The Madison Bicycle Adventure Trail gets real

Madison mountain bikers pretty much need to leave the city limits to find dedicated dirt trails. Other than a couple places such as Quarry Park, a dense spiderweb of singletrack in a near-westside neighborhood, the knobby-tired set heads to the trails in the suburbs of Verona, Fitchburg, Middleton and Sun Prairie, and further afield to Blue Mounds State Park and Cam-Rock near Cambridge.

“Imagine Madison adding flow trails, purpose-built features and pump tracks to its inventory of bicycle facilities for mountain bikers.”

It’s not that Madison proper has been unwelcoming to cyclists. Far from it. Bike-friendly Madison — still one of only five cities in the nation with a platinum-level designation from the League of American Bicyclists — has just prioritized paved paths and bike lanes favored by bike commuters, college students and families of riders.

Now imagine Madison adding flow trails, purpose-built features and pump tracks to its inventory of bicycle facilities for mountain bikers. All that is in the works now that the city is adopting a master plan that identifies 80-some prime sites for mountain biking adjacent or close to existing paved paths.

“We’ve identified five priority projects,” said Mike Repyak, director of planning and design for Trail Solutions, the consulting arm of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), working on the Madison Bicycle Adventure Trail (MadBAT) plan for the city. 

The priority sites include Aldo Leopold Park (near Cannonball Path on the southwest side), Sycamore Park on the east side, Walnut Grove Park (between Old Sauk and Mineral Point roads on the near west side) and a couple places on the Southwest Commuter Path (along the southeast border of the Odana Hills Golf Course).

Except for Aldo Leopold Park, which is set to get bike facilities this year, there’s no timeline yet to complete projects at the other sites. “Once a couple of them are developed, I foresee neighborhoods asking for their own bike-optimized experiences to be implemented sooner than later,” Repyak said.

MadBAT is a visionary look at what could be — a series of small but mighty bicycle play areas easily reached from existing city bike paths. 

“MadBAT sets the stage for the development of bike facilities that are within rideable distances for families and youth, serving just about every neighborhood in Madison,” Repyak said.

Young riders practice skills on jumps and ramps at Aldo Leopold Park.

Aldo Leopold Park near Cannonball Path — which links the Military Ridge and Badger state trails to the Capital City State Trail — is slated to be built out this year. The park will likely be home to a 7,000-square-foot, paved pump track, on which a rider’s momentum pushes them over a rolling course with banked turns. Madison Parks engineer Corey Stelljes says a “best example” of the kind of pump track the city has in mind for the site is in La Crosse’s Lueth Park, which kids of all ages can ride. (A video of the park in use can be seen here: bit.ly/3r82wFV.) The plan for the Aldo Leopold Park also includes an optional skills trail consisting of a series of built structures and a trail around the perimeter. This would be added if the project budget allows.

“This has been a long-standing ask from the neighborhood, specifically to build a pump track. So that’s the highest priority site in the city,” Stelljes said. How many more of the identified sites will be developed will largely depend on available funding over the coming years, he added.

For those unfamiliar with bicycle playgrounds, pump tracks and flow trails, Repyak offers quick descriptions: “Bicycle playgrounds are for the never-evers and beginners. Pump tracks facilitate bike-body awareness as one navigates a closed circuit without pedaling but using body movement to pump the bike through rollers and berms. And flow trails harness gravity in a manner that offers a roller coaster feel as you ride downhill,”    he said.

MadBAT is the result of mountain bikers — including member-volunteers of the Capital Off Road Pathfinders (CORP) who develop and maintain the popular singletrack systems in the ‘burbs (see madcitydirt.org) — asking the city to accommodate them. 

“Hey, can we build a mountain bike trail here? Can we build one there?”

“We were getting a lot of input from the public: ‘Hey, can we build mountain bike trail here? Can we build one there? There’s this vacant parcel in my backyard’ et cetera,” says Stelljes. “We needed to develop a guide for people and city staff where trails may be appropriate some day and how they would all fit together.”

The idea of MadBAT began after a few city employees and CORP members attended IMBA Trails Lab workshops in Bentonville, Arkansas, and left inspired a couple years ago. Madison Parks then sought and secured a $20,000 grant from IMBA. The city matched that amount to pay for the feasibility and planning work done by Repyak’s Trail Solutions.

As it happens, Repyak was perfectly situated to take on the project: He’s a Madison resident, and not for the first time. As a landscape architecture student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1990s, he helped plan the extensive mountain bike trails at CamRock County Park near Cambridge, where his family has deep roots. 

After designing ski resorts in Colorado for 15 years, Repyak returned to Wisconsin. He served as the DNR’s Regional Trails Coordinator in Rhinelander before taking the position overseeing IMBA Trail Solutions in 2016, at which time he relocated to Madison. 

Repyak said he intended to deliver a final draft of the MadBAT plan to the city by late April, capping a 16-month process. In February, Stelljes said city staff had already favorably reviewed the MadBAT plan but that Repyak’s final report would be submitted for approval from the Madison Board of Parks Commissioners on its way to a vote by the full Common Council. A GIS-based map identifying all the potential bike facility sites has been viewable online (at bit.ly/3dXhtXn and bit.ly/3uIdbcy) since last fall.

Repyak characterized IMBA’s relationship with Madison Parks as  “great” and “collaborative.” It also didn’t hurt that Stelljes is a mountain biker. “Not just any rider,” Repyak said. “[He] holds his own with pro [racers].”

A map of the existing and planned trails in the Madison area.

Repyak said the MadBAT plan will remain a “living document that will be updated as opportunities arise and urban bike facilities evolve.”

Eighty-some sites “is more than we’ll ever get built,” CORP President Jon Augspurger admits. “And none of these are going to be destination sites. On their own they’ll be neighborhood resources and you can link them up using the city’s existing cycling infrastructure on the way to Quarry Park or Pleasant View Golf Course or something else that already exists to enhance the [bicycling] experience throughout the city.”