Caitlin Yeager, 33, practices during a women's clinic at The Wheel Mill. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

At 80,000 square feet, The Wheel Mill indoor bike park found on the border of Homewood and Point Breeze has become a playground for mountain bikers and BMX riders. But it’s not just for adrenaline junkies. It’s also a great place to get started in a new sport, says owner and founder Harry Geyer.

“You can go from zero to X Games medal all in the same building,” Geyer says. And he doesn’t just mean kids. “A huge segment of the ‘learn-to-ride‘ population is actually adults.”

At first glance, the maze of interconnected trails and bike park features in the old factory building can be intimidating, just as the sport itself is to many people. Adding expert-level riders shooting 10 feet into the air off of jumps, and intimidating might be an understatement. 

But take a spin up into the beginner area and you’ll see what Geyer is talking about. 

“We have a room where the only thing on the ground is paint. If you can stay within an 8-foot-wide strip of paint, that can be your challenge for the day.” 

With the variety of terrain, the indoor facility offers a “choose your own adventure” approach, from the beginner area and progressive courses that mimic mountain bike trails to traditional BMX park jumps. They’ll teach you anything from the basics of how to ride in the city or on our network of rail trails, to learning to jump or navigate more technical terrain. A lesson can be a great way to gain comfort in a sport that can appear to have a steep learning curve.

“The days of ‘just follow me and do what I do,’ or the days of, ‘If you’re not crashing, you’re not trying,’ those should be put behind us,” says Geyer of their lessons and camps. “There’s actually a method like there is with ski school or kayak school. There’s a way to do it without getting hurt.”

Xailey Porter, 13, rides over a feature during a beginner lesson with instructor Shane Cravener (back) at The Wheel Mill. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“Safe progression is key,” Wheel Mill instructor Karen Brooks says, both to build confidence and to avoid injury. “If someone has a goal, instructors are really good at breaking it down into pieces.” 

That’s where the indoor park is at an advantage with features geared toward that progression. A big barrier to biking can also be building up the endurance to handle Western Pennsylvania’s hilly terrain.

“This environment takes all the challenging obstacles and aspects of an outdoor trail and compresses them,” says Geyer. “The opportunity to practice all that stuff is exponential. You’ll get better way faster.” 

And with Pittsburgh’s ever-changing weather, the Wheel Mill offers a safe option where conditions and features don’t change.

Mountain bikers from the women’s group Pittsburgh Babes on Bikes ride one of the courses at The Wheel Mill. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“There’s a good part of the year you can’t ride (outdoors) because it’s too muddy,” says Brooks. “Having the trails inside be consistent is huge. It helps gain confidence on something that is familiar.” 

Fresh from a Monday night women’s clinic with Brooks, first-time rider Caitlin Yeager, 33, says she got a lot out of one session and hopes to build on her skills.

“Starting indoors was really nice,” she says, adding that the experience boosted her confidence on a bike, and she appreciates the sense of community in the facility. 

“The Wheel Mill is amazing,” Yeager adds with a post-ride smile. “I’ve always wanted to try it.” 

Morgun Cole, 12, works on a trick. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

If you go

With a new mountain bike costing anywhere from close to $1,000 to more than $5,000, committing to the sport can definitely come with a price tag. 

But Brooks says, “You don’t need the latest and greatest bike to have a good time.” 

There are a lot of used options, and spring can be a time when shops are unloading overstock from the previous year in preparation for new models. The Wheel Mill also rents gear, especially for first-time riders.

“We have specific bikes for adult learn-to-ride,” says Geyer. “Anyone who’s interested, even if you don’t know how to ride a bike. We start there for kids through adults.”

Bonnie Gilbery, 29, jumps off a box feature at The Wheel Mill during a women’s ride night. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

The Wheel Mill also hosts weekly women’s clinics on Monday evenings open to women and non-binary riders along with an annual Ride Like a Girl Weekend March 17-19 where the whole facility is reserved for women, trans and other non-binary bikers.

“Representation matters. If you go somewhere and see people that aren’t like you doing something, you might think, ‘I can’t do that,'” Brooks says.

“The adrenaline sports can (still) be heavy on the ‘dude bro culture.’ It makes it a little more of a welcoming environment.” 

The Wheel Mill is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary on May 6. Geyer came up with the idea for The Wheel Mill after visiting Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park in Cleveland with a friend. He was inspired to make something similar in one of Pittsburgh’s vacant buildings. After five years of planning and looking for an appropriate space, The Wheel Mill opened in 2013. 

For more information on programs and pricing visit The Wheel Mill website

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance photographer and writer with contributions to newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh, Oregon and Colorado. An avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker and skier, Sebastian has a background in news, sports and outdoor journalism.