(Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
By Nathan Schneeberger
“We sure don’t, but we can order some and have them in a few days.”
There were almost 50 bicycle shops along the Interstate from from Knoxville, Tennessee to Louisville, Kentucky, and only six of them were open on Sundays. As The Bonebell’s El Maya (sometimes known as Paolo Urizar) drove the rented Town and Country Minivan caked with red georgia clay, I sat in the back calling those six shops, and asked them all the same question. “Do you have any SRAM CX1 hydraulic disc brake pads in stock?” The answer was the same. “We sure don’t.” My wife said, “You know you’re in the south when people are negating positives, and the business you desperately need is closed on Sunday.”
The three of us were on our way back to Chicago from Dahlonega, Georgia, where we had just finished racing and photographing Southern Cross, a 50 mile gravel road race with 6,000 ft of climbing. The conditions at Southern Cross were unprecedented. Neither of us have raced for so long in conditions so inhospitable to man and machine. It rained heavily the night before our race, and continued to drizzle until noon. At the top of the mountain visibility was less than 50 yards, each rider floating alone in a dark gray cloud. Our bikes and bodies were coated with grit and mud causing both to squeeze, grind, and creak. By the time we finished neither El Maya nor I had working front brakes. My front pads had been worn so thin that the spring that pushes them apart when the brake lever is released was bent and not working properly. That night, while cleaning our bikes post-race, I had pulled the pads out hoping to better clean them and fix the spring. Instead one of the spring-arms broke off. The only way to fix it was to find new brake pads, and there were none to be found along the 250 miles of interstate between Knoxville and Louisville. I called every shop that was open except one.
As funny as we all thought it would be to call up Vic’s Classic Cycles in Louisville, a shop that specializes in restoring vintage steel road bikes from the 1970s and 1980s we opted not to harass them with our ridiculous question. Of course he didn’t have any hydraulic disc brake pads. Down tube shifters and 8 cog-cassettes? Yes. Anything manufactured after 1990? No.
We were on our way to Louisville because we wanted to check out the new bike park at Louisville Mega Cavern. The Mega Cavern is the hollowed out skeleton of an old limestone quarry, burrowed into the side of a hill under the local K-Mart. The owners have spent the last few months converting a large part of the caverns into the world’s largest indoor bike park. At 320,000 square feet (7.3 acres) it is certainly an expansive and impressive place as you disappear through the fabricated entrance hallway and it opens up into the first cavern.
Use of the word "mega" is not uncalled for in this case. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
We arrived at the Mega Cavern at 6pm on a Sunday. They were open until 8pm, but did not have an option for a two-hour pass so we had to purchase the regular four-hour pass for $25. There were coin-operated lockers for storing valuables, and some storage racks and picnic tables in the center area of the bike park where you could leave a bag with snack and water while riding. We changed into riding clothes in the bathroom as there were no locker-rooms or changing areas, and followed the traffic-cone path to the park itself.
El Maya demonstrating how Chicago "Dirtbaggers" get rad. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
The entry to the park is deceptive. The giant stone columns that hold up the roof obstruct the view of the entire space, making hard to get a sense of how large it really is. Even as you move inside, it’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big the cavern is because support columns block the view in every direction. There are only a few places where you can actually see the length or width of the cavern, and get a true sense for how massive it is. “Mega” is not hyperbole. Signs hang from the ceiling identifying various “Areas” by number, and numbered placards on the also columns help orient and guide riders from section to section. There was no map to be found at the start, so we set our stuff down on a picnic table, and hopped on the trail marked with green circles.
We quickly realized that our gravel/cyclocross bikes were not the right whips for this park. The "Green Line" followed the outer-wall of the park moving clockwise, and we passed the meat of the park, dozens of jump lines, table tops, bermed corners, and other features that were more suitable for a dropped seat and flat pedals than our set ups with high-saddles, skinny tires, and no front brakes. El Maya’s custom-steel Humble Frameworks gravel-bike with 50mm Vee Rubber tires was much more at home than my Asylum Muese CX even with a wide 40mm tubeless Vee Rubber tire up front and a 33mm Clement PDX rear. The fact that my front brake pads had been replaced with electrical tape to keep the pistons from dragging on the rotor did not help my confidence. Nor when a couple of park employees noted they had never even seen a bike like mine down there. But the fact that we did not have the ideal rides did not stop us from exploring and having a really good time.
The Mega Cavern is a paradise for the non gravity-challenged. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
The Green Line was unsurprisingly one of the longest and easiest trails. My Garmin clocked only .56 miles around the perimeter of the cavern on the green trail, but it gave us a good lay of the land. The second trip around, we each found different branches off the green trail into the blue sections. The Mega Cavern’s website says there are more than 45 distinct trails, but most are much shorter than the Green line ranging in length from roughly 50 to 200 yds. They weave around the many support columns crossing the double-track access road that employees use to move around the park on 6-wheeled ATVs, watering down the trails to prevent dust, and to check on the health and safety of riders. Instead of having a few longer trails in the space it allows for a “choose-your-own-adventure” approach to the park in which you can mix and match different elements, features, and challenges across many runs through the park. One of my personal favorites was a tight section that twisted between five-foot boulders. The boulders gave that section of the park an other-worldly feel. The entire trail system is well marked as “one-way” which means all the trails flow in more-or-less a clockwise rotation. The green line around the perimeter serves as an access point, as well as the double track which crisscrosses the park.
"Skinnies" and other features offer opportunities to test bike handling skills. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
El Maya and I both had a great deal of fun exploring, but agreed that the park was definitely geared towards the low-seat, high-flying crowd. Without a good map it was hard to estimate, but it felt like close to half the park was dedicated to jumps and berms. This of course is not a criticism of design, just a notice that if you’re into cross-country style riding that keeps both wheels on the ground, you’ll find yourself unable to explore and enjoy all this park has to offer. Speaking of being unable to explore and enjoy, although my skills were tempting me to tackle some of the more difficult black-diamond runs, my one-braked carbon cross-bike was imploring greater caution.
El Maya picking pretty lines, like 'crossers do. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)
There’s plenty to explore for a few hours, and behind large plastic sheets were other areas of the cavern being prepped and excavated for expanding the park. If spring or summer turns wet and our local trails all go red, it may be worth the five-hour drive to Louisville to check out this new climate controlled BMX and mountain bike haven. If not this summer, definitely when the snow flies and the lake freezes, it’s worth a trip to Louisville to escape the cold for a weekend. Just remember, if you bring a bike, make sure it has working brakes and fat tires. The good news is they plan on renting bikes soon.
Visit: http://www.louisvillemegacavern.com/ to learn more.
Editor's note: Nathan was being a bit modest about Southern Cross (he neglected to mention he got first place in his category).