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Long Live Long Rides!

A version of the essay below, along with the "Can You do That?" sidebar, appears in the Fall 2013 edition of IMBA's Trail News print newsletter.

IMBA has been fortunate to work with some crackerjack advertising agencies over the years. One our most memorable campaigns was titled “Long live long rides.” Engineered by TDA Advertising, the spots featured lighthearted images, like a dog food bowl so overflowing that Fido could survive while his miscreant owner went for a weekend-long ride.

The campaign launched in 2001 and was replaced a few years later, but we still get requests for bumper stickers, T-shirts and other gear featuring the “Long live long rides” tagline. Why? Most mountain bikers don’t often get a chance to disappear into the woods for days, even weeks, at a time. It might only happen once or twice in your entire riding career — but you’ll remember your longest rides for the rest of your life.

IMBA believes that mountain bikers need better access to long-distance trails, and that a concerted advocacy effort will help bring more and better opportunities for this kind of treasured riding experience. We are bringing back the “Long live long rides” tagline to rally support, and we have already begun the policy work to support our initiative.

If you are wondering what’s on the table, I’ll be specific. The National Trails System offers unrealized opportunities for non-motorized recreation, (with the exception of the Appalachian Trail — see the sidebar below). The Pacific Crest Trail currently offers no bicycle access. IMBA has already begun advocating for a change in this policy. Not for sections of the PCT that are protected as Wilderness, but in places where mountain biking would be compatible with other uses.

The revamped “Long live long rides” campaign does not focus solely on National Scenic Trails. We are interested in developing possibilities for multi-hour and multi-day rides wherever we find them. North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey trail (an IMBA Epic) is a good example of a multi-day ride that faces pressing advocacy challenges due to threats from oil and gas development.

IMBA and its chapters’ efforts to create and protect bike access on these trails will undoubtedly draw attention, and not all of it will be positive. Earlier this fall, a U.S. Forest Service office in Colorado withdrew a decision that would have allowed mountain biking on a yet-to-be-built segment on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. National groups filed appeals protesting the plans for shared-use status — the Forest Service office pulled its pro-bike decision and has yet to publish its revised version.

It was interesting to watch the reaction when a hiking group recently stated, “Some trails aren’t meant to be shared,” and launched an online petition claiming that mountain biking is not an appropriate activity for National Scenic Trails. They were reacting to an IMBA fundraising appeal that pointed to the work I’ve described above. Many of the resulting comments — perhaps even the majority of them — were supportive of increased access for mountain bikers, though plenty of people spoke up for the notion that mountain bikers should not be granted any new access.

IMBA is committed to the idea that trails can be shared. Mountain bikers do not need access to every inch of every long-distance trail, but there are good opportunities to expand IMBA's shared-use agreements with land managers, and with other stakeholder groups. We are also eager to help, and have much to offer, with volunteer stewardship efforts on these trails. I am utterly convinced that trail experiences are enriched when a diversity of outdoor enthusiasts work together to enjoy and protect common resources.

Long live long rides!

— Mike Van Abel, IMBA Executive Director

Can You do That?

Mountain biking on National Scenic Trails — can you even do that? Some groups have argued that these trails were created specifically for hiking, but only the Appalachian Trail was expressly given a primary use as a footpath in the law. The original 1968 version of the National Trails System Act explicitly states that the trails should, "provide for the ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population." In a 1983 amendment, bicycling was specifically mentioned as an acceptable use in the National Trails System.

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My meeting with the American Hiking Society

After the deadline for this essay, which was written for IMBA's print newsletter, I met with the President of the American Hiking Society at their offices outside Washington D.C. It was a civil, respectful, nearly two-hour meeting in which we dug into the policy aspects of our organization's respective interests and positions. I understand the AHS position advocating for places that are hiking only. However, I do not accept the AHS thinking regarding shared-use trails. Their rationale is based on the idea that a person on a bicycle will inevitably "hinder the hiking experience." There are simply too many examples of trails where hikers and mountain bikers (and trail runners, backpakers, equestrians and others) all get along to accept this argument. And, the notion that some trails may not be safe when shared has more to do with assumptions about speed of travel than a basis in fact. A trail user's speed is shaped by two major factors: 1) trail design and 2) personal responsibility or behavior. The vast majority of mountain bikers, when traveling on a multi-use/shared trail, know how to behave in a safe and courteous manner. We know how to control and limit our speed when hikers or other trail users are present. Are there exceptions? Of course, but no user group displays perfect trail behavior at all times. As a matter of policy, IMBA's position is that mountain bikers deserve more access to long distance trails than we currently enjoy. If the AHS rejects this notion, so be it. We will agree to disagree and both sides will advocate for their positions in a respectful manner.