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
"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
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
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
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.