September 20th marked the official opening of Sunnyside Bike Park, Toronto’s first official off-road bike park, located near the shore of Lake Ontario, west of High Park. It was also the 50th park either built or designed by Jay Hoots, considered the most experienced bike park designer in North America, with projects located as far afield as the U.S., Israel, Australia and New Zealand
Hoots Inc. is based in Vancouver, not far from where Hoots first developed a reputation as an extreme mountain bike rider in the pro circuit.
"When we were little kids in North Vancouver, my brother and I used to build dirt ramps in greenspace using stuff we stole from construction sites," says Hoots. "We had difficulty understanding why the city would knock them down. We saw skate parks built for millions of dollars, but nothing legal for bikes."
Hoots graduated to the mountain biking circuit and developed a line of high-impact sports equipment. He sold the business in 2002 to found DIRT Club for Youth, a non-profit group lobbying for the creation of authorized dirt jump parks. The organization's first success was at Myrtle Park in North Vancouver on the site of an abandoned BMX biking oval.
"From a park perspective, there's no difference between us and dog walkers or mushroom pickers," says Hoots. "We're all competing for the same space. Originally we would put parks wherever we could find space. But, eventually we saw a paradigm shift over five or six years. Cities, towns and landowners started seeing the value of dirt bike parks or bike skills parks, where they would incorporate plans for maintenance and long-term viability of the parks."
The minimum size for a bike park is 1.5 acres, although Hoots has worked on parks as large as 140 acres. While the company will partner with local contractors, it employs six full-time workers and counts on 26 project specialists, who can be called in to develop specialty features. These include world-class dirt bike racers who will ride a feature before signing off on it. The company maintains an equipment fleet that includes a pair of John Deere compact excavators, a Bobcat and a Ditch Witch skid steer.
"We had to develop our own criteria and standards for what makes a good bike park," says Hoots. "That was necessary because most contractors don't understand this extremely complex and specialized field. For example, carpentry contractors were making everything plumb based on CSA park standards, which doesn't work at all for a bike park and the parks suffered for it. The tires of bikes also react differently to an asphalt surface than car tires. If we apply asphalt, we apply it in rough grade, often mixing it with the road base and blended with clay to get the consistency we want. Unless you understand the rider nuances and experiential side of the park, you'll lose the flow during the construction process."
Hoots recommends that any contractor interested in bidding on a bike park project should, at the very least, read two guidebooks produced by the International Mountain Bicycling Association: Trail Solutions and Managing Mountain Biking, to which he contributed.
Hoots begins each project by bringing in big iron to grade, profile and shape the park. A typical project involves the use of 200 truckloads of additional clean fill. Feature installation comes next, followed by shaping with smaller machines and shovels. The final touch is hand finishing.
Sunnyside, a 10,000-square-metre park, was built in collaboration with Ferdom Construction of Woodbridge and Toronto landscape designers Victor Ford and Associates.
"It was an incredible partnership with both contractors and the City of Toronto," says Hoots. "The folks from Ferdom were among the first we encountered to admit they didn't know anything about building a bike park and were willing to work with us in the way we instructed."
The park offers typical Hoots features: log tracks, elevated ladder bridges, dirt berms and rollers, dirt jumps and rock trails.
He knows each feature intimately. "Like every one of our parks, we hand-finished all of Sunnyside," Hoots says with satisfaction. "Every square inch."