Photo: The bike-optimized trails of Sandy Ridge, Oregon. Image by Leslie Kehmeier.
The risks and rewards that mountain biking offers have much in common with many outdoor sports, such as climbing, surfing and skiing. But there is a crucial difference with mountain biking. Understanding this is key to grasping some of the struggles that mountain bikers face—and the solutions that are emerging.
Mountain biking requires as much skill, fitness and commitment as any of the activities I've mentioned. With most outdoor sports, however, other people can't access the same physical space as an experienced practitioner. If surfers had to share heavy breaks with casual snorkelers and swimmers tensions might arise. Fortunately, when the waves are breaking overhead there's usually nobody else around other than skilled surfers—but mountain bikers of all abilities are generally expected to share a 18- to 24-inch wide trail with hikers, equestrains and picnicking families.
We mountain bikers need to be honest with ourselves, as well as with land managers and other types of user groups, and admit that some riders are drawn to the more challenging and committing aspects of the sport, and that this type of experience is not always easy to manage on shared-use trail systems. A cross-country racer is not going to be successful if he never pushes to the edge of his physical ability by riding flat-out fast. A gravity-oriented rider is not going to be content with always keeping both tires on the ground and taking every turn gingerly.
Of course, it’s long been possible for mountain bikers to ride both aggressively and responsibly by visiting resorts and other pay-to-play areas, or by finding remote trails where nobody else is around. But a new trend of bike-specific trails on public lands is emerging as well, providing a different approach that allows riders to push their limits without infringing on other trail users' experiences.
Joey Klein, one of IMBA’s most experienced trail designers and builders, reports that every trail he worked on in 2015 was designed and built specifically for mountain biking. Many of these trails are signed by the land manager for bike-use only, and often for one-way travel to accommodate higher speeds and reduce the problems that can occur amongst mountain bikers when riders climb and descend on the same trail.
“The single user, single direction alternative is really taking off on an international level,” says Klein. "This year I got to revisit a longstanding project in Tasmania and then help finish a flow trail in Hong Kong. At home, there were a bunch of successful, bike-optimized projects, like the Rush Trail in Draper, Utah, and recently a build with the Bureau of Land Management in Cedar City, Utah.”
Klein goes on to explain that foot travelers on these trails can be discouraged through signage from using the directional, downhill trails that are optimized for mountain biking. “The descent trails provide numerous ways for riders to leave the ground, so the potential for crashes would be high if hikers and horseback riders were present,” says Klein. “But those users are happy to share the ascending trails with bikes—everyone is moving at slower speeds and conflicts are basically non-existent even with two-way traffic.”
Directional trails can help take the load off larger shared-use trail systems by providing an avenue of fast or challenging riding, says Klein. Sometimes it's best to separate trail types or zones from one another, so that everyone can find their prefered outdoor experience.
Not every land manager is ready to take the plunge and commit resources to developing bike-specific, single-user trails. In many cases, shared-use systems will continue to deliver great trail experiences for all types of users. But where there are significant populations of riders looking for trails suited to more aggressive riding a different approach could be the right solution. Many of IMBA’s chapters have seen good results with this style of trail development—see below for some of the real-world success stories.
Examples of Bike-Optimized Trails on Public Lands
- Fountainhead Regional Park, Virginia. Some segments are one-way, with a high degree of challenge on some trails.
- Blackjack trail, Buffalo Creek trail system in Colorado. Double-black diamond difficulty in a national forest.
- Spirit Mountain, near Duluth, Minnesota. Bike-only, gravity-oriented riding similar to a bike resort but on public land.
- Paradise Royale, Northern California. Bike-optimized, prefered direction riding in a backcountry setting.
- Bomb Dog Loop, Coldwater Mountain, Alabama. Gravity features, preferred direction, a lot of fun.
- Hustle and Flow, La Tierra trails in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A beginner-friendly flow trail that offers jumps and berms.
- Rush Trail, Draper, Utah. No hikers, no horses, just mountain bikes and downhill only.
- Sandy Ridge trail system, near Portland, Oregon. High-challenge trails, many are signed as preferred-use and preferred-direction for mountain biking.
Many other examples exist—please post your favorites in the comments section!
— Mark Eller is IMBA's communications director.