By Karen Kefauver
May 16, 2014
Link to Sentinel Article
For years, I have been puzzled by the appeal of pump tracks. What are they? Why do cyclists love them? And would I ever dare try the pump track myself?
Many times, I’ve stood on the sidelines of the Aptos pump track, watching the kids decked out in full-face helmets and body armor racing around the dirt circuit. It sure looked fun, whipping around the berms and flying off the jumps. Each part of the track had been painstakingly built to form the ultimate dirt playground. But, it also seemed to require a daredevil attitude, a lack of concern about injury and super solid, bike handling skills. I was afraid to give it a try because I might crash or be humiliated. I didn’t want to be a floundering 44-year-old woman getting in the way of a dozen nimble, young guys.
That all changed last Saturday, when I made my debut on the Chanticleer Pump Track in Santa Cruz. My new found confidence was a result of attending a women’s bike skills clinic, designed to introduce women to pump track cycling. However, even with expert guidance, I faced unanticipated challenges that day.
“The biggest obstacle for women at the pump track is intimidation,” said Johauna Rathbun, our pump track coach. “Just remember some people have put in 10,000 hours on the pump track, so don’t compare yourself to others. If you are slow, so be it. Every lap, I get better and that feels great. You can too. We are here to have fun!”
A former downhill mountain bike pro residing in Santa Cruz, Rathbun volunteered to lead the small, intensive clinic organized by Shine Riders in partnership with Girls Gone Wilder, a program of Hilltromper.com. Five of us gals signed up for the two-hour clinic; three of us had never tried the pump track before.
I asked fellow cyclist, friend and UC Santa Cruz scientist, Melissa Cline, 50, why she had signed up for the clinic.
“I love mountain biking and want to learn techniques so my ride will be safer and more fun,” Cline replied, with a wide grin. “I never thought the pump track was where I could learn skills of wheel lifting and cornering. I could use more work on those, so here I am.”
Our first priority was safety. We gathered on a grassy area in Chanticleer Park. There, we strapped on our helmets, knee and elbow pads and inspected our bikes. In addition to making sure all the nuts and bolts were in place, I had to wipe the cobwebs off my mountain bike, so what else could possibly be needed?
As it turned out, two more things: put flat pedals on my bike and lower my seat. My hard tail mountain bike was equipped with clip-in pedals. Rathbun offered me a loaner pair of flat pedals that would increase my comfort and safety on the bike. But my ancient pedals were rusted onto my bike and wouldn’t budge. That meant that for the duration of the clinic I would be standing on rounded pedal nubs digging into the balls of my feet, rather than on wide platforms. Sigh.
Next surprise: my bike seat would not go low enough for safe clearance. Rathbun had a quick solution to that problem: remove your seat altogether. I was horrified. My poor bike looked naked without its seat, and where I would rest my tired tush during the next two hours on the bike?
I was worried about these discomforts, but Rathbun’s enthusiasm and rollicking laughter were contagious. She explained her motivation to host a women’s pump track clinic: “I like to share the stoke. Plus there are never any women at the track, or very few.”
She rides county pump tracks once or twice a week in addition to mountain biking regional trails.
As we introduced ourselves, Sarah Montplaisir, 34, mentioned she had recently moved from Pacifica and had ridden a pump track a handful of times, but felt she was never any good at it. “This is why I came today, to meet other women to ride with,” Montplaisir said.
Her friend, Melissa Gonzalez, drove from Foster City to learn how she could translate her expert snow boarding skills to pump track riding. “I want to be smooth and flowing,” said Gonzalez, who also had some prior experience on pump tracks. After we went through a safety inspection of our bikes, Rathbun led us through the ideal body positioning, demonstrating the pumping posture with elbows and knees bent, and the arm press movements that lead to the term “pumping.”
Suddenly the idea of a “pump” track made a lot more sense.
“The basic goal of a pump track, besides having fun, is to teach you how to pump the terrain to maintain speed,” wrote Greg Heil, editor of Singletracks.com, in an article on how to ride a pump track. “They are set up with a series of rollers and berms that, if the track is designed well and you are riding it correctly, should allow you to gain and maintain your speed through the track without pedaling at all.”
Sounds simple enough. The action started on flat grass with us all practicing front wheel lifts, the motion of lifting your front tire off the ground to get over small obstacles. I was immediately grumpy about the pain in my feet from my clip-in pedals. Plus, as I had feared, I got tired and went to sit down and forgot I had no seat. Sigh.
I watched as the two more experienced women progressed to learning bunny hops. I was envious. Meanwhile, I could not manage to lift my wheel off the ground, at least at the right time and the right spot to clear a small log set up as a test obstacle. My hands and shoulders were getting sore yanking the handlebars upwards in a futile attempt to get the wheel off the ground.
“I am frustrated!” I called out, irritation brimming over. Rathbun came over to assist me (again) and demonstrate the front wheel lift technique. “Remember, for women, the center of gravity is in the hips. Watch the placement of your hips and your head.” Watching her closely, I finally saw what she was talking about. For a front wheel lift, it’s all about pushing your bike forward, not pulling back on the handlebars.
That was my first “aha” moment of the day and it felt great. After soaking up some water and shade, I was refreshed and ready for part two on the pump track.
An important attitude adjustment had also happened: I was there to have fun, not be perfect.
To my delight, the pump track was empty on the hot afternoon. That meant no one was around to witness my pump track debut. And even better, I wouldn’t have to worry about crashing into anyone.
Our trusted coach pointed out two routes on the pump track that we could follow. Then she used her expert skills to show how it could be done. One line was easier and the other more difficult because it had tighter turns and steeper hills.
I was eager to try the easier route, because she had made it look so fun. I stood atop a little hill, took a deep breath and let my bike roll down the hill and toward the first turn. I glided a little and made an almost slow motion sweeping turn on the berm. Then, my bike came to a dead stop after 20 seconds. Oops, what had happened?
I realized that if you don’t pedal, nor do the appropriate “pumping” action, you will lose momentum and halt in your tracks. That type of rookie mistake is one reason that pump track etiquette dictates to give each other lots of space on the track.
When it was my turn to do the circuit again, I made it a little farther along the course before I stopped. And the next time, even farther. A friend called out, “Speed is your friend!” and I was inspired to go for it. I followed Rathbun’s advice to get higher up on the berm to generate more speed, and it worked.
“That is what I love about the pump track,” Montplaisir said. “It gives you instant feedback on how you are doing.”
Traci Hukill, who had stated that her chief goal was to “stay upright” during the clinic was growing more confident as she took the track turns on her borrowed bike. “I can imagine wanting to go faster,” she admitted. “This is way more fun than I thought!” A few of the gals braved the more difficult line that Rathbun had shown us. They rode smoothly, so I followed along. It was definitely harder, but that just made me more determined to try again and again. After an hour, I had so much adrenalin flowing that I had completely forgotten my sore feet and tired legs until Rathbun suggested we break for lunch.
By the end of the clinic, the veil of mystery had been lifted. So this is why people love pump tracks. Now I get it. Honestly, I can’t wait to get back to one of the pump tracks around the county. If you see me or my gal pals out there, grinning ear to ear, or perhaps riding a bike with no seat and the wrong style pedals, know that we have caught the pump track stoke, and so can you.
For Santa Cruz County pump track locations visit www.mbosc.org/local-parks/bike-parks/