When you don’t have the riding you want, sometimes you’ve got to build it. So Bellingham, Washington local Steven Vogel did just that when he couldn’t find proper dirt jump sets in the area. He built a private dirt jump palace on his property, open to anyone willing to be a respectful rider.
Vogel, also known by friends as Vato Steve for his grasp of the Spanish language and his love of low riders was born in Bellingham but grew up in Mexico riding and racing BMX bikes. As a kid, he pedaled all over Guadalajara, but when he graduated high school, he realized it was time to go back north and start a career. He entertained a few locations, but Bellingham with its rugged mountains and coastline was an easy choice.
When he returned to Bellingham in the late 1980s, he followed the path his dad emphasized to him, and focused on college and working, putting bikes to the side. With the tempting forests, it didn’t last long.
“Finding these woods re-sparked that,” said Vogel. “I really love bicycling and in the Northwest, you have so much of it.”
Vogel popped into a bike shop to ask about local jump spots, but to his surprise, the shops didn’t have any suggestions. Occasionally a set grew here and there, but they changed locations or were destroyed by government officials. Though new jumps might suffer the same fate, he tried to build his own.
“So I found an empty place in the woods and went to work and built some jumps and they became the local spot for how many years and I remember during the movie the Blair Witch Project, I heard a rumor that my jumps were plowed, and after watching the movie in the theater, I ran over and sure enough my jumps had been plowed.”
The jump eradication didn’t dissuade him for long. He started another local jump spot, but the dirt was plowed again. And again. At this point, Vogel had made friends with local riders and the city noticed a need for sanctioned dirt jumps, but it was still a very unsupported endeavor. He got in contact with the parks and recreation department and they opened up a lot for Vogel and some other builders to shape jumps next to a skate park, but the rules were still tight on them. They built what they could, but it wasn’t what they dreamt of.
A new prospect
Vogel’s brother lived in Bellingham too and was a realtor. One day, he called Vogel to tell him about a property he saw for sale—an old ranch up a dirt road. It had a covered horse arena, a decent-sized garage (helpful for a low rider collection), and the house looked decent too. Vogel was heading out for a ride with some other trail builder friends who’d built an open dirt jump spot called The Shire, and they decided to check out the property. There was plenty of potential.
“I was like, guys if I live here, we can put a bike track, pump track and a quarter pipe, or whatever here, right?”
Vogel closed on the property in July of 2016 and by September, he had a truckload of dirt dropped off under the covered area previously used for horses. With a roof over the jumps’ heads, they could have a jump spot all winter long.
Friends of Vogel weren’t sure about what he was doing—why he wanted to build a spot on his property for others to ride, but Vogel recognized it as something the Bellingham community would benefit from. He planned to slowly open it to strangers as well and control who came in and out of The Bike Ranch.
“[This] is at my house, so I can be the lifeguard,” he said. “I can be out there telling people not to run around the pool. I can be out there with the rules, because if they’re going to do it wrong, I can excuse them from my property and say they’re not welcome anymore.”
It was also imperative that he treat it more like a nonprofit, rather than charging folks for entry. Getting into paid admission opens up more liability pathways, whereas if he only accepts donations, then the risk is much lower letting others recreate on his land.
Vogel solicited design opinions on Facebook and selected a final design, which the Shire Built trail builders helped him shape.
The Bike Ranch in session
Shortly after the pump track and jumps were up and running, he had a handful of local pros, like pump track master Jill Kintner and Shaums March, an early Red Bull Rampage competitor and downhill masters World Champion who coaches athletes in Bellingham.
To gain admission to The Bike Ranch, it’s pretty simple, Vogel says. Reach out on Facebook or Instagram, be a respectful rider and consider leaving a donation in the dropbox. At first, it was “no dig, no ride.” Now, Vogel said “It’s really just about respect.” He realizes a lot of people who are new to dirt jumping aren’t necessarily going to know the ins and outs of the discipline, the etiquette, or how to send or land a jump.
“Everybody comes, from Strider bikes to pros,” said Vogel. “The jumps get cased pretty hard, so every couple of months I have to do a full scarring, scraping, watering, fresh dirt, stacking, packing, to make them [flow]. Good dirt jumps have to have good flow.”
Though hosting a lot of beginners means more cased jumps and drug tire tracks, it also means more people will give it a shot. He’ll spend several hours per week sometimes re-shaping, watering, and packing the jumps. But, people leave generous offerings for what Vogel has created too.
“There’s days when I’m in the barn working on a car and I hear people are here,” he said. “I see them come and go. I go out to the donation box and and there’s days where somebody dropped a hundred because they think it’s amazing what I do.”
So far, the donations have funded roofing enhancements, an add-on room with tables and a grill, new lighting, and an outhouse. He’s also worked up a fleet of Transition PBJ dirt jump bikes that are available for riders to use too.
On top of regular hours, The Bike Ranch also hosts a ladies night, birthday parties, and annual community trail fundraisers. He’s looked into expanding into a bigger location, but real estate in Bellingham, Washington is anything but cheap and pursuing a business model may make the park less fun and more work. Considering the unique fit with the community and the wide range of people who come ride The Bike Ranch, it may be the perfect size, as is.
“It’s really awesome to have it known,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s still sort of a speakeasy.”
Very cool project. Takes a dedicated individual to go that distance.
Way to go, Steven!!