Pump track! Undulating ribbon of asphalt in shadow of NLR’s Emerald Park challenges bicycle riders

Prove your mettle without pedals on Big Rock Quarry Pump Track

Karl Whitcombe rides around the Pump Track in North Little Rock on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Karl Whitcombe rides around the Pump Track in North Little Rock on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)


Nestled in the shadows of the towering sandstone and shale cliffs of Big Rock Quarry, below Emerald Park and not far from the Arkansas River, the North Little Rock Pump Track is a ribbon of undulating asphalt that cyclists navigate, sometimes very quickly, without a single pedal stroke.

Perhaps you're thinking: "a pump what now?"

Here's David Larson, the owner of Angry Dave's Bicycles in North Little Rock, to help explain.

"A pump track is like a BMX track with no straightaways, no starting gate and no finish line," he says, adding that pump tracks are made up of obstacles called "rollers" — small, rounded bumps — and banked turns.

"There is no pedaling on a pump track," he says. Riders instead build momentum by pressing the bicycle into the downside of the rollers and unweighting the bike while going up them in a near constant up and down motion that involves the arms, legs and proper body position.

"It's all about pumping your arms up and down, moving your legs up and down, getting as much speed as you can and carrying it as far as you can," Larson, 54, says.

The 15,000-square-foot track on River Road is part of Big Rock Quarry Bike Park, which also contains a bike skills segment with wooden tracks and small jumps. To understand the impetus behind the pump track's construction, look to the Riverview Skateboard Park about a mile to the east on River Road: Bikes aren't allowed on the skate park. Larson wanted a place where BMXers and others could ride.

He began working with then-North Little Rock Parks and Recreation Director Steve Shields and talked up the idea with former parks director Terry Hartwick, who was running what became a successful campaign for Little Rock mayor and who backed the track as another way to encourage cycling in North Little Rock.

The $400,000-plus track was paid for with federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and was built by Switzerland-based VeloSolutions. It officially opened on Jan. 13, 2022, and is one of several pump tracks in the state. Others include the massive circuit at Runway Bike Park in Springdale's Jones Center, which was the site of the 2018 Red Bull Pump Track World Championships, and the new Velocity Park at 325 Valley St. in Hot Springs. Velocity Park hasn't officially opened yet "but we can't keep people off of it," says Kathleen Fason, the city's parks and trails office manager.

There are also pump tracks in Bentonville, Fort Smith, Bella Vista and Fayetteville, and work has started on a new one at Dupree Park, 1700 S. Redmond Road in Jacksonville.

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  photo  Karl Whitcombe rides around the Pump Track in North Little Rock on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
 
 

From the gravel lot at Big Rock Quarry it's hard even to see the track, which is up a small hill. I'm here a little before 1 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon earlier this month to meet up with Larson. It's my first time to ride the track, and he has brought three bicycles — a Marin Alcatraz dirt jumper, a Redline PL-26 BMX cruiser and his personal Redline Flight Pro XXL BMX bike.

Larson is letting me borrow the pink and blue Marin because the big shots in the newspaper's Style budget department, when asked meekly if the paper might buy a bike for me to use in this story, guffawed like the audience at a taping of the "Carol Burnett Show."

Sigh.

There's not a category of bikes made specifically for pump tracks, so most riders opt for a BMX bike or dirt jumper, whose rigid frames and geometries make them ideal pump-track conveyances. They're not terribly expensive — unless you're a coldhearted, budget directing bean counter — with prices starting at around $250 for a BMX bike and $400 or so for a dirt jumper.

As for safety equipment, a helmet is required at the North Little Rock track, and gloves are recommended; some riders even wear knee and elbow pads.

The Marin and the cruiser have 26-inch wheels, while Larson's ride has 20-inch wheels. The smaller wheels are speedy, he says, but can be a little twitchy. He adds that some people prefer the larger wheels that, with their fatter tires, can be harder to get up to speed but offer a little more control.

Joining us is Karl Whitcombe, a 47-year-old New Zealand native who lives in Little Rock and mostly rides mountain bikes but is no stranger to rolling laps at the pump track.


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Skills learned on a pump track "translate directly to a mountain bike," he says. "Everyone thinks you're supposed to be pedaling the whole time [on a mountain bike], but more than anything you're supposed to keep your momentum going. This really forces you to do that. Momentum is everything."

Also riding the track today are Jesse Tibbs, 37, of Cabot and his sons, Ryan, 19 and Hunter, 8. All three race BMX, and skills developed here come in handy at the BMX track.

"You get a good workout," Jesse says after a blistering lap on his Avent 20-inch bike. "It helps you learn to control your bike and you learn how to pump more, which helps when you get back out there to race BMX."

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  photo  Hunter Tibbs, 8, rides around the Pump Track in North Little Rock with his family on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
 
 

The paved track is a maze of rollers and berms. Larson takes a couple of warmup spins and then sets out, pumping his bike over the bumps and zipping through the banked turns.

I'm a regular road cyclist and it's been more than a decade since I've ridden anything other than a road bike. Getting on the Marin is like going from a Cadillac to a dune buggy, and even rolling around the pavement outside the track is surprisingly tricky for me. The saddle on the Marin, like those on Larson's Redline and the Tibbs' bikes, is slammed down to the frame so there's no place to sit when I'm in motion. It's a perfectly good setup since pump tracks are ridden entirely while standing up, but the saddle position, along with the wide handlebar, fat tires and frame geometry, has me bewildered.

In a few minutes, though, I roll onto the track for the first time and somehow don't crash my brains out, which I count as a major success.

In the days leading up to my first trip to the track I did intense research, which means I watched a bunch of YouTube videos of people riding pump tracks. Some of those people tried to explain pump track technique, and as I ride I try to remember what they said about weight distribution and body position. I'm sure I look about as comfortable as a fish flopping around in a boat.

As I ride, I begin to feel more at ease with letting my arms and legs soak up the rollers and then pressing the bike back down into the track as I crest them and roll the downside. On the steep, banked turns, I keep my eyes on the exit and roll through, setting up for the next set of rollers.

"You definitely want to get a feel for it before you start trying to go fast," Jesse Tibbs says when asked what advice he'd give a pump track newbie. "You can start carrying speed and not realize how fast you're going and go over a berm or something."

That's not really an issue for me, at least at first. On my early attempts I eventually lose what little momentum I have and am forced to pedal a bit, which feels like a defeat. On a few runs I actually dismount and push the bike out of the track.

Though I'm (mostly) not pedaling, it's surprising just how much effort all that up and down pumping takes to maintain momentum, and I'm a little out of breath when I come off the track (on my road ride the next day my legs won't let me forget every minute I spent squatting up and down).

The circuit can be ridden clockwise or counter-clockwise, or a rider can start in the middle. I've been following Larson's example and hitting it counter-clockwise and am having the most fun in the first quarter or so of the track, where I feel I'm making progress in efficiently riding the rollers and berms. Larson notes that it's OK to concentrate on certain sections and not ride others, especially when you're just starting, so that's what I do.

Another revelation is when I switch from the Marin to Tibbs' Avent BMX bike and then Larson's bike. The smaller frames feel much more natural and maneuverable to me, and I'm given a tiny boost of confidence, though I don't actually dial in a clean lap on either. It's enough to convince me, though, that when I buy my own bike for the pump track it will be one like these.

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The track, which is open from 8 a.m. until dark, is not just for cyclists, Larson says, adding that he's seen skateboarders, Razor scooters, children on strider bikes ... even roller-skaters ride here (motorized vehicles are not allowed).

It also became a spot for local BMX racers after the March 31 tornado damaged Bonzai BMX, the track in Burns Park about a mile to the northwest.

"Riding here was one of the things they did to stay in shape," Larson says.

While the track itself is high-end, complete with several French drains to keep it dry, the area is still a bit rustic. Take plenty to drink, because there isn't a water fountain and there is but a lone portable restroom down the hill in the corner of the parking lot.

There are plans for expansion, however. The pump track is the first phase of the city's larger planned project of cycling attractions that could include a dirt jump section and mountain bike trails in the picturesque quarry.

Before we begin to ride I ask Larson, who helped make the pump track a reality, what he likes best about it.

"The fact that it exists," he says.


  photo  Dave Larson rests on his bike between rounds at the Pump Track in North Little Rock on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford) 



 



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