Wheel Mill: One man's vision turns Homewood warehouse into indoor bike park

The facility is hoping to outlast other short-lived skate parks by focusing on bicyclists

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This place is so new, you can smell it. Walk into the low-slung warehouse on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood, and the effect is immediate: Fresh-cut lumber, a little bit of sweat, a flash of motion -- hey, did that kid just pop a wheelie?

A year ago, this building was stuffed with city equipment and impounded cars, 80,000 square feet of space that officials never quite knew how to handle.

Where Harry Geyer is standing? That's where the Pittsburgh Public Works Department used to dump their junk, something the 40-year-old has to laugh about now, surrounded by the loops and whorls of his creation.

If you go

The Wheel Mill

Where: 6815 Hamilton Ave., Homewood (15208). thewheelmill.com.

Open: Mon.-Fri. 2 to 10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Entrance fees: Mon.-Fri. $10 plus tax, Sat.-Sun. $15 plus tax. Bike, helmet and pad rentals are available. Visitors must sign a release form, available at the facility or online.

This is the Wheel Mill, a massive indoor bike park the Lawrenceville entrepreneur has built almost single-handedly, a testament to his twin loves of mountain biking and sustainable construction that he hopes will resonate with the city's cyclists.

The park, which opened in April, has already drawn riders from as far away as Canada.

"We've built it, and everybody's jumped right on board," said Mr. Geyer, whose stocky frame gives away his background in construction. "We didn't want to make it like every other park."

It certainly isn't. The Wheel Mill is likely the biggest indoor sports park in the Pittsburgh region, and the first to cater to bicyclists -- be they teenagers on BMX stunt bikes or dads on their Treks.

It's a switch from traditional venues, which usually focus on skateboarders and only grudgingly allow BMX bikes. Mr. Geyer, an avid cyclist since childhood and a regular rider on outdoor trails, felt it was past time his cohorts had a facility of their own.

PG Map: The Wheel Mill
(Click image for larger version)

"The bike-riding culture is veering from the skateboarding culture," said Mike Potoczny, a Wheel Mill employee who designed the park with his brother and Mr. Geyer. "Pittsburgh is huge in cycling. BMX and mountain biking don't mingle much, but now they will."

The three men have filled the first floor of the warehouse with every conceivable type of ramp, trail and obstacle, a riot of architecture that relies on signposts and colored trail markers to navigate. A few short pumps on your bike can take you from a traditional half-pipe to a soaring, slatted trail with twists as tight as a roller coaster's.

But Mr. Geyer's masterpiece is "The Woods," a one-room loop of ramps, chutes and turnarounds that mimic the natural contours of a mountain trail, an organic answer to the stop-and-go rhythm of your typical skate park.

Standing in the center, the architect traces the path -- start in the southwest corner, roll along the incline to the first jump, swing across the entrance, watch your head on the water pipe above ...

This course -- much of it built with reclaimed wood and salvaged ramps -- is one of only five of its kind in America, he said.

"Everything's really dynamic. It's very natural and rideable," he said. Looking over the low dips and high jumps, he chuckles. "I've learned to clear all of these in the last two months, so I'm the living testament you can do it."

Mr. Geyer got his start in construction, specializing in sustainable building. He's built a name for himself as a builder who can make the best of old wood, something he's carried forward to his new venture.

The lifelong biker got the idea after a trip to Ray's Mountain Bike Park in Cleveland, one of the few facilities specializing in indoor trail riding. (The only similar parks he knows of are in Oregon, Wisconsin and Syracuse, N.Y.) With so many mountain bikers in Pittsburgh, he thought, there's no reason he couldn't start this here.

It took him five years to find the right building, which was sitting under his nose: His own landlord gave him the lease for the property, which sits at the edge of Homewood and Larimer.

Securing financing was another challenge. Banks weren't leaping to finance an indoor bike park, especially one in Homewood; Mr. Geyer eventually got help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which backed a $150,000 loan.

"I can say we've never funded a bike park before," said Thomas Link, director of the authority's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. "But we saw the users of this park would not just be local folks ... we also saw the opportunity to drive people into the city, into Homewood, into our East End who may not have thought to come into the city otherwise."

(It didn't hurt that Mr. Link is an avid cyclist himself.)

Property lease in hand, Mr. Geyer recruited Mr. Potoczny, then a student at Point Park University, and his brother Mark, both BMX cyclists who have toured professionally. Mr. Potoczny, who estimates he's biked at more than 100 parks, came up with the basic design in just a day.

Construction began in earnest in September, and it's never ended: Staffers spend their mornings building new parts of the park before the facility opens to riders at 2 p.m. Mr. Geyer runs the show while maintaining his construction company, a pace he admits can get exhausting.

Pittsburgh has not been kind to skate parks. Many owners have found it hard to grow or even maintain their customer base as teenagers tire of being "baby-sat" at parks and take to the streets to test their most daring tricks.

Mike Speranzo, president of Mr. Smalls Funhouse, a popular musical venue, ran a skate park near his Millvale concert hall for 10 years. But competition from municipal skate parks, as well as his customer's natural tendency to "graduate out," made the park a perennial money loser.

"A lot of kids are groomed not to go to skate parks after a certain period," he said. "For anybody trying to be an entrepreneur in the action sports industry, it's very difficult.

"Don't expect to make any money," he added, "because you won't."

Mr. Geyer, who accepted some ramps from Mr. Speranzo, is betting the Wheel Mill's focus on bicyclists and an older clientele could turn the odds in his favor. There's plenty on the line: He has $500,000 sunk into the property, a combination of the URA loan, a bank loan and his own savings.

And of course, he has an ace in the hole: He's dreamed of this his whole life.

"I was concerned with why all these skate parks were going down," he admits. "But there's a common denominator: It has to be a love of yours."

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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