Marin County. It's the hallowed ground where our sport first took root. It should be a renowned destination for mountain bikers, but this place has been all but forgotten by the outside world. If you do decide to visit, you can take a stroll through history at the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, and check out their outstanding vintage mountain bike collection. Hop on your bike and, as long as you observe the ten miles an hour speed limit, you can descend the first official downhill race-course on Mount Tamalpais. After that, you'll want to explore the area's stunning trail network that threads through shaded sub-tropical forests and offers some of the most spectacular view-sheds in California. But you'd have to break the law to enjoy them, because almost every singletrack trail in Marin is off limits to bikes. It's been that way almost since the first mountain bikers rolled into the woods.
I made the pilgrimage to Marin to attend the annual Ales and Trails Festival and meet a hard-working bunch of volunteers and trail builders who are trying to turn that situation around. I would soon learn that, in spite of the underlying politics that the mountain bike community has to battle with, the spirit and stoke is strong as ever in the birthplace of mountain biking. The festival is staged at China Camp State Park - the same hills that spawned mountain biking - to celebrate the community's hard-won successes in their quest for more trail access in Marin County.Marin County mountain biking trails
Given the circumstances, it's a surprise that there's much to celebrate at all. In Marin and the East Bay area the gains in trail access for mountain bikes are measured in inches, not miles. If it wasn't for the advocacy work of a core group of locals, led largely by Vernon Huffman (who some consider a saint), legal mountain biking opportunities in Marin County would likely be all but extinct, and this celebration of cycling culture would be more of a memorial of what barely was and could have been.A Rough Start
Mountain biking was destined for access issues before it was ever conceived. Marin County, CA, home to Mount Tamalpais and the storied spot where Marin locals started the sport of mountain biking on clunkers in the 1970s, is also on the doorstep of multiple environmental protection and activist organizations, including The Sierra Club, The Marin Conservation League, and many of their most affluent and vocal supporters.
Traditional users, most of whom walked erect, had no clue what mountain bikes were doing on their trails. According to Huffman, when riders started to show up on the mountain with retrofitted bikes, people basically said, "What the hell is this?!" Fearing the potential impacts of bikes on trails they rallied successfully to kill them with fire. Marin is populated with old money and legislative power. A few well-placed calls to the land managers was all it took to shut us out. It was Bambi Vs Godzilla
Fast forward to the 1990s. The mountain biking craze had taken hold across the globe. Manufacturers were investing heavily in it. Mountain bike specific trails were being built, and although there were often issues on the access front, the staunch anti-bike resistance had softened into a reluctant truce between user groups. Back in Marin, however, while most double tracks were open to bikes, singletrack trails were still contentiously off limits. After a decade of ineffective back-and-forth negotiations threatened to generate further restrictions, it became clear that only an all-out effort from the mountain bike community would turn the tide... Creating a Community to Build Access
With the threat of losing even more access in the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area looming in the '90s, mountain bikers banded together and formed Access4Bikes. A4B was initially a political organization, with the goal of electing leaders into office that were sympathetic to access issues plaguing mountain bikers. Stronger relationships with land managers and public officials have been critical in gaining increased access for bikes in Marin in the last two decades and these relationships are only getting stronger, although they come with their own complications.
Today, most of the current policy makers in office may support bikes, at least to an extent...some even ride, but there's only so much they can do.
According to veteran trail builder Sandor Lengyel, there are still a couple dozen people who believe bicycles on dirt are the antichrist and they will do anything in their power to stop us. Officials can't just go and take a sign down and open a trail to bikes, and some will admit (off the record) that bikes get the short end of any deal when it comes to land management and access.
To change the use designation of a trail, or even a wide greenway, is a multi-year endeavor that may or may not come to fruition and costs copious amounts of time and money. There is a rigid process full of environmental and social studies that have to be strictly followed. If not, then people and organizations get sued. At that point, everything is put on hold and it takes months or years for it to be revisited, along with tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For example: a small, seemingly insignificant connector trail in the Mill Valley area that cuts out a dangerous section of road for kids and commuters was just weeks away from being opened. At the last minute, a group opposed to bikes hired someone to analyze every single bit of it and the associated paperwork. One small error was found. A lawsuit was filed, taken to a sympathetic judge, and the project (which was in upwards of 25 years in the making) was shut down. The project is estimated to cost anywhere from $50,000-$100,000 to get it moving again.
Last year, the Access4Bikes Foundation was formed as a 501c3 corporation. Tax-deductible status is expected to attract donations from new sources and from the business community. Its mission is to build relationships with land managers by providing stewardship, and to give riders an avenue for advocacy. This new chapter in A4B's story allows the organization to work in a more efficient capacity, together with the Marin County Bicycle League, Marin County Open Spaces, the state park system, and other organizations, to increase trail access for bikes, and create trail growth opportunities by hosting work days and by supplying equipment and trained volunteers.New Growth
Times are changing. NICA high school leagues are growing, there's a breath of fresh life in the air, and mountain biking is growing. Studies have shown that mountain bikers are the second largest user group in the area with up to 40% of trail users being on bikes. Huffman says that the community seeing the kids out and about on the trails and thriving from the positive benefits that mountain biking provides is even beginning to leave an impression with some of those who had formerly been adversaries of mountain biking.
It's still a challenge to create new bike legal trail in Marin, but there is a large focus towards working on what trails are already there and helping area land managers and other trail users with trail upkeep. A lot of these trails aren't the most exciting, but collaborating with other users is helpful in building stronger relationships for mountain bikers. It's showing that they're invested and are here to stay.
Huffman says that with land managers now on their side the only real hurdle is the few people left still willing to hire attorneys and attempt to sue in order to stop progress. While this does work in slowing progress and costing countless dollars, the resolve of the mountain bike community is holding fast, and for the first time ever, there's a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.Celebrating Small Victories
As president of Access4Bikes, Vernon Huffman has worked tirelessly for decades to not only lead trail building and conservation efforts but also to promote and put on the Ales and Trails festival. This year, not that he didn't have enough going already with advocacy meetings, NICA races, and anything else imaginable, Huffman collaborated with Fanie Kok, Specialized's global trail advocacy guru to put on a trail dig day prior to the festival in order to further raise awareness for what's going on in Marin County. The trail work day brought volunteers from various organizations in the area...all with the goal of increasing trail access in whatever way possible. The trails at China Camp State Park are technically nothing to write home about. They're gentle climbs and descents, multi-use and built to IMBA specifications, but they are open to bikes and the importance of that can't be underscored in Marin County.Keeping the Stoke Alive
On the surface, the festival is not all that out of the ordinary if you just happened upon it. There are hundreds of people gathered in a meadow eating good food and drinking local beer with vendors, bike demos from various brands, group rides on the bit of legal trail around, and a rambunctious kids race around the expo area. Families, friends, bikes, and beer. There's a band, a raffle for a Stumpjumper donated by Specialized to raise money for the local trails, and Huffman giving awards out to locals who have helped with advocacy efforts to lots of cheers and applause - the standard festival fare.
There's something very different here, though. It's almost like you're on the set of a movie...the festival is unique, and it has a vibe that's on par, if not better than, events I've been to in places such as Bend, Sedona, Moab, Whistler, or wherever else there are miles of amazing singletrack open to bikes. That's the thing - you can't compare Marin to elsewhere. If you did, there would be little to celebrate. In a couple decades, there's been essentially no new trail built and one access issue after another for bikes. It should be more of a funeral, some would say, but that's not what it's about. It's about the people, the community, the birthplace of mountain biking, and the hope that eventually, someday, with the efforts of those like Vernon Huffman, a strong community, support from the industry, and progress measured in inches, there may be more.Moving Forward
So what's next? If you ask riders in Marin, you'll hear they're stoked to keep pushing and making things happen, moving forward one way or another no matter what odds are or aren't in their favor in their community. South African Fanie Kok, after first visiting Marin a couple of years ago and learning of the issues there is now on a world wide mission. Brought on by Specialized Bicycles initially to do market research, he's taken it upon himself to become a champion for trail advocacy worldwide by supporting and advocating for those like Vernon Huffman and organizations such as A4B that are working tirelessly to create more riding opportunities. Fanie will tell you that he believes we all have roots in and are connected to Marin, and the energy from what's happening there has impacts around the world. He also believes the bike industry must be involved on the ground with those making things happen in local communities.
Fanie's take away from it all is that we need to realize that in Marin County, although progress is happening, mountain biking is in a very similar place to where it was when it started, while elsewhere it's become a lifestyle and worldwide industry. He sees it as imperative to realize that, to respect and support trail builders and advocates at all costs, and pay homage to the sport by recognizing and supporting the force mountain biking has become, the sacrifices people have made, and what it took for the sport to get to get where it is today.