The Santa Cruz Pump Track Boom

by Andrew Juiliano

Aug. 26, 2013—Across from the old Wrigley’s factory, the winds of the Westside whip the dirt of a vacant lot past the tufts of patchy brown grass. Once a week the Framers’ Market sprouts pop-up tents and fresh produce in the neighboring parking lot. The remaining six days, the asphalt bakes under the California sun with the smells of the gum factory replaced by the dry wafts of the northwesterly breeze.

Two years ago, Chris Wagner-Jauregg looked at this plot and thought, “What a perfect place for a pump track.”

Wagner-Jauregg moved to Santa Cruz in the late ’80s to surf and attend school. Over the next two decades he developed a severe mountain bike habit, settled on the Westside and now owns Another Bike Shop on Mission Street. When Epicenter Cycling built the pump track behind its Aptos shop in 2010, he found himself braving the traffic on Highway One to take his kids riding in Aptos. It’s the traffic that finally cracked Wagner-Jauregg.

“My kid got home from school one day and asked to go to the pump track. All I could think about was the traffic, so I said suggested something else. I realized right then, ‘I own a bike shop and just told my kid not to go riding. That’s messed up.’ It was time to build a pump track on the Westside.”

The ABS shop owner wasn’t the only one intrigued by the prospect of another pump track in the county. Simultaneously, two projects sprouted in Scotts Valley, one at Skypark and one at the high school, as a third gained support in Live Oak.

Mark Davidson—“El Presidente” of the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz—explains the growing receptiveness of the community toward the new projects. The sculpted piles of dirt provide a recreational outlet for riders of all ages and abilities. “City officials see the value of places like the Aptos pump track. It’s a model for the positive impact one of these projects can have on the community.”

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Pump Tracks

Pump tracks are dirt mountain bike circuits that consist of numerous berms, rollers and s-turns. Riders generate speed from the swoops and undulations of the track, transferring g-forces into forward momentum. A pro and a beginner can benefit from the same circuit as the difficulty of a pump track increases with speed.

As furloughs and budget crunches stifle programs and derail new municipal projects, the funding for these pump tracks comes through fundraisers like the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival—which drew 14,000 spectators to Aptos this year—and through private donations and support from companies like Santa Cruz Bicycles, Fox Shox and Easton Bell Sports.

Pump tracks remain relatively inexpensive, well within the range of private fundraising capabilities. The estimate for the Westside Pump Park is $26,000—more than half of which will go to the $15,000 chain link fence required for liability.

As for the remainder, donated materials and time are the norm for the pump track projects in Santa Cruz County. The Aptos pump track maintains its shape and flow thanks to the work of volunteers, most of whom are the local kids, according to Kazia Pennino of Epicenter Cycling. Construction of the Live Oak pump track, taking place on vacant county park land on Chanticleer Avenue, rises from the ground thanks to 100 yards of free dirt, a donated tractor and dozens of volunteers fueled by pizza.

The construction involvement from local government in these projects remains minimal. At Skypark in Scotts Valley and at the Chanticleer Avenue Park, the city and county, respectively, will extend the potable water supply from the existing infrastructure at the locations.

By summer 2014, there will be five public pump tracks in Santa Cruz County, almost exclusively funded, organized, built and maintained by private volunteers and fundraising efforts.

A Collaborative Success

Neither a lack of funding nor absence of volunteers hampers the construction of pump tracks in Santa Cruz County. Finding an ideal location, however, proves the biggest obstacle to building these parks.

Nick Thelen, a Scotts Valley parks and recreation commissioner, explains the main difficulty when building a pump track. “For the most part, the cities stand behind these projects. We’ve got the community support, for the most part. Finding the right location—that’s the hard part. You need a location zoned for parks and recreation that the neighbors support and that is also within open sight.”

Where there’s an open area zoned correctly, neighbors sometimes voice concerns about the increased traffic to the area. MBoSC's Davidson explains, “Parking and traffic—those are the two biggest issues brought up by community members.”

Yet pump track proponents want the tracks in neighborhoods—even if it makes approval tougher. Where there are no neighbors, there’s no open visibility. Thelen points out, “Do you really want to send a bunch of teenagers three miles into the woods, unattended?”

Despite strict criteria, four projects landed locations throughout the county. In Scotts Valley, students from the Regional Occupational Program got approval for a pump track at Scotts Valley High School. At the Aug. 21 Scotts Valley city council meeting the mayor, vice mayor and city councilmembers voted unanimously to allow the staff to file the application for a temporary pump track in Skypark.

Despite the arduous approval process, Davidson sees this as a positive sign for the future of the county’s pump tracks. “Though the process is drawn out, it’s good to see the city council doing their due diligence. It shows they truly want these projects to work out.”

In Live Oak, volunteers erected berms at the Chanticleer Avenue Park. After the county ran out of money to continue developing the area, the county granted mountain bikers permission to construct a track on the municipal property.

The Westside Pump Track turned to private land and mirrored the Aptos model for bringing vibrant cycling activity to an otherwise abandoned lot. Private land is easier to develop, yet carries legal complications for property owners. To avoid this legal worry, property owners lease the land to the city and county of Santa Cruz. The formality of the lease keeps property owners protected from liability as users assume the same risk they would by entering a municipal skate park or hiking a rugged trail through a state park. On the Westside, developer William Ow will lease a portion of the dirt lot across from the old Wrigley’s factory to the city for $1 a year for three years.

No, Seriously, Everybody’s Happy

The Aptos pump track and legendary post office dirt jumps sit on the site of the future Aptos Village Square. As Barry Swenson Builders struggle with permits and bureaucracy, kids and adults gleefully play in the sculpted dirt mounds of the future construction site. Across the county, Scotts Valley City Council unanimously approved filing of the application for the temporary pump track in Skypark. The pump track will utilize the vacant land currently used for dirt storage by the city until construction begins on the Scotts Valley Town Center—now in its 15th year of planning.

The low cost of pump tracks coupled with their ease of construction and demolition—they are dirt, after all—makes them a great recreational placeholder for construction projects bureaucratic purgatory. When the temporary pump tracks are torn down (and both the city council and Santa Cruz mountain bike community agree this will happen in Scotts Valley) financial and time cost comes at minimal expense to the city.

While state and local governments struggle to meet budget constraints and cut back hours, the community-funded projects continue to thrive in the county. As volunteers swoop to provide the time and resources that furloughs eliminate, attitudes shift regarding the mountain bike community. Davidson of MBoSC points out, “For years, the opposition defined mountain bikers in Santa Cruz. Now the community sees the volunteer hours, sweat equity and drive put towards these projects.”

As the Scotts Valley City Council approved filing of the Skypark pump track application, one councilmember commented, “Why didn’t we think of this sooner?...The footprint is so minimal compared with the benefit to the community…[It’s] a joy to have a project we can all support.”

As shovel-wielding volunteers buff berms and rollers across the county, an unlikely collaboration between mountain bikers, developers and municipal agencies build pump track stoke throughout community, one vacant lot at a time.

Status of Pump Track Projects in the County

Westside: Approved. Construction begins September 2013.
Scotts Valley Skypark: Application Approved. Construction TBD
Scotts Valley High School: Approved. Construction begins Fall 2013
Live Oak Pump Track: Approved. Under Construction Summer 2013
Aptos Epicenter Pump Track: Approved, built and shred-ready since 2010

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