BMX Riders Find Winter Escape In Limestone Mine 100 Feet Underground

Download Audio
A former limestone mine/bomb shelter is now a destination for winter-weary bikers. (Casey Chalmers/Only A Game)
A former limestone mine/bomb shelter is now a destination for winter-weary bikers. (Casey Chalmers/Only A Game)

Nothing bums out BMX and mountain bikers more than a long winter. Trails are slush. Bike parks, iced over. Here’s a solution: go underground. A few weeks ago a bike park opened in a Louisville, Ky., cave. It’s called the Mega Cavern. And with good reason.

The former limestone mine has 4 million square feet of space. With all that room it’s a bit of a catch-all cave. Attorneys store sensitive legal files down there. Tourists come for a ropes course.

'Outer Space's Cousin'

Kate Dietrich, 16, pedals on a trail toward a wooden ramp, about 15 feet off the ground. The nationally ranked junior mountain biker pants a bit. It’s a steep, winding climb.

“It’s important to keep an eye out because you never know when people are going to come around the corner,” Dietrich says.

A blond braid brushes the back of Dietrich’s red and white jersey as she rides. Once on the ramp, she surveys the massive 320,000 square foot park. That’s a handful of football fields. It’s a rolling dirt landscape of 45 curvy trails and 60 jumps shaped like tiny volcanoes: 3-to-6 feet high, sides are sloped, the peaks are flattened. Dietrich clips into her pedals.

“Down we go," she says.

This is way better than winter training on a stationary bike.

(Casey Chalmers/Only A Game)
The Mega Cavern is 320,000 square feet and features 45 trails and 60 jumps. (Casey Chalmers/Only A Game)

Even with bikers zipping about, there’s an eerie vibe in here. There’s no breeze. No vegetation. No natural light. Underground feels like outer space’s cousin. Rows of fluorescent lights hang from the cave’s ceiling 50 feet up, brightening the terrain.

“We are coming up to this nice rock pathway," Dietrich says. "Don't fall off.”

Dietrich heads for a mile-long loop around the park, disappearing from sight.

Climbing up onto that same ramp Dietrich started from, Nick Ferreira, 29, from Chicago stands with his BMX bike. He and a buddy drove down after they heard about the largest indoor bike park in the world. Often indoor bike parks are contained in smaller spaces, like warehouses.

“It’s freezing cold in Chicago," Ferreira says. "All of our spots are covered in snow. Or we’ve been to all the other indoor parks so we just figured we’d make a little weekend trip.”

Ferreira’s waiting to ride the main line — about a 100-meter stretch of five jumps, one after the other. He watches a fellow BMX biker lose control, tip too far forward and crash, mangling the front of his bike.

The main line’s advanced. Bikers often lift off the jump and then have to twist mid-air to avoid a nearby rock wall. Ferreira plunges off the ramp. He soars 4 or 5 feet into the air with each jump. Barely 15 seconds later he hits the brakes.

A Bomb Shelter Turned Storage Space Turned Bike Park

A young mountain biker tests out her skills on a series of dirt jumps.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kentucky officials eyed the cave as a bomb shelter. (Casey Chalmers/OAG)

So, let’s stop for a quick history lesson. In the mid-1900s, a limestone mine operated here, creating the 100-acre Mega Cavern that exists today. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kentucky officials eyed the cave as a bomb shelter. But only for 50,000 people whose names were on a secret list. By the 1980s, private investors bought the cavern and created tourist attractions like a ropes course and zip lines. Also, with a constant 50 to 60 degree temperature, the Mega Cavern carved a niche as a prime storage spot.

“Old dental records, attorney files. That kind of thing," says Daniel Pember, who works as a supervisor at the bike park.

He knows of, but hasn’t touched, the most valuable item hidden in the cave.

"Warner Brothers actually has their old film reels of 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Batman,'" Pember says. "Some other things like that are stored down here in a very high-security vault."

[sidebar title="WCMX: Taking Wheelchairs To New Heights" width="630" align="right"]Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham pulls off tricks on four wheels instead of two.[/sidebar]Pember says the bike park idea came from local riders pining for a big indoor park. Mega Cavern’s owners jumped on it. It’s easy to market: For $24 come visit the first and only underground bike park on the planet! Construction started in September. Ten-thousand tons of dirt later, there’s one section left to finish.

That’s 30-year-old Jeff Perkins’ job. The veteran BMX rider is one of the course designers. In a neon yellow vest and orange gloves he scoops dirt with a shovel, slapping it onto the “lip” or slope of another one of those volcano-shaped jumps, packing in the loose dirt. This jump will follow a sharp, banked turn. It takes two days to make one jump.  And Perkins does it all by gut, no tape measure or blue prints required.

“I often feel like just a kid in a sand box, building whatever I can imagine,” Perkins says.

Perkin’s vision is drawing a crowd. By late afternoon, 159 riders circle the park. Max capacity is 200. Dust from the trails collects in the air like a fog. Sweat pastes Chase Sifford’s brown hair beneath his helmet. The 24-year-old BMX biker drove from Ohio this morning, three hours southwest, then 100 feet down.

“It’s amazing," Sifford says. "It’s, riding aside, it’s a cool experience, for sure. Just the environment. I mean, it’s, you’re underground one hundred foot. All the rock formations, things like that. It seems like you’re in an amusement park ride, but it’s for real.”

This segment aired on March 7, 2015.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live