Going Big

by Patrick Farrell

Mountain bikers, long vilified as unruly renegades, are finally winning respect — and regaining access to trails. But does a new generation of gonzo riders threaten it all?

On a bright blue-sky morning in June, the cinnamon-colored hills of the Marin Headlands, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, are just starting to heat up. I’m pedaling hard to keep up with Jacquie Phelan as we climb up the backside of Mount Tamalpais. Phelan, a longtime bicycle advocate and former United States dirt-racing queen, is giving me an up-close and dusty tour of mountain-bike history.

Every greasy bike-shop kid in America knows the story of how "Mount Tam" gave birth to the mountain bike. Back in the mid-1970s, a pack of hippie bike riders salvaged old Schwinn paperboy bikes and retrofitted them for the mountain’s rough dirt roads. Mount Tam’s "Repack Hill" was the testing ground for the sport’s pioneers. Legend has it that the steep route got its name because riders had to repack their drum brakes with grease after each speedy run.

Phelan was one of the first women to join the Marin mountain-bike scene. In 1980, she took part in the annual Thanksgiving Day ride — the "Appetite Seminar" — on a girl’s 5-speed town-bike. She soldiered through it and was hooked. She started racing the next year, winning her first national championship in 1982. Phelan held her title until 1986 and continued racing well into the ’90s. Now 50 and a survivor of breast cancer, she is still an astounding climber, capable of putting this writer, 21 years her junior, to shame.

Phelan is out ahead of me, threading her wheels along the best line up the dusty hill. I call out and ask the name of the trail.

"Fire road," she says over her shoulder. "I’m really going to have teach you to say ‘fire road.’ This isn’t a trail."

The distinction has more to do with politics than with anything else. In Marin, nearly every narrow trail — "singletrack" in bike lingo — has been off-limits almost since Phelan started riding here. And therein lies the other side of the mountain bike’s creation story: With mountain biking was born a new kind of controversy on the trails, one that has only deepened today.

Surging up another steep, rocky road, Phelan tells me that the early riders never imagined that the sport would catch on the way it did. "We thought it was going to be the world’s biggest small sport," she says. But by the mid-’80s, the fire roads and trails on Mount Tam were jammed with cyclists. Soon other users were complaining that the bikers were destroying trails and scaring horses and walkers.

What followed became known as the "hiker-biker wars." Hikers and horseback riders denounced mountain bikers as reckless and rude thrill-seekers, and fought to ban them from the trails. Some bikers, in turn, labeled the un-wheeled "HOHAs," an acronym for "hateful old hiking association."

As complaints and confrontations mounted, the Marin Municipal Water District, which manages most of Mount Tam’s trails and fire roads, began cracking down. Rangers hung surveillance cameras in trees and used radar guns to clock bikers’ speeds. Phelan got two tickets for being on off-limits fire roads, and her husband got a speeding ticket for going 22 mph. Bikers still recall those "police state" days as if it were a real war: Cyclists worked under cover of dark, running illegal midnight singletrack rides.

By the late 1980s, the Marin fight was boiling over just as mountain biking was spreading up and down the West Coast and inland, to Moab, Boulder and Durango. The national media picked up on the story, casting mountain bikers as adrenaline-addled rebels. A 1987 Newsweek headline dubbed them "Two Wheel Terrors." Two years later, the Wall Street Journal blared, "A New Menace Lurks in the Wilds: Supersonic Cyclists."

The hiker-biker wars peaked in 1993, when rangers discovered a secret trail that bikers had blazed illegally through the woods. Bikers called it the New Paradigm Trail, a protest, they said, against a system that wouldn’t take them seriously. But land managers, hikers and horseback riders saw the trail as proof that cyclists were out of control. That sentiment helped fuel a backlash against bikes.

Local mountain bike groups and the new International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) were in the midst of a lawsuit against the National Park Service, which had locked bikes off all singletrack and even some fire roads in the new Golden Gate Recreation Area. Ultimately, the Sierra Club joined the fight, siding with the Park Service. In 1994, not long after the bikers lost the case, the New Paradigm Trail was destroyed with much fanfare.

"I don’t know if we failed," says Phelan of the New Paradigm imbroglio, pausing at the old trailhead on a flat section of fire road. The experience spurred bikers to become more of a political force, she says. Nationwide, bikers have become aggressive trails advocates and savvy participants in the public process. Local bike clubs volunteer thousands of hours building multi-use trails, work with land managers to open trails, and field homegrown bike patrols to make sure their fellow cyclists are following the rules. Last year, IMBA, which now boasts 32,000 members, patched up differences with the National Park Service, signing an agreement to introduce new mountain bike opportunities to parks across the country.

But despite the good intentions, mountain bikers can’t seem to shake their renegade image, especially in California. In Marin a few years ago, a leader of a local bike group was convicted of illegal trail building. Across the West, some riders build illegal trails and obstacles, and knowingly "poach" closed trails. A small body of scientific evidence suggests bike tires are no more damaging to trails than horse-hooves or hiking boots, but the technological advancements keep racing ahead, allowing bikers to go farther and faster, at times pummeling favorite trails.

Today, the "hiker-biker wars" are raging on an even grander scale, as a new generation of riders pushes the limits of what is possible on two wheels, and bikers fight for access to more trails. The issue comes to a head over the subject of wilderness.

The great wilderness debate

The 1964 Wilderness Act banned all forms of "mechanical transport" from designated wilderness areas. Bikes aren’t specifically mentioned, but land managers and many environmentalists argue that they’re obviously mechanical, and are simply incompatible with the "primitive recreation" experience that the law set out to protect.

If a bike is mechanical, so are oar-locks, ski bindings and even hiking poles, says Gary Sprung, who worked as IMBA’s communications director and national policy director until 2005. Keeping bikes out of wilderness is pure snobbery, he says: "There is a basic disdain for this form of transportation. It comes from this idea that hiking is saintly and the only way to go. They don’t understand that we can stop and smell flowers and feel the wind."

Sprung remembers the early days, before the crackdown, when riders rode free in wilderness areas like the West Elk Wilderness, above his hometown of Crested Butte, Colo. All that changed in 1984, when the Forest Service, the last of the federal agencies to respond to mountain bikes, banned them from all designated wilderness areas.

IMBA’s Web site states that mountain biking is "consistent with the values of Wilderness land protection," but the group has not pushed to allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas. Still, Sprung and former IMBA president Jim Hasenauer, two of the guiding intellectual forces behind IMBA’s wilderness stance, personally believe that bikes should be allowed into wilderness, though both agree that some areas are too sensitive for any humans to enter.

Although IMBA hasn’t pushed for access to existing wilderness, it has entered the debate over creating new wilderness areas, insisting that existing bike trails be left open, and that bike-friendly areas be designated nearby. And in the past two years, IMBA has come out swinging against Forest Service proposals to ban mountain bikes from areas the agency has recommended for wilderness protection in Idaho and Montana. "We have supported wilderness bills that have closed trails to mountain biking, and I know we will again in the future," says the group’s government affairs director, Jenn Dice. "Our position on every wilderness bill is that we want to get it to a place where we can support it."

But getting a bill to where IMBA can support it can be an excruciating experience, according to Dan Smuts, California regional director for The Wilderness Society. An avid cyclist who rides a mud-spattered Santa Cruz Blur to work, Smuts praises IMBA’s trail-building efforts, and believes that mountain bikers deserve a say in land-management decisions. But when it comes to wilderness, he says, they simply don’t belong.

Leaning over a pile of maps in his spartan San Francisco office, Smuts points to a line drawn around a proposed wilderness area near Donner Pass. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, D, included the area in a wilderness proposal she unveiled in 2003. "We moved the boundary to accommodate the Hole in the Wall Trail, knowing it was a very popular trail (for bikers)," he explains. Then he flips to another map of the Grouse Lakes and Castle Peaks areas. In return for keeping Hole in the Wall open, he says, IMBA agreed to give up access to these areas in order to protect them as wilderness.

But then, Smuts says, IMBA backpedaled, and requested that the land and a few trails be protected under a less stringent designation that would allow bikers access. Working with IMBA is "like negotiating with Jell-O," he says. "Nothing ever settles down."

During similar negotiations on a smaller California wilderness bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D, IMBA demanded exemptions for one trail that had been off-limits to bikes for years, and another that was nothing more than un-ridable sand. The California office of The Wilderness Society eventually severed talks with IMBA, choosing instead to hammer out a compromise with local bike groups. (The bill, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in July, goes to the Senate this fall. It is not expected to meet resistance from President Bush, himself a mountain biker.)

IMBA admits it reversed course on the Boxer wilderness negotiations. But the real problem, Dice believes, is that IMBA’s offers of other designations — like national scenic or recreation areas, which offer strict protections against industrial uses but still allow bikes — aren’t taken seriously, especially in California. Wilderness groups, she says, "see it as capital ‘W’ wilderness and everything else is over. So it’s really hard to talk with them about other designations."

Sprung, who was a longtime professional wilderness advocate before joining IMBA, sees bikers as a green group that just hasn’t been invited to join the party. "I think we would be a regular part of the conservation movement, but we don’t have the luxury because our political energy must be spent on defending our right to trails from hikers and environmentalists," he says.

Big bikes, big problems

But a lot has changed since the days when Gary Sprung and his buddies pedaled their early mountain bikes through the West Elk Wilderness. If Marin is the birthplace of mountain biking, then the North Shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia is where the sport enjoyed its teenage years in the 1990s. From its steep root- and rock-studded trails came a new breed of bikers that changed the sport dramatically.

On private land like Grouse Mountain, and in British Columbia parks, bikers built log trellises and balance beams over boggy and otherwise un-ridable areas. Soon they were building elaborate "stunts" — wooden jumps, teeter-totters, even banked walls of lumber. They blended moves from skateboarding and BMX with traditional mountain biking, and called the new sport "freeriding."

Freeriders pushed the development of stronger bikes that could handle 8-foot drops and insanely steep hills. Many of these bikes now sport 8 to 12 inches of bump-absorbing swing-arms, coil springs and damping cartridges on both front and rear wheels. Equipped with super-stout wheels, big tires and hydraulic-disc brakes, some weigh more than 50 pounds — so much, in fact, that riding them uphill is next to impossible.

Ski areas now sell summer lift tickets to freeriding and "downhill" bikers. British Columbia’s Whistler Mountain Bike Park, freeriding’s top destination, has soared from 10,000 riders in 1999 to a projected 120,000 this year. California’s Northstar resort near Tahoe and Mammoth in Southern California both have freeriding courses, and at least six resorts in Colorado offer "lift-assistance riding." Skills parks, not unlike skateboard parks, are popping up in urban areas as well.

Freeriding is still a small part of the mountain bike scene, largely relegated to specialized playgrounds, but its burlier technology has trickled down. Nearly all high-quality mountain bikes now sport front suspension and disc brakes; most, lighter "cross-country" bikes, are "full-suspension," meaning they have both front and rear shocks. Today, even average riders can charge over obstacles at speeds unthinkable a decade ago.

Because of the speed — and the stealth — of the new bikes, Robert Eichstaedt, a member of the Marin Horse Council, no longer takes novice equestrians out on Marin’s roads. "In the early days, you could hear bikes coming. Now, what you hear is something rushing. For a horse, if they can’t see it, their instinct is to run." Just last year, a biker-equestrian encounter on a narrow trail in California’s Los Padres National Forest ended in a horse falling to its death.

Recently, the faster bikes have spurred some ski areas to clamp down. In 2004, after the death of one downhill racer and the severe injury of another, California’s Snow Summit resort area put the brakes on downhill bikes. Chairlift operators now check bikes to make sure that the suspension doesn’t top 6 inches, the tires are 2.5 inches in diameter or smaller, and the bikes don’t weigh more than 35 pounds.

But it was more than liability concerns that prompted the resort’s ban. Bikers had blazed a mess of illegal trails that careened into the national forest from the top of the lifts. "Guys were just riding everywhere in the woods," Snow Summit President Dick Kun told the cycling magazine VeloNews. "The Forest Service was really pissed off with what was going on, and it probably wasn’t long before they shut it down anyway."

In fact, as freeriding’s popularity has grown, guerilla trails and rickety ramps have sprouted on private and public land around the region, and the new speed and braking has rutted out favorite trails. This summer, tempers flared when Forest Service officials tore out log-rides and other biker-made stunts on trails near Missoula, Mont., and threatened to issue $175 tickets to riders caught on a popular but technically off-limits trail.

Dangerous bedfellows

Sprung 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 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 during the Boxer wilderness negotiations.

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 Dice, "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. "Its 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 though 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 Mountian 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.

Clear!

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 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 Web site. "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.

 

Patrick Farrell recently graduated from the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He figures he logged 75 miles on his old-style "cross country" mountain bike for this story.

© High Country News