Thrilling but treacherous singletrack bike trails expanded at Kincaid Park

It's not Moab, a Utah Nirvana for mountain bikers. Nor Colorado, packed with trails rated among the best in the nation.

But come July, when a new 7-mile section of singletrack mountain biking trail will be finished on the north side of Anchorage's Kincaid Park, Alaska's largest city may enter a new era for off-pavement bikers, with more than 20 miles of singletrack at Kincaid and Hillside Park.

"The singletrack trails have made Anchorage a destination for Alaska mountain bikers," said Janice Tower of Singletrack Advocates, an organization that advocates for the narrow and challenging trails that some riders prefer.

Rose Austin, author of the book "Mountain Bike Anchorage," agrees. "It's a huge change for Anchorage. It changes the kind of trails that are available and the quality. I think it sets a standard for Alaska trails and what we can do with our terrain."

Tragic accident

Some of the features of those narrow trails can prove dangerous, though. Last November, veteran biker Luke Simpson, 42, crashed on a Kincaid trail called Candy Mountain while negotiating a double jump. Doctors think he went over his handlebars on the first jump, breaking cervical and thoracic vertebrae. He fractured the base of his skull, broke a wrist and cracked his ribs.

Unconscious for days after his crash, Simpson was hospitalized at Craig Hospital in Denver for months with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries that his wife Kris said doctors are calling a large brain stem stroke. Still unable to speak, Simpson uses a communication device to interact with doctors and family as he tries to regain motor function -- he speaks by spelling words through an eye-gaze system. Luke is now staying with relatives in California along with his children and wife. The family plans to be back in Anchorage by the start of the school term this fall, once construction on their home to better accommodate Luke is finished.

"I do all the personal care for him," Kris said. "He can move his head a little. He can pull himself up to sitting position. He's very with it. You can talk to him and joke with him, with him using the board or buzzer to communicate.

"When he thinks he's coming back strong, he's really encouraged. And when nothing happens for a while he can be down."

There always seems to be a new challenge. The accident also damaged his ear, with fluid draining out of his cochlea, the auditory portion of the inner ear.

"Anyone who knows him knows he never gives up in the face of a difficult challenge," said Sarah Monkton, an Anchorage friend.

Singletrack debate

Simpson's accident has prompted something of a debate in Anchorage's mountain biking community about the singletrack trails.

Tim Kelley, an experienced Alaska outdoorsman, commented on a Daily News story about Simpson, saying: "I love all the singletrack trails in Anchorage and I spend a lot of time on them. But the new double jumps that span the entire width of the new trails at Kincaid are dumb. Single jumps are fine, but for unsuspecting and inexperienced riders the doubles are too dangerous. This is public property; it's not a private terrain park. So the trails should be made safe for all of the public. If experienced riders can get hurt this bad, then that should be a clue about the danger level of the trails."

Jason Lamoreaux, one of Anchorage's top bike racers, disagreed in an online response to Kelley. "I guess you would suggest flattening and paving everything, then? Even then, someone might slip and fall on the asphalt... If you don't want a technical trail, there are literally hundreds of miles of other trails to choose from. Why water down the few technical ones just because there might be some more skill required to ride them? People accept risks when they venture out of their front door."

The International Mountain Biking Association offers a five-level trail rating system ranging from easy (maximum grade of 10 percent and no natural obstacles) to the extremely difficult double black diamond (20 percent grade with unavoidable obstacles and no more than 6 inches wide in places).

IMBA officials were in Anchorage two weeks ago to inspect the Kincaid trails. Tower said that Singletrack Advocates considers all of the Kincaid trails -- except for new one-way sections -- to be intermediate, and the IMBA agreed, classifying the one-way trails as black diamond or expert level. Tower noted that most of the challenging sections offer "ride arounds." The new singletracks "require a higher level of skill to realize their full potential. My wheels never leave the ground, but I will still enjoy these trails," she said.

Signs will be added soon, she said, so riders have a better idea what to expect.

"Our vision was to design a trail system offering a variety of terrain that appeals to different ability levels and allows mountain bikers to develop their skills. At (Mount) Alyeska, for example, some people like to ski nothing but the groomers. But for many, the easier terrain can get boring so it's great to have black diamond challenges."

Single Speed Championships

Next month, Kincaid will host the Single Speed World Championships, bringing further attention to the park's trails.

The championships for single-speed bikes are July 18-20, returning to the U.S. after four consecutive years overseas. And according to the race's Facebook page, "We're doing it USA style and putting the SIN back in SINgle speed. Epic biking and the nicest group of questionable folks you'd ever want to share saddle sores with." Winners are forced to accept a tattoo along with a special jersey celebrating their win. "Do not win if you do not want the tattoo," organizers warn.

The new section of Kincaid singletrack brings to 15 miles the amount of singletrack at the park, with workers doing some finish work on the most challenging one-way sections this month, Tower said. Among them are short one-way "black diamond" loops off the Middle Earth Trail. In addition, a two-way trail will connect the Raspberry Road trailhead with the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

The final 7 miles are "more advanced than what you find in phase one (south of the Raspberry Road entrance to Kincaid) of the singletrack project, so they build on the experience level of the riders and give those with advanced skills a challenge," Tower said. Plus, they offer some scenic views of Turnagain Arm. Check out a trail map.

Hillside's big hills

The new Kincaid trails supplement some 8 miles on the Hillside that offers riders a different style of singletrack on the other side of town.

"Hillside trail is on a hillside -- so there's pretty much always a huge climb leading to a huge downhill," said Lee Bolling, an engineer and vice president of Singletrack Advocates, who as project manager spearheaded the layout and design of the Kincaid trails. "That's fun because you can have some really long downhills. But Kincaid is rolling topography. It's a flowing trail, meandering through more hilly topography. It's not going to have these big uphills and big downs like Hillside."

Tower said the IMBA has assessed singletrack trails in 42 states, and "our trail system is among their top five favorite municipal mountain bike systems, largely because a variety of ability levels are represented and because the trails have different character. They were particularly blown away that the projects are a grassroots volunteer efforts built largely with private contributions."

Private donors such as the Anchorage Park Foundation, REI and the Continental Motor Group have all contributed to the Kincaid trails construction, a project that will end up costing nearly $200,000, according to Tower.

"Anchorage has one of the best municipal trail systems we've seen in a city of that size in the U.S.," said Leslie Kehmeier of IMBA. "There's a wide variety. If you've never been on a bike before, you can go to Campbell Tract (in Far North Bicentennial Park). There are nice hills on the Hillside and at Kincaid we're seeing mountain biking get into gravity style, where there's some really cool options. To have that in Anchorage right now, it's really awesome."

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com