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Pace Bend skills park helps mountain bikers perfect their bike handling

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
The Austin Ridge Riders have created a a new skills obstacle course for mountain bicyclists at Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis connecting miles of existing trails to make for a fun and challenging afternoon of riding.

I’m rolling down an elevated boardwalk, reveling in the thunkety-thunk of the wood planks beneath my bike tires as I try hard to stay centered on the 2-foot wide pathway.

I curve left, then right, stair-step down a wooden ledge and zip down the off-ramp, all in an effort to hone my mountain biking skills.

Skills parks such as this one at Pace Bend Park west of Austin are designed to teach mountain bikers how to tackle natural obstacles they’ll encounter on the trail. Perfect your skills on A-frame ramps, dirt embankments and boardwalks, and you’ll be more comfortable swooping over roots, hopping down limestone ledges and negotiating tight spaces between trees.

At least that’s what Leif Dove tells me, as he scampers over rock boulders, rides lengthwise down skinny logs and swirls through a twisty railroad trestle of a pathway.

Dove, 41, and other volunteers with the Austin Ridge Riders cycling club worked in cooperation with the management of this Travis County park to create the Power Line skills area, where cyclists can perfect their bike-handling talent. It features about 10 elements constructed of recycled guard rail posts, telephone poles, lumber, boulders and logs.

“The point is to teach (cyclists) skills they will need on this very trail — in a very controlled environment,” Dove says.

That doesn’t mean just anyone can tackle all the obstacles. While there’s slim chance of face planting into a cactus because the area around the ramps has been cleared, for example, there’s nothing to stop anyone from accidentally teetering off the edge of the foot-high boardwalk. Park officials say no major injuries have been reported at the skills park.

Five years ago, Pace Bend’s mountain biking system consisted mainly of old Jeep roads and cattle paths that didn’t lead anywhere. Dove and the Ridge Riders transformed them into a cohesive, 15-mile trail system that’s proved popular. Park officials noticed a bump in park visitation, spotted more bikes strapped to the back of cars, and agreed to allow the volunteers to add a skills area.

“We thought ‘Let’s go ahead and try this,’” says Dan Perry, 53, district park manager for Travis County Parks. “That was our first foray into a skills feature.”

Even before the skills park was finished, video snippets of cyclists zipping over some of the obstacles popped up on YouTube. “That excitement really sent us a message that this is something that’s needed in the area and there’s a big demand for it,” Perry says.

The skills area was so well received that officials worked with the Ridge Riders to build a wood pump track, where cyclists can cruise along a curving, elevated zipper of a pathway, at Reimers Ranch Park, another Travis County park.

Here at Pace Bend, cyclists can straddle a series of half-buried logs and rumble through a banked curve that flushes onto an elevated boardwalk. The whole park flows from one obstacle to the next and it’s rollicking, rolling fun.

The skills park occupies what was once a little-used stretch of power line right of way. “We never used to ride this because it was boring,” Dove says, adding that he hopes to expand the area. “We made a usable trail out of what was unrideable.”

Dove zooms up the A-frame, goes airborne and clatters back to home turf, then scampers neatly over a nasty-looking conglomeration of boulders and logs he calls the potpourri of weirdness. “Beginners can have fun and learn it and intermediates can master it,” Dove says.

I avoid a few obstacles that look like they might induce broken bones, but rally for the boardwalks. I surprise myself by safely crossing the wider ones, swoop over some dirt table tops and head straight for the narrower stretches, which I slowly clatter across. No wrecks!

“It’s fun trying to do a little more each time,” says cyclist Rick Chevrie, 58, who tested his skills at the park recently. “A lot of these skills are very useful for riding on the trail, and this is out in the open where you can see what’s coming and people can watch and tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

One important note? Horses and mountain bikes don’t always mix well, and the trails are popular with equestrians, too − although we’ve yet to see any ponies attempt to navigate the boardwalks or other obstacles. Cyclists should slow down, dismount and wait for horses to pass.

If you go: Pace Bend is approximately 30 miles west of Austin at 2805 Pace Bend Road North. Entry fee is $10 per vehicle. For more information call (512) 264-1482 or go to www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/pace_bend.asp.