15 June 2009

bikefix Rant: Dumbing Down Our Trails

A couple of weeks ago, Charlie and I were out on one of our newer local trails. Built by mountain bikers rather than hikers or equestrians, it's a great little guy- grippy and twisty with a number of well-spaced and challenging steps, logs, switchbacks and rocks. When on this trail, I rarely ride everything, but know where I need to improve and usually have a go at all of the obstacles. Now this new trail is far from the stunt-filled type popularized on Vancouver's North Shore, it's more akin to classic New England singletrack: fun and challenging with a handful of puzzles to keep people trying.

For this reason I was surprised when we came around a corner to find that an 8in high tree that had been lying across the trail had been moved. Sure it was on a slight incline, but it was easily rideable in both directions and I hardly thought twice about it. Clearly, the builders (who had invested a good deal of their own time in building a trail for everyone to enjoy) had considered it an integral part of the experience- otherwise they'd have removed it themselves. Presumably, someone had come along, had difficulty with the obstacle, and taken its removal upon themselves.

This is the sort of thing that I've been noticing more and more in our area. Sometimes its subtle- raking trails clear of rocks in preparation for a race; sometimes less so- the construction of a shonky stone ramp making what had been a challenge against which riders could gauge their skills into a beginner level doodle. Of course I understand that land managers have to strike a balance between providing challenge for users and reducing unnecessary potential for harm. I also understand that if a trail is too hard, beginner and intermediate riders will lose heart and stop trying. That said, it is important for riders of all abilities to be challenged. In our risk-averse society, it's often forgotten that without challenge, there's little opportunity for growth. The sport is mountain biking, after all- the technical challenge is part of the experience. For a predictable, non-technical experience, our city is blessed with a wealth of paved bike paths and beginner-level dirt paths.

What could the root of this sort of behavior be? While I'm taken aback by the kind of audacity that would lead a rider to tailor an existing trail to their particular skill level, that could be a part of it. It's also possible that these riders could have bruised a knee or twisted an ankle in failing to clean a section and be hoping to spare fellow riders the same pain and indignity. Could it be that they feel that every trail needs to be 100% rideable, every time it's ridden? Could that rider's choice of inappropriately treadless tires (saving 200g per wheel!) be clouding their judgment of what is rideable and what is not? Without meeting these folks, it's hard to know for certain. What I do know is that they need to stop dumbing down our trails.

One of my favorite local rides is, in a word, brutal. After an hour or two and thousands of feet of sustained climbing, one comes to the area's most technically challenging trails. Tree Spring sits at about 10,000 feet and has a good deal of exposed rock. While I consider myself to be a reasonably skilled rider, I never expect to completely clean Tree Spring. In fact, I don't believe that I ever have. That's part of its beauty. On a good day, I'll try everything and do reasonably well. On an average day? I walk several short sections. That's OK. It's the trying, failing, learning and succeeding that will make me a stronger, better rider. All of this is all part of the mountain biking experience.

On a recent ride, I was having a particularly good day: nearly to the top of Tree Spring with only one section walked. It was a beautifully overcast and breezy day, perfect for the kind of effort Tree Spring requires. Coming up on what I knew to be the last difficult bit (and anticipating a good final effort), I found that someone had spent a good deal of time (though possibly not skill) building a stone ramp up the 10in high step. To put it simply, I felt as though I'd been robbed. I had 90 minutes and a good deal of energy invested to get to this point, to the final challenge, only to be denied the opportunity to either succeed or fail.

I climbed the noisily loose ramp and up the trail to my usual snack spot. Despite having already been rear-ended in my car that day and had its shift knob pop off while shifting from first to second gear, the denial of this challenge was by far the day's low point. Rather than making me angry, I was saddened by the diminishment of a great piece of trail. This step is far from the most difficult part of a hard trail- it's not like adding this ramp magically made cleaning Tree Spring a likelihood. It did, however, dramatically affect my ride that day.

What riders need to remember is that different people enjoy different aspects of mountain biking. There are many of us who measure ourselves against a known set of trails. We know how we've progressed (or regressed) by our weekly ride on local trails like Tree Spring or our annual trip to Moab or Whistler. Without technical and physical challenges, trails can become too easy and lose interest over time. Without challenges, we don't have the opportunity for self-improvement or to learn from other riders. Without challenges, we might as well bolt on a pair of aero bars, don coordinating team outfits and hang up our knobbies. Sure, there are trail features that you and I will never ride well (if at all). Be aware, though, that there is a rider out there who comes to these challenges month after month and year after year and one day will. Diminishing these existing challenges not only unfairly deprives that rider, but prevents us from ever becoming that rider.


Epilogue: I returned to Tree Spring this weekend to find that the ramp had been removed. While I hadn't ridden everything up to that point, I had a go at that last step and was able to feel the satisfaction of a challenge met. That was the high point of my day.