The Wheel Mill Brings Mountain Bikers a Taste of the Outdoors Inside

Jeff Kendall-Weed riding the Woods Room

On a stretch of winter highway somewhere between Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Harry Geyer sat, tired and elated, his arms so fatigued he could barely lift them to his face. Whatever discomfort he was experiencing at that moment was overpowered by the joy of spending the day riding his bike inside of Ray’s Indoor Bike Park. It was then, while sitting in the passenger seat of cousin’s car, that Geyer decided Pittsburgh needed a facility similar to Ray’s; a place where the riding community could come together to improve skills, have fun, and escape the Steel City’s often brutal winters. 

Original plans for the park included a velodrome.

Seeds of an idea

In 2007, Geyer was working for himself as a contractor, as well as reclaiming and restoring lumber. He shared space with fellow woodworkers and East End Brewing, a local craft beer maker. Geyer had been a mountain biker since the mid-’90s, and it was time for him to combine his passions and professional skillset. Upon returning home from his field trip to Ray’s with his cousin, Geyer began to search for a facility to house a bike park. The economic collapse of the late 1970s and ’80s, combined with the subsequent outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, left the once-mighty steel town in shambles. Massive shells of buildings littered the Pittsburgh landscape, many of them ideal in location and size for a bike park. 

Fueled by the knowledge of the city’s dormant industrial infrastructure, Geyer began to make phone calls and visits to sites of old steel mills and manufacturing buildings. Many prospective hulks had already been reserved for restoration projects that didn’t have bike parks in mind. The tech industry began to boom in Pittsburgh just around the time Geyer started his search for a location. Technology giants like Google and Über had moved in, and real estate that was once considered useless was being bought up all over town. 

The search continued for five years until just down the street from where Geyer had been sharing a workspace a large building with an odd floor plan opened up. Geyer, along with friend and longtime riding partner Andrew Crumpler, went to check the building out. They were greeted by a structure that needed a ton of work and had multiple strange rooms, a second floor, and a tech company that wasn’t quite ready to move out.  At the end of their visit, both Crumpler and Geyer agreed that this building could work. 

In the days and weeks that followed, Geyer took what money he had saved up over a lifetime of work and what he had earned on some real-estate investments and began applying for business loans so he could financially pull off the bike park that he had been dreaming about for the last half of a decade. An open meeting was held with the neighborhood group Operation Better Block, where members of the community and Pittsburgh’s riding scene gathered to see how they could help and how the park could benefit the neighborhood. It was there that Geyer met Mike Hallahan, a father of a burgeoning family of young riders, Hallahan suggested to Geyer that he should reach out to the brothers Potoczny. 

Bike Brothers

Mike and Mark Potoczny are well versed in the ways of trail building and what makes a good bike park. The two have spent a life in BMX and have virtually traveled the world, riding everything from dirt, concrete, metal, and wood. From the best parks around to certified pieces of suck, the Potocznys wanted to make sure that whatever Geyer had planned didn’t end up on the wrong side of the grading scale. Besides their experience riding parks, the Potoczny brothers had a stockpile of ramps they had been holding onto for just such an opportunity.

Above a hockey rink not too far from where the Potoczny’s had grown up was a skate and bike park known as B Cubed. The brothers worked there part-time maintaining the ramps, spending all of their free time riding there. When the park closed down in the early 2000s, the owner let the brothers and a few others take the ramps for their use. Storing their newly acquired bounty at their parents’ house, the Potoczny brothers waited for an opportunity or space to reassemble their collection. The collision of Geyer’s project and the Potoczny brothers is, at the very least, a stroke of luck, if not altogether serendipitous.  

Mike Potoczny at home in the Woods Room.

Hammers to nails

In the months that followed the community meeting hosted by Operation Better Block, Geyer would sign a lease and start swinging hammers. A massive cleanup of the old building commenced before the first saw blade touched a two-by-four, but five years of idling had finally ended, and Geyer was ready to push the gas pedal on construction to the floor. Supplied with leftover reclaimed wood from his contracting business and donations, Geyer began piecing together the first features of the park. Starting with what would become known as the Flow Room, Geyer and a small crew laid down the first ramps and features to create a room that resembled what one might encounter on the trails. 

As he and his small crew worked feverishly putting the park together, the bank loan that Geyer was counting on to open the Wheel Mill fell through. The lease was signed, construction had begun, and now there would be no money. After being flooded with a range of emotions and brief contemplation of going “rogue,” Geyer pushed on, sinking what money he and his wife had left in their savings to keep things moving. The bike community of Pittsburgh rallied, and with help from friends and family, and Geyer maxing out credit cards the Wheelmill got back on track. It was at this same time that the Potoczny brothers started showing up to help with the building projects. They helped Geyer map out which rooms would be best for specific ramps and features. High ceilings were going to be necessary for jumps where skilled riders can send themselves upwards of 20 feet into the air. 

Harry Geyer enjoying some fresh air on the trails of Frick Park.

Along with the Potocznys came their ramp collection and a small ensemble of motivated builders and riders. Josh Pekich, Tom Arkus and Jay Scott were all longtime BMX trail riders and builders that joined the effort. “We wanted to create something that felt as close to riding real trails in the woods as possible,” remarked Mike Potoczny. With that in mind, they began the construction of the park’s Woods Room, a loop consisting of four sizable jumps that resembled dirt jumps. The  Potocznys, along with Pekich, Arkus, and Scott, had arguably built some of the best BMX trails on the East Coast, and collectively, they hoped to transform their knowledge of sculpting dirt into shaping wood. With the hopes of creating something that felt natural, the crew shaped the wood into a continuous flowing line; there are no vert walls or quarter pipes like you will find in traditional bike parks. “You’re never going to find a vert wall or 90º angles in the woods, so we didn’t want them here,” explained Potoczny.   

Harry Geyer stands amongst the skills room and the fruits of his labor

The ringer

It wasn’t long after the construction of the park began that seasoned ramp builder Matt Gibeaut caught wind of the project and became very interested in getting involved. “I knew the Potocnys through BMX and mutual friends,” Matt said, “I didn’t know Harry at all, but his heart was in the right place, and I wanted in.”  Gibeaut, also known to his friends as Burley Matt, is one of the world’s more accomplished ramp builders. Building ramps for events like the X Games, Simple Sessions, multiple Woodward locations, and beyond, Burley Matt is well-versed in making radical visions come to life in the form of wood. He was a very intricate and essential piece of building the park; as the designs became more complex, his experience was worth its weight in gold.

As a young rider growing up in Ohio, “there wasn’t much of a scene or anything there, so I learned to build my own ramps.” says Guibert. Starting with small jump ramps, Burley Matt would soon take on the project of building a mini-ramp in his backyard that took him practically the whole summer to finish. When indoor parks like Section 8 started popping up, Gibeaut made sure that he became a part of them and started helping with their construction. It was there that he would lay the foundation for the future, meeting legendary ramp builder and park designer Nate Wessel. Gibeaut would later drop out of college and quit his job at UPS to spend most of his waking hours at Section 8, learning the craft of ramp building. From there, he would go on to help Wessel at other Ohio parks while taking engineering classes at a local college during the day and sleeping under a mini-ramp at the park at night. Eventually, Gibeaut would pursue ramp building full time and leave school behind to help build some of the gnarliest parks in the world. 

Reclaimed lumber mimicking the local trails.

The wonders of wood

While the Woods Room was coming together, Geyer began the Mountain Bike Skills Room, a maze of teeter-totters and skinnies with steep ups and downs. Drawing inspiration from the local trail network in nearby Frick Park, Geyer re-created a few of the more challenging obstacles found on the trails to practice conquering them. “We were learning quickly what worked and what didn’t,” Geyer explained, ” We were all guilty early on of building things that we personally wanted to ride instead of thinking of the average rider.”

Collectively, the team would dive into the construction of the Pump Track, perhaps the most popular feature in the park. Inspired by the fast whoop sections of traditional BMX racecourses, and connected by smooth speed-generating berms, the Pump Track is as much fun as one can imagine.  During the construction, truckloads of reclaimed lumber were showing up, so much so that Geyer had to hire two people just to pull the nails and sort and stack the wood. The park was coming together, and in the spring of 2012, the doors would officially open for business. 

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” remarked Geyer. “Just as the warm weather and trail riding season was moving in, we were opening the doors.”

In the seven years since the doors opened, building has continued throughout the park. Smaller jumps and alternate lines have been added to the Woods Room, allowing riders to build up to the original intimidating line. A cross-country loop connecting the upstairs to the Flow Room, resi-ramps, foam pits, and more beginner jumps have all joined the mix.  

Plenty of terrain for riders to work on their skills

The park has attracted pros and legends from both the BMX and mountain bike world. It is not unusual to see Chris Doyle running through his bag of tricks on any given night at the park alongside up-and-coming talents such as Mason Ritter and the Halahan boys. BMX legends Van Homan, Chase Hawk, and Brian Yeagle have all displayed their skills at the park. Mountain bike talent Jeff Kendall-Weed and slopestyle shredder David Lieb are some of the latest to visit, and that list continues to grow. 

Beyond building ramps and obstacles for riders to enjoy, the team behind the Wheel Mill created a second home for many young people and has brought riders of the area closer, creating a community. The Wheel Mill is now well into its seventh year of business, surpassing many of the area’s indoor parks that came before them. “I owe too many people too much money to quit now!” Geyer laughs. “Really though, each year it has grown a little, and we really admire watching people trying and learning new things.”

When the park first opened, it was predominantly BMX riders. Since that time, due partly to the additions to the park, and partly due to the current mountain bike trend of “sending it” above all else, the mountain biker to BMXer ratio is leveling out. Along with the senders, the local NICA chapters have landed more and more kids on bikes looking to increase their skill capacities, and the Wheel Mill is the perfect place for that.

The crew is always making mods and improvements to the park.

In the first summer of business, the Wheel Mill held its first kids camp. Only six kids showed up for that five-day skills camp, and now the camp sells out each summer. Some 200 kids participate in the week-long camps, ranging from beginner to advanced. There are various events throughout the year, such as the Winter Welcome Jam, which is the indoor variation of an event the Potocznys used to hold at their BMX trails each fall. There’s an all-women event that goes by “Ride Like A Girl Weekend,” the Woods Fest mountain bike festival, and there has even been an indoor cyclocross race. Mike Potoczny runs the kids camps and coordinates the events, and he enjoys nothing more than seeing kids succeed on the bike. 

Stacks of wood and reclaimed lumber still occupy a section of the park, which begs the question of what’s next? Both Geyer and Potoczny admitted that there was not much room left for adding new features, but they are always considering ways to improve the existing layout. “The whole thing has been like a giant sociological experiment,” Geyer explained. “We have learned how people gather and move through the park based purely on the design.”   Geyer points out that there are signs and indicators not to stand in certain places, but if it is wide enough, people will still gather there.  

The work and sweat that the builders have put into the park is nothing short of remarkable, and Harry Geyer’s tenacity to keep searching year after year until he found a home is admirable at the very least. What began as a dream during a drive on the Ohio Turnpike became a reality in a warehouse, much to the joy of the Pittsburgh riding community.

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