Mountain biking—once derided as the aggravating pastime of reckless teens with little respect for life, the environment or private property—has evolved into a respectable, civic-minded endeavor now favored by many stewards of public land and, frankly, dads.
The maturing of the sport is evident throughout the suburbs of Madison—Middleton, Fitchburg, Verona and Cambridge, to name a few—where a spiderweb of environmentally sustainable singletrack trails have been painstakingly built by riders for their enjoyment and for generations of riders to come.
This has been accomplished by dedicated trail builders, many of whom are unpaid volunteers in their 40s or older, who have convinced community after community that they can create trails that riders of any skill level—as well as hikers, birdwatchers and snowshoers—can delight in. They’re members of the Capital Off Road Pathfinders, or CORP—Dane County’s leading mountain biking organization.
Former Fitchburg mayor and city council member Steve Arnold recalls being approached several years ago by representatives of CORP to develop mountain bike trails at Quarry Ridge, just off the paved Military Ridge State Trail.
“It was a turnkey operation they proposed. CORP came and said they would do everything. They just needed permission,” says Arnold, a year-round bike commuter but not a mountain biker. “It turned out to be a gem.”
Arnold, who helped Fitchburg win designation as a silver-level bike friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists in 2015, says he’s proud Quarry Ridge is the only mountain bike area in the county that does not require riders to pay a fee to use it. “We didn’t put a fee on it because we weren’t incurring any costs,” he says, thanks to CORP’s stewardship of the park.
CORP has proven itself in Middleton, too, says Matt Amundson, director of public lands, recreation and forestry for that suburb.
“As communities struggle to identify parks, resources and desired recreation facilities, you have an impassioned group that can make [mountain bike trails] a reality,” he says. “And it’s not just for them, either. It’s drawing people in. It’s having a tourism impact.”
Since taking his post in Middleton last November, Amundson has quickly come to appreciate the impact of CORP, which has built and maintained the majority of mountain bike singletrack trail systems in Dane County. That includes a pump track at the Pleasant View Golf Course, owned by the city of Middleton, and now a swooping two-mile trail from there to the members-only Blackhawk Ski Club.
“There’s definitely a demand for more mountain bike trails,” rider and CORP volunteer Ben Durig of Middleton says as he rakes newly laid tread at Blackhawk. “The cool thing here is anyone can ride, from beginners to experts. It’s not intimidating for most people.”
Building a Reputation
Chad Landowski deftly maneuvers the arm of his mini excavator, scooping up scrub brush by the bucketload and swinging it across the dirt trail taking shape beneath him, then releasing the bramble into the ravine on the other side.
On occasion, the wiry Landowski jumps down, leaving the machine idling and a pair of noise-canceling headphones hanging around his neck. He walks down the trail to talk with volunteers wielding rakes and shovels in the woods of the Blackhawk Ski Club.
“With all the rain we’ve been getting, the trail is soaking up the water and it’s easy to tear into it with the machine,” Landowski explains. “That’s why we need to rake, chop out roots, buff out the tread and pack the clay quickly so it can settle.”
Since today’s project is the creation of a series of jumps for expert-level mountain bikers like himself, Landowski says he’s volunteering his time. He charges the club per linear foot of trail he builds for all other skill levels of riders. Landowski even milled the planks for a 175-foot boardwalk he recently laid across a lowland marsh there in May.
Landowski estimates he and his small crew have put in 2,000 paid hours building almost four miles of singletrack trail at Blackhawk since 2014. That investment of time doesn’t include the countless hours of work by Blackhawk Ski Club and CORP members. In fact, several volunteers from those groups spent much of the same sunny Saturday in early May brushing out new trail to connect sections of Landowski’s signature artistry.
The first trail he built for the ski club “is one of the best, if not the best, flow trails in the Midwest, and it only drops a total of 15 feet,” says Patrick Remington, a physician, former Blackhawk Ski Club president and current Blackhawk trail steward for CORP.
Landowski—a trail builder for Trek Bicycle Co. before he started his own company Landowski Trailworx LLC a year ago—has done much of the trail work in which Blackhawk members and donors have invested $55,000 since 2014. The club has raised $10,000 from the sale of biking memberships alone over the past two years, Remington says.
The Sun Prairie resident has earned a national reputation as a top-tier trail builder, hired to build singletrack in Arkansas, Florida and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Starting in July, Landowski will spend four months building out a bike park in Cuyuna Lakes, Minnesota.
“He’s so damn good at what he does, he’s in high demand,” Remington says.
“Every trail he’s done has been pretty much perfect,” says Cameron Lundin of Madison, an arborist and occasional trail crew member of Landowski’s. The trails at Blackhawk, he says, are “a blast to ride. You can put in 20 laps and never get bored.”
Boom Time for Trail Bombers
Landowski says he sees as many as 75 riders zipping along his trails at Blackhawk on weekends. “I see every age of rider out here. There are guys in their 60s, tons of families and kids just bombing around,” he says.
To help ensure there’s a next generation of riders, the club started a summer program to introduce kids as young as 6 to mountain biking. The first year, in 2014, 30 kids signed up. Last summer, enrollment grew to 75 youngsters, according to Remington.
The number of young mountain bikers is booming seemingly everywhere. On Wednesday evenings, 100 or so riders of middle and high school age and 20 adult coaches hit the trails at CamRock County Park in Cambridge, east of Madison, says Chuck Hutchens, the CORP trail steward there. He says that includes kids from Cambridge, Lake Mills, McFarland and Jefferson who are on the local racing team affiliated with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. A sign of NICA’s importance to the future of the sport, Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Co. pledged $1 million to the association’s continued development over five years, starting in 2016.
The Wisconsin High School Cycling Association (exclusively supporting mountain bike racing for the time being) is a NICA project league that started in 2014. The state league, according to founding co-chairperson Kathy Mock, has grown by 40 percent or more every year since. “This year we should be over 600 athletes, 350 coaches and 42 teams,” she says.
“Mountain biking isn’t new, but there’s definitely been a resurgence,” says Jon Augspurger, vice president of membership for CORP. The increasing number of dues-paying CORP members speaks to that, too: After plateauing at about 150 members for years, CORP membership rose to 200 a year ago and broke 300 before last Christmas, Augspurger says.
Granted, that number is small compared to all the bicycling-crazed Madisonians who belong to the many local road riding clubs, take part in weekly rides and rush to sign up for long-distance tours before they hit capacity.
What differentiates road bikers from mountain bikers, of course, is the need of the latter group for places to ride off-road. And there are many mountain bikers willing to pay for the privilege.
The Dane County Parks Department sold about 1,000 season passes and another 1,200 daily passes in 2016 to riders at CamRock County Park, Badger Prairie in Verona and the Seminole Trails near Fitchburg. That’s $21,000 in revenue—and that doesn’t count the reduced fees paid to the county by each of the 800-some mountain bike racers who participate in the Battle of CamRock, an early June race in the statewide Wisconsin Off Road Series, or participating in cyclocross events there and at Badger Prairie.
CamRock boasts the most extensive mountain bike trail system in the county. (Only Blue Mound State Park has more mileage, and CORP maintains that, too.) While you can string together a 12-mile ride at CamRock without repeating much singletrack, there may be significantly more to come as the park grows in size. The now 422-acre county park will see another 136 acres of adjacent farmland added to it in four to five years when current lease agreements expire. When that happens, CORP hopes to build an additional eight miles of trail it has already mapped out.
“It’s too far out for us to know how that land will be developed,” Dane County Parks director Darren Marsh says, adding that 40 or more acres of the site are being eyed for a regional dog park, too. While he acknowledged that there are various groups interested in how the growing park will be used, Marsh said CORP “is one of our better partners.”
“CORP has become very professional and they bring a lot of resources and experience to the table,” he says. “They’re really good at what they do.”
To do what it does even better, CORP recently restructured—going from a 14-member board dominated by its trail stewards to a nine-member board, five of which are elected. The smaller board is better able to fund raise “and strategically allocate our money to the most shovel-ready and organized projects,” CORP president William Lorman says.
As the trails grow and improve and new locations open up to riders, the organization may evolve from the trail-building club it primarily is today to more of a social riding club, Lorman says.
In the beginning, “a few of us knew what [kind of trails] we’d ride. But how do 60-year-old guys with shovels know what change is needed going forward?” Lorman asks. “We’re encouraging new leadership to step up—people who love to ride everywhere.”
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine. He’s a frequent rider of CORP trails and a dues-paying member of the organization.