Sean Leader expertly navigates his excavator down a steep, tree-covered incline. The day’s challenge? Carving a new section of mountain bike trail into the mountainside.
Sean, along with his business partner and fellow professional racer Neko Mulally, has spent the last few years taming a former grassroots training ground for bike racers. The pair has been clearing trees, fixing slopes and installing drainage with the help of compact equipment.
The result is Windrock Bike Park, eastern Tennessee’s premier downhill mountain bike course, which offers 2,300 feet of vertical descent in the mountainous region outside the town of Oliver Springs.
“I grew up 20 minutes from the park and started racing at all these other places,” Sean says. “The mountains we have here in the Southeast are just as good, if not better, than anything I’ve ever been to before. It was just a matter of getting all the right people together to say, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
Building the Bike Park
Sean and Neko studied other bike parks around the world before breaking ground on Windrock Bike Park.
“I’ve been traveling internationally for 15 years now,” Sean says. “In the past three years, I’ve started to go to parks specifically to see how their systems work. We’ve hit tons of little bike parks that are in our niche to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be a premier facility.”
Sean makes three main passes when building a downhill trail.
“I use three buckets and two hydraulic accessories to build a trail,” Sean says. “First, I’ll make a pass with the 24-inch bucket and hydraulic thumb to get the small trees, debris and topsoil out of the way while benching a road bed. Then, I’ll come back through and sift the dirt with a skeleton bucket. For my last pass, I’ll use the Hydra-Tilt [accessory] and a bucket to shape the trail into the design I see in my head and to install drainage pipes. The Hydra-Tilt is essential for shaping such abstract designs.”
A Bobcat E50 compact excavator has brought increased efficiency to Sean’s trail-building regimen and has eliminated the need for nearly all manual work.
“The labor hours two years ago were triple what they are now,” Sean says. “A one-mile trail now takes us around two months to get the first iteration of it going, and then it’s always an evolving process – changing up the design, fixing a section that doesn’t flow right, adding new features. It’s very organic; it’s a project that’s always growing.”
Sean primarily builds the park’s trails in the spring and fall months for optimal dirt packing conditions. He also has to consider erosion and irrigation constraints.
“The complexity of irrigation is so much more than most would think; it’s really a game,” Sean says. “Our end goal is to have a trail that rides well but doesn’t need constant hours of handwork to keep it going. When I started operating, I began studying industrial erosion control. Bike trails, however, are the M.C. Escher of drainage systems, with a pipe every 50 to 100 feet on the trail because the inherent dynamics of corners and the jumps. The water flow is the quintessential piece of the puzzle.”
The park officially opened its trails to riders in November 2016.
“We opened the park with one machine-built trail and a handful of hand-built trails,” Sean says. “Now, we have around 15 trails and are expanding every day. Since opening, we have twice hosted the U.S. national downhill series along with premier enduro race events. Through media outlets and events, our trails have become recognized amongst national and international professionals and enthusiasts.”
Getting the Right Equipment
Sean had been familiar with Bobcat equipment since childhood.
“My parents had a small piece of land, and my father always had skid-steers,” Sean says. “As a kid, the skid-steer was the tool for everything from firewood to RC and go-kart tracks.”
After college, Sean purchased a pair of Bobcat machines: a 334 excavator and a 743 skid-steer loader to build bike trails on his own property. When he and Neko launched the Windrock project, he put his equipment to work there, too.
“When we bought the 334, I sold off every sponsor bike and scrounged all the extra money from bike parts,” Sean says. “At the time, it was what we could afford to make it happen.”
Sean eventually upgraded to a new E50 compact excavator with a variety of buckets and a Hydra-Tilt swing accessory for its reliability and compact size.
“We found that the 5-ton machine was the appropriate power-to-size ratio for the job,” Sean says. “We work on a gnarly mountain. There’s a lot of big timber that you’re trying to squeeze between because it’s not really practical to take big trees out. Operating conditions are in heavy-exposure, high-risk situations, so confidence in the machine is essential – knowing that your tracks aren’t going to roll off and that you’re not going to have failures in a compromising situation is a big factor.”
Expanding the Operation
Although the park currently caters to advanced riders, Sean and Neko are in the process of adding more beginner and intermediate trails to Windrock.
“We’ve opened our first beginner trail,” Sean says. “It has a 350-foot descent and a shuttle truck that can run shuttle laps in under 10 minutes round trip.”
They also hope to build more bike trails in the region in order to grow the sport in the Southeast.
“Currently, the Southeast is lacking in gravity-oriented trails, but we’re growing fast,” Sean says. “Our influence comes from our travels to international bike parks, where it’s much more common to have six bike parks within a 200-mile radius.
“If we had built this park in the Pacific Northwest, we would have sold so many more passes upfront, but here in the Southeast, we’re still getting the sport going. Our events and trails are hopefully making an impact in the future of the sport.”
The park sold roughly 6,000 bike passes in 2018 alone.
“The labor is worth it knowing that every day I can get up and make my schedule according to the lifestyle I want to live,” Sean says. “It never really seems like work if you’re doing something you love, you know?”
Read about more Bobcat excavators at work – including this one that’s helping a California community recover from wildfire destruction.