Tucked away in the woods between McCord Middle and Granby Elementary schools in Worthington lies what some neighbors and area families call “a hidden gem” and “a great little secret.”
Gator Bike Park, which started as a simple dirt path carved from trees and brush to teach students basic cycling skills, now boasts huge rock slabs to traverse and two large wooden berms, or banked turns, to give speedy thrill-seekers a bit of air.
And then there’s the recent addition of the “double black diamond” snake-ladder bridge— a wooden feature built a few inches off the ground that curves in several “s” shapes — that 10-year-old Nolan Downs has nicknamed the “Black Mamba.”
Though the entire premise of the bike park, named after Granby’s mascot, has centered on getting children out from behind their screens, into nature and onto two wheels, physical education teacher Rick Armstrong, the mastermind behind the park he founded in 2013, can’t help but liken the park’s success to video games.
“It’s like that video-game mentality,” said Armstrong, 47 and a longtime avid mountain biker. “It’s so addicting because you want to get to the next level, complete the next challenge. We provide that.”
And the constantly evolving attraction leaves users — and Armstrong — frequently wondering: What’s next?
The newest addition to the mountain bike park will be its largest endeavor yet: a 53-foot by 53-foot professionally built pump track, a circuit of rollers, banked turns and features, in addition to a pavilion of picnic tables and bike racks.
Trailgators Booster Association, the nonprofit Armstrong created to oversee the park, is hoping to break ground on the project in late summer. First, though, they must raise the $225,000 needed for the expansion. (They’ve already raised 10% and people can donate at www.thetrailgators.org.)
Every aspect of the park in its seven-year history has been donated, sponsored or created through the time and efforts of generous donors and volunteers, Armstrong said, aside from Worthington Schools and the City of Columbus — Hard Road Park butts up against the schools — allowing them to use their land.
Granby Principal Patti Schlaegel said that in 2013, her first year as head of the school, Armstrong talked her into allowing him to clear a crude dirt path through the woods to teach some kids to mountain bike. She’s been shocked at just what that initial project has come to mean to so many people.
“I never dreamt it would’ve grown this much,” Schlaegel said. “It’s also all the different things that come alongside the expansion of the bike park. It’s the ability to have students ride bikes during school as part of physical education or riding recess.”
Students have helped maintain the trails for school projects and participated in after-school bike clubs or the race team, which nearly 250 kids join annually. The group hosts races, too.
When Riley Moriarty asked to join the mountain bike team as a Granby kindergartner, her mother questioned whether there was really a team.
Even as she signed up Riley, 9, now in fourth grade, Monica Moriarty said she felt nervous — but that didn’t last long.
“There are lessons learned beyond biking. The perseverance you see and a willingness to try new things, which is something you don’t really see in other sports,” Moriarty said. “My fears and anxieties melted away.”
It was the same for Riley and her younger sister Erin, 8, where initially it was intimidating to even enter the park and, now they’re tackling every one of the nine features in the park.
“There are a lot of fun obstacles,” said Erin Moriarty. “My favorite is the one they just built — the snake ladder bridge. I’m not that good at it, but it’s still fun.”
The Moriarty sisters said that through mountain biking Armstrong has taught them to get back up again and never give up.
Armstrong initially wanted to create the bike park because he felt his students were lacking basic bike skills, such as balance, speed, and maneuverability. But by making the venue open to anyone, he’s also made it a community resource.
That’s the main reason the Columbus Recreation & Parks Department wanted to get involved, said Sophia Fifner, community relations chief of the department. The portion of the flow trail with the berms is on city land through a land-use agreement and the new pump track will be, too.
“It’s an amenity that was not in the northwest quadrant of the city,” Fifner said. “It allows kids to connect with nature in a fun and engaging way. I say kids, but it’s a great way for anyone to get outside.”
Dave Moriarty, Riley and Erin’s dad, laughed as he said he caught the mountain bike fever, too.
“I got out there and found out I love it,” he said.
Nolan Downs, a fourth grader at nearby Evening Street Elementary School, is a veteran mountain bike rider now, along with the rest of his family. They’ve biked in places like Canada and Colorado. But the family is thankful to have the Gator Bike Park just up the street from them.
“We can go up there for a 20-minute ride or spend hours out there,” said Ashley Downs, his mother.
Nolan, who enjoys the new berms that were put in and can’t wait for the pump track to be finished, said he’s learned “100 things” through mountain biking.
“The one thing specifically about Gators is it is a good way to go outside and have fun and be challenged,” Nolan said.
Maura Tamerlano, 9, said she was scared at first of doing one of the obstacles, but seeing others have fun on it made her want to try it. And she knew she had the support of Armstrong.
“Coach has motivated me to get better,” she said.
Parents and kids, alike, couldn’t praise Armstrong enough for the amazing outdoor space he’s created through countless hours of work, whether in meetings advocating for the project or heading out to the trails and getting dirty with a shovel.
There are few places that Armstrong — who has two sons, Kraig, 12, and Brody, 10 — would rather be than the park.
“The guy who is doing our pump track said we have a culture here,” Armstrong said. “We have kids zooming around here. The vibe is stinking awesome.”