"Are you still in there, Al?" a young teenager calls after his friend. He sounds sincere, not mocking, but I'm not sure I'm in a position to judge. I'm 20 years older than the average rider in this Markham bike park and know that kids might have changed in the last few decades. The biking sure has.
Al was just with us, rolling his mountain bike back and forth on a platform three metres above a concrete floor. He dropped onto a ramp and picked up speed before riding up a curved plywood jump that sent him hurtling towards the ceiling before he dropped behind the lip, out of sight and deep into a pile of foam blocks.
I look at the four kids in front of me, estimate the wait for this jump that no one rides away from and decide to move deeper into the 90,000 square feet of sculpted plywood that is the Joyride 150 Indoor Bike Park.
When the transformation from former soap factory to bike playground was complete a year ago, Joyride 150 became the first indoor park in Canada designed for bikes, not skateboards. The main throb of activity may be in the ramp and jump areas, where teenagers keep inexplicable control of their airborne BMX bikes, but it is decidedly more than just a stunt park. Moving from room to cavernous room, you can find five-year-olds learning on push bikes with no pedals, as well as mountain bikers balancing across planks no wider than their tires.
A Steve Miller Band standard (some things don't change) is just audible over the hum of my tires as they roll over the first hollow ramp of the cross-country course. The 800-metre-long loop climbs to rafter height and hugs the outside wall for much of its length, making it easy to survey the layout. Below the undulating track, four parallel jump lines - each a series of lips and landings - offer airtime for intermediate to fearless riders.
In an adjoining room, the "street park" features bowls, rails and quarter-pipes. On the far side of the jump lines is one of three difficulty-graded "skinny" areas. These are networks of narrow ramps, stumps, logs, teeter-totters and catwalks, where less air-obsessed riders develop precision handling. It's here the park's full-time carpenter spends most days, building fresh lines for the regular pass holders.
But as the only park of its kind in Canada, it draws more than just local loyalists. Carpenter Tyler Dawson later tells me groups come once a week from Kitchener, once a month from Sudbury and even once in a while from Europe.
"I know the Italian crew just came to ride last year, because they stayed right in Markham," he says.
When the cross-country track twists down to ground level, its narrow course railroads riders over rollers, log piles and rock gardens. Most turns are banked so riders can lean in and keep speed up as they, say, round a steel pillar next to a concrete wall.
Later, when I ask staffer Shannon Bentley why there is no lane reserved for emergency vehicles outside, she says that ambulances "don't come by too often."
That's good enough for me - at some point, business owners and their insurance masters have to trust in the human instinct for self-preservation - but I can't help but remember that the waiver recommended I leave my health-card number at the front desk.
The precaution doesn't daunt Tamara Brady. She's driven her two boys, 13 and 15 (and boys seem to outnumber girls 10-to-one today), from Milton for their sixth visit. She says they've suffered "a few bumps and bruises, nothing serious."
The kids have disappeared back into the ramps, leaving Ms. Brady to clean lunch off their picnic table. She's about to head back to a library for the afternoon, though she admits she'd try the park out on her mountain bike if she had someone to ride with. Her whole family used to ride trails - ones on real dirt - but the boys have been seduced by shapely plywood.
I ask what her boys might be doing today if they hadn't come here. "Oh, they'd be spending part of the day on the computer for sure," she says.
She wiggles her thumbs to mimic playing a video game and I'm suddenly relieved of some nagging misgivings I had been feeling about biking in the not-so-great indoors. Sanctimony had caught up with me on the cross-country track when I slowed to pass through a grove of fake Christmas trees. I was on a mountain bike, but this was no mountain. The BMX kids, I told myself, should be outside, spending spring days nailing wood scraps into crooked driveway jumps or launching off misshapen bumps built into ravine banks.
But my romanticized youth aside, these kids have lots of time to learn how dirt tastes after a wipeout - the owners even say they are building some dirt ramps outside this summer. In the meantime, the kids are landing jumps that would have broken my trusty Norco Shogun of yore in two. This place might have a roof on it, but it's heaven for any kid who has ever saddled up and tried to touch the sky.
Before leaving, I work up to the intermediate jump line. At the halfway point, you have to merge with other riders for the return leg. Making the turn, I ride awkwardly up the bank and cut off a rider who is a third my age with twice my skill. We meet again at the end of the run.
"Sorry," I say.
"It's all good," he replies, with the natural nonchalance only a teenager can muster.
I have to agree.
Special to The Globe and Mail