Experience Vanadzor with Boo Mountain Bike Park

Developing Outdoor Adventure and Community in the Countryside

Vanadzor (Photo: Paul Vartan Sookiasian)

Once the industrial heart of Soviet Armenia and still the country’s third largest city, Vanadzor has struggled to regain its former glory since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The city has spent the past thirty years in the shadow of decaying factories and a shrinking population, but over the past couple of years a new momentum has been jump-started by the opening of a number of new establishments. Despite the city’s industrialized history, Vanadzor is set amid some of Armenia’s most breathtaking nature, and Emma Petrosyan and Vagho Skarnet identified immense potential in its green hills. Though practically unknown in Armenia, the sport of mountain biking has a growing popularity globally, which fits perfectly with the country’s rocky terrain. Seeking to combine their passion for cycling with their expertise in the hospitality industry, Petrosyan and Skarnet opened Boo Mountain Bike Park & Cafe in October 2022 to breathe new life into Vanadzor’s outdoor adventure scene while fostering a vibrant sense of community.

The work partners discovered the city in 2017 while pitching their vision to Yana Mkrtchyan, co-founder of Vanadzor’s EcoLab Foundation, which has provided invaluable support and connections to the municipality and Lori regional government. Encouraged by the example of the foundation’s nearby Boo Alt House, Petrosyan and Skarnik decided to settle in this picturesque location, which would allow their park to be close to a city and yet immersed in nature. They also reached out online to various companies engaged in the mountain biking space and received an enthusiastic response from VeloSolutions with advice. Due to the relatively nascent biking culture in Armenia, VeloSolutions suggested starting with a pump track – a paved circuit with banked turns that riders navigate by “pumping” up and down rather than pedaling. This approach allows newcomers to develop skills and confidence before venturing into the surrounding forests and mountains.

Cyclists at the Boo Mountain Bike Park (Photo: Paul Vartan Sookiasian)

Plans and a budget were drawn up, but the project faced setbacks due to the pandemic and the traumatic 2020 war. This inspired VeloSolutions to sponsor the planning of the track itself, including the salaries of international specialists and their travel costs, which was vital as the expertise doesn’t exist within Armenia. “We just provided the machinery and materials, which were funded by the European Union and GiZ, though some loans also became necessary as construction costs rose drastically when the war in Ukraine started, causing the budget to fall short,” said Petrosyan. In addition, the Vanadzor municipality, recognizing the park’s potential for tourism development, provided the land free of charge for a ten-year lease.

As Skarnet described, “There were still obstacles, which came from doing something nobody has done before, but coming here was the best choice we could have made, because Vanadzor has people and a sense of community you won’t find anywhere else. Even though there has been some resistance from skeptical residents, the tight-knit nature of Vanadzor means trends get transmitted quickly, and people here are always willing to help others in need. All the problems we’ve ever faced have been solved with the general support of this community network.”

Years of hard work culminated in the first-of-its-kind pump track for not only Armenia but the entire Caucasus region. Boo gets its name from the Armenian word for the owls that call the surrounding forests home. Since opening on October 22, 2022, the track has become a hub for riders of all ages seeking an escape from digital screens and a connection with the great outdoors. So far, a large percentage of customers have been from the displaced Russian population, as the sport is bigger back home in Russia, along with local cycling clubs from Yerevan, experienced riders and children just starting out. “We have kids coming to ride and are so happy to welcome them. That is the future of mountain biking,” said Petrosyan. “That’s also why VeloSolutions supported us. We’re part of their mission to grow the future of the sport globally.”

One of the park’s recent visitors was Tatev Torabyan, a marketing professional from Yerevan who made her first visit this spring. She described the experience as more than just cycling but also a journey of personal growth: “There are a lot of challenges we face in everyday life, and a big aspect of overcoming them is mental. Coming here to ride the pump track gives you the confidence that you can overcome these fears.” The physical and mental health benefits of biking are clear, and to ensure this experience is accessible to everyone, using the pump track is completely free of charge.

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In order to sustain the park’s operations, revenue is generated through bike rentals and an adjacent cafe, which was built with funds from the United Nations Development Program. The cafe plays a crucial role as a central meeting point, fostering a vibrant atmosphere where riders and visitors can socialize. Perched on stilts, the cafe’s contemporary Scandinavian mountain hut design offers a commanding view of the city, providing a beautiful setting for visitors to enjoy a cup of coffee or engage in work. It has become a popular destination for Vanadzor’s progressive youth, who now have a place to gather and express their creativity. Special events such as dee-jayed music events, cinema nights featuring English movies with subtitles to learn the language, morning yoga and photography workshops further enhance the cafe’s appeal.

Presently, the park features a beginner-friendly trail that leads from the cafe to the enchanting ruins of an abandoned Soviet camp. Weekly mountain bike tours are organized to explore a nearby scenic gorge, providing riders with the opportunity to discover the region’s breathtaking landscapes. With ambitious plans for expansion, the founders envision creating four kilometers of trails catering to more advanced riders and ultimately establishing a comprehensive bike park with different skill sections. They also hope avid bikers from the Armenian diaspora will lend their trail-building and riding expertise to further elevate the park’s offerings. They aim to inspire other Armenian cities to develop their own trails, while demonstrating to policymakers the economic potential of bike tourism. As the park ignites a sense of adventure among Vanadzor’s residents, it brings notice to this resilient community determined to shape its own future.

Cyclist at the pump track (Photo: Paul Vartan Sookiasian)
Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked in Armenia as the English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. More recently he served as one of the organizers of the World Congress on Information Technology 2019 Yerevan. He is also a historian who researches and brings to light the long and rich history of Philadelphia's Armenian community.
Paul Vartan Sookiasian

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