Editor’s Note: This guide is a work in progress, with the hope that it evolves to become a helpful, one stop resource for all things pump track.
Pump Track History- it all starts with BMX
Design — what makes a good pump track?
Types of pump track layouts
Beginner Tracks vs Advanced
Pump Track Features (coming soon)
User Management (this section in progress)
Design and build your dream pump track (coming soon)
What is the ideal pump track bike? (in progress)
Pump Track Resources (coming soon)
What is a pump track?
A pump track is a continuous circuit of banked turns interspaced by rollers and other features that can be ridden on a bike without pedaling. Most commonly constructed from soil, riders create momentum via up and down body moments called pumping.
Because the features are all variations of rollable mounds, courses are beginner friendly, with riders of all ages and skill levels able to safely navigate the course. As riders advance and acquire bike control, they are able to generate and maintain increased momentum, flow through the track at higher speeds and eventually learn to connect features by utilizing advanced techniques such as manualing and jumping.
The first pump track I experienced set a high bar for those that followed. It also inspired pump track riders and builders from all over, and this influence continues to this day. We’re speaking of course, of the legendary Peacock Pit, AKA the backyard of Super D legend Mark Weir. It had a bit of everything, and riding it was an amazing experience, whether you were a local mom with her little tyke, or pro slalom racer.
Since we began documenting pump tracks on Bermstyle.com, we’ve ridden quite a few. Some were a blast, and were so fun we’d ride to to the point of exhaustion. We’ve also ridden tracks that were disappointing, with unimaginative layouts, lacking flow or progressive features.
Private backyard tracks tend to be the most fun, with diverse layouts and features.
Why is that? We’ve spent a lot of time discussing and debating the merits of pump track design, as well as what makes a course successful. In order to know where you’re going, it helps to know where you came from. When it comes to pump tracks, they came from BMX.
Pump Track History: it all starts with BMX
The first pump tracks were inspired by BMX race courses. Being a family sport, BMX tracks are designed to be ridden by riders of all ages. BMX tracks typically begin with a large hill or mound where riders line up at a starting gate. Upon the green light, riders snap out of the gate, pedal furiously down the hill and negotiate various types of dirt jumps, rollers and large bermed turns on their way to the finish line.
The rhythm section is a staple of BMX and is generally the most technical section of the track. While still rollable, jumping through this section of track is often more difficult, forcing less skilled riders to slow down or employ different techniques to negotiate the features at race speeds.
This portion of the track can be ridden in any number of ways, with some riders “doubling” up rollers, with others speed-manualing them. A mix of both riding strategies is often employed; young children and novices typically roll them, learning to pump in order to gather and maintain momentum, before learning and applying more advanced skills.
Rumor has it the first pump tracks appeared in the back yards of Australian downhill racers in 2002. Unlike BMX tracks, which had a definitive start and finish and required pedaling, the pump track was more inline with rhythm sections, made into a loop. Instead of pedaling, riders gathered and maintained momentum by “pumping”. The rollers and other features were spaced in a manner that made pedaling inefficient, and forced riders to create momentum via body movements.
Like BMX trails, these backyards training grounds were often constructed by hand, and required less area and soil as they only needed to be wide enough to accommodate one rider. (as opposed to a full heat of racers battling side by side.) The design and layout of these pump tracks often reflected the limitations of the hand built construction as well.
One of the first (if not the first) pump tracks in the US was located at the Fix Bike Shop in Boulder, Colorado. However, it’s widely recognized that Lee McCormack of LeeLikesBikes.com and his publication, Welcome to Pump Track Nation had a major influence in kicking off the pump track movement in the US as we all know it.
Design: what makes a good pump track?
In a word: FLOW. The reality is that pumping around in a circle, no matter how fun, loses its excitement after a few hundred laps. In order to keep the rider excited and engaged, a good track has a number of lines to choose from, great flow and adding features that can be jumped are key.
How do we determine a successful track? All good pump tracks flow, and can be negotiated without pedaling or braking. The better tracks also feature opportunities for creative interpretation, with new line options opening up as riders progress in their skills.
The best tracks we’ve ridden have lots of sections that can be jumped, and even a dirt jump line. We like variety in features, grades, tall, waist high (or higher) berms that facilitate higher speeds for advanced riders. Remember, a good pump track can be negotiated by riders of all skill levels so why not make it fun and engaging for all riders?
Maintenance. Maintenance. Maintenance.
Sometimes making a pump track a success is simply a matter of keeping it up. Many public pump tracks start as successes, but lacking a maintenance plan, become run down and dominated by grass and weeds.
If you visit BMX trails (also known as dirt jumps to the uninitiated) you might be surprise to see that before any major session, a significant amount of work is performed before riding. Cracks in the faces of jumps are repaired and debris is swept —at a bare minimum. The same is true of BMX tracks; before the start of any major track day, BMX tracks are watered, raked and swept of rocks and other debris.
Compacted soil is susceptible to breaking down, and weather and user-based erosion is to be expected. Pump tracks are no different from BMX track, dirt jumps or flow trails. They all require up keep. Having a broom, rake and flat head shovel as well as a source of water on hand is needed at a bare minimum to maintain a track and keep it running.
In addition to receiving necessary maintenance, pump tracks should be easy to ride. Pump tracks can and should be designed for riders of all ages and skill levels. Like the rhythm section of a BMX track, the challenge comes from riding the track at a higher rate of speed. What keeps riders coming back though, is a design and layout that encourages creative interpretation in riding the track. Varying the shape, size and spacing of rollers as well as utilizing a variety of track features like table top jumps and step up/ step down jumps offer another dimension on how tracks can be interpreted by riders.
One of the reasons private tracks are often more fun to ride is that they evolve over time. Rollers and berms are moved around to improve flow, added or subtracted; jump sections can be added to create additional challenge. Wood wall rides above berms can add skate park influenced design for even more challenge. With less concern on liability, creativity in design can develop unencumbered, and often are transformed each year.
A successful public pump track will require the same amount of maintenance and care. Unfortunately, we’ve seen pump tracks in a number of communities built by bike park contractors without a maintenance plan in place. Or even worse, without a water source readily available to repair the track surface. At one park we visited, we found from local advocates that they were restricted from performing necessary maintenance as they didn’t have an MOU in place – something the park designer should have anticipated, and worked with the local bike club to implement at the time of construction.
Types of pump track layouts
Compared to skatepark design, pump track design is still in its infancy. At the moment pump track design seems to have settled into 3 types of designs.
- A free form skate park influenced design, where every surface is a potential feature
- A BMX track inspired loop design (often featuring a defined start and finish point and directional traffic)
- A head to head competition type track, as seen at Sea Otter or Crankworks
Free form layouts
Most private pump tracks start with a loop style layout and build additional lines into them over time. With a free form style, all sections of the pump track area become a rideable surface, similar to a concrete skatepark. As there are endless directions and lines, the downside to using this style of layout for a public park is the possibility of collisions.
BMX Inspired loop design
Mini-bmx track styled loops come in all sizes and varieties. This type of layout is often the foundation for any popular pump track. Because there is a clear direction of travel, this type of layout can accommodate multiple users simultaneously and because of this, can be easier to manage from a liability perspective.
If only one pump track is an option for a public site, adding alternative lines can enhance the riding experience and encouraging creative riding.
The Competition Track
Tracks designed for competition generally utilize a BMX inspired loop layout, mirrored in a fashion that two riders can compete against each other. The format makes for an exciting race format that is camera and video friendly.
These types of layouts are often constructed the weeks before events, then torn down afterwards. Because they’re designed primarily for competition, they usually don’t have much in the way of alternative lines, and are often much more technical. Because they are designed for advanced or professional riders, they are often not beginner friendly and are not the best choice of layout for public parks.
In our opinion, the most successful (and therefore fun) tracks are the tracks that incorporate design elements from all sides of the spectrum.
The less successful designs feature overly tight 180º turns and identical rollers uniformly spaced and stacked in a row. And they’re often devoid of users. Sharp corners are often overly challenging; although they can provide excitement for users, they require much more material (ie, a tall banked wall) when executed well. Our favorite layouts with 180º turns often feature a “b” line that provides a less aggressive 90º option in the line.
Beginner Tracks vs Advanced
In our opinion there isn’t such a thing as a “beginner” track, because they all should be friendly to beginners. What we frequently see are “little tyke” tracks built along side a “more advanced” track.
The little tyke tracks often feature scaled down rollers that end up essentially being obstacles as opposed to features. We’ve yet to see one that was successful in design or implementation. Instead of engaging the little tykes, they end up moving to the more interesting “grown ups” track.
Instead creating a beginner or little tyke track, we advocate for a simplified BMX Track inspired style layout. These layouts generally have a defined start and end, and because the users are all traveling in the same direction, user conflicts and collisions are minimized.
Though the smallest children aren’t always able to ride right away, we find that they rise to the challenge.
Having simplified loop style track in addition to an second, more complex track with additional lines and elements borrowed from a free form layout, offers riders the best of both worlds. The downside to this type of park strategy is that volunteers tend to focus on the track that is the most fun, so that the loop style track is neglected. This in turn, makes the beginners migrate to the better maintained track.
Say No to “Kiddie Tracks”
Note: after working and spending time as a coach for kids at the Lumberyard Bike Park in Portland, Oregon, our stance on “kiddie tracks” has only strengthened. Kiddie tracks generally serve to placate adults and parents that have never ridden a pump track. Kids progress at an exponential rate in comparison to adult cyclists, and out grow these beginner tracks quickly, and due to the complete lack of progression move on to the “big kid” tracks. Left alone with their peers, we find kids rise to the challenge, and it is common to see the smallest child go straight to the biggest feature in the park and ride down it; they’re fearless!
Most “kiddie tracks” are too small with rollers and features too tightly spaced to be fun for anyone, including kids. Even small children on push bikes quickly bore of riding them. The rule of thumb: if its fun for a big kid, its fun for a little kid.
The fear of collisions between users is often the given excuse for skateparks that discriminate against bike usage. Therefore, a well designed park will also have a way of educating users in etiquette and best practices in riding the track. Some even have signage explaining basic techniques. Often, its more important to teach the parents of young users in pump track etiquette. We often see parents that let children run free in during heavy use times at popular pump track parks, a situation that could prove dangerous for all.
Points to discuss with young or new riders could and should include discussions on:
- Dropping in
- Long monster runs – don’t be a hog
- Communication with other users
- Child Supervision
- Ride within your capabilities
- Where to stand when you’re not riding
Learning to ride a pump track
The fun of riding a well designed pump track is in progression. As a rider progresses, they begin to unlock its secrets. For beginners, two rollers in a row are exactly that, but as they progress and learn the basics of pressure control, eventually they pump the rollers in order to gain speed. For an more advanced rider, one roller could be a take-off, the other, a landing. Or perhaps they learn to manual between rollers. The best part of riding a pump track is sessioning and seeing another rider choose a creative line through it you hadn’t considered before.
The coolest thing about pump tracks is that when it comes down to it, it’s really just a bunch of soil shaped in a way that we can ride our bikes around without pedaling. And since its just dirt, if you have a yard, a hose and a shovel, technically you could have a pump track.
Design & build your dream pump track
To be continued…
- Types of Dirt
- Where to source soil
- Laying out your design
- Plan for rain — drainage
- Renting an excavator vs hand built