The Truth About Trails – Smarten Up, Don’t Dumb Down



Words by Seb Kemp
Illustration by Jon Gregory

I’m confused, I’m in two minds about singletrack. I have a dirty little secret that I need to confess: I like flow trails. I like buff, groomed, sculpted, pumpy, flowy and, errr… easy ones. But I don’t like it that I like these trails.

The perfectly sculpted lines that have been popping up over the last decade or so have given us so much, but still they attract detractors. The hardcore among our fraternity yell that the experience of mountain biking is being dumbed down by these Fisher–Price simulations of mountain biking. They claim the challenge has been cut out and crushed gravel laid over the top, but I can’t see the problem as clearly as ‘they’ do.

It’s a trail that has been purposely carved into the earth for our delight – what’s wrong with that? Do you remember when mountain bikers were public enemy number one? A plague on the countryside, and a cancerous scourge of skidding idiots who were kept at bay by the stick–wielding geriatrics who rambled about the fields and forests like doddering sentries? I don’t care if mountain biking becomes a mainstream activity but it’s really quite pleasing to see that it has gained enough respect, toleration and acceptance that now we are spoilt for options as to where we can bike. Trail access has opened up where once it was forbidden, new mountain bike specific destinations have had public (and private) finance funnelled into them so we have somewhere to ride our bikes and, best of all, a lot of this development has been managed and governed by mountain bikers so we aren’t just getting palmed off with appropriated approximations of what others think mountain biking is.

Sure, these newer developments are aimed at the lowest common denominator so are often a little less aggressive than some high flying dudes want, but what can we expect, government funded double black diamond killers that only a tiny minority of riders can ride, let alone enjoy? Of course, if someone is going to pump money into something they at least expect that the investment will last past the first rainy season. These new trails are being built using ancient trail building wisdom: smart use of gradient, grade reversals, trails that shed water, good drainage, suitable construction methods, and clever use of materials. Now we have trails that might last one hundred years and remain in that condition for the whole time.

When similar techniques are applied to existing trails that are falling off the hillside riders are similarly angry. Complainers rarely understand why fixes are committed. Often the argument is that fixes are made to make things easier, when really it’s simply to stop the trail dying. More mountain bikers could learn a thing or two by going out and seeing how a trail actually works, how water runs, how riders react to trail situations and how that impacts the trail (elemental rule: keep the water ‘off’ and the riders ‘on’ the trail). Trails change, especially if they are ‘built’ with a rake and a bit of back brake.
I like these manicured, man-made lines because I get to go fast through the forest and I feel superhuman. I’m lucky to live in BC where we have three lifetimes’ worth of heinously challenging trails, so I am thankful for buff, flowing, low grade trails once in a while. It’s great to really pick up the speed and glide through the trail having a blast without so much risk of puncturing or pummelling into the ground. But what if that was it, that every time I rode my bike it was exactly the same? What if all trails were flow country trails? I’d hate it.

The beauty of mountain biking is the variety. Every trail is different – dirt is transformed by weather, season and location, the chaotic patterns of roots can not be replicated, rock and stone varies from place to place, there’s dust and there’s bulldust, trail builders have different visions, some trails were meant for biking, others were meant for donkeys, some trails are steep, some are mellow, but all have their own challenge. I love all trails but if they were all the same then I’m not sure I’d be quite so enamoured with mountain biking. It would be similar to table tennis or data inputting.

But I don’t think we are in danger of that happening. Sure, trail centres and flow trails are popping up everywhere, but these are gateways, drugs and quick fixes that are fun to dabble in once in a while. They aren’t going to be the Final Solution for mountain biking, just an added experience. Just so long as there are enough people willing to cut a line where there previously wasn’t one, open up a trail or resurrect a dying track, then things will be all right. A little civil disobedience goes a long way to keeping it that way. So the next time you hear someone bitterly complaining about trails being dumbed down ask them what they have done to smarten things up.


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