Dumbing Down The Trail: The Art Of Removing Technical Trail Features | Bike198

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

A 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.

This topic contains 26 replies, has 1 voice, and was last updated by  Dan 5 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #14966 Reply

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    Hey this was a great article!! Well written points and I couldn’t agree more that there needs to be a varying range of trails, which is why we’re doing something about it. We are building a 700 acre mountain bike park on private land 45 minutes outside of Chattanooga, TN that has multiple different trails and styles. Not only is it private, its not associated with SORBA or IMBA in any way, which means we don’t have any red tape and its a rider built park. The next thing i’ll be working on as soon as the leaves die off is putting in a technical 16-18 mile XC/ All mountain loop. So if you are interested in creating a gnar trail, that separates the good riders from the excellent riders, let me know…. [email protected]

  • #14967 Reply

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    Warning, long rant –

    Great topic Robb! I too am against the removal of technical obstacles in general but the entire situation must be taken into consideration. The ski resort comparison is a poor analogy IMO. Ski resorts are big business on private (or leased) land. The users accept liability through the purchase of a lift ticket and the resorts have comprehensive insurance plans. They have a huge staff of paid employees to make the area as safe as possible while still providing the challenge. They won’t lose the ability to use the land if someone gets hurt. They are an entirely different animal to your local trail system but the trial marking system they use can be applied.

    In metro-Atlanta, the majority of the trails are on County or City property with a few on Federal lands. Having worked with a few of these land managers I know that liability is a big concern for these entities so the “dumbing down” is a response to the managers concerns. I know SORBA/IMBA gets a lot of grief for making “paved” trail systems but they are restricted by what the land manager will allow and sometimes the competency of the contractor. I would suggest that those that are complaining about the “dumbing down” get on SORBA/IMBA board (or whatever your local area MTB advocacy group is – don’t have one start one!) or citizen parks advisory board and lead by example instead of criticizing blindly behind the shield of an internet forum.

    The big challenge is managing the land mangers expectations as to what riders want and can safely negotiate. How can that be done? IMO it takes more participation by more riders. Join your local club and be active in that club. Talk to the land mangers and let them know what you’d like to see, but be prepared to back up your suggestions with sustainable trail building practices, plans and your sweat. Set the expectation with the rider by making the trail head with appropriate signage – enter the ski resort green circle, blue square and black diamond. Prove the right mix of trail type based on the user demographics. I.e. … a beginner trail deep in the N. GA Mountains probably misses the user demographic. Bring on the stacked loop trail plans. A stacked loop puts the most advanced trails the furthest away from the trailhead where it appeals to the seasoned rider looking for mileage and challenge vs. the beginner looking for a safe place to learn off-road cycling skills without putting in mega miles and having to hike back to the car because of a mechanical or bonk. It also gives them the ability to explore their skills on the next level loop.

    Rouge trail modifications (both adding and removing TTF) will always be a problem, not much you can really do about that. IMO it will lessen slightly if more people feel like they have “ownership” through their efforts and their sweat equity they put into a trail. Get out and participate, don’t just be a user

  • #14968 Reply

    Gregory Heil
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    I definitely agree with your post Robb. A tree having fallen over the trail causing issues isn’t even a feature than the trail itself… its more like it is ABOVE the trail.

    As for removing technical features to keep trails easy, I HATE that concept. I find myself getting bored when I mountain bike on such smooth, clean systems. I mountain bike because the trails are technical and challenging. If I wanted an easy ride and was just looking for a cardio workout, I’d own a road bike. As it is, I don’t own anything with less than 5″ of suspension because I search out the gnarliest trails I can find.

    Sure, every now and then a smooth, easy ride on singletrack is fun… but only every now and then.


  • #14969 Reply

    Gregory Heil
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    What comes into play with liability and etc. is that mountain bikers and people in general should realize they are responsible for their actions. They should take responsibility for evaluating an obstacle and deciding whether or not to try to ride it.

    The sue-happy culture of the U.S. today makes me sick.

  • #14970 Reply

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    The trails in my neighborhood are swept with a broom. Seriously, if you can’t ride over rocks you should stay on your road bike IMHO. Why do we have mountain bike trails? For the challenge of riding over obstacles on our mountain bikes…..hmmmm. I don’t ride the trails in my area that are made for bikes with more travel than mine or riders with more skill or guts than I have, I don’t go out and remove all the challenges so I can ride those trails. Easy trails are great, but they don’t all need to be easy. Let’s keep some of them at least moderately challenging so I don’t need to buy a road bike to ride them.

  • #14971 Reply

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    As I read your post I thought, “Why would there be intense debate on this subject?” Of course, I realized I only thought that since I share your point of view. When I started mountain biking I had no expectation of being able to ride advanced trails but needed to improve my skills over time to tackle them. That’s the fun and challenge of mountain biking, it’s why I continue to ride.

    Trails don’t need to be dumbed down. Riders need to recognize their own limitations, and work to overcome them.

  • #14972 Reply

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    Thanks, you said it better than I. Nice job

  • #14976 Reply

    Robb Sutton
    • Total Posts 677

    Everyone. Say hello to Mike Vandeman. For more information on this guy…check out this link —> http://evergreenmtb.org/php/show_page.php?page_id=32

  • #14973 Reply

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    This article underscores the damage that mountain biking does. “Dumbing down” is just more habitat destruction.

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1994:
    http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/mtb10 . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes.
    They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see
    http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/scb7 ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and (worst of all) teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    For more information: http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/mtbfaq .

  • #14974 Reply

    David Muse
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  • #14975 Reply

    Robb Sutton
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    Everyone. Say hello to Mike Vandeman. For more information on this guy…check out this link —> http://evergreenmtb.org/php/show_page.php?page_id=32

    And his pending charges for attacking cyclists with a saw on the trail.


  • #14977 Reply

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    Good lord! I love the disclaimer at the bottom of his web page:

    “WARNING: It is probably impossible to understand my web page, if you own a car.
    Or a mountain bike”

    I think I just found my new bathroom reading page.

  • #14978 Reply

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    Somehow even more poignant given that in FAQ on MTB #19, he accuses mountain bikers of being sociopaths engaged in addictive behavior:

    “19. Why is mountain biking so addicting? It seems that once someone starts mountain biking, they feel a need to do it as often as possible – at least weekly. And they become impervious to information about the harm that mountain biking does. (That’s why it is extremely unfortunate when land managers or their staff start mountain biking.) Apparently, some people have an especially strong desire or “need” for danger and thrills, and it seems to be accompanied by an unusually low concern for the welfare of wildlife, the environment, non-bikers, or anything else that gets in the way of their thrill-seeking. A phenomenon that may be related is the existence of psychopaths — people who seem to be genetically devoid of moral feeling. See _Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us_, by the brilliant scientist Dr. Robert Hare. I highly recommend his book. As far as I know, in Hare’s terminology, mountain bikers are sociopaths, not psychopaths.”

  • #14979 Reply

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    To deny mountain bikes on trails is like denying canoes on lakes. Why don’t you also make the argument, Mike, to ban cars and trucks on roads because the drivers, according to your argument, can easily walk.

  • #14980 Reply

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    This subject makes my head want to explode. Trail sanitation is rampant in Louisville, KY due in large part to our local mountain bike association. Technical trails are routinely rerouted and replaced with smooth jogging paths. I live 1/4 from 14 miles of singletrack that has basically been vandalized. Each organized trail day more and more technical features are removed and stupid easy reroutes are created. Our local mountain bike association went as far as to bring the police with them when a group of young riders tried to fend off the destruction of an awesome mini jump park they had built in an obscure hidden location.

    Thankfully we have Ft Duffield just outside of town that was built and is managed by someone who actually understands what mountain biking is about. Additionally the Hoosier Mountain Biking Association just across the river is awesome. They build and manage trails of all skill levels and do a damn fine job. It’s just a shame that our area trails are so mismanaged by such a lame bunch of pseudo mountain bikers.

  • #14981 Reply

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    Seems simple (?!): – just grade each trail and maintain it at that level. An easy trail can have more difficult optional loops.
    Fixing erosion problems is a priority but with good trail building techniques it should be OK to maintain the grade.
    Modern MTB is getting more technical and part of the fun is having the right bike on the right trail with the right skills.
    On rough expedition trails – your on your own totally. Biker Beware!

  • #14982 Reply

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    errrr, bathroom wiping page….

  • #14983 Reply

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    I guess I should quit my job and live off the govt based on that thinking! The jet exhaust isn’t good for the dirt or the poor defenseless plants…..etc…. And let’s not think about all the innocenct insects that suffer an unbearable death upon impact with the airplane’s various impact areas. Boy how will I sleep tonight with the death of all those bugs on my conscience?

  • #14984 Reply

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    I disagree, no one is denying a mountain biker trail access. On the oceans, crafts not designed for surfing rarely go into the large surf or wave areas, on our roads, there are different rules for large trucks and normal passenger vehicles- Our interstates do not allow vehicles of less than a certain horsepower, and large vehicles are limited in speed. Biclycle are not allowed to run in the traffic lane as they are on other roads.

    You are attempting to say that you are denied a trail simply because you have not acquired the skill to ride it. Mtb obstacles are like playground equipement- just because you can’t climb the stairs to the slide doesn’t mean the slide should be removed from the playground. Especially when every trail system I have ever seen built has the green trails for low or no skilled riders built 1st. Its always frustrating after spending 1000 hours building easy trials for you with no help from you, then you complain when we spend a few hours building trials for us.

  • #14985 Reply

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    Rick, you are correct about Cherokee park being dumbed down, but in most instances it is the park department doing it or individuals simply going out on their own and removing things they can’t ride or don’t like. KYMBA and even metro parks are not involved every time something technical is removed from a trail in Louisville KY. The technical trails that are reroute are trails that are technical due to erosion. Park is never going to let us keep trails like this in Cherokee park, it is too close to bear grass creek which you must know the sewer district has been fined over $500million over the run off that goes into this creek. They will not let us keep trails that spewing setiment into this creek that they are trying to clean up (no they are not doing a very good job of it) The mtn bike club (KYMBA) tries to work with parks department to get the best out come with these reroutes. We sometimes don’t get what we want and defiantly try to get technical lines where possible, but the final trail that is built is usually the best we can do given what parks will let us do and the amount of labor we have. Parks has even at times offered to let us build alternative technical lines, but as HMBA can attest to building a technical line is far more labor intensive than building a smooth path. We often don’t have enough labor finish the trail let alone go back and add technical lines. It took HMBA a couple of years to build schooners trace in Brown county, and they have good volunteer turn outs.

    The more you blame the local mountain bike club for removal of technical features that it is not responsible for the more you hurt the local mountain bike scene and our chance to build technical trails. Our trails are not naturally technical, but with the right amount of organize volunteer help we can make them more technical. I am in KYMBA leadership and drive great distances to seek out technical terrain and would love to have it locally so I don’t have to drive 7 hours to get to it. Not to mention if we had it locally I would be better prepared for awaits us in Pisgah, MOAB, Fruita, Vancouver and other epic destinations. It never going to happen when we have trail days and have 5 volunteers come out to trail days. We can’t have good volunteer turn out when have people blaming the mountain club for everything they don’t like about the trail.

    You are correct about the police thing to, and the president of the club at the time this happened removed in short order in large part because of the action with the jumps. For the record the jumps were not even on park property, it was a travesty that they were tore down. No one was happy about this and there is more to the story that I can’t share on here, but I agree with you here, this was just plain bullshit, and it is something that will not happen again as long as I am involved with KYMBA. This event happened almost 4 years ago and it is totally different leader ship in the club now.

    Your gripe is legitimate for sure, you are blaming the wrong group which hurts our chances of getting what we all really want to get from our trails and that is to become better rider each and every time we ride the trails. The only way that can be done is to have trails that challenge us and push our limits!

    Sound like from this article that we are not the only area experiencing these problems, it will be interesting to see some more responses.

  • #14986 Reply

    Gregory Heil
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    Well said!

  • #14987 Reply

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    Chris? I applaud your efforts. You have always been a vocal advocate against the dumbing down of our trails. Unfortunately, your concern for the preservation of technical trails seems of little concern to most members of KYMBA and appears to fall on deaf ears. I’ve seen the destruction time and again and not just at Cherokee.

    What was happening at Otter Creek Park before it closed was far worse. Huge sections of technical trails were rerouted and replaced with buff jogging paths. Nearly every log crossing had been removed or sanitized to the point that any beginner could ride it. When I expressed my concern to Brian (I’m not sure of his title) he explained to me that he was working closely with KYMBA and this is what they wanted. Additionally, before and after every race there are those that come in and remove technical features. Isn’t that cheating? It’s so bad, that at Duffield, some have felt compelled to camp there a few nights before the race to ensure that no one comes in and vandalizes the trails.

    With regards to the jumps that were destroyed during a KYMBA trail day I would like to point out a couple of things. First of all KYMBA had no authority to go there and destroy them because they were not on park property. You also mentioned that “no one was happy about this” and the KYMBA president was replaced shortly there after. However, I know at least one member that is still in a prominent position within KYMBA that was absolutely giddy about the prospect of tearing down the jumps. When I expressed my opposition to the planned destruction to him I was told something to the effect of “we’re going to show those little sh!ts that they can’t just come in here and do what they want.” And have you tried to ride the trails that led to the jump area lately? Those trails were meticulously maintained by those that frequented the jumps. They’re now a shambles and no longer worth riding. And if there were regrets about this incident why was no public apology ever offered? KYMBA has a web site. It could have been posted there along with a promise never to do anything like that again. Why wasn’t there a trail day to rebuild what was destroyed?

    You also seem to be suggesting that I mute my criticism of KYMBA and that somehow I am hurting the mountain bike scene here. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I don’t think so. I’ll continue to express my frustrations with a group that claims to represent the interests of mountain bikers but who’s actions, more often than not, have an effect to the contrary.

    I do want to thank you for all your hard work though. I know that you’ve worked hard within the system to advocate for things both you and I want. If you achieve just a fraction of what you are working for, our area trails will be a better place to ride. I just wish you could get more people on the same page as you.

  • #14988 Reply

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    As I age, I’m becoming more and more disinclined to experience gratuitous pain and suffering. I can also appreciate the need for certain incentives to stimulate adrenaline production, so I’m in favor of keeping technical features intact. Where I draw the line, for one thing, is on logging roads. If (When) I come around a blind corner, downhill at speed, and I meet traffic, what I don’t need is to enhance the experience with random boulders &c. I tend to clear off the shoulders a bit whilst ascending so I’ll have a better chance of returning home undamaged. Thirty years ago, I liked using watermelon-sized cobbles to grab that extra bit of air on an otherwise uneventful run, so it is with some misgivings that I’ve removed them (i.e. on FS 2080/Tolman Creek Road east of Ashland, OR). YMMV

  • #14989 Reply

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    Speaking of dumbing down, I meant e.g. there. D-oh!

  • #14990 Reply

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    I think the overhanging tree has done enough damage and needs to be removed. Since it is a non technical trail people are probably traveling fast and not aware of the low hanging branch. Obstacles on the ground are another matter. Seems like the more obstacles you have, the slower unexperienced riders will travel. I started out walking more than I rode, half the fun of mtbing is learning to overcome the obstacles. Smooth trails leave no challenge except to go faster and faster and faster.

    Perhaps we should have a ban on home building. Seems with all the foreclosures there are plenty of houses to go around. Maybe its time to stop destroying nature and putting animals out of their homes by over building. Bikes belong in the woods!

  • #14991 Reply

    • Total Posts 0

    here in NH, we (NEMBA) build and maintain most of the legal trail systems. any obstical or stunt is always paired with a go around. that way people without the skills to go over can go around . it also stops the ribboning that happens when people make their own go around. Also our state has a law on the books that states , as long as you dont charge for access, and the land isnt posted, you cant be sued by a user. and it specifically list bicycles.

    that said we still get unauthorized” help” from users who think they are helping. Its mostly ignorance, so we try and have alot of novice and beginner group rides and trail days to educate the masses.

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