Free Riding Threatens Mountain Biking
AccessBy Paul Beakley - from
Across the country, more and more trails are being
closed to mountain biking. Recently, a major trail was designated a no-bike
zone in Marin County, Calif., one of the birthplaces of the sport.
Fat tire fans in Arizona worry it could happed
The last thing I ever want to see is
rangers showing up on our trails, hiding out and giving tickets, says
Kyle Bielenberg, a semi-pro downhill racer who has confronted off-trail riders.
Its only a matter of time before this place turns into another
concern is South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the nation and
ground zero for serious mountain bikers in the Valley. Every week, thousands of
riders converge on its desert peaks to ride its excellent selection of routes,
ranging from long-distance endurance rides like the Desert Classic Trail to the
hardcore technical challenges of the National, Holbert, Kiwanis and Geronimo
Destroying terrain by wandering off trails is a
harbinger of closures. Problems reared in South Mountain February of 2002.
Answer Products, manufacturer of the Manitou brand of suspension forks, camped
at South Mountain Park for its annual product testing/demo program, as they had
done for the past two years. According to Joel Smith, Manitou brand manager for
Answer Products, he later found out test riders and photo journalists had
gotten out of hand and were responsible for some trail damage on the National
Trail during their stay. Local cyclists had sounded an alarm.
There were some reports of trail abuse on
the National Trail that we first saw on internet chat rooms, said Smith.
I was personally super-surprised, and we felt we wanted to do anything we
could do. Not just to clear our name, but to do something. Abusing trails is
just not our deal.
More than a year later, retribution came via a
$1,000 donation from Answer to the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona. MBAA
and the City of Phoenix used the funds to start a National Mountain Bike Patrol
program. In June 2002, more than three dozen volunteers showed up at the South
Mountain Environmental Education Center to receive training and become
certified National Mountain Bike Patrol members.
Answer situation ended well, it sparked concerns about closures, especially
with the growth of the mountain biking subsport of freeriding. It is tough to
define freeriding, which largely has become a marketing term. Most people
associate it with big jumps, high drops and dangerous stunts. Performance and
style on the bike, rather than simply surviving the moves, drives much of the
freeriding culture. The phrase is also associated with rebellion and, in many
places, deliberately riding off-trail.
Freeriding is a funny term that doesn't
feel like it fits in this area really well, said Michael Bennett, 26, an
avid freerider. We get hollered at by cops while urban riding and even
when we are riding at South Mountain by fellow mountain bikers. Doesn't feel
too free at times. Other areas in the world where I have ridden
seem to be a lot more tolerant.
As freeriding grows in prominence, trail users
are seeing heavily armored riders on long-travel, heavy-duty bikes that looked
more like motorcycles without engines. These riders often veer off-trail,
sometimes far off-trail, in search of bigger challenges and better photo ops.
On-trail confrontations between traditional mountain bikers and freeriders are
becoming more common and more violent.
South Mountain is so sensitive now that we
dont freeride there any more, said Phil Morstad, 26, a rider who
was said he had a trailside confrontation with other riders.
Talk to cyclists who ride the more difficult
trails and they say theyve experienced few confrontations with
non-cyclists such as hikers and equestrians. These are the folks who
traditionally pursue the banning of bikers.
We actually go out of our way to slow down
or stop when approaching hikers, and most of them are pretty cool, says
Jeff Harnisch, a downhill racer who regularly uses South Mountain Park for
training. Theres always one or two who are just plain pissy,
though. People like that just aren't happy with their lives and are always
looking for something to be angry at. I think confrontations on the trail are
just as frequent as on a regular workday. Just because you're out on the trail,
doesn't mean you aren't gonna run into an A-hole.
werent the only ones out there and we werent the first, says
Ken Wood, 30, another rider who became involved in a confrontation while riding
off-trail. We were following tracks into areas and assumed they were
Wood himself stirred up controversy when he
appeared in several photographs at mountainbikereview.com, a popular mountain
biking website. Wood, Morstad and others set up a photo shoot well off
established trails. When the photos appeared, it ignited a cyber firestorm that
expanded quickly into the real world.
We ride at South Mountain, but were
definitely a lot more aware of all the issues out there now, said
Bennett. It was brought to my attention when Ken posted those
Since the controversy exploded, most freeriding
has come to an end at South Mountain Park. Morstad said he is working on
building stunts elsewhere in the city. Bennett and his friends spend most of
their time at Papago Park, where a small area containing rocky ledges and
hand-built jumps provides plenty of challenges and photo ops. Bennett said
hed like to start a freeriding club that would donate time toward trail
maintenance and work on establishing a small, well-defined freeride park at
South Mountain Park.
Nick Bliss, an expert-class downhill racer and
mechanic at Landis Cyclery in the Valley, said, Im telling my
friends and customers just to ride the trails and dont be stupid about
the shuttles, especially on Mormon/National. Sunday morning isnt the
smartest time to come down the National. Even if youre going slow and in
control, coming down 20-at-a-time in armor looks bad.
South Mountains rangers say they have not
heard much about the freeriding controversy since the Answer/Manitou situation.
Most of the bikers in the park that ride
quite a bit police themselves, said Tim Merritt, a recreation coordinator
at South Mountain Park. Mostly its people who are new to mountain
biking who break regulations without knowing it. Most people out there have
good intentions. But, we have those occasions where people take
Bliss said, Right around the time Manitou
came to town and messed up the trails, I was seeing a lot of new trails,
cheater lines, shortcuts. Its definitely slowed down, maybe even
Merritt said South Mountain Park has no plans to
restrict mountain bike access in the park. However, hes quick to add that
this could change if abuses became widespread.
Paul Beakley is a writer, photographer and
graphic artist living in Tempe, Arizona. He is the author of Mountain Bike
America: Arizona, a guidebook published by the Globe Pequot Press.