Out & About: New Hartford pump track gives children a safe place to fail, and try again

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., right, watches Eric James, of Lebanon, N.H., ride through a curve on the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction before they and other volunteers build up its berm on Sept. 7, 2023. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., right, watches Eric James, of Lebanon, N.H., ride through a curve on the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction before they and other volunteers build up its berm on Sept. 7, 2023. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., compacts soil after a test run of a built-up curve on the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction on Sept. 7, 2023. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., compacts soil after a test run of a built-up curve on the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction on Sept. 7, 2023. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sam Robinson, of Wilder, Vt., uses a square-edge shovel to cut a new path in the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 7, 2023. Fellow volunteers Emily Strizich, middle, and Bill Brown, both of White River Junction, also pitch in. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sam Robinson, of Wilder, Vt., uses a square-edge shovel to cut a new path in the pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 7, 2023. Fellow volunteers Emily Strizich, middle, and Bill Brown, both of White River Junction, also pitch in. There will be an opening celebration for the new track built for child cyclists on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Geoff Hansen

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., connected with other mountain bikers, parents and the Hartford Recreation and Parks Department to build a pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction, Vt. “This is really targeted to the young population in White River Junction who are basically out-terrained by a lot of the beginner terrain that's here,” she said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Emily Strizich, of White River Junction, Vt., connected with other mountain bikers, parents and the Hartford Recreation and Parks Department to build a pump track at Ratcliffe Park in White River Junction, Vt. “This is really targeted to the young population in White River Junction who are basically out-terrained by a lot of the beginner terrain that's here,” she said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-11-2023 4:01 PM

Emily Strizich needed a safe place for her daughters to fail at riding bikes.

Strizich was on the way home from a mountain biking trek with her 5-year-old daughter, Simone, this spring when it occurred to Strizich that she — and others involved in the Upper Valley’s vast mountain biking community — could provide that place.

So Strizich got to work, connecting with other bikers, parents and the Hartford Parks and Recreation Department to find a spot to build a dirt track — known as a pump track — at George Ratcliffe Park in downtown White River Junction. While people of all ages are welcome to use the resulting track, it is specifically designed for children younger than 7.

“There’s been many a teary afternoon spent at Boston Lot trying to get my 5-year-old excited about biking,” Strizich, of White River Junction, said in a phone interview earlier this summer. “This is really targeted to the young population in White River Junction who are basically out-terrained by a lot of the beginner terrain that’s here.”

An opening celebration for the “On the Right Track” pump track is scheduled to take place from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13. The roughly 0.3-mile track is cut into a grassy area at Ratcliffe Park, 75 Latham Works Lane, between the playground, ball field and Connecticut River.

The pump track follows other efforts that have taken place around the Upper Valley in recent years to create more recreational opportunities for children who might not be into traditional team sports. Bradford, Vt. is currently fundraising to build a skatepark, there’s a pump track and larger skatepark proposed for Windsor. Multiple organizations have started projects to improve recreational trails. While these projects are for people of all ages, particular attention has been paid to providing opportunities for Upper Valley youth.

“We must invest in spaces for our youth to hang out, to proactively steer them down a more positive path with clear expectations for their behavior and the space,” Emily Musty Zanleoni, executive director of the Hartford Community Coalition, wrote in an email.

Hartford’s pump track has been open since July. Volunteers are continuing to make improvements to the track as it gets more use.

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On Thursday, Strizich, who works as an occupational therapist at the White River School, was at the pump track with Eric James, Sam Robinson and Bill Brown. They got to work shoring up and creating new berms, which are used for turns. They used a rototiller and hand tools to create new dirt pathways and add new features, including a small jump. Occasionally, James, of Lebanon, would ride his mountain bike along parts of the track to see where more improvements were needed.

“Having something around for kids to use is really great,” said Robinson, of Wilder, who described his 2 ½-year-old daughter as an “aspiring mountain biker.”

The track itself is relatively simple and that is partly because of its location in a flood plain. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has strict guidelines on what can be built in flood plains.

“We can’t bring in mounds of dirt to make ramps and that sort of thing because that would be adding material and you’d have to go through a whole permitting process,” Scott Hausler, director Hartford’s Parks & Recreation Department, said in a phone interview last month. “It’s a simple thing. It’s a simple amenity that can be added to a park.”

In some ways, that made the design easier because they had to work within those guidelines. It cost a few hundred dollars to pull together, with the majority spent on establishing an LLC called the Notorious D.I.G., which the group of volunteers started. They’ve also spent money on spray paint. Community members have built, and will continue to maintain the track; no taxpayer dollars have been spent.

“Over time, it will be something that we’ll work with the interest groups that participate in it to keep it in good shape,” Hausler said. The town will continue to mow the area as it always has. “We don’t anticipate having to do much to it.”

The park’s natural landscape also helped make it a good fit. There’s gentle inclines and places to create turns. It’s wide enough for a single bike and parts of it weave around trees that provide shade on hot days. The ground surrounding it is grassy and soft.

“My daughter has already eaten it several times and it’s just a lawn to fall onto,” Strizich said earlier this summer. With no roots to trip over or rocks to avoid; Simone gets back up, determined to try again.

Bill Brown, a longtime White River Junction resident and mountain biker, got involved in the project, in part, because he wanted to help create a screen-free recreational opportunity for children, especially those who might not have reliable transportation.

“The kids who are riding their bikes here aren’t getting to Boston Lot,” Brown said Thursday at the pump track. He called it a “great introduction” to mountain biking.

As she started discussing the possibility of putting the pump track at Ratcliffe Park, Strizich met with neighbors to make sure she had their support. They were enthusiastic about having another recreational opportunity nearby.

“It’s the perfect location and an ideal addition to what the park offers the neighborhood. It’s easy access for kids to get to,” Hausler said, adding that it can be difficult for some kids to make it Hurricane Hill off Reservoir Road in Hartford or other popular mountain bike locations. An Advance Transit bus stop is nearby the park.

Many of the volunteers involved in the project learned to bike when they were younger and took a break from it before coming back to the sport as adults. They hope to provide the same opportunities for other children in the community. Notorious D.I.G. recently received a donation of 20 kids bikes which they plan on giving out, along with helmets, to children whose families may not be able to afford bikes. There’s also talk of bringing school gym classes and bike safety events to the pump track.

“I consider it a lifetime sport,” Hausler said.

Discussions about putting in a larger pump track at Maxfield Sports Complex are in early stages. “Depending on the popularity of this, if there’s an interest in doing something out there we might do that,” he said.

On Thursday, Strizich was happy to be out in the dirt. Now that the school year has started, she said, it can be even more important for children to find ways to have “little victories.” Mountain biking can provide that.

Strizich hopes that children, particularly those who might feel out of place in other settings, find confidence as they work to improve their biking skills at the pump track. She hopes that they can look at what they’ve been able to do there and realize — but more importantly truly believe — “Wow, I can do hard things.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

CORRECTION: The new pump track at George Ratcliffe Park in Whit e River Junction is 0.3 miles long. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect length of the new track.