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Who Made The Rules?

[Photo: Closeup look at a muddy biker as featured in a somewhat controversial Subaru ad. At IMBA's request, Subaru ammended the ad copy to state that it's best to avoid riding on muddy trails, and advised following IMBA's "Rules of the Trail."]

IMBA's Rules of the Trail have inspired more downloads and page visits than any other web resource we offer. I am not surprised. Most of us want to behave responsibly. Yet, any set of rules or code of conduct will not prevent bad behavior. While I believe that reports about bad behavior by mountain bikers are often highly exaggerated, we all have lapses. And when riders behave badly, organized clubs, chapters and IMBA are typically called on to "fix the problem."

I have heard it said, and you likely have too, that IMBA and its clubs and chapters are the "trail police." I cringe whenever I hear IMBA mischaracterized that way and I hear it from various constituent segments of the mountain biking world — from industry members, from the media and from the competitive corners of the sport. I also hear it from those who don't like sharing trails, although their tone is more like, "Shame on you IMBA, for not enforcing your rules and cracking down on the mountain bikers who ignore the rules."

I admit establishing and promoting IMBA's "Rules of the Trail" gives some credence to the perception the we are preoccupied with riders' good and bad behaviors. Maybe it's the moniker itself that has earned us this unflattering nickname of the trail police? Some of our most committed and passionate volunteers and club leaders do seem to relish enforcing correct behaviors. Some would like IMBA to take a more prominent and assertive role as the enforcer of the rules.

That's not going to happen. IMBA did not establish Rules of the Trail so that we could take a quasi-law-enforcement role. Nor are these guidelines motivated by some moral code. Thinking of the rules in a moralistic manner results in an emphasis on shaming or punishing those who don't follow the rules. There's a better way.

The purpose for publishing the rules is to promote sustainability — sustaining access to trails and mitigating our impact when we ride a bike off-road. The rules are an educational tool. And like so many other IMBA programs and activities the rules are best applied as a means to grow knowledge where otherwise ignorance would lead to greater impacts, both socially and environmentally, e.g., natural resource and habitat impact.

All of us, when in nature, will cause some impacts — regardless of the mode of travel, and whether the trails are dry or damp. The decision about when those impacts are too high is not IMBA's to make. Keep in mind too that what's acceptable in one region might not fly in another place — if riders in northern Europe never ventured out in a mist they might go years without touching their bikes. (See the photo gallery in the post for a look at some weather-proofed trail in Wales that I was fortunate enough to ride.)

Whether one adheres to the "rules" or not, is ultimately an individual and personal responsibility. And like anything in life and nature there are consequences to ignoring the rules. And some of the consequences ripple out to tarnish the image of the sport of mountain biking and that can have consequences to sustaining access to trails.

I recently read my local club, the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance's (BMA) guidance for Trail Etiquette. I like their take on the topic, which they summarized, "Be Cool."

Be cool out there on the trail, knowing it's an awesome privilege to ride our bikes off-road. And be cool and resist the urge to "shame" others into following the rules. Be an educator, not an enforcer.

+ Comment On This Post


Good point about being an

Good point about being an "educator". Unfortunately, having IMBA's "name" prominently displayed in the Subaru add which sends the message of endorsing if not encouraging riding muddy trails is not a step in the right direction for educating the masses of bikers out there that don't understand the ins and outs of sustainability.

I think the hard part for

I think the hard part for trail workers is seeing the damage done by poachers riding a trail when they are doing damage that is going to take significant volunteer hours to fix vs being able to build new trail. People want to step in and help the land manager enforce the rules to limit the damage and get everyone back on the trails quicker.