Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on November 1, 2021.
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You may know that we are avid bikers and explore our local Pittsburgh bike trails as much as we possibly can. As we generally prefer flat rides, we haven't really tackled any of the area mountain biking trails to date.
Thankfully, I was able to visit The Wheel Mill as part of an event where I got to learn the basics of mountain biking and apply them out on the trails at Frick Park via a private lesson. In the process, I was also able to check out some of the insane BMX and mountain biking setups this venue in Homewood West has to offer.
If you like to hit the ramps and jumps or simply want to learn the basics of mountain biking, a trip to The Wheel Mill should be on your radar!
The Tracks at The Wheel Mill Are Impressive
Before entering The Wheel Mill, all you really know is that it is a massive warehouse in Homewood West dedicated to all things mountain and BMX biking. But you don't get an appreciation for the size of this space until you enter it and check out the rooms firsthand. I knew this one was large, but it was far bigger than I ever anticipated from the outside (and I didn't even explore all the rooms)!
During my brief exploration, I was able to explore roughly five rooms full of ramps, obstacles, training devices, and even a monster foam pit for advanced bikers to launch themselves into via a terrifying-looking jump. Some of these elements were quite massive, others small and nuanced, but they are all designed with different skill levels or interests in mind (conveniently, the building map is also coded much like a ski resort would be with green circles for beginners, blue squares for intermediate, and black diamond for expert-level skills).
Want to work on your BMX-style jumps via some rather insane-looking ramps? The Woods Jump Room has your name on it. Want to practice tight banking or organized trail rides on raised wooden platforms? The Technical Mountain Biking Room is for you. Or if you're like me and are just getting started with mountain biking, the second-floor Fundamental Skills Room is the place to be.
Relative to the elements on the first floor, the items found in the Fundamental Skills Room look tame by comparison but are necessary to get you ready for the more challenging elements on the first level. Think items like one-foot tall ramps where you can practice raising and lowering your body weight to adjust for how your bike shifts under you, tiny ramps where you can jump off a ~12″ ledge, or long, narrow wooden pathways where you can practice biking in a straight line to name a few.
To reach (and later depart) from this area, you have to tackle a tight switchback ramp that also is useful in practicing turning at speed, getting in the habit of shifting your body into turns to make the tight bend work, dealing with immense grades, and regulating your speed as well.
Yes, I failed miserably at all of these things on the ride up, but I was also able to improve my skills on all these introductory topics immensely while taking a lesson in the Fundamental Skills Room outright. Not so much that I nailed it on the ride down, but we'll just say I did better overall via my brief lesson.
Not Ready to Mountain Bike? Take a Private Lesson
As someone with zero mountain biking experience at all, the tracks at The Wheel Mill looked incredibly daunting to me at first arrival. But I was, fortunately, able to take an introductory class to learn the basics of mountain biking in the Fundamental Skills Room.
This roughly 60-minute lesson really went into the basics of all things mountain biking and helped put core topics into perspective that I had never thought of before. Simple things, like keeping your pedals parallel to the ground, are obvious in retrospect- obstacles that rise out of the ground, like tree roots, can clip your pedal if it is down and may cause you to lose balance or fall over. Others were a fair bit more technical, like how having your pedals parallel also helps keep your body weight even (whatever pedal you are pushing down tends to receive an unequal distribution of your body weight). Once again, when it comes to obstacles, minor missteps like these can cascade out into big problems in a hurry.
It only took one time messing this up on the baby ramps to really see why they're so important, and it took me a fair bit of practicing to start to make these basic skills a habit- you simply don't have to worry about things like this when biking on rail trails as we typically do and I would've never learned any of it without taking an introductory lesson like this one.
After this lesson, we moved on to our second private lesson of the day to apply what we learned on the mountain biking trails at Frick Park– just a short ride away. The outdoor lessons here are a bit more expensive than the indoor ones (mostly because they are about twice as long) but are a good way to apply the skills you're working on in a real-world setting. I caught myself thinking of pedal position when riding over tree roots, shifting my body weight when climbing over slight grade changes, and working on incorporating my full-body movement to hit those tight turns as we practiced on the switchback ramp at the facility.
Overall, not a bad outing all things considered, and the fact that I did not fall over once is a testament to our guide's help in these lessons- although I still wasn't brave enough to bike down cement stairs. I'll leave that to the professionals and those who have better health insurance than I do.
For those who are looking to take lessons at The Wheel Mill, the sky is really the limit on what you can work on here. As these are often private in nature, you can work with your instructor on the skills that you need the most improvement in. Whether that is learning how to do basic obstacles on a mountain bike (as per my case) or going all-in on advanced rides, BMX biking, jumps, or more, the team at The Wheel Mill can cover an array of skill levels- many far beyond where I'll ever likely go (sadly).
For what it is worth, the wealth of activities and lessons available at The Wheel Mill far exceeded my expectations. As such, this place is quite approachable for those who are just wanting to get started mountain or BMX biking or for those who have been doing it for years and simply want a place to cut loose. I hope to return one day soon to practice more technical rides, but just don't count on me doing a jump any time soon.
The Wheel Mill is located at 6815 Hamilton Avenue in Homewood West. I was a guest of The Wheel Mill during my visit as part of a separate event. As always, all opinions are my own.