Dumbing Down The Trail: The Art Of Removing Technical Trail Features

mcdowell trail 2A wreck over the weekend has stirred up some intense debate over removing obstacles in the trail in the name of safety. This past weekend, a friend of ours fractured his C7 vertebrae after having a head on collision with a diagonal tree that overhangs the trail on a non-technical trail in north Georgia. This specific tree has been known for collarbone breaks and numerous life flights out of the area, so after this last serious encounter, it was removed. In typical online bantering fashion, several people have come out screaming that the tree removal was dumbing down the trail and it shouldn’t have been done regardless of its history. I believe…in this case…it was the right move and now I am going to explain why.

One thing to keep in mindaccidents happen. As a mountain biker, it is not “if”…it is “when” something is going to happen. We sign up for the beating when we throw a leg over our mountain bikes, so every accident does not need to be treated like the end of the world and we have to go change what caused it right away.

What Warrants Trail Editing and Or Obstacle Removal?

The debate on whether or not something should have been removed or a trail needs to be edited has to be handled on a case by case basis. There is no manual or rule that applies to all situations, and the more people try to generalize all trails and technical features into the same category, the more they cloud the issue. Generally, there are several cases where I have seen that editing a trail (typically rerouting) and obstacle removal is warranted on trail systems.

  • Rerouting to keep the trail sustainable. – If you are not going to have a trail left in a year unless it is rerouted, having a different line is better than no trail at all.
  • Removing Obstacles In High Traffic, Non-Technical Trails – When you are dealing with high traffic, non-technical trails, you are getting a wide range of riders that are going to be tackling that section of dirt. As much as I love technical mountain biking, I also realize that not every mountain biker is equipped to handle that type of riding. Also, if you are hitting a non-technical trail…even as a technical rider…there are certain expectations of the difficultly and you can get into the same trouble by multiplying speed vs. expectations in those situations. If there is one section that is causing more hospital visits than it is adding to the trail (in the case above…it wasn’t even like it was a section everyone looked forward to), it is time evaluate and make a decision.
  • Acts Of God – When a tree falls over the trail and creates a close line to tear your head off…it needs to go. On the flip side, if it actually adds to the trail in some way…it should stay.

As mentioned before, each of these situations have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. When you remove something from the trail, you are going to get some backlash, so just keep a calm head and keep your decision supported by facts.

The Biggest Misconception In Mountain Biking

However, I do believe that there is a HUGE misconception in mountain biking that seems to be pretty unique to the sport. While there are some areas of the US and the world that do not subscribe to this idea, I see it a lot in more urban trail systems…especially in the southeast.

I do not believe that every rider should be able to ride every section of the trail.

For some reason, mountain bikers believe that they should be able to ride every section of the trail, and if they can’t…it should be edited, removed or changed to accommodate all skill levels. This does not include all riders, but it does apply to a vast majority of riders in urban systems.

I truly believe that we become better riders by challenging ourselves. By having varying degrees of difficulty, we are able to challenge our abilities progressively to become better riders. There are those riders that believe if they can’t clear it…no one can and it should be changed. That could not be farther from the truth. We should not change technical sections of trail just because a Wal-Mart bike can not clear it effectively.

When you go to a ski resort, do you only see bunny slopes? Are they all just blue runs? Absolutely not. There are varying difficulties of slopes to accomodate varying skiers abilities and for some reason…this works perfectly in the ski industry and goes to hell in the mountain biking world. I am not sure if it is because the “it’s as easy as riding a bike” rule applies and people believe that bike riding should be easy no matter what because they have been doing it since they were a kid or what, or people do not realize how technically difficult the sport of mountain biking really can be.

I am strongly against removing technical trail features just because everyone can not ride it.

If we lower our trails to the lowest common denominator in all cases (dumbing down the trail), that is not good for experienced or beginner riders. Everyone needs something to work up to and the needs of beginner riders need to be balanced with the idea that they will become better over time. Is every rider going to race World Cup DH? I think we know the answer to that question, but every single rider I have ever talked to laughs at what they were able to ride or clear the year before.

Ideally, there is a clear balance in difficulty to accomodate a wide range of riders. In a perfect world, this would apply to all trails and we could put up signage to signify difficulty. However, I realize this is not possible on some trail systems and increasingly hard to implement in more urban environments, but…it can be a goal.

One of the greatest things to watch in mountain biking is the progression of beginner riders. We should not kill that progression when designing, maintaining and evaluating trails.

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