I spent a half day
swinging a Pulaski and stacking rocks, making a step-down at a popular riding zone. I rarely do any trail work these days, but I did my time. I put eight years behind the shovel working with volunteer groups at a California State park, where one of the tasks I did was organize crews to keep the trails in shape and, occasionally, build new ones. Some of those routes are now off limits to mountain bikes, but that’s OK with me.
Our sport was founded on borrowed trails. Our pioneers rode singletracks and abandoned mining routes built and maintained by other people – some paid crews, but mostly volunteers – and I’m sure that none of those men and women had any idea that their efforts would help launch a new mechanized sport called mountain biking. They were building for future generations of hikers and horseback riders, not bicycles. Few of them (at least the ones I met) liked the idea of bicycles plying their handiwork, but they managed to find a way to make room for us. It was the birth of the multi-use trail.
I first learned to wield the Pulaski and McLeod under the watchful eye of a veteran forest ranger who was one of those guys. I clearly remember his wry smile as he watched me struggle to pry up a small root, then told me that his ten-man crew could clear and cut a mile of trail per day.
Later, I would become the one who staked the route, lectured about safety, and who walked the line, guiding new volunteers as they learned to swing those same tools. I can tell with one look if a trail is going to drain well. I can tell by sound if a tool is being used correctly – and I can also tell you that we never managed to cut 660 feet of trail per hour for an eight-hour work day. His crew must have been ass-kickers.
Digging at the state park, we dreamed about building features, often pausing at an ideal spot to trace with our arms, how we would shape an imaginary double, or how we would sculpt a berm around this or that corner, but that’s as far as we dared to take it. We were building the infrastructure that all park visitors would be sharing, not a playground for bikes.
As mountain bikers, our work there was a peace offering to reach out to established hiking and equestrian groups in an effort to gain access to the park. In the end, we were successful. The meandering trail network we helped to construct is far from challenging, but it offers people from all walks of life the chance to escape the crush of the city. Mountain bikes are welcome, although, if you want to ride flat-out, foot out, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
|At some point, trails ceased being a means to a destination - for mountain bike riders, they became the destination. |
“Elsewhere” used to mean, “less-traveled multi-use trails where the potential to scare non-cyclists was slim,” but now when riders have an urge to shred, most of us have the option to express it on mountain-bike-specific trails - much like the one I was working on today. Legal or otherwise, mountain bikers have been building them for two decades and they have taken a lot of pressure off of traditional trail systems. I never dreamed that I’d see the day when I’d find official, “Bikes Only” signs posted at a trail heads. They seem like a rite of passage.
The trails here were built by and are almost exclusively used by cyclists, and that got me thinking on the walk back to my car about how far the sport has progressed, and how profoundly different the average mountain biker’s perception and use of trails has become.
Originally, the purpose of trails was to connected users to destinations like prominent peaks, secret swimming holes, waterfalls, scenic overlooks, or to reach out to other systems. At some point, trails ceased being a means to a destination – for mountain bike riders, they became the destination. That is a fundamental shift in consciousness which is echoed in the way we describe our cycling experiences and how we rate the places where we ride. We most often speak about features, flow and fun factor. We describe trail conditions in great detail. We talk Strava times. The surrounding landscape, however, rarely gets a mention.
Commonality of purpose, is the key ingredient for successfully blending diverse groups into a shared environment. At one time, it could be argued that mountain bikers, trail runners, backpackers, dog-walkers, day-hikers and horseback riders were all on the same page, once they left the parking lot and set out into the wild. But, that is no longer the case. A perfect day for most mountain bikers could be described as a physically demanding roller coaster ride, beautifully crafted through natural terrain. That’s not a sentence I’d expect to hear from anyone walking through the woods.
|Mountain bikers have built hundreds of miles of new trails, but for the most part, you need wheels to enjoy them.|
Looking back, the west faces of the hills were brilliantly lit by the afternoon sun and I could just make out the boulder where I had been working. Two riders were perched on the lip, scoping out the drop. At the trailhead, people were pulling bikes out of vehicles and padding up for a quick lap before nightfall. A middle-aged couple entered the park walking three German Shepherds. They seemed out of context, and I wondered if our sport had reached a tipping point.
Mountain bikers have built hundreds of miles of new trails, but for the most part, you need wheels to enjoy them. Two and four-legged creatures have no need for berms, drops or doubles, which puts us in an awkward situation: for thirty years, we have been asking (sometimes demanding) people to share their trails with us, yet now that our sport has grown up, we have no useful currency with which to return that favor. That said, there are other, perhaps more effective ways we can express our gratitude. We can start by turning down our shred-o-meters to match the vibes of non-cyclists while we are sharing multi-use trail systems. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to consider returning a trail to milder folk in places where mountain bikers never did find a way to play well with others.