The Wheel Mill: Pittsburgh’s weatherproof biking facility


By Stephanie Roman / Staff Writer

There are 17 bike parks in the Pittsburgh area, but only one of them is weatherproof. When the snow falls or the July humidity becomes unbearable, bikers pedal to the Wheel Mill on Hamilton Avenue to shred inside the massive structure.

The Wheel Mill opened in April 2013 from a conglomeration of seven previously detached buildings — some of which had past lives as an aluminum ladder manufacturing plant, a state police impound and a Global Links warehouse, which processed hospital surplus before it was sent to developing countries. The facility was opened up, reroofed and had corridors installed to formulate the skeleton of the current park before owner and handyman Harry Geyer purchased the building.

The Wheel Mill offers separate rates for the summer and winter seasons, which transition on Oct. 14. A winter day pass ranges from $19.99 to $25.99, with a season pass available for $299. When the weather’s nice, the Wheel Mill’s rates are discounted to $12 to $20 for day passes and $240 for the season pass.

If needed, the park has helmets, pads, bikes and unicycles available for rent. Riders must sign waivers before they can ride, and Wheel Mill policy mandates the use of helmets. Riders can bring their own bike into the park and — though all of the facilities are sized to bike standards — skateboarders are welcome, too. The Wheel Mill makes a point to invite all bike subdivisions to the park, so it contains fixtures designed for bicycle motocross (BMX) and mountain biking (MTB), and some aspects serve both purposes.

With some help from outside contractors, Geyer designed most of the MTB courses, while Geyer’s close friends, Mike Potoczny and his brother Mark, designed and assembled the BMX jumps and ramps.

“I’ve been building since I was 12. You kind of have to build stuff if you want to ride. I built for myself and my neighbors in my backyard,” said Potoczny.

One of the featured attractions is the Potoczny brothers’ Woods Jump Room, which consists of six jumps and steeply banked corners. Pros can cycle around — pulling off 180s, 360s and tail whips — but that kind of skill level isn’t required. It only takes a little commitment, competence and training.

Several rooms in the park dedicate terrain to MTB riders. Trails span through artificial hills, valleys and logs altered to form hazards, and three separate courses marked like ski trails — green circle meaning beginner, blue square intermediate, and black diamond expert — help facilitate understanding across disciplines. 

On the black diamond trail, severe drops and extremely narrow paths require advanced skills to navigate. The courses overlap and can be mixed and matched to suit rider level. One of the areas currently in development will be expanded to make the trails longer, and in it, jumps geared toward novices will be implemented.

Another room sports a large foam pit where riders practice getting a feel for jumps — Geyer said a lot of beginners try to throw their bikes away at first. 

“The point is to stay on [the] bike,” he joked. 

The ramp’s drop is steep enough to gain enough speed with only half a pedal, so gaining momentum isn’t an issue. Because of this setup, the foam pit room even offers access to extreme wheelchair athletes.

Notoriously, the foam pit damages bikes, so the Wheel Mill sells the most commonly broken or bent parts, including handlebars, brake levers, pedals, tires and bearings, but it does not service bikes, because service shops, like Iron City Bikes, abound in the area.

To utilize most of the park’s elements, the Wheel Mill encourages newcomers and beginners to sign up for lessons under the tutelage of seasoned bike riders. The park seasonally offers certain specialty lessons, including women’s bike nights and commuter skills clinics, which, in conjunction with Bike Pittsburgh, focus on teaching safety in traffic.

Nearly every weekend, the park hosts one or two birthday parties. Parties come with mandatory lessons, as children need a little guidance before they’re acclimated to the varying terrain and obstacles. The Wheel Mill also sponsors larger events with friendly competitions, family fun and small cash prizes.

One such event was the Wooden Welcome Jam that occurred on Sept. 19. It invited about 50 riders of all ages and skill levels to take part in activities and challenges. Sometimes the park showcases “Best Trick” competitions, but the main attraction at the Wooden Welcome Jam was the “Lap Challenge” — an endurance test that requires all riders to circuit around the Woods Jump Room without pedaling or manualing, and among other rules, it permits contact and boxing out other riders in the corners. The winner, a 15-year-old named Justin, walked out with $30 in prize money, as the Wheel Mill pays a purse of $2 per lap.

Some of the attendees were locals, but many traveled from the greater U.S., and about 10 flew in from Europe. The Wooden Welcome Jam was merely the precursor to the Wheel Mill’s real Welcome Jam, held in Aliquippa on Sept. 20, which featured live music and numerous contests. 

Marisa Oravetz, who was there to watch her husband Steve ride, said they drove in from Ohio to participate. 

“It’s cool, because the people who founded [The Wheel Mill] run camps and the Welcome Jams. And because it’s indoors, it keeps [bikers] riding in the wintertime,” Oravetz said.

The BMX sphere notes a sense of community among families and pets. Many of BMX’s first-wave riders have kids who followed them into the sport, and just as many children participated in the Wooden Welcome Jam as adults. Similarly, the presence of dogs punctuated the atmosphere, including Oravetz’s brindled Great Dane, Daisy.

“It’s great — [the bikers] make up fun nicknames for each other. My husband, he’s known as the ‘no-shirt kid,’” Oravetz said. 

Daisy hopped up on the railing to watch the shirtless Steve Oravetz take his turn around the Woods Jump Room, while receiving plenty of pets and affection from everyone who passed by.

Undoubtedly, the necessary skill development and excitement won’t suit everyone. For parents and other spectators, the park has a lounge and a snack bar to use while waiting. If a child’s over the age of eight, he can be left in the care of the staff until a parent comes to pick him up.

With the advent of autumn, The Wheel Mill is just getting started with its busy season. Lots of out-of-town professionals will migrate in, but Geyer’s not concerned with competitiveness. The park is the place where family and professional communities merge, but most importantly, where people learn how to bike.

“Anyone can learn anything. You can go from never being able to jump to being able to jump everything in the [Woods Jump] Room in three months. It’s totally doable,” said Geyer.