MADISON, Wis. — Growing up in the late 1980s, Mike Repyak would set out on his bike from his home in Cambridge, ripping through fields, down gravel roads and deer trails through the woods.
"To me, that was freedom and adventure," Repyak said.
Now Repyak wants kids — and adults — in Madison to experience the same exhilaration that he got from the dirt under his tires.
A landscape architect for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), Repyak is working with the Madison Parks Department to develop a network of off-road trails throughout a city that's known for cycling yet lacks opportunities for off-road adventure.
Despite its roughly 60 miles of paved bike paths, Madison has only one spot for mountain biking within the city limits: A cluster of trails packed into Quarry Park, a 17-acre patch of woods near the corner of University Avenue and Midvale Boulevard.
"We've got it for hard surface trails, but not for natural surface trails," Repyak said. "We have Quarry. That's it."
There are trails in nearby communities, including Fitchburg, Middleton and Cambridge, but getting there requires driving or a long ride on pavement from most parts of town, especially the East and North sides.
A new Parks Department initiative is seeking to change that by developing a system of urban mountain bike trails designed to promote health, economic activity and access to the outdoors, especially in traditionally overlooked communities.
"We need to have bike parks ... within a quarter-mile or half-mile ride of every neighborhood," Repyak said. "What we're going to provide here is freedom and adventure for youth who may not have that access now."
Developed over the past year with technical support and a $20,000 grant from IMBA, the Madison Bicycle Adventure Trail network — MadBAT for short — would be a network of natural surface trails optimized for bikes but also open to walkers and runners.
Planners identified 86 parks that could support bike facilities — which could include a perimeter trail, ramps and other skill-building features, or even a full-fledged bike park — and land to build more than 32 miles of trails to connect them.
While Madison doesn't have large undeveloped parcels of public land to support a destination trail system, it does have a lot of green spaces, said Corey Stelljes, a Parks Department engineer and mountain biker who is overseeing the project.
"The goal is to create trails people can ride to rather than having to get in a car and drive to," Stelljes said. "More trails close to home."
The plan relies on greenways and slivers of land within existing corridors where smaller sections of trail could be built, allowing riders to zip off the paved path and ride dirt on the way to other trail systems, such as Quarry Ridge Recreation Area in Fitchburg or the private Blackhawk Ski Club in Middleton.
Stelljes said the inspiration came from Bentonville, Arkansas, where the Walton family has helped build more than 100 miles of trails, including one that parallels an urban commuter so kids can "shred to school."
The network would be developed in phases over years — if not decades — much like the existing paved trails, though Stelljes said he hopes to secure funding in the 2021 budget for the first installment, a bike playground in Aldo Leopold Park.
The city hasn't attached a price tag for everything in the plan, but Stelljes said the cost of a bike playground is comparable to traditional playground equipment. Machine-built trails can cost more than $10,000 per mile, but crews of volunteers have built the few existing trails at no cost to the city.
The city has posted maps of the plan for comment and will hold a series of public meetings later this month to gather feedback.
Park superintendent Eric Knepp said the project is an attempt to meet a simmering demand that the city has long ignored, even as it invested heavily in transportation-oriented bike infrastructure.
"We spent a ton of time and effort and money ... to make biking readily available," Knepp said. "We have missed the mark on some of the components that just make it damn fun."
Proponents emphasize that the plan is not just for lycra-clad athletes but is designed to create greater access for all abilities and all demographics, especially those who often miss out on opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, the State Journal reported.
Repyak, 46, still rides his bike in Cambridge — on trails he helped design in CamRock County Park — but instead of rolling out his back door, he loads his bike onto a car rack and drives from his home in Madison.
He'd rather be able to ride straight to the trails, like he could when he lived in Colorado, and he knows not everyone has the luxury of a car with a bike rack.
Parks tend to be less common and of lower quality in predominantly poor and minority communities, said Rachel Banner, director of park access for the National Recreation and Park Association.
In 2017, the Healthy Kids Collaborative worked with students from Mendota and Leopold elementary schools to identify barriers to walking and biking.
Kids were given cameras and sent into the field to document their surroundings.
They noted problems such as busy streets, broken sidewalks and overcrowded bike racks. But they also saw opportunities in empty fields and parking lots.
"This is a picture of the pavement behind our school," one wrote. "It would be cool to make this like a skate park, add jumps, or add colors or pictures or something on the pavement. Maybe make it a running course."
Julia Stanley, program manager for the collaborative, said the study revealed that even if kids had bikes, they didn't have places to ride them.
"Mostly we heard from the kids: There's no fun place to go," Stanley said.
As they scouted the city's 216 parks and greenways, planners also looked at census data to make sure neighborhoods with predominantly low-income and minority populations weren't overlooked.
One such place was the Leopold neighborhood on the city's South Side.
In July, the Parks department mowed a ¼-mile trail through tall grass and trees on the edge of Aldo Leopold Park, which Knepp calls a "beta test" for MadBAT.
There are no big hills, but the trail follows natural contours to provide a little roller-coaster feel. A few wooden structures provide challenges for more ambitious riders, but the course is designed for all abilities.
Henry Aiyenero, a student support specialist and soccer coach at One City Schools, leads groups of kids — some still on training wheels — through the trail every Saturday.
"We love that bike trail," Aiyenero said.
Aiyenero began organizing the "One City Bikes Crew" as a way to keep kids active during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group would meet at Aldo Leopold Elementary and ride the Cannonball Path over the Beltline bridge until Aiyenero discovered the dirt path.
The kids loved it so much some started going back on their own, Aiyenero said.
"We used to go on the pavement," he said. "Now the first thing they ask is 'can we go on the trail again?'"
Proponents say that increased access will improve health and economic wellbeing throughout the community.
Studies have shown that people who live near walking and biking trails are more physically active, and the closer they live to a trail, the more they tend to exercise.
Trails also provide economic benefits, attracting visitors, promoting commerce and generally making a place more appealing. One study also found that every dollar invested in trails yielded $3 in health care savings.
They point to places like Bentonville and Duluth and dozens of smaller communities where investments in trails have driven tourism, boosted the local economy and helped attract and retain skilled workers.
"Bentonville has shown if you build these small segments you can get more people riding bikes," said Dan Dacko, a board member of Capital Off Road Pathfinders, the volunteer organization that has built and maintained most of the Madison area's existing trails.
Parks officials say the plan is a response to years of calls to pay more attention to biking, the most popular activity identified through the city's last five-year park and open space plan.
It also reflects the sport's growing popularity, particularly since the pandemic led more people to embrace outdoor recreation.
"If you would go to our urban trail heads, or even CamRock, between 3 p.m. and dusk, it is packed," Dacko said. "We have lots more people on e-bikes. It just keeps growing."
That's partly due to the Wisconsin High School Cycling League, which in just seven years has grown to more than 1,200 student athletes, more than ¼ of them from Dane County.
That growth has forced teams to split up their afternoon practices to avoid overcrowding the trails, said Bob Hubanks, who coaches kids from Madison West, Memorial and Verona high schools. And students spend a big chunk of their practice time riding to and from the trails on commuter paths where Hubanks said the large numbers create a hazard.
Hubanks said more trails would relieve some of that crowding and eliminate the commute, which can be 10 to 12 miles round-trip.
"For a sixth-grader, that is a lot of miles before we even start to ride trails," he said. "Athletes who live on the North and East sides of town have very few options at all."
Active transportation advocates say the plan could compliment existing bike infrastructure, relieving some congestion on busier paths and potentially enticing more people to commute by bike.
"It's kind of, in some ways, a gateway to using your bike more often," said Robbie Webber, a transportation policy researcher and spokeswoman for Madison Bikes. "This is a way for people to have biking options for fun, where they feel comfortable, safe."
Renee Callaway, pedestrian and bicycle administrator with the city's traffic department, hopes kids will someday ride the trails to and from school and become part of the "biking culture."
Aiyenero sees it as an opportunity to get even more kids on bikes.
"Biking is one of the biggest gifts you can give a kid," Aiyenero said. "It's a lifelong gift. Once they learn how to ride a bike, you can't stop them."