Last week's claim that BMX ramps in High Park were built atop ancient burial grounds brought illegal trail-building into the spotlight, but the practice has been around as long as the sport itself.
The BMX and mountain-biking community has been struggling for years to find good places to ride, and while the city slowly figures out how to accommodate the sport, some cyclists have taken matters into their own hands. In most cases, the city plays a game of cat-and-mouse with riders, tearing down new constructions deemed unsafe or inappropriately placed.
The claim that the High Park jumps were built on ancient burial grounds came from a local native group, and the city worked with the group to take down the jumps. Graham Seaman, who has been riding the ramps in High Park for 10 years, said there haven't been issues in the past and that the features have been there for some two decades.
"Generally no one really knows who did it, or will acknowledge they've taken responsibility, because it's an informal thing," said Mr. Seaman, who is the vice-president of the Toronto Off-Road Bicycling Association.
Mike Heaton knows a different aspect of the BMX battle – for the past four years, he's been lending the city ramps he built to complement the dirt track at Wallace Emerson community centre. The ramps were used to run a summer camp for kids in the neighbourhood. This year, however, the trailers full of ramps have been moved to a Mississauga storage lot, waiting for the city, Mr. Heaton said. "They're promising there's going to be a meeting some time in the future to discuss it, but it's May now. They're running out of time," he said.
Kelvin Seow, district manager of community recreation with the City of Toronto, said his staff is working on a partnership agreement to clearly define liabilities and rules for the ramps – something that hasn't been put in place before. "It's our hope that we get this thing done and we get the ramps back up," Mr. Seow said. He added that the kids' BMX camps don't start until July and that they want to have the agreement ready for that time.
There are places in the suburbs to ride such as Joyride 150, a private, indoor bike park, but little in the downtown core. Mr. Heaton speaks fondly of Fresno, Calif., a city where facilities are provided for everything from skateboarding to mountain biking and BMX.
Mr. Heaton said the City of Toronto set aside $200,000 to find a permanent indoor BMX location, but still hasn't found one. The ramps being used were built by Mr. Heaton for the Toronto BMX Jam, an annual event held in conjunction with the Toronto International Bicycle Show.
Garth Armour, supervisor of natural environment and community programs with the city, said they've also been looking for an area to set up an outdoor park but haven't settled on anywhere yet.
TORBA advocates on behalf of off-road cyclists. It has been working mostly in Crothers' Woods, an environmentally sensitive stretch of the Don Valley. Working with the city, TORBA created a mountain-biking trail through the forest. A 2007 report on Crothers' Woods found that cyclists were by far the most dominant users of the trails, and that trails should be constructed accordingly. It also recognized the attachment illegal builders have to their work and recommended finding an appropriate location and working with the builders.
Jason Murray, Ontario representative for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, another cyclist lobbying group, said members of the biking community tend to take care of the trails they make and use. "Fortunately, in the [BMX and mountain-biking] scene, there's an ethic there that you dig to ride. You're supposed to contribute to the construction and the maintenance of the place you ride on," he said.
Mr. Murray compared BMX and mountain-biking areas to soccer fields, baseball diamonds and cricket pitches. "Enough people want to play baseball, enough people want to play soccer or cricket that they build them. Why should a growing portion of the population that wants to participate in this activity not have one or two spots around the city to participate safely?"
The cycling community has a set of guidelines designed to promote safe trail building that respects the environment. When it doesn't work out that way, the self-policing community and the city take action.
Mr. Armour said it's difficult to determine the environmental impact of what he calls "spontaneous social trails." All users of parks have an impact, he said. The key is to channel their usage away from environmentally sensitive areas.
The city is planning to build a BMX facility in Etobicoke at Centennial Park for the upcoming Pan American Games. The project is still in the consultative stages, but the outdoor facility is slated to be ready in time for the 2015 Games.
While the city frets over where to place recreational bike parks, the community will keep riding. The recent removal of High Park's BMX grounds was disappointing but not discouraging – they'll just look for another spot.