Thanks to Shimano for sponsoring this land manager training event.
More than any other outdoor recreation group, mountain bikers are interested in the experience of a trail itself. How does it move, feel, undulate, meander, twist, turn and transition? Is it a technical puzzle or a smooth, fast ride? Mountain bikers are also increasingly interested in the impacts of their trails. They want fun singletrack that is also sustainable and, largely, they are building and maintaining just that.
For nearly three decades, IMBA has been educating public land managers across the U.S. and around the world about sustainable trail design. Our work has positioned us as a leading authority. Thanks to IMBA’s programs, resources and two iconic textbooks, most everyone who deals with trails now knows about the first two parts of sustainable trail design: minimal impact to the ecosystem and minimal maintenance costs. But the third component of sustainability has been a bit harder to capture, define and teach: sustainability that provides the desired user experience.
IMBA and its Trail Solutions program are at the forefront of educating land managers to think more about the mountian biking experience, whether they are starting at a blank canvas of land for a master trail plan, or trying to upgrade an existing legacy system.
“Land managers regularly design new trails by identifying routes on maps then looking at environmental impacts on the ground. But rarely do they think about trail characteristics that would create a specific experience for users,” said Jill Van Winkle, an IMBA Trail Specialist. “We’re trying to move that conversation forward on a national level. We’re trying to drive home the message that—quite often—focusing solely on objectives for environmental sustainability in trail design leads to a terrible user experience or 20 miles of trails that are identical, boring and don’t serve the local riders appropriately.”
Taking local riding experiences into account isn’t just for grins and giggles; “social sustainability” contributes to environmental sustainability, as well. If the kind of trail experiences locals need and want aren’t provided, users may take things into their own hands and partake in illegal trailbuilding. And a failure to consider bike “flow”—how a trail carries the rider and transitions from feature to feature—can lead to skidding, brake bumps, trail widening and other negative impacts on soils and vegetation.
IMBA’s education push includes advanced trainings with local, state and federal land management agencies across the U.S. In late November, 35 land managers from the Rocky Mountain region gathered in Salida, Colo., for an advanced trail design discussion led by Van Winkle and Zach Jarrett, Outdoor Recreation Planner for the Oregon/Washington Bureau of Land Management. The land managers—from the U.S. Forest Service to state parks departments to local county trail planners—spent half a day in class, then half a day walking local trails and discussing their designs. The following morning, IMBA staff led the land managers on various rides to begin understanding, first hand, the broad spectrum of the mountain biking experience.
The training was funded by Shimano in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is currently working with IMBA to develop nationwide “guidelines for a quality trail experience” with regard to building and maintaining mountain bike trails. The goal of the IMBA-BLM partnership is to move beyond simply creating trail access to a new era of providing high-quality experiences for mountain bikers.
“There is nothing in this project about sanitized trails,” said Van Winkle. “We just want land managers to identify users and their experience goals before they start cutting trails. Who are local mountain bikers? Where do they want to go? What trail experiences are they seeking? What’s appropriate for the setting? And while most riders are intermediate, we don’t want trail planners to forget about the beginner and advanced riders.”
A significant emphasis of this educational process is explaining the idea of “play.” Mountain bikers are the primary user group that seeks this out as a significant part of their trail experience; it’s a major component of any ride. Van Winkle explained to the land managers that play is what engages a rider. Play translates to trail experiences with everything from berms that help a rider carry speed to texture and/or exposure that adds rowdiness to a trail.
IMBA understands that land managers must work within unavoidable environmental and regulatory constraints. But, as Bernhardt put it, “Trail building is not like hanging drywall. It’s more like commissioning a piece of artwork.”