The Road Less Traveled

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

Central Arkansas’ single track is being damaged by riders’ lack of knowledge. With minimal education, we can change that.

Here in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we are fortunate to have some magnificent world-class single track. Our Northwoods/Cedar Glades trail system attracts riders from all over the country, hosts cycling and running events in every season, and has been the impetus for growing a strong and vibrant mountain biking community. We also boast the Womble, the Ouachita Trail, and the LOViT, all IMBA epics and each with unique features and challenges. Central Arkansas is fortunate to have trails that are well-known for draining quickly and being rideable almost all the time, rain or shine. There will be puddles here and there which should be ridden straight through, but in general, trails are firm and rideable in any weather. This aspect of our trails is one of the main things that attracts riders from other areas…our trails stay open. Between leaving the parking lot and making it back, though, some riders are getting off course — enough to impact the trails negatively.

If you ride single track, you have likely encountered this scenario: you are cruising along, and suddenly the trail splits into a wide, disorganized bypass around a standing pool of water in the trail proper. The correct action is to ride your bike straight through that puddle, right down the middle of the trail. Another common scenario: pedaling up an incline, you come to a knot of gnarled, raised tree roots that criss-cross the trail. Here the trail takes off completely around the roots to avoid them, to one side of the trail proper, and tucks back in on the other side of the roots. Again, the healthy thing to do for the trail is to ride over the roots that cross the trail. Line choice is one thing, avoiding the roots altogether is another!

I don’t know which bikers are making and riding side trail, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. It is riders who don’t know or who aren’t considering the damage they are causing and the work they are creating for trail maintenance volunteers. One possibility I’ve considered is that these side trails are made by experienced riders who simply choose not to ride over rooty, rocky or muddy sections, or who choose not to navigate the tight little switchback and so cut a straight line instead. Another likelihood is less experienced riders whose skillsets don’t yet allow them to both go fast and navigate technical bits of trail at the same time. And yet another probable contributor is riders so green that gnarly roots or a murky mud puddle really do look like a huge obstacle, and they feel much safer on the side-trail which is smoother, visible, and tucks them back into the main trail right on the other side of that questionable bit. Any of these potentialities has merit, and yet who is riding the side-trails is irrelevant, they are all in the wrong.

Why does it matter? The most obvious reason is that the alternative trail is not engineered and is likely to cause or suffer erosion, either of which damages the existing trail and creates more work for the trail angels who, in my neck of the woods, are entirely volunteer and are the few who maintain the trails for the many. Another is that the trails are designed to give riders an experience. Creating side-trails around engineered and natural technical features rob bikers, especially new mountain bikers, of the (forced) opportunity of either learning to ride the feature, or choosing to walk it. Newer riders may not realize they are riding illegitimate trail as they swoop around that rocky, ledgy climb, or as they cut straight to the bottom of that tight, sticky right-handed switchback.

Under “Respect the Landscape” in IMBA’s Rules of the Trail, riders are instructed: “Do not ride muddy trails because it causes rutting, widening and maintenance headaches. Ride through standing water, not around it. Ride (or walk) technical features, not around them.” That is pretty clear and easily understood.

Our trails’ fast-draining characteristic allows us to skip right to the second and third points of “Respect the Landscape”: “ride through standing water, not around it; and ride (or walk) technical features, not around them.” Just follow these two easy little guidelines and single track aficionados like myself will rejoice — not to mention our trail managers.

I’m going to assume that mostly these side-trail riders are just uneducated about trail hygiene and maintenance, and hope this article will shake them up, wake them up, and help them know better. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Point your bike straight through those puddles. It’s going to need a wash anyway, and so will your kit. Get muddy. It’s part of the fun! When you come to a feature you are unsure of riding, walk it. If that’s no good for you, session it. Either by yourself or with a more experienced rider, working on a technical bit of trail will earn you some new skills to take with you everywhere you ride. If you don’t know how to start on a technical piece, ask someone. On the trail or in the parking lot, ask. Nearly every rider has an opinion on line choice and technique for each technical feature on the trail, and many will be happy to share.

Another way we can improve this situation is to encourage mountain bikers to join their local IMBA chapters. Ours here in Hot Springs is the Trail Advocacy Coalition of the Ouachitas, more fondly known as TACO. Click on em, join us. Local IMBA chapters offer ample opportunities to volunteer for trail maintenance and event support, trail building, trail advocacy, and trail-related organizational efforts. Even if you have no time or inclination to volunteer, join your chapter and put your membership donation into the pot of funds to help create better trail solutions for your community.

A little education on trail hygiene goes a long way in terms of trail health. Mountain biking is super fun, it’s a sport that is growing exponentially, it’s accessible to people of all ages and skill/fitness levels, and there aren’t many rules, just a few very relevant ones. Stay on trail, and keep it rubber-side down! Unless you mean to be upside down — then by all means, do that. Just have fun, and take care of the trails so we can continue enjoying them together!

Writing links beings who might otherwise never connect, and I love that! It is a tool for evolving and moving toward our highest selves.

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