BEST PLACE TO RIDE YOUR BMX 2007 | Chandler Bike Park at Espee Park | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
Bump-jumping BMX riders of the Valley haven't been terrorizing local shopping malls, co-opting canals, or taking over skate parks with their two-wheel trickery that much lately. It ain't 'cause the cops have tossed the lot of 'em into the slammer, but rather, it's because these cycle psychos have been pulling sick stunts at the stellar Chandler Bike Park. This 25,000-square-foot pedal-pusher's paradise, located at the city's Espee Park, is the lone bikes-only facility in the Valley and boasts dozens of different concrete ramps, jumps, hips, quarter pipes, and boxes where riders can catch plenty of air. While skate parks across the PHX have banned BMX bikes due to safety issues, it's completely cool if you wanna make like Matt Hoffman on your modified Haro here. Thousands of teens and twentysomethings from Tempe to Tolleson have come to the park to get their grind on since its grand opening in May (which featured appearances by such superstar riders as Mike Saavedra and A.J. Anaya), like 17-year-old Hunter Gacek of Avondale. "This park is the shit," he says. "It's a pretty far drive, but it's totally worth it."
We were jonesing to put fresh dust on our mountain bike, so we decided to make the long drive to San Tan. Last time we were out there, we took our high-clearance vehicle on rough roads deep within the craggy landscape, back to where the cliffs rise to breathtaking heights. You can't do that anymore. We'd heard most of the park was restricted now, and future trails are still being imagined. So we loaded up the bike and gassed up the SUV.

To get to the park from the Superstition Freeway, take Ellsworth Road way south to Hunt Highway, turn left, then right on Thompson Road, then another right on Phillips Road. It's a long trip even for those of us in the heart of the metro area, but it's worth it for the raw beauty of this 10,000-acre park.

We had fun looping around on eight miles of single-track, old jeep trails and sandy washes. A couple of the downhills may be challenging for the newest riders, but otherwise San Tan consists of tame, but fun, stuff.

Plenty of other visitors were here on the day we visited in midspring, despite the remote location. But the desert has its way of swallowing us, and the eye-pleasing vistas sear in our memory for recall during those long hours in the office. The landscape out here is unburnt, classic Sonoran desert full of fuzzy cholla cactus and distant high bluffs. We won a first-place trophy for our soul.

When we want the sweetest punishment on two wheels, we take a trip to this dominatrix of mountain biking trails. Sometimes nothing satisfies like a good whipping. She leaves us sweaty with exertion, yet chilly with the naked fear of imminent injury or death.

Mountain bike manufacturers go here when they want to test their equipment to the max. Only experts or fools take the trail all the way from Pima Canyon near the Pointe South Mountain to San Juan Lookout, 15 miles distant, but moderate riders should push themselves to at least sample the first couple of miles. After grinding up the steep gravel switchbacks, which are punctuated by rock steps higher than sidewalk curbs, the easy trails you'll ride will seem a lot easier.

National Trail is a gift to the Phoenix area, and it's as free as the desert breeze, thanks to city taxpayers. We try to be courteous to other park users even as we're careening down the hills.

We know from bike shops.

Allow us to start at the beginning: Our fancy mountain bike is what we call a nervous shifter. She's as nimble and fast as a thoroughbred, but after the first few months she lost her groove, derailleur-wise. The chain kept jumping the gear rings at unexpected times, usually right in the middle of a tough grind up a steep hill. The bike needed an expert's touch, and it didn't find it even after five — that's right, five — visits to a popular bike shop that will remain unnamed.

A friend told us to try the Landis shop on Warner Road. Less than 25 minutes after we wheeled her in, the wizards at Landis had our finicky steed tuned up perfectly. We were skeptical at first, considering the time we'd put in at the other store. But out on the trail the adjustment held. We can only assume the staff at Landis' three other stores are as good, but we've stuck with the Warner location out of sheer loyalty. We think our bike is in love.

The skate shop is a pretty simple concept: decks, trucks, wheels, bearings, maybe a video or two. Add some jaded 14-year-olds loitering outside — bumming smokes and talking shit — maybe throw a miniramp in the back, and you've pretty much got our sophomore year of high school. It's not pretentious, and we love it. That's why we're so annoyed that even crappy mall stores calling themselves "skate shops" even exist. Hey, corporate — just an FYI — the fact that you sell Etnies to seventh-graders doesn't count.

That's why we love the Cowtown store in Tempe — it gets back to the idea that a skate shop should be the center of a community. Sure, you can buy the Volcom hoodies and the rest of that trendy crap, but beyond that, there's a sense that the people here actually know a little about the scene they're working in. Scattered throughout the store is a tiny homage to the history of skateboarding — an ancient Life magazine featuring a cover story on "the grace and menace of skateboarding" and a book from the '80s called Skateboarding Is For Me are tucked into shelves around the merch. And then there's the store's awesome display of vintage cameras, including a Polaroid Swinger and a Keystone Everflash.

Skateboarding is a sport as much about visuals as it is about performance, and it's cool to see a subtle nod to that in the displays. But the absolute best thing about the shop is its art gallery, MVMNT, which features work by local artists and skateboarders like CR3, who paints on broken decks, and DDGP Design Concepts, the brand name for Dan Diaz's furniture fashioned out of highly stylized skateboards. It's a cool place to wander around and we'd rather spend our money here any day than give it to some tool working the register at the mall.

A good pair of inline skates turns the urban world into an ice-skating rink — a beautiful, romantic place where the human body glides like an incorporeal spirit.

But it ain't quite that easy. When the ground beneath our polyurethane gets too bumpy or there are too many other people on the path, those little wheels are like a voodoo curse on our feet, souring the whole experience.

ASU's fields of concrete are marred only by a few easily avoided sections of rough ground. And the scenery is gorgeous — the eye-catching flowerbeds, the fountains and canals near the Business School, the youngsters in summer attire. This is the outdoor skating rink of our dreams, a wonderful setting for a more adventurous date or just a pleasant workout. The daily parking crunch eases after normal school hours, making it a snap to get on-campus for an after-dinner spin.

A few years ago, inline skating at ASU was forbidden, technically, despite the fact that hundreds of students rode their skates to and from classes. However, ASU police say those rules have been "relaxed" and that skaters won't be bothered as long as they aren't a nuisance.

We like to wander through the wide malls to University Drive, then roll up Palm Walk to the student recreation center, back west to Myrtle Avenue, then north again to University.

We even have a name for it: ASU, The Grand Tour.

The Valley is home to plenty of skate spots, but Tempe Skate Park, opened in 2005 as part of the Tempe Sports Complex, tops our list as a must-ride destination. The park features two levels and about 32,000 square feet of skatable space. The top level is a technical skater's dream, featuring stairs, rail ledges, a picnic table and a perfectly angled wall. The second level has one of the best (read: fastest) flow bowls in the state.

A local skateboarder told us he likes it because "there's a little bit of anything and because I don't have to call anyone but at least a couple of my friends will be there when I go." Online skate mag Concrete Disciples agrees, rating the park a 9 out of 10. No surprise considering Tempe's own Site Design Group — the folks responsible for internationally recognized parks like the world's largest concrete park (in the Grand Cayman Islands) and the first urban street plaza, located in Ohio — was behind the construction.

There are two kinds of paintballers: People who do it for fun once in a while, and people who do it as sport every weekend. Cowtown's paintball field is there to facilitate both. Open Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to midnight, the park has a natural-terrain field where you can splatter your friends with paint and indulge your camo-wearing war fantasies, as well as a "hyperball" court for the more intense, serious paintball aficionado. Started in the U.K., hyperball is one of the fastest-growing paintball trends — taking the activity from simple fun to intense spectator "extreme" sport. At the hyperball court, sissies who are too scared to grab a gun for themselves (or folks who are shot early) can watch as players charge through tunnels and hide behind barricades fighting to be the last man standing. For $20 admission, plus a $5 gun rental, you can shoot 'em up all day.

Cowtown also offers special packages during the week for corporate team-building exercises. We're not so sure shooting the people from accounting is the best method of building trust, but it sure sounds like a good way to get out some of that pent-up office aggression. And the park's slogan, "Safest way to play," is comforting enough to get even the worst shots among us on the field.

The PRG is a wonderful community gathering spot that draws people in from every Valley city, so we forgive the intentional inaccuracy of its name. The Tempe gym is a place where we can get a buzz on the climbing, meet friendly people, and hang out for hours, and it's safer than drinking in a bar. It doesn't matter where you're from. It's a place to feel unified. Such a big tent needs a big name, so nothing else but Phoenix would work.

There are other gyms in the Valley, but none is as centrally located or has significantly better amenities. A wall might be slightly higher here, a bathroom nicer there, but the PRG puts everything you need in one convenient converted warehouse. Challenging bouldering wall? Check. Exciting lead wall? Got it. Big inverted wall? Yup.

It's getting even better. A small climbing-equipment store opened up there last year, and another bouldering room has been added atop the first one.

The best part is the friendly and helpful staff, who are happy to help a first-time climber learn how to tie a double figure-8 knot or shoot the breeze with a regular about local politics.

There should be a hundred places like this in town.

Sometimes we have no choice but to fly solo. Fortunately, AZ on the Rocks is there for us when the climbing bug bites.

This Scottsdale gym allows us to get high — about 30 feet — all by our lonesome by using mechanical auto-lockers mounted at the top of select climbing walls. It's almost like free-soloing, which is climber-speak for scaling vertical cliffs without a rope for protection, except that nagging risk of imminent death is eliminated.

The gym has plenty of regular roped climbs on which you'll need a belay partner. But with the auto-locker, once you climb to the top of the wall, you just leap into space. As long as you clipped the rope to your harness properly, the machine catches you after a couple of feet, slowing paying out the line until you're back on Earth. We got a serious little thrill the first few times we tried it — kind of reminded us of jumping off the roof into the pool when we were kids and our parents were busy inside the house.

The bouldering area is outstanding, too, with long overhanging sections and soft rectangular pads to place under each problem we're working.

The best part about climbing alone: We never have to worry some crazy climbing buddy will cut our rope, like in Touching the Void.

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