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The Pit: Dirt Fest 2017

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Words by Harlan Price of TakeAim Cycling

In 2012, I approached Dirt Rag about giving free skills clinics at the infamous MTB party that is Dirt Fest at Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania. It was rapidly growing into the largest festival on the East Coast and being in my home state it figured nicely into my business plan of exposing the area to some professional skills coaching which most people were severely unfamiliar with. Six years later, I have formed a bond with the hard-to-polish pit we use for skills instruction. Outside coaches show up and crinkle their nose at it a bit, but putting our hands into the crappy dirt to shape dusty loose trail and build obstacles out of scrap wood has created an intimacy with the space that has allowed me to figure out that sometimes you teach to the space.

2013, I believe. Dry and dusty!

 2012 / 2013

That first year a few willing test subjects and I played around on unused dirt roads, rode some trail, and suffered some hangovers together. Like I said it was a festival and when the canoe is full of ice and free beer you paddle that boat. As fun as it was we had to find a new place and new pace, and the following year I got handed directions to a spot off in the woods that was to be the skills area. In a classic foreboding manner it had a gate that even-though it swung both ways it preferred staying in place was when wedged into the poison ivy patch. My kinda gate.

The Pit in 2017

At the end of the forest road which was mostly grass, lay the great shale pit of the Raystown Lake Army Corp of Engineers. An oven when the sun is out, and a watery receptacle when wet, The Pit hid no secrets in it’s blank stare glaring back at me. Raw and exposed it was made up of a combination of broken workable shale to sharp pieces of shale waiting to pierce sidewalls and grate the skin of any elbow or knee.

 2014 was still a humble year for The Pit

To shape this place into a usable space, Dirt Rag enlisted the help of Ray Petro from Ray’s Indoor MTB Park, Scott Ross and his brother, along with a load of scrap lumber they must have found on the side of the road between Pittsburgh and the pit.

As became the norm, we only had a day or at most two to drag logs, chainsaw, hammer, and dig out a space that was usable for teaching on. Sadly no power dirt moving equipment was allowed. I changed my format of instruction and instead of a 3-4 hour session I introduced the Hour-To-Empower sessions. The idea being that when you’re at a festival, being stuck in a clinic is less time you could be riding with friends, swimming, and not pacing your drinking. Also, one hour sessions allowed people to escape the shadeless landscape before being toasted. I on the other hand got no relief.

Don’t mess with Scott

With the new skills area and new format we got 130 people doing a session throughout the weekend that year. The clinics were overloaded but I had a hard time turning people away. The Pit was an immediate success despite it’s gritty exterior and difficulty to find. People were able to come and do one session or stay all day which I’d like to think helped more than a few survive the weekend on the trails and at the canoe.

2014

After that second year the potential of The Pit became much more apparent and even though it was a sad sunburned couple acres of land we now knew it had a chance to be more than just a pile of sedimentary rock. 2013 was going to be the year of The Pit’s march to adulthood.

Year three was the first year The Pit was officially a sponsorable area and WTB picked up the opportunity. When the guys from The Wheel Mill, an indoor bike park in Pittsburgh, showed up to help Scott and I with the build, we sadly stared at a pit that had little trace of the hard work we had done the year before. This was our first realization that this shale pit was not a dedicated skills area, but the army corp’s actual shale pit that they used throughout the year. The only thing left was a trace of an outside loop we had kicked in the year before. This outer loop was to become the only familiar constant each year we returned.

We stopped along the way to get some WTB tire display material.

It was time for a rebirth and we got to work putting in some rollers that you could double if you liked good odds on slapping the dirt with your body. The Pit’s first berm was birthed. Again we pulled the logs from out of the woods for doing log-hops and we built drops for playing on. There was still good open space for working on fundamentals, and the old exterior line was easier to put back in with a couple tweaks. After a day and a half of getting a May sunburn we were back up and running with a usable space.

What Scott couldn’t carry, his Truck could. The Army Corp left these in the woods for us from last year. A shirtless and eventually sunburned Mike has become the norm.

It’s not much, but it’s ours.

It was another great year of attendance with over 100 people joining my clinics and we got Sue Haywood to come and do some women’s clinics for the weekend. People were starting to come to dirtfest specifically for the skills instruction and I began to get to know riders personally after seeing them in multiple sessions. When I started to see the same people I got paranoid about them getting bored with the same offerings. So the next three years really began an exploration of what we can teach in the space.  

2015

Sue Haywood with the city block of rock in 2015.

Year four  we showed up to the pit expecting the worse and we got it. It rained and a huge pile of shale had been moved into the pit clearly the size of a city block. Despite our hopes that the Army Corps would see the value of leaving the pit for riders to use they saw more value in storing their rocks there. We shed a couple tears, put our angry fists away and got to work. We put in three rollers, which Brian Lopes promptly tripled, added a big steep roll-up that was over-head, and carved in some more fun to the exterior line that again had managed to survive.

The only thing accurate about this sign at The Pit was the snack-stop part.

Our first set of rollers. Tripled by Brian Lopes during the weekend.

The steep roller and the triple set were great for getting people to figure out how to manage their bikes on the fast and rolling terrain of the trails at the festival. It’s the kind of place where you can easily find yourself flying through the air and compressing into a tree. It should be fun, but people just weren’t familiar with the speed and the sudden pitch of the rollers in the trail. It was great hearing people coming back through saying how much more fun they were having because they understood how to keep tires on the ground.

 Shanna Powell of Endless Bike Co. getting her pump-on.

Sue Haywood and I again, had over a 150 riders join us for the weekend with great weather. What made building this year different than others was the discovery of piles of earth that were actually composed of more clay than we had ever had. It took a lot of wheelbarrows but we managed to make some good piles. Still there was room for improvement and the dream of building bigger the next year was formulating. Each year The Pit was becoming more tamed despite the Army Corps and nature’s best efforts.

2016

2016 was a tough year for the clinics. It rained practically the whole weekend despite showing up to the pit on a Thursday in typical Saharan desert like sun. The massive pile of shale was gone from the previous year but were replaced by a water-collecting depression but at least the rollers had stayed mostly intact. We hooked chains up to the logs and pulled them out of the woods with trucks and got to work rebuilding what we did the year before. We built in some tight switchbacks to teach on this year. Everything went easier than expected and with the extra time we decided to build in a for-fun kicker out of one of the big piles of dirt. That turned out to be a solid source of entertainment in the following days.

The hip into the pit! 2016

The WTB PadLoc Pushup board!

It felt like it rained all weekend and the pit began to fill up into a nice pond where the pile of shale had been removed the year before. Attendance was down but those who came got to have a good time in the rain and at least it wasn’t scorching sun each day.

 Sad but loose. These ended up being a lot of fun to ride and teach on. 2016

Leigh Donovan got her first introduction to the pit this year as the women’s clinic leader with her LIV/ SRAM program. I’m pretty sure she was a little uncertain of what to make of the mess that was the pit now turned into a pool. She and her crew played along and put on a good time for the ladies who came out to play in the mud.

Welcome to the pool! Leigh with her group of swimmers. 2016

2017

This was the miracle year when we showed up to the pit and discovered the Army Corps hadn’t touched any of our previous work. Mother Nature didn’t leave it alone, but for the most part it was a matter of weed-eating, refining and raking the old stuff. There were an unusual amount of tadpoles and adolescent frogs in the stagnant water though.

We had time to finally build the beginner jump I’d been wanting to teach on for the past couple of year. Which really meant we could make something for the BMX kids to play on. Mark, Mike, and Harry from the WheelMill did their magic with the dirt and we made a clever jump that could be hit from both directions but also had a hip from both directions that people could play on.

The jump! 2017

The Pit Hip! 2017

It was a dry year so attendance was back up. Leigh returned and I think she was starting to feel the love for our now sad-but-sculpted little space. I was teaching more advanced clinics and giving more refined instruction compared to the first few years. This was truly the year The Pit graduated into adulthood.

Leigh Donovan’s crew in a much happier place than 2016

Even now I look at the pictures of The Pit from this year and I can see how an untrained eye will mostly see a dry dusty shale pit. After a quick tour people quickly discover the variety of options you have for playing and improving your skills. You’re mostly limited by your imagination. It doesn’t take a big flashy jump or drop line to qualify as a skills park. Go ride the steep piece of hill up or down. Hit the tight switchbacks in both directions, or try and pump then manual your way through our little set of rollers.

What I see is a long term process that has us chipping away a day or two at a time each year. Some years we take steps back but every year we get one more thing added to the list of teachable sections. After six years, it feels as if I have permanent dirt in my lungs from this unlikely little spot. As an instructor there are thing I’d still improve but in reality it’s my baby and I have stopped seeing all of its imperfections and have found working with them yields a lot of positive experimentation.

Over 700 people have been through the skills clinic in the six years we’ve been at Dirt Fest. The space has changed, I’ve changed, and every year I see someone who tells me how their riding has changed for the better since they took one one of the clinics from the previous years. I can’t help but love this bleak shale pit that gives me a sunburn every year and riders new tools for flowing down trails. When it’s Dirt Fest time, I look forward to the first call with the Wheel Mill guys to see what we can do in a day and a half to polish this crumbly pit, and all the doubters can go on doubting while we go on livin', lovin', and popping wheelies.

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