Benefield: Local cyclists pumped for Santa Rosa's new dirt track

Greg Watts wants to show me something.

Taking a break from relentless, pounding shovel work, the professional bike rider walks to a nearby truck and pulls a cardboard box from the bed. Inside are scores of yellow T-shirts, each one emblazoned with an image of a long-haired man gazing down admiringly at the layout of a dirt bike course. There is almost a halo-like glow around his head.

The long-haired man looks remarkably like Jesus. And also a lot like the long-maned Doug McKenzie.

McKenzie, 56, has been the driving force, the leader of the masses, the chosen one who has guided the creation of Santa Rosa's first-ever pump track bike park. At some point along the way on the three-plus-year journey to create a dirt bike park where riders of all abilities can practice bike-handling skills, balance and endurance, a young follower dubbed McKenzie “Pump Track Jesus.”

It stuck. It's on a shirt.

“He's a beast. He's unrelenting,” said Jake Bayless, the co-founder of Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance, and a longtime supporter of the pump track that is nearing the final stages of construction at Northwest Community Park adjacent to Comstock Middle School. “Doug McKenzie is the bulldog. He is the guy who stuck with it from the very beginning.”

But, like Jesus, he's had friends and followers to help make stuff happen.

REMBA was created by Bayless and Nick Nesbitt in part to provide an official nonprofit volunteer group to support the creation and long-term maintenance of the track.

“We created REMBA to have his back,” Bayless said.

The journey for McKenzie and other pump track supporters has been almost biblical in its trials. Some days, McKenzie was less like Jesus and more like Job.

“All this stuff took time. It was all months and months. Every time I got something approved, I found out I needed something else approved. It was one thing after another,” McKenzie said.

It was back in March of 2014 that the Santa Rosa City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the city's master plan to locate the track along Pomo Creek on the north side of the park. But then there were drawings, official plans, liability agreements and countless meetings.

It should have been so simple, McKenzie thought. A dirt course, crafted by volunteers, for everybody to rip around on.

But nothing is simple. Not even projects that seemingly everyone is behind.

“It's the same as a play structure,” McKenzie said. “You go out there and play on it, you do it at your own risk. That is one of the reasons why we had to jump through so many hoops. Most red tape on the planet is because somebody sued somebody years ago.”

And there was fear of the unknown.

“In my opinion, the pump track is probably safer than your standard play structure,” he said. “It's dirt, there are no metal bars. You are not really leaving the ground, you are keeping in constant contact with the ground.”

But the park had a steady group of supporters who kept doing what needed to be done to move the project forward.

An engineer donated time to create the official drawing. King Ridge Foundation, the fundraising arm associated with Levi's GranFondo, donated $5,000. A construction company donated truckloads of dirt.

Pro rider Andrew Taylor, a Montgomery High grad, is donating his time for course construction.

And calls for some sweat-equity hours were heeded last week as enthusiasts showed up bearing shovels and rakes.

And it's not just the cycling community that's jazzed, but city officials seem enthusiastic, too.

Parks superintendent Lisa Grant, McKenzie's point person from the start, is unabashedly excited that dirt started moving last week.

She's got crews coming out this week to install an all-access, paved path. A split-rail fence, benches and new trees are in the plans. A grand opening is planned for sometime in the coming weeks.

“This is such a wonderful opportunity,” she said.

The cost to the city has been minimal because so much was volunteer driven, she said. But the process was necessary because “if all the volunteers walk away, it's still a city park. It's still ours.”

Sonoma County is increasingly known as a place where cycling thrives, Grant said, and yet we don't have some of the infrastructure found in other cities.

“This is just a huge cycling community,” she said. “I'm very hopeful that this is going to be an amenity that a lot of people use and think is wonderful.”

And the partnership the city made with a group of volunteer supporters should be a model for others looking to improve existing parks, she said.

Backers tout a pump track's ability to draw every level of cyclist. You don't need a Tour de France road bike or a $4,000 Specialized Epic mountain bike. You need a helmet and bike that rolls.

“It's good for kids and adults. Everyone can have fun on it,” Taylor said. Taylor and fellow pro Greg Watts designed the course and spent last week carving berms and pounding dirt into rideable hardpack.

On a pump track, the idea isn't big air; it's to move the bike around the course using momentum and as little peddling as possible. It's a rolling skills drill.

“This is more for honing your skills, actually learning the fundamentals of bike riding, pushing the rollers and berms,” Taylor said.

And it's about filling a need, Bayless said.

He envisions kids riding bikes from home to use the track and eventually riding to Annadel State Park when they are ready.

“That's just it. There is so much to do around here but there are some holes in amenities for different ages and different skills. It's overdue, I think,” he said. “There is a natural progression to riding your bike throughout your life. I think the pump track is the missing element for the beginning.”

That said, the 56-year-old McKenzie said he doesn't expect he'll be the oldest guy out there most days.

But he'll probably be the only guy with his likeness emblazoned on a pump track T-shirt.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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