Tuesday, August 14, 2012

MTB Specific Trails - Better as the Exception, Not the Rule

There is a movement in mountain biking to build MTB-specific trails. As with other fashions I've seen come and go (remember the freeride craze of 2001-2003), I'm not especially excited by this trend. Instead I feel that mtb-specific trails should be the exception, not the rule. The North Umpqua Trail (NUT) makes my case perfectly.

The NUT is arguably one of the best trails in the Western United States. It snakes along the North Umpqua River in dense forests of Douglas fir in central Oregon for over 60 miles. It is a mountain biker's dream: challenging climbs, technical sections alternating with fast flowing ones, incredible scenery and switchbacks that are ridable. All with great camping and swimming nearby.

Here is the thing: the NUT is great for ALL kinds of non-motorized users. Hikers, equestrians and cyclists alike can enjoy its entire length without having sections segregated by either trail design or closure. No one is excluded by the demands or preferences of another group.

Rather than mountain bike specific trails, it often makes more sense to advocate for trails that are mtb friendly. This means trails which include features enjoyable to mountain bikers, but not at the expense of other trail users. These features include berms which are not crazy off-camber, navigable switchbacks, grades which exceed 10% for only short periods, turns with open sight lines where possible and choke points that calm speed before a blind corner.

I've seen many trails which follow these conventions that are MUCH more fun to ride than certain mtb-specific trails, which are often over-built with mechanized equipment that make them ride like pavement. Having said this, I have ridden and enjoyed well built mtb-specific trails. The Fruita and Grand Junction area offers such trails, including Holy Cross and Freeride. Note that these particular trails rely more on existing terrain and onsite building materials to make them special, not an earth-leveling dozer.

Don't get me wrong: a properly built mtb-specific trail can offer a fun experience. I just don't think it should be the default ask of mountain bikers. Put the shoe on the other foot: what if you were a cyclist interested in an exciting new trail but local equestrians demanded it be designed with only horses in mind (wider trails, extended steep grades, perhaps gravel surfaces, etc.) it might come off as a bit selfish.

It takes a large volume of support from a community to build legal trails, often more than the local bike contingent can deliver. Many people need to unite to make it happen and only a few people are needed to derail it. Rather than pitching for a trail geared for only one user group, it is a more attractive offer to build a trail that works well for everyone, including cyclists. With this approach, we can get more trails on the ground and more options for cyclists to ride in the local trail inventory. Which is the best possible outcome of advocacy.