Nate Phelps Blazes His Own Trail in Grand Rapids

You could say that it's the product of mud, sweat and tears -- a 7-acre park near the southern border of Grand Rapids devoted exclusively to mountain biking that opened last weekend.

And arguably the greatest devotee of the GR Bike Park  is Nate Phelps, an unassuming guy who four years ago envisioned turning a vacant lot littered with syringes and refuse at 580 Kirtland SW into a recreational park that could serve the bike friendly community.

"I started it for somewhat selfish reasons," says Phelps, 43, who knew of similar parks in urban areas on the East and West coasts. "I wanted a facility that you could ride your bike to from the city, so it would solve the problem of spending half your time in the car to get there."

A native of the small lakeshore town of Glenn between Saugatuck and South Haven, Phelps talks of being selfish, but he's freewheeling when it comes to passing the credit around for making the park a reality.

"We had a lot of people putting boots on the ground, taking on a portion of the project and becoming super involved," says Phelps. The track's Bob Loop is named after one of the first volunteers to lend a hand, and several others will bear the names of the volunteers contributing sweat equity.

"Nate is passionate about the city and making improvements to entice people to stay here and to move here," says Jay Steffen, director of the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department. "He is enthusiastic and tenacious and loves to see things get done and to bust bureaucracy. I love to see that."

Joining the Clan
Phelps is one of a growing clan of passionate citizens who are taking matters into their own hands to shape metro Grand Rapids into their ideal city. Thanks to their enthusiasm, downtown Grand Rapids may one day have everything from a whitewater park for kayaking to a master's degree program in design methods offered by a prestigious university.

"This whole dynamic with people moving projects forward," says Phelps, a print press operator at Verdant Graphics at 19 LaGrave Avenue SE. "That's what we need in Grand Rapids."

Like others who want to create lasting programs and facilities to share their passion, Phelps is at least mildly obsessed with his avocation, in this case cycling for the past 20 years. He has trained for competitions and spends most, if not all, of his free time on the road or a trail. All of his friends are cyclists, and he bikes to and from work. He is the president of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association and a member of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, the group that started the process of getting Grand Rapids officially recognized as a bicycle friendly community.

Like many cyclists, Phelps began biking as a child, pedaling his bike across trails for fun and around his neighborhood as the easiest method of transportation for an adolescent boy.

"I grew up in a rural area, and that's how we got around from house to house," says Phelps. After turning 16, Phelps swiftly abandoned two-wheeled transportation in favor of something quicker, and didn't pick it up again until he was in his mid-twenties. By this time, Phelps was living in Holland with a group of friends who were avid mountain bikers.

"When I started riding, it was a very different sport. It was all about riding in the woods," says Phelps. "Now it's more about urban riding and different kinds of mountain biking."

From Competitor to Advocate
Phelps gave up serious competitions years ago, deciding instead to spend his time as an advocate for the sport. He attended his first Western Michigan Mountain Biking Association meeting after his stepfather "guilted" him into it. Initially, Phelps was unimpressed. "There were only four or five people there, so I thought, why bother?"

But after attending several more meetings, Phelps was hooked on helping. The chapter has since grown, with about 20 enthusiasts now showing up for the local meetings. The members help build and maintain trails in the area, and Phelps estimates that they put in about 2,000 volunteer hours in 2009.

"One of the first projects I did was the trails in the Cannonsburg ski area," he says. "That really rejuvenated the chapter. Since then, we've had really good luck in getting new projects, like the loop in Rockford."

But it still irked Phelps that he had to pack up his car and drive out of urban Grand Rapids to find a suitable route. So he began studying different urban bike park designs, working closely with Steffen to find a location that would support the park design and be easily accessible from downtown.

"I'm extremely impressed by his knowledge of the sport and how much Nate has been able to teach me about mountain biking and how much it has evolved," says Steffen. "Pump track? That wasn't even in my vocabulary until a year ago when he educated me on the subject."

One centerpiece of the GR Bike Park is the pump track – a track that ideally takes just one pump of the pedal before momentum propels the rider over the bumps and ditches. Plans call for the park to be improved to include at least a mile of mountain-like trails when it's completed.

"It's been gratifying to see all these grassroots groups emerge, take these initiatives by the horns and make them happen," Steffen says. "Quite frankly, government doesn't have the resources or capacity to do specialty things like this. Working with these groups is a way to get it done – it's all about public and private partnerships."

Combining Interests
Phelps, who studied film at Lansing Community College, also started the Grand Rapids Bicycle Film Festival in 2008. He saw this annual event as a way to combine his two interests while raising money for local cycling groups and bringing cyclists together to do something other than just ride bikes.

Phelps spends nearly all of his free time riding or advocating. He owns several types of bikes, including a mountain bike, urban bike and a road bike, and rides at least one each day. Having previously biked 12 miles each way to work, he now enjoys the much shorter five-minute ride to his job, where he has worked for the past two years.

Phelps commutes from his home in Eastown where he lives with Veronica, his wife of 12 years, and their two pugs, Buffy and Bandit. The couple hop on their bikes to run errands and other quick trips around the city, and Phelps mountain bikes at least twice a week.

"It's all about sanity for me," he says. "If I have a stressful day, being able to get out and ride my bike puts me at ease. I can close my mind off to whatever I'm working through."

With the addition of a downtown bike park, Phelps and other mountain bikers no longer have to deal with traffic, road construction and gas prices to find serenity a little closer to home.

"If you can bring these kind of sports to an urban setting, " he says, "People are more likely to stay in Grand Rapids or even move here."

Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in Grand Rapids.


Nate Phelps (2)     

Nate Phelps on the newest GR Bike Park (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

Signup for Email Alerts