Michael Zimmerman fell head-over-handlebars for gravity trails while riding the bermed, downhill runs at the Steamboat Mountain Bike Park, near his vacation home in Colorado. “It was white-knuckle intense,” the 36-year-old entrepreneur said. “You cannot take your eyes off what’s in front of you.”
Zimmerman, a Franklin native, brought that excitement and passion home with him, and coupled it with the bankroll necessary to build a down-sized version of Steamboat at the Rock Sports Complex, the former Crystal Ridge ski hill on the far west side of Milwaukee County. Mountain bikers throughout the Midwest will benefit from his investment and the opportunity to explore the region’s first mountain bike park, opening fully in July.
With no intent to overstate the impact, mountain bike advocates call The Rock a “game-changer” for the sport in Wisconsin, and the upper Midwest. Yes, Wisconsin already has many great places to ride mountain bikes, but none of them are professionally planned and built. The bike park at the Rock has trails for every skill level, from timid beginner to fearless expert. More important, the trails are well marked. Parents riding with small children don’t have to worry about a surprise four-foot drop when they start off on a green trail. On the other hand, adrenaline junkies will be thrilled when they drop into the black jump line.
“Bike parks like The Rock have existed in other places for quite some time, and in many of those places, the bike parks have spared marked change in the cross-country systems, as well,” said Hansi Johnson, the upper Midwest regional director of the International Mountain Bike Association. “I think we will see those sparks flying to other trail systems within the state once The Rock is open and folks ride it and realize the fun that can be had on those types of trails and that they can also create them.”
The downhill trails on the 250 feet of elevation won’t match the extensive terrain offered at big-mountain parks that served as its blueprint, the popular destinations built by Gravity Logic at Whistler, Squamish, Trestle and Steamboat, among others. It will bring a radical new type of riding to the Midwest, and build on the national trend that has led to the creation of roughly 75 mountain bike parks and assorted flow trails across the country.
“It’s going to have a good Colorado feel, a big-mountain feel in a small spot,” said Chris Conrad, part of the crew from Gravity Logic.
The crew moved mounds of dirt with heavy equipment and installed pre-fabricated features – jumps, table-tops and boardwalks, to create roughly a dozen downhill rides ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert. The full build-out will include a skills park, a pump track and a downhill race track designed to meet UCI sanctioned World Cup standards. A connection to the Milwaukee County Alpha Trail, in nearby Whitnall Park, ties the Rock to a seven-mile cross-country trail that will remain open for public riding free of charge. Riders utilizing the chair lifts to access the gravity trails on the downhill slopes will pay a user fee Zimmerman secured a lease for 124 acres of county-owned land, a former landfill, in September, and initially planned to build baseball diamonds as an investment in the community and his first sporting love. The former high school ballplayer began to see a further opportunity to generate revenue on the skill hill, based on his experience at Steamboat and the counsel of bikers in the Metro Milwaukee Mountain Bikers.
By utilizing the ski hill for mountain biking, The Rock will expand its cashflow season from a few months to almost the entire year. Through Zimmerman Ventures LLC, Zimmerman has successfully built and managed several health care businesses that provide supply, billing, collections and profit management for the industry, and he wasn’t so overcome by the downhill biking experience that he put $1 million into the bike park on a whim. “We’re entrepreneurs and have an infinite appetite for a return on investment,” he said. It seems like a solid bet, despite the costs of rebuilding the ski lifts and building a bike park from scratch.
Mountain bikers across Wisconsin and across the Illinois border have been dreaming of a nearby downhill option for more than a decade.“
I get asked daily ‘when’s their opening day, when’s their opening day,” said Dave Grasse, a member of the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers Association and a founder of Midwest Downhill Advocacy. “I think it’s going to be big.”
Grasse has been traveling more than 90 minutes from his home in Lake in the Woods, Ill., to check on the progress at the Rock, and expects hundreds will make the trip for the kind of riding they previously experienced only out west or the mountains of the east. “For the past 10 years, people have said it can’t be done in the Midwest; it’s not worth the time and money because you don’t have the elevation here,” said Grasse, 40. “The Rock is great. It’s proving people wrong.”
Grasse, Johnson and local riders agree "The Rock will appeal to a younger group of riders, those looking for that surge of adrenaline on courageous jumps and wicked fast descents topping 35 mph. Similar to a downhill ski run, the intensity level can be managed by each individual, and 40- and 50-somethings will enjoy the same ride back to the top for another run."
It’s pretty much like you are a pilot of a roller coaster, and you control how fast you’re going to go, and whether you’re going to get into the air or not,” Grasse said. “It’s kind of like when you go sledding, you have that anxiety. You’re scared, but you know it’s going to be all right.”
Source: Tom Held, Wisconsin Bike Fed Magazine