Pump tracks come in many shapes and sizes, and they all look very much alike in terms of the obstacles and features they have. However, they’re not always similar in the track surface. Those can be quite diverse. Which begs the question: What is a pump track usually made of?
Asphalt pump tracks are the most common, but there are also dirt, concrete, wood and synthetic ones. Asphalt has the lowest maintenance, while dirt tracks can be built and changed the easiest. Wood and fiberglass are among the worst in terms of riding characteristics. Especially in the rain.
Between the materials are differences in the effort of the initial build, maintenance and riding characteristics. Even with the same layout but different materials, two pump tracks can change drastically in how they’re built and ridden.
By the way, read more on the basics of what pumptrack even is and why it’s so popular here.
Riding characteristics of each surface
In optimal dry conditions, dirt, concrete and asphalt pump tracks ride very similarly. There isn’t really a bike more favorable on one over the others. There isn’t even a big difference in optimal tire choice. Pretty much any fast-rolling tire pattern will grip extremely well.
With that being said, even in dry weather, dirt tracks will change over time just by the fact that riders are going over it, pumping and pushing dirt. This creates bumps, holes and “blue groove” – a preferred line on the track that’s polished and hard. It’s great if you’re on that blue groove, but notably slower and slippier when not, and really dangerous if it’s wet.
Hard clay pump tracks will hardly absorb rain, and rather create a greasy surface that feels like soapy water. Extremely slippery and basically unrideable. In that regard, they’re similar to wood tracks and most modular synthetic tracks.
In contrast, asphalt tracks can be ridden in the wet, even if it’s not optimal. In any weather, they ride the fastest due to the smooth, hard surface. With higher speeds line options increase with the possibility to do jumps, wheel taps and other maneuvers harder to do on slower surfaces.
Now more on the pros and cons of each material type, starting with the common one: asphalt.
Asphalt or tarmac is the most common material used for building a permanent pump track. Those kinds of tracks are generally built into the landscape, rather than sitting on top like modular designs. So, it’s especially important that the layout and its measurements for heights, corner radius and distances are planned well before building can start.
They are a highly durable and low-maintenance option, often seen in public spaces or at bike parks. The hard and grippy surface allows for increased control, high grip and predictability. But, crashes on an asphalt track may also be more abrasive than the other surface options.
The only regular maintenance to be done is cleaning dirt, gravel, leaves, snow or other objects off with a broom. Any serious damage from degredation like cracks can be repaired, given the know-how, resources and machinery required.
All these longterm benefits come at a steep initial investment. Substantial planning, legal approval, landscape modification, drainage and the costs associated with it are the highest among all types of tracks. This is why generally professional track building companies are tasked with planning and creating tarmac pump tracks.
Advantages of asphalt pump tracks:
- Works with all kinds of bikes and skateboards, longboards, inline skates, scooters, etc.
- Most amount of grip.
- Fastest-rolling for high speeds.
- Almost maintenance-free.
- Entirely weather resistant.
- Absorb water very well.
- Often look pretty with surrounding grass.
Disadvantages of asphalt pump tracks:
Unfortunately, there are also some disadvantages, for example:
- Not modifiable.
- High initial construction costs.
- Needs to be built by professionals.
- Legal work may be necessary, especially in public spaces.
To sum tarmac tracks up, mountain bike legend and pumptrack builder Claudio Caluori says it best:
“If pump tracks are out of asphalt, you don’t have to maintain them and everything with wheels can ride it: kids with little push-bikes, scooters, skaters, and any type of bicycle. You can do skill-training on pump tracks and at the same time they’re fun playgrounds.”Claudio Caluori, Founder of Velosolutions (Source)
Tarmac and concrete tracks may be similar in the riding surface, but are completely different otherwise.
For one, concrete pump tracks are usually made up of precast sections that are combined into a full track. They’re not built on-site but rather assembled there. Basically, they’re a version of modular tracks, which requires heavy machenery to assemble.
They’re often installed above-ground, sitting on even terrain or sometimes built into the landscape. Similar to asphalt, concrete requires little maintenance but has a high barrier to entry in terms of up-front planning and cost.
Advantages of concrete pump tracks:
- Rideable on any wheeled equipment.
- Modular and portable.
- Durable and sturdy.
- Can fit into uneven landscape.
Disadvantages of concrete pump tracks:
- Not as easily set up as synthetic modular designs.
- Tight and narrow.
Dirt Pump Tracks
Dirt is the material of choice for any DIY track builder. Compared to facilities made of asphalt, dirt pump tracks have lower requirements for planning and construction. Since the result is not as permanent and can be corrected, it’s ideal for non-professionals or track builders who want to make changes regularly.
It’s also the most economic way of building a pump track. This is why it’s one of the most widespread designs, especially for private tracks or one-off race tracks. All the must-have resources include only a shovel, space and time. Of course, it’s easier the more equipment and helping hands are on board.
With being so similar to BMX tracks, but still different, dirt pump tracks have the same drawbacks. As they’re subject to deformation by weather and frequent riding, they require more frequent maintenance.
Sometimes fine gravel is layered on top to protect the riding surface from the normal deterioration, making it not as grippy in the process. For wider BMX tracks, that’s not a big issue, but on tighter pump tracks it can be. It’s a different story in the wet. Then the moist gravel is grippier than the polished clay.
Now, any old soil won’t do the trick here. With a vast variety from loam to clay, it’s a difference maker which type of dirt is used.
What is the best dirt for a pump track?
Clay is the best material used for building dirt pump tracks. When hard-packed it keeps its shape to allow for a hard and smooth riding surface. Compared to other types of soil, it’s also more weather-resistant. It can be rescuplted when moist and will turn solid again in the heat.
Advantages of dirt pump tracks:
- Modifyable after initial build.
- Can be built DIY.
- Most economic building method.
- Safer for riding mistakes.
- Can look like modern artistic masterpieces.
Disadvantages of dirt pump tracks:
- Not rideable with skateboards, longboards or inline skates.
- Not that weather-resistant.
- Will deteriorate over time.
Synthetics are a highly-resilient type of pumptrack material. Composite fiberglass offers great durability when it comes to harsh weather conditions and heavy-use. It’s also light-weight and offers lots of traction. Sounds great so far? It gets even better.
They are, however, not meant for implementation into the environment as permanent installations. Composite designs are the most common for highly portable, modular pump tracks. The type that gets installed for events on location or seasonal use like in parking lots during summer or at bike parks.
With the sometimes a bit soft surface, they tend to roll slower and offer more safety in case of crashes. Making them ideal for kids use and beginners to try out.
Fiberglass requires only light maintenance after several years, but that’s usually only an issue for the renting company. They’re hardly owned or installed permanently.
Advantages of synthetic pump tracks:
- Mobile and modular.
- Fast and easy setup (great for multi-day events or seasonal use)
- Safe and slow for beginners.
Disadvantages of synthetic pump tracks:
- Tight and narrow.
- Require flat, even ground.
- Slippery when wet.
- Can’t be built DIY.
Wood is by far the rarest material used out of the five. And for good reason. While it can be used to build pump tracks, it’s hard to do while at the same time not great to ride. Not exactly the best prerequisite.
For one, catchy berm turns are basically impossible to create using wood. Most of the time only a corner with the same angle throughout is the result. And then it’s only going to be a bumpy ride, even when there’s no space between logs.
Add to the how easily wood gets slick even with the slightest amount of moisture like morning dew, let alone actual raun. Just like roots on mountain bike trails, it’s like riding on ice with slick tires on.
On pumptracks wood is more used for wallrides, or other optional features added to tracks instead of the main track surface.
Advantages of wood pump tracks:
- can be modular, transported stored
Disadvantages of wood pump tracks:
- difficult to build
- hard to ride
- no good angled berms possible
- As grippy as ice when wet