Editor: Sometimes we think we have it bad over here in the UK, but in the US there are two different mountain bike trail advocacy groups with conflicting ideas on access and strategy, in turn also conflicting with other outdoor user groups, against a backdrop of lawmakers apparently trying to smuggle oil derricks into every last national monument and protected piece of wilderness. What is a mountain biker’s place in all this? Over to Amanda:
First of all, I’m not the enemy. Secondly, I’m not perfect. Thirdly, we need some real talk up in this bitch.
Listen, I’ve accidentally blown a corner and had to brake hard to avoid another trail user, too — anyone who’s ridden long enough has. Let’s just get that out of the way. I’ve had to apologise profusely for scaring the daylights out of someone, and I always feel like a jackass, especially when they walk away still pissed about it.
I’m also not non-confrontational. You all know me. I’ll step in and throw down any day of the week and twice on Sunday (or when I’m particularly annoyed or have had too much sugar). I’m not anyone who has a soapbox to preach on or a pulpit to pound.
BUT. There seems to be a significant lack of perspective and self-reflection going on in the outdoor community right now, so let me lay on the train tracks and absolve myself of some sins so that we can all take a closer look at WHY other trail users seem to despise mountain bikers.
First: Strava. Second: ego. Third: we’re assholes.
We build jumps in the middle of trails. We go too fast. We blow corners (*cough cough*). We always seem to be racing somewhere, hooting and hollering for no good reason and generally disturbing the peace. Were we raised in a damn barn?!
Okay, that last line was a little over the top. But there seems to be a distinct gap in perspectives between different groups of trail users and as someone who does a little bit of all of it, I’d like to help explain. First, however, some background (because all detective novels have good background):
I grew up in rural Utah on a horse farm. I rode horses before I could even walk because my dad is insane and made sure we were his kids by seeing if we’d fall off and die. Darwinism, eh? Some kids start out with skis on their feet. My siblings and I started on horseback. As I grew up, bikes came and went but having seven kids who are all hellraisers isn’t cheap and buying tubes and tires and chains and… You get the point. The bikes were broke more often than not and the horses were right there. So. My mom and I also did a lot of hiking together. Our whole family spent a lot of time in the mountains behind my house, which were in National Forest thanks to living in such close proximity to the infamous Nebo Loop and Mt. Nebo. We looked at wildflowers, built forts and generally engaged in the type of idyllic childhood shenanigans that belong in a Huck Finn novel.
We had that freedom.
And when we’d go camping in the summer on long weekends, my dad would fill up the truck, load up the horses and pile bikes on top of the van or horse trailer; we’d go raise hell in the hills and set up a sort of homestead where folks came and went and the whole thing was just a massive circus of kids and bikes and horses and whatnot. My dad even was known to pull us up the steep sections of trail on our bikes from his horse when we got in over our heads; it was always understood that this was an inherently stupid risk and that all of us could die if the horse spooked or if we fell over on our bikes or… Really, the risks were innumerable. We did it anyway.
Because of all this and so much time spent in the vast wilderness areas of Utah, I came to appreciate the requirement of seedless hay when going on horse trips and understood the necessities of ‘pack it out’ and ‘leave it better than when you found it’.
We buried or burned our own shit, for god’s sake.
As an adult, I appreciate these things. As a mountain biker, I also try to avoid taking them for granted. As a trail runner and injury hiker and former equestrian, I sincerely and genuinely try to help my communities be better trail stewards. I don’t always succeed and sometimes I mess up, but I really do try.
And that’s where there seems to be a discrepancy between trail users: effort exerted. The trails and wilderness don’t belong to one user group or another. Hands down. We’re ALL human powered regardless of the non-motorized equipment we use, but the key to understanding this is perspective and respect.
Horses spook. Humans freeze. When you’re hiking on a trail or riding a horse and a MTBer comes barreling down the trail (even at a relatively slow speed), it’s alarming. Why? Because ‘relatively slow’ on a bike isn’t ‘relatively slow’ to anyone else. While we might be sitting down with both hands on the brake levers and talking to them about passing them or that we can go around them, to the casual trail user who doesn’t own or ride a bike, we’re still questionable because they don’t know how much control we actually have. They aren’t standing in our shoes and they have no idea that we can stop in ten feet or two feet… and not all MTBers can. Let’s be real: there are a lot of joeys on the trails these days. There are a lot of tennis-shoes-on-flat-pedals-with-reflectors out there and there is nothing wrong with that. But what that creates is a discrepancy in perspective and a disruption in reliable expectation for other trail users.
Read that last line again.
The wide variety of skill levels of mountain bikers often creates a disruption in reliable expectation of ability for other users. In other words: they don’t trust us because they don’t know if we can stop in time.
As a professional downhill racer who is also an avid hiker, I understand this. Why? Because even I don’t trust other MTBers’ skill levels. That’s right. EVEN I DON’T TRUST OTHER RIDERS TO BE ABLE TO STOP IN TIME. And I’ve seen a wide range of ability. But you’re going to tell me that you trust all other MTBers to stop, pull over and not slam into you when we already have ‘right of way’ issues between two users who are both on bikes? C’mon.
Be honest. We have issues. Strava and the advent of ebikes also hasn’t made us a very approachable user group, either, and we’re so damn egotistical that we won’t admit to or discuss these clear issues.
Why the hell should any other user group trust us? We’ve made some extremely questionable decisions, we’re known to be entitled assholes and instead of saying “you’re right, we have problems that need solving”, we’re waving away the concerns of other users with a flippant disregard to their very real worries.
I’m sorry, but that’s not how progress happens. That is NOT how change comes about.
So consider this my olive branch to the Sierra Club, to the hikers and runners and equestrians: I’m sorry. On behalf of mountain biking, let me extend an apology for every time we’ve scared you or built a half-assed jump on a trail without so much as a ‘how do you do’. I’m sorry that someone took a corner too fast and I’m sorry that some of us are more obsessed with virtual pissing matches than we are with building respect and cooperation in our communities and on the trails. I’m deeply apologetic that this has influenced how you view most if not all mountain bikers. We’re not all assholes, but we are human and some of us are even sub-human. It happens.
There are also a lot of us trying to make life better for trail users. There are quite a few of us trying to build directional, bike-only trails. There are also a bunch of us who get out to build hike and horse-only trails (like the new one in Corner Canyon in Utah, which I proudly helped build), and I promise you: we’re not trying to take over.
We don’t want e-bikes in Wilderness. We don’t want to disrupt your peace or quiet or scare the bears away. We don’t want to fist-fight you over which user group is more ‘deserving’ of public land use or which pursuit is more ‘pure’ — we ALL do damage. That’s the nature of human existence. But what mountain bikers can do is pretty amazing, too, and if you’re still reading this, let me explain why.
All over existing US wilderness, there are trails that have been straight-up abandoned. Some of these trails don’t even have trail markers and they’ve started growing over from lack of use. The communities that border these areas have also seen a steadily sharp decline in user groups and economic surplus, but an increase in accessible areas to the point of over-use by the Instagram crowd and the detritus that comes with it. Mountain bikers are very, very good at counteracting both of these. How? Well, we can go further and are more than happy to take care of the areas we use. We can haul more trash out, help protect these wild areas and help fix the abusive damage done. We also spend more money per trip than most trail users and inject much-needed cash into dying communities. There are plenty of research studies that also prove that we don’t do any more damage than horses and foot traffic and that we actually interrupt wildlife less… (here’s a link to start with – Ed)
And we should be working together. Simply put.
I know that MTBers can be real dicks. Hell, I’m often a super-dick about the stuff that matters to me. But the one thing we all have in common are what we’re about to lose: as trail users, we have some very real and very rich enemies who are trying to rescind, revoke and damage protected lands in order to exploit them, and our energy and limited resources should be spent on fighting that, not each other.
I know that this little essay is highly unlikely to change any minds. But perhaps going for a ride with me or meeting up for a walk in the woods followed by a beer (and some apples for your horse) might just make both of us a little more like friends and less like arch enemies.
Because that’s where we should be: partners. Friends. Members of a strong and vibrant community of trail users who have respect, compassion and understanding.
If you wanna chat, I’m here. I’m listening. And I’m a mountain biker.