Pumped at the Pump Track

Eleven students from Pajaro Valley High School get in on some mountain-bike stoke at Wilder Ranch and the Santa Cruz Pump Track.

by Dave Robinson

April 11, 2015—It’s at that point when you’ve focused on a project for a while, invested a bunch of effort and received mixed reviews on the value of the endeavor. It could go either way.

Four of the guys were sitting on their saddles looking down the slight incline of the entry into Wilder Ranch State Park, as the other seven students weaved their way unsteadily up the hill.

A minute later we regroup and talk ride dynamics. (“Announce when you’re slowing. Give way to other trail users. Stop at all crossings and trail junctions so we can re-group.”) The girls voices are wavering a bit and they are winded; it’s pretty apparent that this is more exercise than they are accustomed to. But the boys are raring to go, chomping at the bit, bouncing their front tires on the dirt road alongside a beautiful rosemary field that borders the park. We give the group the go-ahead and the guys are off like a shot.

Tawn Kennedy of Greenways to School has organized a group of eleven students from Pajaro Valley High School to ride the City of Santa Cruz’s pump track on the Westside. The logistics behind this are somewhat more challenging than you might expect: Borrow and fit bikes for everyone, secure permission slips, arrange chaperones, and of course transport all the kids and their bikes in this day of hyper-liability. The goal is obvious though: We all want the kids in South County to have more riding opportunities.

If we can get them up to Santa Cruz and out in the fresh air to socialize with each other and discover the joy of biking, perhaps they’ll embrace the sport that we love. And hopefully it will appeal more than less-healthy paths that seem easier to follow.

The guys are quickly out of sight, having raced each other out the Ohlone Bluff Trail directly to the ocean. I’m standing on my pedals and trying to see if they’ve stopped at the first bend where the trail heads east along the coast. Looking behind I can see only one or two riders as we’ve accordioned out again. Boy I sure hope this all comes together.

The South County is home to a small manufacturing shop for Fox Racing Shocks, but other than a few bike shops there really isn’t a lot of bike business in the Watsonville area. That is in direct contrast to Scotts Valley and the City of Santa Cruz, which now holds the title “hub of the mountain biking industry.” The industry here lures engineers and sales folks from around the country with superb year-round riding out our front door and pump tracks in nearly every neighborhood. In contrast, there is really no single-track directly available to the residents of Watsonville. And despite the large number of parks there are no bike-specific facilities, no pump tracks, anywhere in South County currently.

As I come around the last corner I see the guys have dropped their bikes and are peering over the cliff edge, backed by a wind-whipped Pacific Ocean. “Dave, can we go down to the beach?”
“Sure, but get back up here in about five minutes….” and they’re off again, scrambling down the trail. They re-appear ten seconds later sprinting across the beach tossing their shirts and shoes as they run across the sand and start dodging the waves surging up the beach, just getting their feet wet.

The rest of the crew starts to appear at the headland and big smiles are bursting on their faces. It’s much cooler than in town but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone, even the most timid girls are creeping up to the cliff edge and settling down to sit and gaze at the Pacific stretched out before them.

I never cease to be amazed at the power of the bicycle, how it always seems to be able to provide the cure for what ails me. Whether it is a solo mind-clearing quick loop in the single-track above town, a social poke on a Saturday to check-in and compare notes with old friends, or a work-affirming opportunity to help others discover the magic and freedom that come with two wheels, the bike seems to be the solution.

After a quick powwow on the bluff we point the bikes east with the wind at our backs and head for the pump track. I pause from time to time and let the pack trickle by. Everyone seems to be grinning. The bikes are working flawlessly, a testament to the ROP program at PVHS, and a blessing to these students who without them would be sitting in front of a screen somewhere or roaming the streets looking for ways to pass the afternoon. These bikes have given these kids a fresh horizon to gaze upon, a view normally limited by the buildings downtown or bordered by rolling strawberry fields.

Now, at our destination, any reservations I have had about this effort vanish. The boys are racing each other around the pump track, obviously getting quicker and developing more confidence with each lap. The girls venture out on the track from time to time but are mostly entertaining themselves chatting on the bleachers, watching the boys and snapping photos of each other, their smiles freshly re-charged with a healthy dose of exercise and camaraderie.

Dave Smith and his Shuttlesmith Adventures van are parked in front of the park, ready to whisk the team back to Watsonville. The day seems a huge success. It is also another step forward in the effort to prove the value of creating more cycling opportunities in South County. We can’t move the ocean any closer to downtown or shift the Santa Cruz Mountains up to their doorstep, but we can build a pump track at their school. A pump track at PVHS seems a natural fit, complementing their ROP and mentoring program. Healthy pursuits make healthy kids.

Dave Robinson is membership coordinator of Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, co-founder of The Ride Guides, and the force behind Inspired Stewardship, a project that seeks to build environmental stewardship through recreation.