Miscellaneous Blog Posts

What makes a BMX/MTB course beautiful?

Been seeing people, and somehow ending up discussing bike trail building with all of them this weekend. With objectives varying from BMX race tracks, pump tracks and dirt jump trails for BMX and MTB, and even MTB crosscountry race course that hosted a national level event this past Saturday. 

The overall conclusion every time was that it’s no easy business to build these courses. No wonder, since making trails with human hands means it’s an intricate form of art. Or you could be more confrontational and say most of these trails are so poorly designed they’re either dangerous, boring, not going to make you look cool or make you a better rider in the end, or any combination thereof. Well that was me. 

One of the modern criteria in MTB park judgment is the “flow”. In my vocab, that’s about how well a course is designed in terms of the consistency of the speed required/appropriate for features, in relation to the next one. Of course there is more to consider, but the design of speed alone is so essential that if you don’t nail it the riding experience will be quite unpleasant with lots of crazy acceleration and deceleration needed. 

Now let’s take a look at a good and bad example of the flow design. Here’s my improvisatory drawing “1.5-D representation of park layout”, which is basically a section view of a skatepark layout. 

Which design, plan A or B, is the one with the better flow? Discover the truth after the commercials. 

By the way, I’m decent at designing stuff like this. Well, rather, ramp/course building has been one of the lines of business at NSP shortly since the foundation in 2000. The largest scale undertaking so far was in 2003, when we built a set of ramps at Gonzo Park in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture. Those ramps are now gone due to aging and evolution of the facility, but old timers should remember them; those ramps I designed from scratch, cut out of several tonnes of wood, and bolted together myself. 

End of commercial. 

It’s Plan A. Should be obvious enough but I’ll give you a few baseline clues: a ramp is a device that converts velocity to height (potential energy); and  the radius of a ramp should be in proportion to the speed. Though this example is about ramps, the “consistency of speed” approach works for all else, like downhill or slalom. Of course those shapes in Plan B would be a treat if you run across them in the street, but for dedicated courses, what would the point be of making something harder or more unnatural to ride anyway?

For the big question why there are flow-less parks popping up, I’ve reached a hypothesis: isn’t that the result of copying typical course layouts in motorsports, without enough thinking involved? I’m talking about chicanes that follow straightways. The reason that it’s a feasible idea in motorsports is that both acceleration and deceleration are technical maneuvers. Just about how you press the pedals, put simply. In gravity sports, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Acceleration is attained by gravity and its application (force generated by pumping and so forth), and deceleration is nothing more than a hindrance to that joy. 

One insightful genre could be motor sports inclined towards gravity. Namely, the world of Initial D. Unlike top-category stuff like F1, they’ve got their own technical schemes and aesthetics. Deceleration is still an art, where ABS could be outperformed by precisely trained human input, but acceleration is, frankly, all about money, hence the less respect for that. 

Then in the field of gravity sports, where technique is everything, more so than in the D world, it’s just pointless and even stupid to have a chicane. Deceleration still is an art, but acceleration is all about Tour-de-France muscles. And that’s not what you’re after if you’re a gravity sports person. Although, it would make sense if you’d design a trail with a chicane so riders can develop a more diverse skill set. But then again, that strategy would work only if there are plenty of flowy parks already, and Japan is so many steps behind that point right now, 

On the other hand, there is the ongoing trend that the XC discipline of MTB should also have jumps in a bid to maintain its identity. I like it, but on the condition that there is flow. In other words, I’d love to see integrity in the design, in the overall course layout featuring jumps, just so nothing is out of place.  

It’s not so hard to find equivalents to this argument in other sports. Like in rock climbing, a flowy and beautiful line will inherently encompass inevitability, integrity, and a story to it. If there’s a lunge move involved, well yeah that’s cool, but it’s not the jump itself that makes it awesome in that very context. It’s actually the same in anything really, like drawings, music pieces, or industrial design. When there is irreplaceable and indisputable meaning for an element to be there, right where it is, that’s what we call beauty. And that’s the kind of stuff I’d love to build, and ride.