Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Age Old Question: How to Get Mountain Bikers to Build Trails

Everyone that comes out for a trail day knows it.  No one really understands it, but it’s a known fact.
And it’s not just mountain bikers.  The phenomenon spreads across all trails recreation groups.  I've seen it time and time again with rock climbers.  Heck, I'm sure it even permeates non-outdoor rec groups.
You schedule a trail day and no one shows up.  A month later you plan another and offer bribes.  No one shows up.  You finally get the trail built and everyone comes to ride, but when the flood of the millennium wipes out part of the trail no one comes out for the trail day to repair it.  But once the trail is repaired the clowns come out of the woodwork.
As a trail steward you beat yourself up.  Maybe if I had announced it sooner.  Maybe if we had a sponsor with better swag.  Maybe kaybe, but don't hold your breath.  It’s easy to get frustrated and/or angry.  And the best thing to do is turn that rage into a blog post about why no one ever shows up for trail days.
No, that’s not right.  Anyway…
Actually, I get it.  I’m a busy guy.  Surely those trails will get built and maintained regardless of whether I make a measly trail day.  Right?

Is the trail day half full or half empty?
When we moved away to Colorado in 2008 my sum total of mountain biking experience had been on old dirt roads, forest roads, and the like around my home stomping grounds in the Red River Gorge area.  No one maintained those roads.  They had been there forever.  So when we moved back to Kentucky in 2013 I assumed those miles and miles of roads would still be great places to ride.
Wrong assumption.
Off-roaders had torn them all to heck and back.  Except for the ones the Forest Service had intentionally obscured and destroyed.  And no one had built new purpose-built bike-optimized trails while I was away.  It took two years for me to come to grips with the fact that I moved back to mountain biking hell.  All this wooded undeveloped land—much of it public lands—and nowhere legal or even physically feasible to ride.

The result of apathetic land management
To co-opt a sound bite: if not you then who?  A little over a year ago I decided I would get involved with developing new trails.  The lowest hanging fruit was the few hundred acres owned by the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition.  Earlier progress had been punctuated by the leaving of the previous trails champion.  I decided I could turn that period into a comma and move forward.
Out of the gate there were roadblocks.  There were personality conflicts with the former land manager.  So I threw up my hands before building a single yard of trail.  Months rolled on.  In the meantime no one else was doing anything, and it didn’t look like anyone ever was going to do anything.  Meanwhile no other trails were being built nearby.  Meanwhile no one else was even talking about building trails in my neck of the woods.
This past spring I decided if I was ever going to have easy access to mountain bike trails without moving to another town I was going to have to make it happen myself.  It’s not like I have a yearning passion to build trails.  I like using trails.  It’s a lot easier than building trails.

It's hard to get this many people together in the same room (much less all those trees) and convince them to build trails
The real problem is that trail construction is labor intensive.  The misconception is that it’s insanely difficult or backbreaking work, and that’s just not true.  The construction principles are simple.  And if you have a small crew the work goes fast without overly-taxing any one person’s lower back.  But you need at least a small crew to make headway.  I’ve proven to myself that one guy can’t build a trail.
I tried working on a piece of wooded land that some cousins own behind my house.  I can hack about fifty feet of trail out at a stretch.  That’s maybe an hour and a half to two hours of work.  But then I’m shot.  My back is the weak link.
To build a mile of simple trail (no bridges or features) at that rate would take me 150 to 200 hours.  I tried to tell myself that if I just did two or three hours a week I’d have a runnable and bikeable loop in no time.  The painful truth is that I ran out of motivation really fast.
I can be at the Flat Hollow Trailhead in thirty minutes from my house.  There is a storage unit full of trail tools on the way there.  While I wouldn’t say I have carte blanche to build trails there I would say that I have more work I can do than I would ever be able to do by myself.  And there is the rub.  For me to have a trail that’s rideable using only my own power I would never be able to maintain the energy or motivation to make it happen.
Even after my partner-in-crime Kris got involved we’ve not been able to knock out the miles like we want or need to.  I have managed to motivate the Training Partner (Dave) to get involved.  Bradley—a fellow Powell Countian—has been helping too.  We get some help from time to time from those outside the current Circle of the Know.  It’s slow going.

It's ALL training
On Veterans Day four of us showed up at Flat Hollow and despite not coloring inside the lines we managed to make a lot of progress on the new section of trail.  A lot.  I had big plans to finish what I call “the extension.”   We’ve been working on that half mile segment of trail since July.  It’s 90% finished.  It’s 99% rideable.  The newest segment will create a one mile loop with the extension.  And it will be the trail I really wanted to build instead of the travesty that resulted in my initial efforts.  That is another story in itself and I won’t go into that on a public blog.
So here we are…heading into winter with momentum and a clear view ahead of where the trail should go.  Can we maintain enough brainwave activity through the cold season to pick up where we left off once the Spring thaw and Summer drying out occur?  I think so.  It’s going to be a maddening time for me—the guy who can’t sit around and do nothing when he knows that there’s so much to be done.  But I’ve seen the effects of frozen ground on hand tools.  It’s not pretty.  And I don’t want to break myself before I even get a chance to ride the trails. 
I don’t know why it’s so hard to get people to come out and cut new trail.  There’s an energy that grows as you see new twists and turns being unearthed.  It’s like creating sculpture or painting.  You get to see something coming to life.  The difference is that once it’s created you get to experience in a different way.  You ride.  Or run or hike.  And then the trail experience becomes more satisfying and gratifying. 
I guess the answer lies somewhere in the neighborhood of: threaten access to trails; or take it away completely.

Build it and be the first to ride it!

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