Sanford, N.C. — A Lee County park that’s become a destination for mountain bikers has been shut down after several serious injuries until officials can make safety improvements.
“It’s like a roller-coaster through the woods,” said Donn Otte, who began building Gravity Bike Park more than a decade ago.
Over the years, Otte and other volunteers have created six mountain biking courses, ranging from beginner to pro, in Sanford’s San-Lee Park that have attracted experienced riders from up and down the East Coast.
The park’s popularity exploded during the pandemic, which Otte says has brought out more inexperienced riders, who’ve gotten injured on some jumps, where warning signs are now posted.
“With gravity, Mother Nature is giving you a little boost. You can develop faster speeds than necessary,” he said. “Inexperienced riders think that the secret to clearing a jump is speed, and it’s not. It’s totally technique. You can clear almost any of these jumps at a very slow speed.”
There have been seven serious injuries in the last year, from broken bones to head injuries. Four people have been airlifted to nearby hospitals, including an 11-year-old on Easter weekend.
After that incident, Lee County officials shut the park down.
“We are not happy about it,” Otte said.
The county also banned Otte and his crew from maintaining the trails.
“We haven’t been paying attention to it as much as we should the last few years,” Lee County Manager John Crumpton said. “It has grown beyond what our expectations were, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it safe.”
Crumpton said he’s most concerned about speed and the height of some jumps.
“We’re probably going to bring in some people from the outside to take a look and tell us what we can do to make it safer,” he said. “Anytime there is a public entity involved, there’s always some liability, and that’s what we have to determine on our end – what we are willing to accept from a risk standpoint.”
Crumpton said he expects at least some courses at Gravity Park to reopen by Memorial Day. The rest of San-Lee Park remains open to visitors.
Otte said he supports making adjustments, but he said cyclists need to recognize the inherent danger of the sport.
“You’ve got brakes. Slow down. Use them,” he said.