I am a criminal… Or at least I am for the next two hours. After that point, I will help my ten-year old grapple with spelling the word “Mississippi”, try to convince the six-year old to stop eating the toilet paper (don’t ask) and then attempt to transform whatever is lurking in the hinterlands of the refrigerator into something edible for dinner. Soon, my wife and I will be stressing the importance of eating your carrots while reminding the six-year old that potty words are not okay at the dinner table…even if they are
words the kid has learned while watching daddy fix the leaky toilet.
I realize this is not the stereotypical routine of a hardened felon, but then again, my offense isn’t typical. I’m not raping, pillaging or plundering. I’m riding my mountain bike. On singletrack. And when I’m visiting family in this chunk of California that means I’m breaking the law. Mountain biking on almost anything other than a fireroad is usually a crime around here. Sure, it’s not a go-to-jail-and-get-a–spider web-tattoo-on-your-neck
kind of crime, there’s no need to be melodramatic here, but if the rangers that I’m watching out for catch me, I’m definitely in store for a ticket and a sizeable fine.
So today, I am a criminal. As are the handful of dentists, construction workers and other taxpaying Joe Blows I saw out there riding the trails. And I have to tell you, that truly pisses me off. Because riding your bike on singletrack and enjoying nature isn’t actually a crime. To make matters worse, this trail is really good; it wends its way up a ridgeline and then dips and rolls through a small forest of oaks. And it goes on for miles. And miles. There is so much potential here… And I’m just realizing it now. That hurts.
For 30 years, I’ve toed the line and refrained from breaking the law by riding in this spot. I never wanted to be that guy—that a*shole—who gets caught poaching trails and who proves the stereotype that we mountain bikers are irresponsible, thrill-seeking miscreants. Instead, every time my brothers and I have gone for a ride, we’ve packed our bikes up and driven a minimum of 40 minutes to one of the few mountain bike-friendly parks in the area. Driving an hour or more to ride trail when you live less than 20 pedal strokes from miles and miles of trail, that crisscross the hills in every direction, is a bitter thing. I feel like a fool.
Of course, I’m not just coming to this realization today. Since I turned 14, I’ve known that I and other mountain bikers around here were being served a shit sandwich, light on the bread… but when you’re a kid, you encounter all manner of baffling crap in this world and you think, “Well, when I grow up, I’m sure someone will fix this mess.”
Waiting for other people to resolve your problems, however, is rarely a winning strategy. You want something sorted? You better sort it out yourself.
This evening, I saddle up and sample the forbidden fruit. Along the way, I run into two guys racing down the ridge as the sun begins to set. I pass another guy climbing out of the valley a few minutes later. If mountain biking these trails is supposed to be a secret around here, it’s a particularly poorly-kept secret. There are tire tracks everywhere. Clearly, there are plenty of riders who’ve essentially decided to flip the bird at the regulation book. I haven’t lived around here for years, so I start asking questions, “Are any of these trails bike legal now?”, “Are they changing the policies around here?”, “Do you guys still get tickets for riding here?”
They shrug and look uncomfortable. Yeah, you can still get slapped with a fine, but you know, it’s kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” thing. You watch your speed. You keep an eye out for rangers. You ride at dusk or at night when the hikers have gone home….
I’m familiar with all this—it’s often been the unofficial code of mountain bikers in areas like this. To poach or not to poach, has never been the question. The only question is when and how to poach. You just have to be smart
, the logic goes, about breaking the law.
But if you choose to break the law on the sly, aren’t you tacitly agreeing that the law makes sense? Because you aren’t objecting to the law, per se, you’re just objecting to getting caught whilst breaking it. There’s a big difference.
And there are so many lost opportunities here. Under the blanket ban on singletrack riding, mountain bikers are stuck riding at night or during off hours, sneaking around the periphery of things, always riding at some risk to themselves. How much better would it be if they could openly ride some of these trails without fear of getting a ticket?
Land managers lose just as much as mountain bikers under this paradigm. For one, they now have to spend a godawful amount of time running around, issuing tickets to riders, instead of doing the 101 other things required of them. That's not the job they signed up for. What’s more, if the ban was lifted, an honest and logical discussion could be had about which trails are actually well suited to mountain biking and which ones aren't. As it stands, some of these trails are too erosion prone or are better suited as hiking-only trails. Under the ban, however, mountain bikers are simply riding whatever they can covertly reach. Finally, trails always need maintenance and mountain bikers come out in droves to fix trails. That is, they’ll fix trails that they can legally
ride. Under the ban, the land managers are not only gaining a headache in law enforcement, they are also losing a tremendous potential work force. Everyone, in short, loses under this scenario.
I’m torn about this whole subject. Part of me feels guilty even writing about poaching—publicly admitting that I’ve done it at all. I could be making things worse for riders in California, when I’m just an infrequent visitor these days. By the time this column goes live, I’ll be back home in Bellingham, Washington where mountain biking gets a big warm hug and a high five from land managers and city officials. Who am I to screw things up even more for riders who don't have it so well? Couldn’t I have just written something about bottom brackets and called it a day?
Yeah, I could’ve. Maybe I should’ve. But I also think that if we simply try to sneak around the bans, instead of outright opposing them, those blanket restrictions on mountain biking will never go away.
I understand why people poach trails in places where mountain biking is largely off limits. I just did it. It was good. At least, it was good today. But simply poaching trails and being a closeted mountain biker in these areas does nothing to secure you a better ride tomorrow. Long term, it's a losing strategy and I think we should be candid about that fact with ourselves and with the people who manage trails where mountain biking is still largely off limits. Public policies don't change because you quietly disagree with them. They change when you publicly present better alternatives. And we do
have better alternatives than poaching. There are plenty of places where mountain bikers and hikers share trails, where mountain bikers are a driving force in building better, sustainable trails. There are simply some parts of the world where the people who make the laws still aren't aware of this.
So, I admit it: I’m a criminal. Or at least I am, if you accept the idea that riding a mountain bike on singletrack trails should be illegal. I know better than that. You probably do too. It’s time we all stepped out of the dark and helped other people see the light. Mountain biking is not a crime.