OTTUMWA — The first reaction for many people when they heard about the proposed mountain biking trail in Ottumwa was “Ottumwa doesn't have mountains!”
No, but as of Tuesday, it does have a mountain biking trail.
Mountain biking is a bit of a misnomer, really. The sport isn't about location; it's about terrain. Memorial Park is almost perfect in that respect, with steep hills that require switchbacks and test riders' abilities.
The trail itself blends in well with the wooded areas of the park. To Jim Langland, who helped build the trail, that's part of the point.
“My role was really that I designed the trail and organized the labor to get it built,” Langland said. He credited Parks Director Gene Rathje and Steve Carroll with spearheading the project and more than 80 volunteers with providing the work.
There are a couple of keys to a good trail. It has to be challenging but not overly dangerous. It has to be sustainable. Erosion is the enemy, so good design will keep soil where it belongs. The International Mountain Biking Association provides rules for that, which Langland said were important for the design.
Rathje said the full trail is a lot longer than people might expect.
“It goes up and down ravines. It's four miles long. If it was a loop, it might have been a mile,” he said.
Like Langland, Rathje credited volunteers with making the project happen. And he believes it adds something to Ottumwa. Urban mountain biking trails are hard to find. Trails that pair up a reasonable distance from more sedate hiking and biking paths are even more unusual.
Langland believes that could be the trail's ticket to success.
“Between this mountain biking trail and the existing flat trails, Ottumwa is quickly becoming a biking Mecca,” he said.
But most gratifying to him was a group of 10 middle school and high school students some 50 feet away. They were waiting patiently for the ceremonies to wrap up, but it was clear they couldn't wait to hit the trail.
“That's the best sign,” said Langland, gesturing toward the younger bikers. “That's the future of mountain biking.”