Highbridge Trails in Manhattan

Dirt Rag
129, July 2007

A three-mile network of technical singletrack recently opened on a wooded promontory in northern Manhattan called Highbridge Park, not far across the river from Yankee Stadium. In the 1990s, before a crackdown, urban cyclists looking for some dirt often rode (illegally) on the Bridle Path in Central Park. In recent years, however, New York City’s many mountain bikers have been left to pretend the space between smog-spewing taxicabs is singletrack and huck off the steps of the Federal Building late at night. At last, thanks to a year and a half of planning and construction by the New York City Mountain Bike Association, in conjunction with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, there are now some incredible—and legal—trails in the heart of the city.

The Highbridge trails are well-marked and intelligently designed, complete with berms, switchbacks, tightly spaced trees, and drops. Just a few feet into the woods, it’s possible to forget that you are riding in Manhattan, although the sounds of cars and the elevated subway are inescapable. The trail ratings range from green to double-black, like ski trails, with the majority blue or black. Even the intermediate trails are tough, with tight turns, short steeps, off-camber sections, roots, rocks, and maybe a little reggae too. Double-black “Hellfighter” begins with a narrow, rocky chute that sends the rider flying between trees toward a tight, high-banked turn—what comes next is for someone less faint-of-heart than me to discover. Though the trail-builders have packed a lot into a relatively small space (but with enough excitement to keep repeat visitors from growing bored), you won’t spend the whole day riding these trails, which is actually perfect. City mountain bikers used to face at least a half hour’s drive (on the rare day with light traffic) to decent trails in New Jersey or the northern suburbs. Now, you can hop on the subway, get dirty, and return home before lunch.

In neighboring Washington Heights, baseball reigns supreme, and stars like Manny Ramirez call the asphalt playgrounds home. But with trails this technical, and a jumping practice course right next to a baseball diamond, a neighborhood kid could now reasonably dream of becoming a pro freerider rather than an infielder. In fact, I watched armored freeride warriors on long-travel bikes patiently giving space (and advice) to local kids who were warily rolling over the jumps themselves. What’s more, the city’s diversity was apparent riding these trails. In just an hour, my riding companion and I shot the breeze and shared a laugh with riders of a dozen ethnic backgrounds, many from nearby neighborhoods. It’s funny: cramped inside the subway, you rarely speak to those around you, but given a bit of space, some leafy treetops overhead, and dirt under foot, you feel like chatting up your fellow New Yorkers. Or maybe watching a spandex-clad dude eat it on a log ramp is just a great ice-breaker.

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© 2017 Stuart Schrader