The smell of sawdust. The squeal of rubber tread skidding on cement. It’s noon on a Monday, and in the shell of an old Menard’s hardware store I am pedaling toward an elevated ramp.
Riders whir past in my periphery, a trail looping the room and disappearing through a slot into the dark. Welcome to Ray’s Indoor Mountain Biking Park, an ersatz wilderness of ramps, bridges, banked curves, short climbs, plywood stunts, and “trails” painted on the cement.
There’s a foam pit, too, found beyond the lip of a massive jump. “We bought real foam-pit foam,” said Eric Schutt, manager at the park. “The expensive stuff.”
I came to Milwaukee to try out the Ray’s experience. The park, 20 minutes north of the city’s downtown, occupies 110,000 square feet in a big-box retail building that’d been abandoned for years. Ray’s opened in 2011, the Milwaukee location the company’s second foray into the burgeoning world of roof-covered biking made to feel like you’re outdoors.
Cleveland is the site of the original Ray’s, an experimental indoor park that opened almost a decade ago for riders looking to pedal, jump and train through four seasons of the year. Both locations close in the summer, when riders head outdoors to show off skills earned from time training during the wet and cold months inside.
Melding the theme of a rock-climbing gym with the look and feel of a skate park, Ray’s has a unique formula. Freeride-oriented bikers, BMX’ers, and cross-country cyclists all have areas dedicated to their pursuit. Sequestered skill-building areas come in beginner, intermediate and advanced flavors, each spot clearly marked so you don’t take a wrong turn and roll in above your ability.
Painted trails loop the entire complex, ducking through doors, scooting up and over fake hills. The routes ride to the building’s second level via elevated trails that give the sense of a rollercoaster ride. Along the way, you sample jumps, bridges, and rock obstacles moved indoors to simulate the real thing.
On a busy day, Schutt said 300 riders will be cranking under Ray’s warehouse-style lights. Several hundred riders hold season passes, coming and going to train as they please for the seven months the park is open each year. “It’s a solid alternative to a treadmill at the gym,” said Schutt.
I came to Ray’s with some skepticism. Mountain biking indoors, come on? But that faded almost from the moment I walked in the door. The park is immense, with trails, ramps, pits, fencing, obstacles, a pump track, and bonafide stunts filling every available bit of real estate. You can ride an immense loop around the place, ducking into an old lumber room before bursting back to the main facility for five minutes of ride time per loop.
The skill-building areas are for real. I stuck mainly to the beginner area and then sampled an intermediate stunt or two, which were difficult and scary for this cross-country rider. Head-high ramps, skinny plank crossings, and high-consequence falls onto rocks are part of the deal. A visiting writer from Dirt Rag last year broke his thumb sampling Ray’s indoor terrain.
I spent an hour looping the park and testing myself on a freeride bike. You can get a bit dizzy lapping the same stunt area over and again. But the skill-building potential, I could see, is immense — in a couple hours riding indoors you could practice the same line a hundred times, honing balance and bravery on stunts that’d make most riders get off their bike and walk around.
Come spring, Ray’s riders head outdoors to show off tricks learned inside over a long Wisconsin winter. Fitness peaked, technical riding skills honed, Schutt said his riders “blow their friends away” after a season pedaling under the warehouse lights.
I took a final lap at Ray’s following a thirtysomething dad and his kid. The boy wore knee pads and a helmet, and he shouted for his dad to follow. They ditched me on a section of stunts near the back, the boy’s smiling face the last blur I saw before they ducked out of sight.
I braked at the lip of another stunt. I lined up my front wheel with a ladder and let the bike go, body tensed, my eyes pinned to the line. A bit gripped, I rolled forward, the terrain at hand as real as anything outside and under the sun.
—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie.com. Connect with Regenold at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.