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Going Big (part 2)

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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in High Country News last September. While the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association and Whistler Mountain Bike Park have, through proactive environmental and educational programs, avoided many of the conflicts that have taken place in the western United States, the political lessons may be useful.

By Patrick Farrell

High Country News

Gary Sprung, who worked as the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s communications director and national policy director until 2005, and IMBA have long fought to dispel the perception that bikes are "motorcycles without engines," saying that mountain bikers are more like "backpackers with wheels." In 2000, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a draft of a new National Off-Highway Vehicle Management Strategy that lumped cyclists with motorized users, IMBA mobilized its troops. Over 10,000 letters flooded BLM offices from mountain bikers concerned that they might lose trail access. Ultimately, the BLM removed bikes from the plan.

But freeriding, with its requisite body armor and full-face helmets, makes mountain biking look a lot like motorcycling. And some of the sport’s most stalwart supporters wonder if the industry is putting bikers’ hard-won trail access at risk by flaunting freeriding and downhilling in videos and magazines.

"We sold freeriding in its most extreme form, then developed bicycles that enabled less-than-talented riders to ride over their heads," wrote Richard Cunningham, editor of Mountain Bike Action, in 2003. "Freeriding puts mountain bike access groups in an indefensible position," he wrote. "All this comes at a time when we are poised to gain the most — and suddenly we could lose everything."

And even as bikers convinced the BLM that bikes were different from off-road vehicles, a handful of mountain bike groups are increasingly adopting the motorheads’ tactics. In places, they even joined forces in their fight to keep trails open.

"IMBA likes to play nice and they got screwed all the way," says Chris Vargas, president of the Warrior Society, a small mountain-biking group in Southern California. The Warrior Society partnered with the BlueRibbon Coalition, the nation’s leading off-road vehicle access group, because its members felt that IMBA had failed to defend some of their favorite trails in the Cleveland National Forest, which was part of a wilderness proposal put forward by California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2003.

Mark Flint, who serves on IMBA’s National Parks task force, is less outspoken in his criticism. Still, he’s started MTBAccess, a small Arizona-based mountain-bike group that has pledged to work with off-road vehicle groups. The Southern Sierra Fat Tire Association of Bakersfield, Calif., and a mountain bike club in Idaho have also allied with the BlueRibbon Coalition.

Perhaps due to the saber-rattling from local bike groups, IMBA has become more aggressive in its access fights. The group has a growing legal fund and recently hired its first paid state representative — not surprisingly, to work on access issues in California.

The group walks a fine line. On one hand, if it wants to attract the new generation of riders, it needs to push for more access for freeriders and downhillers. On the other hand, its older constituency (the average IMBA member is 37 years old) tends to be more reserved.

"We get letters from members who say they are pulling their membership because IMBA is trying to get into wilderness," says Jenn Dice, the group’s government affairs director, "and others who are complaining that we aren’t doing enough for access."

Even Gary Sprung seems to have some misgivings. "I’m not a big fan of freeriding and downhilling, only because it’s more about the bike than it is about nature," he says. "It’s not the same as regular mountain biking. It’s almost like a different sport." Riders who build renegade trails "have caused some environmental impacts and made my job harder," he adds. "And it does not please me."

Rethinking bikes and trails

No one knows the tough position mountain bikers are in better than Garrett Villanueva. A civil engineer by training, Villanueva oversees 450 miles of very popular trail in one of California’s outdoor sports hotspots: Lake Tahoe. Villanueva constantly sees the damage caused by irresponsible downhilling and freeriding. He has photos of the jerry-rigged stunts he’s had to remove from national forest land. He recently closed "Jackie Chan" and "King Axle," two illegally built trails.

Villanueva has to deal with persistent access issues as well. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which has been closed to bikes since 1988, runs through his area. Renegade bikers know it affectionately as the "Perfect Cycling Trail." The epic Tahoe Rim Trail has many sections open to mountain bikes, but a few are closed where the trail dips into wilderness areas. On the rare occasions Forest Service officials catch cyclists riding in wilderness, they confiscate a wheel and force the biker to walk out of the woods.

But while Villanueva often acts as the bike cop, he is also a dedicated mountain biker. He remembers how eight years ago, when he started working with the Forest Service, one of his superiors scoffed at mountain bikes as little more than a passing fad. Villanueva assured him bikes were here to stay. He was right: Mountain bikers are now the second-largest trail user group in the country, after hikers, according to the Outdoor Industry Council.

Villanueva has become the agency’s go-to guy for mountain-bike management. He travels the state consulting on trail design, in an effort to minimize damage. It’s not easy. The new high-tech bikes have opened up new stretches of trail deep in the forest. Older trails not designed for bikes have suffered the most, he says. On the Corral Trail, a 2.5-mile loop southwest of the lake, he estimates that years of use, much of it by mountain bikers, have displaced nearly 2,500 cubic yards of soil. That sediment contributes to the clouding of Lake Tahoe’s clear waters and impacts the local fisheries.

But Villanueva says he sees hikers and horse riders cut switchbacks too, and that locking bikes out is not always the best solution. Bikes only damage trails if the trails aren’t built properly, he says. He has redesigned trails like the Corral Trail, to armor them against knobby tires. Many of the newer trails, often designed with help from IMBA, could last as long as 50 to 100 years with regular maintenance, he says.

In his redesigns, Villanueva tries to make trails as fun as possible in an effort to defuse the temptation to build more thrilling, and dangerous, illegal ones. He knows that some bikers prefer taller stunts and teeter-totters, but on Forest Service land, he utilizes only natural features: logs, dirt mounds and boulders. "What we’re trying not to do is sanitize the trails. I think we’ve been guilty of that in the past," he says.

But the Forest Service, like many of the federal agencies, still has no official mountain bike management policy. The first step towards a plan is Villanueva’s next project: The California Mountain Bike Situational Assessment will catalog the current state of mountain biking on national forest lands in the state, from general usage to illegal trails. Eventually, it will serve as the model for a national assessment.

But will today’s new gonzo mountain bikers ever be content to stick to established trails? Will their drive to push the limits and pull ever-crazier stunts drown out any inkling of a land ethic? Seeking some answers, I head out through the rumble-junked logging towns of Dallas and Falls City west of Salem, Ore. There, nestled between a church camp and a plot of Weyerhaeuser timberland, is the Black Rock Freeride Area.

Rich Bontrager, president of Black Rock Mountain Bike Association, shows me around. An affable, mustachioed 39-year-old who works for a dental supply company, he hardly seems like the X-games adrenaline-junkie type, until he’s armored in layers of plastic leg, arm and torso protectors, and pulling big air on his new Santa Cruz VP Free bike. A former motorcycle rider, he gravitated to biking a few years ago and immediately loved the thrills and camaraderie at a lower cost.

From the base of the area, Bontrager points out "skinnies"— long elevated log rides that test a rider’s balance — "roll-over" bumps, and a large tabletop jump. Up the hill, on the experts-only trails, is a 12-foot-tall curved wooden wall where bikers can test the limits of gravity and speed. Despite years of mountain biking and racing, these jumps make my stomach drop: The biggest, which looks for all the world like a bridge that has been hacked off mid-span, spits bikers a good 25 feet into a deep ravine below.

Bontrager tells me riders can really progress here, moving from the rollovers on up to the ravine drop. "It’s all about saddle time," he says. And the only way to get saddle time, is of course to ride, or in my case, just hang on for dear life.

My "hardtail" bike and unarmored flesh aren’t going to cut it here, so Bontrager lends me a pair of shin guards, a full-face helmet, and his old bike, a 48-pound Shore with 7 inches of rear travel and 8 on the front. As we push our giant bikes up a fire road, Bontrager explains the area’s history.

In 2002, the Oregon Department of Forestry discovered that a small group of riders had been building trails and small jumps in the area. This was technically illegal, but instead of shutting down the trails, the department asked the riders to form a club and get their work approved. If they would manage and maintain the trails, the Forestry Department would let them add jumps and other features. Black Rock opened in December of 2004, and since then, Bontrager figures usage has tripled, as riders from Portland, Eugene and even Canada, the holy land of freeriding, have flocked to its trails.

The mountain bike association takes its responsibilities seriously. When the Forestry Department found an illegal trail in the area, the Black Rock cyclists decommissioned it in a week; they even got one of the offending trail-builders to apologize on the association’s website. "It was jeopardizing our trails," says Bontrager. "Our goal is to make sure that Black Rock stays."

Black Rock is smack in the middle of prime spotted owl nesting territory. This means that during much of the year, when the owls are laying eggs and raising young, the association can’t use chainsaws or earthmovers to work on the trails. The Forestry Department’s John Barnes says it’s a minor inconvenience, adding that without the owl, the freeriders could be kicked out to make way for logging.

"I’m not objectionable to logging. Falls City is a bit depressed," says Bontrager, who always stops at the town’s small grocery on the way to ride. "But we’re trying to show that we can bring Falls City and Dallas money every year, not just every 40 years" when the timber can be harvested.

Despite the owl’s presence, Bontrager hasn’t had any run-ins with environmentalists, and he doesn’t worry about wilderness issues because Black Rock isn’t near any wilderness.

The bike association is working with the Forestry Department on a long-range plan for the area. Bontrager hopes the park, which already sports six miles of trail, will continue to grow, possibly to include a cross-country loop. "I love converting cross-country guys," he grins.

We crest the fire road at an experts-only trail called Granny’s Kitchen, "because it has everything, just like granny’s kitchen," explains Bontrager. He straps on his full-face helmet and checks his brakes before popping down a trail so steep I elect to walk. At least, I attempt to walk it; I end up sliding down the loose grade on my butt with nearly 50 pounds of sophisticated bike technology tumbling after me.

Bontrager patiently stops and points out the escape routes that go around every jump. I take most of them. Then we come to a clearing, and he explains that Tinkerbell, the last and largest of four small jumps up ahead, was what hooked him on freeriding a few years ago. I dive down the trail, finally getting a feel for the bike, and happily nail each of the jumps. Finally, I fly off Tinkerbell, letting out a yell of joy. The hefty bike cushions the blow with a solid thud and whoosh. Bontrager declares that I’ve sailed at least five feet. Sweet.

At another series of jumps, called Brake Check, I opt to sit out. All weekend I’ve been hearing people call, "Clear?" — a call as important to the freeriding world as "on belay" is to climbing. It’s a warning to anyone below that a rider is on the way down.

As Bontrager hikes to Brake Check’s top, I think of his bottom-line message, which seems to be both a promise to wary outsiders and a call to arms for mountain bikers: "We have to show that this is a valid sport — that it can be safe, can be prosperous to a local community."

Then, from up in the trees, Bontrager shouts, "Clear?" I scramble backwards to a safe spot and yell back, "Clear!" Then I scan the upper jumps, waiting for the dull rumble of bike and rider, thundering down the trail.