Building a mountain bike course in the Berkeley Hills has been a pandemic-year project for a group of teens. Last week, they found notices from the city of Berkeley saying their course would be removed and have launched a campaign to save it. Credit: Leif Carlson

A few times a week for the past year, a group of teenage boys — mostly sophomores at Berkeley High — have grabbed their bikes and headed to a dusty hidden slope in the Berkeley Hills to get a little air, or, if they’re lucky, a lot. Shooting downhill over a series of bike jumps, they catch air on the rise.

These Berkeley teens know this mountain biking course well because they built it — a pandemic-year project that gave escape from Zoom school, social distance and shutdowns. They call it “The Jumps.”

Last week, Leif, Anton, Theo and Max arrived at their hideout to find notices from the city of Berkeley saying the bike jumps will be removed within a week, citing safety. Bummed, they turned to social media for support and started an online petition, which has more than 1,200 signatures to date.

The petition is asking the city to make The Jumps legal.

Hundreds of people support the cause in their comments, agreeing that young people need spaces for healthy outdoor activities, that there’s a shortage of mountain biking areas, that the ingenuity of building bike jumps should be celebrated. But with The Jumps located in a very high-risk wildland fire zone, on a steep hillside, and bordered by a few homes, it will be tricky to bring them into the fold of a legitimate city recreational site.

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A group of about 10 teens have become regular riders of the unauthorized mountain bike course off of Woodhaven Road. Credit: Leif Carlson

Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents the area where The Jumps are located, off of Woodhaven Road near Tilden Regional Park, got the removal postponed, at least temporarily, she said, so the situation can be studied and the boys can “continue to use The Jumps in a way that doesn’t pose any hazards.”

Credit: Kate Darby Rauch

“I don’t know yet,” Wengraf said. “Nobody wants to deny them their fun or their exercise. That’s not the problem. The problem is how do you do this in a way that’s safe for them and everybody else in the city.”

Wengraf said she is organizing a meeting between Paul Buddenhagen, Berkeley’s assistant city manager, Liam Garland, director of public works, the bikers who use The Jumps and (she hopes) their parents. No time has yet been set.

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko wrote in an email that the area is “an unimproved 40 foot wide city right of way that is being used as a dirt hiking/biking path. . . It’s been used as a hiking trail for residents and provides some limited fire access. What’s been happening there is an [un]authorized use of the property and the City is evaluating whether and under what conditions it should be allowed to continue.”

A lone jump in a clearing

Last year, Anton Migdal’s sister told her brother she’d discovered a mountain bike jump in open space not too far from their home. “I went up there and hit that jump with Theo and I learned how to mountain bike jump and that it was super fun,” said Migdal, 15. “It wasn’t that scary because it was a table-top jump. There is no gap in the middle; you can just roll over it and you can air higher and higher.”

A small group of friends started using the jump regularly, deciding to build more. A few more bikers joined them, and The Jumps was born. Some live in the hills close to the site, others in the flats, biking up.

They didn’t advertise the spot, but bikers heard something — or someplace — was up and tracked them on Snap Map, said Leif Carlson, 16. Still, it’s far away, and at the top of the hills, so only about 10 die-hards became regulars. The group is small enough to stay pretty organized, but large enough to construct several large jumps — filling sandbags with dirt, hauling in wood. The bike course is challenging intentionally, the boys said.

“We purposely made the jumps very big so we wouldn’t have to deal with people who didn’t mountain bike hurting themselves,” Leif said. “We wanted to make sure only experienced mountain bikers rode them.”

So far, he said, no accidents or injuries.

“I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve gotten a little sketchy or been scared I was going to crash, but nothing too bad,” Anton said.  “Only a couple of people have crashed, and they just get right up.”

The mountain bike community, or at least their mountain bike community, believes in helmets, the boys stressed. “If you don’t wear a helmet, you’re weird,” Anton said.

Trying to save a secret bike course

Ironically, the effort to save The Jumps has brought attention to the place, for better or worse. The boys recently removed a map link from their postings.

“We were trying our best to keep it very down low and secretive at the beginning; we didn’t want any word to get out and the city to demolish it, but that happened,” said Leif Carlson, 16. “It definitely happened.”

He added: “If we get it legalized, I don’t mind people being there. I would love to see mountain bikers coming out. It’s a strong community, very supportive.”

The teens filled sandbags with dirt and hauled in wood to create The Jumps. Credit: Leif Carlson

Most of the users are on the Berkeley High mountain bike team. For at least Anton and Leif, The Jumps spurred their interest in mountain biking and prompted them to join the team.

“The pandemic made me start mountain biking, which was super cool,” Anton said. “It gave us time.” Building The Jumps, he said, “gave us something to do, because we got out of school so early.”

Anton was an active rock climber, but climbing gyms closed with COVID-19, and Zoom climbing didn’t cut it, he said.

Leif played ultimate frisbee, which was also cut back due to the virus. “Mountain biking doesn’t necessarily need to be a team sport; you can just get out anytime rain or shine,” he said. It’s good for physical and mental health, the bikers said.

A ‘bad decision’

At first, the boys had no idea who owned the land they’re using, which is near an East Bay Municipal Utility District water tank and Zaytuna College, and not on a road. They talked to both entities and were told they were fine, they said.

“If you don’t wear a helmet, you’re weird.” — Anton Migdal, 15

But on a nice day about a month ago, they decided to mix up their riding with a barbecue break, digging a fire pit into the ground and bringing charcoal, hamburgers and the fixings. The Jumps includes a gathering place with a table and chairs.

The smoke brought neighbors, who weren’t pleased. “One of the neighbors was furious. He was in the Oakland fire. He expressed his frustration and I heard him,” Leif said, explaining it wasn’t a hot day, and they had plenty of water in gallon jugs. “I fully agree that was a bad decision on our part.”

Leif adds: “We understood what we did was wrong. But the fire doesn’t have anything to do with The Jumps themselves. That was our mistake. It wasn’t The Jumps’ fault.”

Another neighbor had showed up before this, saying she didn’t think their biking was safe. But other neighbors have come to show support, the boys said, adding that they’ve made new friends. “Neighbors thank us for using the property.”

Word of the smoke reached Councilmember Wengraf, who tried to figure out who owned the land. It wasn’t easy, she said. Maps weren’t clear. Finally, EMBUD did a survey that showed it was city-owned.

Shortly after, Berkeley’s public works department posted the abatement signs. This came as a surprise to Wengraf, she said, and she’s asked city staff to hold off.

If there’s a way to legitimize The Jumps, Wengraf says she’s all in. She’s also supportive of building a city mountain biking course in a different location, if this is feasible. Though it’s a tough budget year, she adds.

Wengraf said she hopes the boys work with the city on the concept wherever it fits, and thinks it could be an excellent learning experience. “I’m very impressed with these boys; for young kids they seem very organized and together … I’m very eager to work with them,” she said. “I think they’ll learn a lot more working with government to create something positive.”

A major appeal of The Jumps, users agree, is that it’s homespun, built by bikers, off the beaten path.

On the other hand, Anton said, “I understand where the city is coming from in the sense that this wasn’t our land we were building on. But we’ve turned it into a very big community area. It would be even better if it were all public.”

Years ago, off-road bikers built clandestine courses in the Berkeley Marina area and at the Albany Bulb, in what is now the Eastshore State Park. They were closed down. Voters have identified a bike park as a priority in long-range planning, expressing a lot of support for an area south of University Avenue near the Marina, Chakko said. “That is a long-term and as yet unfunded vision,” he said.

Mountain biker Anton Migdal, 15, gets some air. Credit: Leif Carlson
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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...