Epicenter: Sweet Singletrack Through The Concrete Jungle

New trails, pumptracks, and protected bike lanes have arrived in America’s third biggest city

Chicago was recently deemed the top city in the United States for biking by Bicycling magazine. Though your first reaction might be a furrowed brow over a stink eye, the Windy City isn’t getting accolades from bike snobs for no reason.

Among other things, it’s got 100 miles of protected bike lanes and Divvy, the nation’s second largest bike share program. And what’s more, Chi-Town and its surrounding suburbs have some legit mountain biking, too. Believe it. Plus, with world-class food, art, and sports, it’s not a bad place to play tourist either.

One key to the growth of two-wheel culture? A strong riding and trail building community led by the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (CAMBr). From pizza tours during the riding season to the Crock Pot Cookoff in the dead of winter, the locals love to socialize as much as they love to ride. One of their most popular events is the Wednesday night ride at the Palos Trail System, southwest of downtown.

“Every Wednesday, the group ride goes off at Palos. It’s a great way for beginners to watch and learn from more experienced riders,” says Kati Pritchett, a local mountain bike skills coach. Pritchet also points out that the Wednesday rides give riders—local or visiting—the chance to meet other mountain bikers in a super friendly environment.

Chicago’s starting to sound pretty good, huh? Here’s how to do it right.

–Ride–

Palos

Palos is the go-to network for Chicagoans, providing the most mileage of the area’s trail systems. While there isn’t much in the way of natural rock here, there are some roots and a couple of trails that have been adapted to meet the needs of those who love a good challenge.

There's plenty of fun to be had at Palos | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

There’s plenty of fun to be had at Palos | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

The  XX trail is the most technical route in the network and will definitely test your mettle. Featured: narrow, limestone-armored singletrack that runs along a small ridge. It’s a bit tricky at times, so you might be surprised when you struggle to ride the whole trail without putting a foot down.

Andres Bike Park

Head to Carpentersville, one of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, for a solid bike park experience at Andres. This withdrawn, forested location unfolds before you when you push your bike to the top of the start hill and eye up its three robust jump lines. The far left line is for experts, with aggressive lips, gaps, and some bonk-able features that’ll have you up in the trees… literally! If you’re new to dirt jumping, start on the far right line for smaller tabletops and rollers—a playful experience that’ll prime you to move to the bigger lines in no time. Combine Andres with the Raceway Woods trails for a full mountain bike day in the ‘burbs.

Looking down the various jump lines at Andres Bike Park | Photo courtesy of AndresPark.org

Looking down the various jump lines at Andres Bike Park | Photo courtesy of AndresBikePark.org

Saw Wee Kee

For a bit of a wild ride, head southwest out of Chicago, past Palos to Saw Wee Kee. The locals sometimes refer to this area as an amusement park because it’s filled with never-ending ups and downs built from the remains of an old strip mine. And don’t be fooled by the length. Saw Kee Wee’s seven miles of trails are a lot more demanding than they might seem.

The Garden

The Garden Bike Park is the closest riding venue to the core of Chicago. It’s a huge amount of fun packed into a tight, wooded space. If you’re looking to get airborne, you’ll find three dirt jump lines on the south end of the park: medium, main, and expert. On the north end, there’s a small pump track that’s great for dialing in your bike handling skills and setting your quads on fire.

The Garden | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

The Garden | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Racewood Woods

Just minutes from the jump lines at Andres Bike Park is the Raceway Woods trail network. Once an actual motor speedway, the area has returned to a naturally forested setting. Although there are only five miles of trail at Raceway, you can link the series of four loops together to create a 10-12-mile ride. The trails range from flowing contour and tight and twisty to punchy climbs with serpentine descents. Throw in a couple of G-outs and you’ll be sure to leave Raceway with a big smile on your face.

A fun series of g-outs on Loop 4 at Raceway Woods. Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

A fun series of G-outs on Loop 4 at Raceway Woods. Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Big Marsh Bike Park

Big Marsh is the newest addition to Chicago’s bike park scene and is sure to be the largest blip on the city’s mountain bike radar. The first phase, which opened on November 6th, features everything from traditional singletrack and flow trails to multiple dirt jump lines, a pump track, and a cyclocross course. Modeled after Boulder, Colorado’s Valmont Bike Park, Big Marsh is a prime example of effective collaboration between the outdoor recreation community, industry, and city government. SRAM—whose global headquarters are located in Chicago—stepped up alongside PeopleForBikes and REI to supply major funding for the project while the Chicago Park District gave the green light to designate and transform the historic industrial site into the city’s newest park.

A glimpse of the freshly-built Big Marsh Bike Park. Photo: Jen Agan

A glimpse of the freshly-built Big Marsh Bike Park. Photo: Jen Agan

–The Best–

Eat

This city is a powerhouse when it comes to food, and no matter where you’re riding your bike, you’ll be within striking distance of delicious eats.

Find your way to The Art of Pizza after a jump session at The Garden. It’s not known for its decor, but the ‘za is another story. Order at the counter and then get ready for some deep dish pizza that’s been ranked #1 in Chicago by the likes of Thrillist and the Chicago Tribune.

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After the Wednesday night ride at Palos, quench your thirst at Imperial Oak Brewery, which specializes in imperial style and oak aged beers. They don’t serve food but do encourage grilling in their parking lot. Seriously. Also, some delicious local food trucks arrive on Thursdays and stay through the weekend.

If you’ve worked up an appetite after some laps at Raceway Woods or Andres Bike Park, Carpentersville has a killer Mexican joint. Las Cuecas serves up build-your-own quesadillas on house-made tortillas that’ll surely sate your MTB-stoked hunger. Pub fare more your style? Grab a Ruben and a pint on the riverside patio at Rosie O’Hares on Water Street.

Sleep

Ready to pitch a tent in suburbia? Tent sites (and cabins, too) are available at Bullfrog Lake for a ride in, ride out experience at the Palos Trail System. The facility comes complete with showers, toilets, and easy access to the lake.

Spare Parts

While Heritage Bicycles doesn’t sell mountain bikes, it does have some pretty darn good coffee and a staff that knows exactly where to get shreddy and what the latest conditions are. This general store-style shop is also conveniently located near The Garden Bike Park. Grab a house-roasted coffee to go and head over to watch the high-flying acrobatics of the local dirt jumpers.

With four area locations, you’re never far from an REI and some dividend-earning trail snacks. A major partner of the Big Marsh Bike Park, REI has contributed $150,000 in funding for the project along with support of the programs that will soon take place at the park.

If you’re hitting Andres Bike Park and the Raceway Woods trails, Main Street Bicycles in Carpentersville is well positioned. The shop rents both mountain bikes and dirt jumpers and is a strong supporter of the local trails.

Rest Day

No trip to Chicago is  complete without experiencing the Lakefront Trail. Find your way to the nearest Divvy Bike Share, check out a bike, and cruise along Lake Michigan past beaches, parks, and museums.

There’s also the Chicago Architecture River Cruise. During the 90-minute tour, you’ll discover how the city went from a small village to one of the world’s largest cities in less than a century.

This is the 5th installment of Epicenter, a series created in partnership with PeopleForBikes. PeopleForBikes aims to make riding better for everyone—whether you ride trails, through the neighborhood to the store, or all the way across town.