On a recent summer day, a Missoula mountain biker cruised through a stand of pine toward a rickety wooden ramp. Decked out in a full-face helmet, gloves and kneepads, he had little protection from what threatened to be a bone-crunching fall. He hit the ramp, rocketed 20 feet above an abandoned Forest Service road, and disappeared back into the brush.
This is freeriding, a version of mountain biking gaining in popularity for its emphasis on tricks, personal style, and technical trail riding. The catch? It doesn't have a home yet, at least not a legal one.
A decade ago, Missoula's freeride community was largely insular, just scattered groups of like-minded, passionate bikers, says longtime freerider Cris Winner. They rode wherever they could, including abandoned fields, backyards, and remote stretches of forest. With limited opportunities, some riders took to Forest Service land to illegally create new trail features, contributing to the sport's less-than-positive public image.
Winner is working to change that reputation, and he says a lot has already been done. The freeride community has grown "five-fold" since he started riding 10 years ago, and freeriders have developed legal parks and trail networks across the country. "You show up at trailheads, there's other freeriders there," says Winner, specifically noting work done in Whitefish and Bozeman. "You see pictures of people riding. It's all over the place now."
Missoula, however, remains behind the curve. Winner runs a freeride camp for area youth, but compares the sport's growing pains to those once experienced by snowboarding and skateboarding. Freeriding isn't widely accepted, so his camp kids turn to the one place they can legally ride: private property. Others continue to ride illegally on Forest Service land.
"It's really hard because none of us are old enough to drive," says Peter Rice, 14, a member of Winner's advanced class. "We can't go to all these people's houses because they live out of town."
Missoula bikers have attempted to legalize areas in the past, but the Forest Service has been less than receptive, citing concerns for public safety. Winner believes those concerns are being addressed. Last summer, a group began raising funds for an in-town bike park. The Tanner Olson Memorial BMX Parknamed in memory of local freerider Tanner Olson, who died in a car crash in spring 2011would offer freeriders of all ages an easily accessible, safe and legal venue. Missoula Parks & Recreation is aware of the park proposal, and initial discussions about potential locations are already underway.
"You could build a really fun bike park in a week," Winner says, "if you had the right tools and the right people."
He says at this point, Missoula is on the right track.