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Free Riding Threatens Mountain Biking Access

By Paul Beakley - from Sweat Magazine

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 here.

“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. “It’s only a matter of time before this place turns into another Marin County.”

Of particular 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 Trails.

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.

Although the 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 don’t 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 they’ve 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. “There’s 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.”

“We weren’t the only ones out there and we weren’t 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 legit stunts.”

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 we’re definitely a lot more aware of all the issues out there now,” said Bennett. “It was brought to my attention when Ken posted those pictures.”

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 he’d 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, “I’m telling my friends and customers just to ride the trails and don’t be stupid about the shuttles, especially on Mormon/National. Sunday morning isn’t the smartest time to come down the National. Even if you’re going slow and in control, coming down 20-at-a-time in armor looks bad.”

South Mountain’s 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 it’s 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 advantage.”

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. It’s definitely slowed down, maybe even stopped.”

Merritt said South Mountain Park has no plans to restrict mountain bike access in the park. However, he’s 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.

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