Our sport was built upon the backs of previous wildland users, primarily hikers and equestrians. Many miles of those trails were less than perfect for cycling. If you were lucky, like the folks in Squamish and Pemberton BC, motorcycle trials riders also pioneered your trails (arguably some of best and most challenging mountain bike routes to this day). Regardless of who made them, initially, most backcountry trails were about two feet wide (60cm). They offered a technical challenge, a closer rub with natural surroundings and most of all, an escape from grinding up and down 20-foot-wide dusty fire roads all day. Mountain bikers spent two decades happily exploring them.Made-for-Mountain Bike Trails
Inevitably, diggers began to modify existing trails with simple features - berms and jumps spiced up popular descents. Alternate lines and wooden features offered more technical options. Made-for-mountain bike trails launched the freeride movement, and on the heels of freeride's legendary diggers, popular ski resorts cashed in on the fun with dedicated downhill lines and no-sweat uplifts. As this evolution ("progression" if you want) moved forward, trails got faster and wider - in some cases, a lot wider.
Your idea of the perfect mountain bike trail probably hinges upon where you came from and at what point in the past 40 years you hopped onto the mountain bike bus. Old-school riders from the '80s and 90's are typically happy on any trail from a foot wide on up. Those who cut their baby teeth riding BMX jump lines might accept four to six feet (two meters) as a comfortable trail width. Riders who entered the sport during the relatively recent flow-trail era seem to relish five to ten foot wide lines, depending upon the features. Then there's the "Whistler effect."The Whistler Effect
Downhill bikes added a whole new dimension to the sport in regards to speed and features. Whistler mountain bike park was the first to realize that catering to big bikes required new trail parameters. Almost anyone can go fast and big on a DH bike, but the delta between an average, good, and pro-level rider is so large
that passing lanes became a necessity. You could drive a trophy truck down portions of Whistler's most famous lines, and make it down many others driving a narrow wheelbase UTV. Traffic concerns aside, bigger is arguably better at the bike park. Wide landings offer more options for tricks, monster berms ensure you'll roll into the next jump with ample speed to clear it - and there's also the need to expedite emergency vehicles to every corner of the property.
So, How Wide is Too Wide?
Whistler's flow-trail architecture became the inspiration for lift-accessed mountain bike parks worldwide. Many of today's most influential riders learned their skills racing DH, and riding features at lift-access trail centers. Builders who have sprung forth from those ranks are carving wider swaths and erecting more monumental mounds as they express their visions of the perfect mountain bike trail. The Joyride course doesn't seem out of place above Whistler Village, but a homemade version in the dedicated open space above your home town is sure to draw some criticism.
Preparing the 2019 Joyride course at Whistler. A perfect location for huge features and 50 thousand fans.
By definition, mountain biking is a contextual activity. Ski areas are basically curated clear cuts. No mountain bike trail could possibly be a negative impact in a place where hundred yard swaths have been leveled to facilitate snowsports. I'm not sure if it's the same in Europe, but in the Pacific Northwest, many mountain bike flow trails are constructed on logging leases that are slated to be clear cut, which makes a strong argument for ambitious builds. Most of our sport, however, occurs in shared environments - public lands intended to be preserved and protected and enjoyed by future generations. In such cases, size definitely matters.
Sanctioned or otherwise, flow trails are the prevailing trend, and we're building them in various sizes and lengths on public lands, where other users neither share our aesthetic, nor have the slightest need for the features we hold so dear to our mountain bike experience.
Have We Come Full Circle?
Expressed or implied, there's a responsibility for those who recreate in shared natural environments to blend in. Some builders are masters at this. Some, not so much.
Flow trails are manufactured fantasy experiences for cyclists. (Disclosure: I absolutely love riding them.) The rare few I have hit that actually were placed carefully into the natural landscape were magnificent creations. The other 99 percent, with their spacious, curated corners and sculpted, institutionalized features look like travelling carnival rides in paradise.
Master builders create trails that utilize natural features and flow with the landscape. Chris Spilling photo
Did we reach the point where our skills and technology have eclipsed the singletrack experience? Do we need to carve private roads into the mountains to enjoy mountain biking at a higher amplitude? Will future riders depend exclusively upon dedicated mountain bike trails? Have we outgrown the concept of a shared environment? Tough questions. Fortunately, today's poll will be far more simple to answer: