Birth of a Trail: Chicago Area Mountain Bikers prove reliable to help get trails built in area preserves
Editor's note: This is the first article of a three-part series titled Birth of a Trail. In part 2, CAMBr sets its sights on another Cook County trail.
Seven years, 4,000 volunteer hours and $75,000 in private funding later, more than 13 miles of single track mountain biking trail officially opened in the Paul Douglas Preserve in Hoffman Estates in October 2022. Another five miles will open in 2023.
I attended that sunny, blustery ribbon-cutting sensing that I'd witnessed something more than just the christening of another new trail. A "deep, long-standing partnership" has been at work, so pronounced Cook County Board and Forest Preserves of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, who led the ceremony.
Future mountain bikers, hikers and runners may take the trail for granted, enjoying its challenging layout as if it always existed. Like most users, they'll have no awareness of what went into its design and construction, nor the extensive public-private collaboration involved.
How did a trail like this get built? How did a nonprofit biking group achieve standing to even attempt this? Moreover, how did a single track trail transform from idea to reality?
The birth of this trail is a true success story, a long story for sure, but an achievement over contending macro forces: Increasing pressure of mountain biking's popularity, the balancing of environmental stewardship with public recreation, and the driving vision of determined volunteers. Underlying this success were commitment, professionalism and patience.
Eight years ago ...
In 2021, news of a new mountain biking trail had Northwest suburban bikers buzzing. Weekend work crews were spotted. Brush was cleared. The "Paul Douglas Riders" Facebook page launched. Excitement was building.
Unknown to most was that dialogue between the key players in this development had initiated as early as 2015. Leadership of the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (CAMBr) had approached the FPCC with "an initial ask for a single track trail in the North suburbs," per John McCabe, FPCC's director of Resource Management.
CAMBr is a volunteer organization with hundreds of cyclists working to ensure that mountain bikers have diverse and challenging local opportunities to enjoy their sport. Its mission is to promote trail advocacy, sustainable trail development and responsible cycling.
Fortunately, McCabe had a positive history with CAMBr. He'd become familiar with CAMBr about 15 years ago as the group dedicated to improving the Palos Forest Preserve mountain biking trails. As deputy director at that time, McCabe managed resource crews in southern Cook County, where Palos trails are located.
Over the years, McCabe developed a strong working relationship with the group, its leadership and its professional approach. At various Chicago area sites, CAMBr members have donated thousands of work hours building/improving area trails.
"I was just blown away by those guys," McCabe recalls. "They're doing all this work as volunteers for nothing."
He wasn't the only one who was impressed.
In 2014, CAMBr earned the Outstanding Support Organization Award from the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials, recognizing their exceptional manner in making a major contribution to benefit park and recreation programs or facilities: trail improvements, cycling safety and support of FPCC's mission.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Cowboys on rogue trails
Even before then, its success in collaborating with governmental organizations had been increasing as CAMBr itself grew. Work in other suburbs, beyond Palos, had also expanded. Among FPCC leadership, CAMBr's professional reputation as dedicated volunteers worked in its favor.
However, mountain bikers in general did not always share such favorable perceptions. To many, they often came across as freewheeling cowboys shredding trails like the original off-roaders in the 1970s California hills. While growing in popularity, with manufacturers gearing up with niche products, the sport wasn't always viewed positively.
Professional organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association have since arisen to scrub the rogue biker image. Plus, IMBA has developed sustainability trail-building standards and promoted an ethic of environmental respect, both of which the Paul Douglas trail project displayed.
With a growing sport came increasing pressure to develop trails. Advocates faced tough obstacles, primarily the availability of suitably large parcels. As Jeff Provisor, owner of Main Street Bicycles in Carpentersville said, "Very few landowners in the suburbs manage property large enough to build trails on."
Various county forest preserve districts looked appealing, but, in Provisor's opinion, "Cook County wasn't the only forest preserve that still had a sour opinion of mountain bikers. Kane, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties had similar stances against trail building and allowing mountain bikers to ride anything other than their paved or gravel trails."
Provisor recalls that around 2004 about a dozen CAMBr and other mountain bikers in Kane County began meeting informally monthly to explore possible legitimate trail options. Tangible results didn't materialize fast enough, however, for some who abandoned the group.
In frustration, "They left to build and ride trails they were developing on their own," Provisor said. "Usually without permission from the land owners, therefore, without CAMBR's approval."
No surprise, then, that large landowners resisted the sport.
Back then Mike Angus, current CAMBr executive director, was involved in trail development in the Northern suburbs.
"I pitched to our CAMBR North group the idea of starting small and going after a substantial grant sponsored by Bell Helmets," Provisor said.
He, Angus and others submitted an application to revitalize Carpentersville's Keith Andres Memorial Park with a pump track-style bike park.
While the team didn't get the grant, their organizational efforts convinced the city that CAMBr could deliver. They completed the project, relying on membership funds, bike events, raffles and other grants.
Angus leveraged that experience to construct trails in nearby Raceway Woods, under both Kane County Forest Preserve and Dundee Township jurisdiction. Plagued by "pirate" trail building, the area near the former Meadowdale Raceway had attracted negative attention from law enforcement and the forest preserve.
CAMBr fought for and earned government approval to build a one-mile trail and, in doing so, demonstrated it could accomplish a bigger project under forest preserve guidelines. Since the Raceway Woods trail opened in 2012, CAMBr has built additional loops and the system now boasts over six miles of mountain bike trails.
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