “There’s definitely more people coming from other places. We have people from Long Island, Brooklyn, Jersey, Connecticut coming this way. They’re coming from all over because they’ve heard about the park.”
CLIMB has their logo on trailhead signs, but Michael keeps a low profile when riding. Once in a while, he will approach folks after their ride and ask what they thought of the trails. “They’re great!” and “We love it!” are common answers.
One Saturday in late November, Michael was chatting with two riders he had met for the first time who were raving about the Cunningham trails.
“Did you help build them?” one of the riders asked.
“Yes, I helped build them,” Michael said.
“Wait, are you Michael Vitti?” the other rider asked.
“Yes,” Michael said smiling.
“We were literally just talking about you! You’re a legend, man!”
CLIMB continues to steward the trail system at Cunningham Park and various groups and individuals have stepped in to maintain specific portions of trails. Peak Bicycle Pro Shop hopes to restart their Sunday morning rides and continue to introduce new people to this diverse trail system.