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Flow trails are growing in popularity for a reason.

Any opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and may or may not represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Flow trails get a bad rap. To purists, their growing popularity is the death of the sport as we know it. After all, flow trails allow riders of all skill levels to enjoy a sport that only a brave and hearty few once participated in.

I have a different view of flow trails. I believe they deserve equal billing alongside the gnarly, technical trails that have defined mountain biking as we know it. If you don’t ride flow trails, here are four reasons why you should try them.

Flowy trails are fun

It’s hard not to smile when you’re riding a flow trail. Rider: Sandy Dalton. Photo by Bryon Dalton.

I dare you to ride a flowy trail and not have a big grin on your face when you are done. The sweeping turns and rollers make them a joy to ride. Add in a few punchy climbs and descents, and you have a recipe for a rollercoaster-like ride. You can fly around these types of trails on the edge of control, or go slower and soak in the nature that surrounds the singletrack. I have never had a bad ride on a flow trail.

Flow trails can be technical trails too

Don’t be fooled by appearances. It takes a lot of skill to ride fast on a flow trail. Rider: Bryon Dalton. Photo by Sandy Dalton.

While you won’t find rock gardens, drops, or rooty climbs on a flow trail, the trails can still be technical. My local trail includes a series of tight, twisty turns through a pine forest. Riders’ bars barely squeeze through the trees as they whiz by. It takes a lot of skill and focus to keep the flow going and not clip a tree.

Also, flow trails get progressively harder as you go faster. Good braking and cornering skills are essential for maintaining momentum, and to avoid skidding off the trail. They may look easy, but flow trails have their own challenges that aren’t obvious from looking at them.

Flow trails emphasize skills over equipment

Some technical trails mandate the use of an expensive rig with several inches of suspension travel, which is way beyond the budget of money-conscious riders like myself. Flow trails, however, deliver fun to riders regardless of what kind of bike they own. You can have a blast riding a flow trail whether you are on a budget hardtail or a high-end carbon fiber trail bike.

The lack of steep climbs and descents, along with smooth surfaces, levels the playing field. A good set of lungs and legs, as well as the proper balance and control, are more valuable than a fancy bike when riding flow.

Flow trails are vital to the growth of our sport

Every rider has to start somewhere. A rough, rocky, and rooty trail is not the best place for a new rider to learn the fundamentals. He or she will quickly get discouraged by having to walk the trail more than ride it. Flow trails allow beginners to learn how to balance, corner, and brake while having fun and building confidence. Even the purists of our sport must acknowledge and appreciate the presence of flow trails as a key to the future of mountain biking.

Just go with the flow

Riders should embrace flow trails for what they bring to the sport. Rider: Sandy Dalton. Photo by Bryon Dalton.

While I love the challenge of riding rough, technical trails that beat me up both physically and mentally, my body doesn’t handle the abuse as well as it used to. Flow trails give me a fun, physical ride that isn’t so punishing and still leaves me grinning from ear to ear.

 

I’m glad flow trails are a part of our sport. They are fun for riders of all ages and skill levels. Additionally, we need flow trails in order to help new riders discover the joys of mountain biking, and allow older riders to continue riding well into their golden years. I hope all riders will appreciate what flow trails add to the sport. I certainly do.

What are your thoughts on flow trails? Please share them in the comments section below.

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# Comments

  • brimmergj

    Flow trails definitely do have their place in the community, but I personally feel that the term gets thrown around to much. Although all trails should be flowy and fun, all easy, less technical trails are not what I would consider a true flow trail. When I think flow trail, I think those wide machine built dirt sidewalks that don’t require much, if any braking, full of rollers and small rises and dips to keep your momentum and allow riders to keep their flow with minimal pedaling. What I see most of the time are simple, less technical trails, not much different than a “normal” trail but without the demanding terrain. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with those either. A purpose-built flowy trail is just fine as long as that was the intent from the start. Taking a technical flowy trail and removing all the challenges is what I believe most are concerned with and is the root of the “flow trails are garbage” problem. Nothing get a rider more riled up than making their trails easy. Well, maybe a flat tire that ruins their flow.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the term “flow trail” has been overused. I consider a flow trail to be one that, like you mentioned, helps you maintain momentum without constant pedaling. I don’t think all flow trails are wide, machine-built trails though. My local one is fairly narrow single-track. It started out as a sugar-sand/dirt trail that they laid clay over and added some berms and rollers to, but it’s not buttery smooth or wide.

    • brimmergj

      I definitely agree that singletrack can be termed flow trails, the groomed and buff wide machine built stuff is just the first thing that pops in my head when I hear flow trail. With that thinking, when I’m building a trail I always say that every trail should have flow, but not every trail should be a flow trail. Basically, every trail should have a nice rhythm to it, but should also have some technical challenges and not just be a dirt sidewalk in the woods.

    • Paul Johns

      I operate Shadow Trail Designs….all my trails flow…..but most are not flow trails. I believe there is a place for flow trails…but PLEASE do not alter a cool techy trail in the process. BTW….my trails are hand built single track and they still flow well…they are just not 3-4 ft wide. The only time I bring in an Excavator is if I have a ton of side hill bench work.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments. I totally agree. Flow trails can also be technical singletrack. We have a great one in Tallahassee. I think the best compromise between the two is a flow trail with technical sections that has ride-arounds for those who don’t feel like doing them or aren’t at the skill level to do them. I would love to see more trails like that being built. I think that is the best of both worlds and would cater to a broader audience.

  • marvinmartian

    I like naturally flowing trials but do not care for the machine cut BMX like trails that are so popular these days. I’m thinking of when Tsali was considered a flow trail (before the term existed I’m sure) and when Mountain Bike magazine published an article (20 years or so ago) gushing about how smooth and fast those trails trail were.That is the type of flow trail that I like, not 12 foot wide smooth superhighways that are of little challenge. Give me a 1-3 foot wide trail that flows well any day hand cut and flowing in a natural way. That I can buy into

    • Richard Shoop

      I agree, although I have never been on any of the wide machine-built trails. It would be interesting to compare the riding experience between them and the singletrack flow trails I am used to.

  • sirios

    I have been riding bikes in the mountains and hills for some sixty years, but must admit i haven’t kept up with the way MT. biking has evolved . To me Mt. biking is still just a fun ride through the woods . I’m more interested in the quietness and scenery than careening down a slope at break neck speeds.

  • Brad Small

    Singletrack flow trails are great for all the reasons mentioned in the article. They are also scenic passage to other more difficult singletrack trails. Where I live the flow trails also have climbs, rocks at times and roots. Provides plenty of challenge and opportunity to learn for less skilled riders. Flow trails also become great fat bike trails in the winter when covered in snow. Giving riders a year round outdoor work out. Cheers.

    • Richard Shoop

      Good points. Thanks for your comments.

  • Mudsoldier

    I wish we had true flow trails where I now live. Sadly, it seems that every time they build a new trail here it is nothing but a continuous jump trail with short flow in between jump after jump after jump. So it sucks because the way they build the trails as such, does not allow for proper lead up to ANY single jump, so you end up having to attain wreckless amount of speed to make it. Jump trails suck, but flow trails are super nice and fun. I have no understanding as to ‘why’ so many people seem to think that ‘mountain biking’ is the same thing as BMX. It is Not. Yet every time a new trail is built here where I live…yet again…another shitty jump trail. Fuck jump trails. Flow is the way to go.

  • AnneCarlo

    I have to agree that the term is not being agreed upon here. If by Flow we mean there are no roots, rocks, tough climbs or technical lines that doesnt automatically make it “easy” or good for beginners. one of the trails i actually stay away from is a “flow” trail by that definition; but it has so many berms, hills (small and large) and drops that it is a very difficult trail! and definitely not for beginners. and you definitely need some serious shocks, brakes and suspension on your bike to ride it.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments. Just as with other kinds of trails, there are different levels of flow trails. A black diamond is hard whether it is a flow trail or a traditional singletrack.

  • TK34

    The term “flow” trail seems to have evolved into a definition of a machine-built, generally smooth trail that usually includes berms and rollers. And I do enjoy these types of trails, particularly when visiting a trail I’ve never ridden and want to avoid the harsh, unknown tech that might get me in trouble. But for me, “flow” is less about speed and smooth, but rather the “rhythm” of the turns, dips, manuals, hops, breaking, shifting, etc. And that doesn’t have to be machine-built. I’ve been on “flow” trails that don’t seem to have it, and I’ve been on more techy stuff that does have it. Rhythm is hard to define, but you know it when you’re on it.

  • jakegasau

    I have been lucky enough to live within riding distance of our local ski mountain and use our downhill trails (most of which would fit into the flow trail category) as my after work rides. Well built flow trails encourage you to build up speed and increase air time. Our trails are built with optimum flow in mind. The skills I’ve gained gauging speed off of obstacles have directly improved my riding much faster than the “huck and pray” method of going big on a technical trail with much higher consequences. I think a lot of people who are hating on flow trails have never followed a better rider who can help them find the line. Following someone who will push your speed can make anyone a flow trail fan!

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments. I totally agree. I ride with a faster rider and doing so has greatly helped me find the right lines.

  • thom248

    As an older mountain biker, I no longer have the physical ability that is needed for technical trails, not counting that it takes a lot longer to recover from crashes. Flow trails allow me to ride at my pace without worrying about getting hurt unless I let my thrill seeking ego go for it.

    Flow trails also allow for beginners to get comfortable on trails.

  • fiskagirl

    I’m a huge fan of flow trails. I really don’t enjoy riding over rocky stuff or things with heaps of roots or obstacles. I can see how other people enjoy that, but I personally ride for speed and flow. There’s a couple of tracks up at my local park which are smooth and flowy and they never fail to make me grin like an idiot. As my skill level increases, I can ride them faster and faster. Mountain biking should be an accessible sport, and as I discovered when I took a less experienced friend out with me recently, there really aren’t many non-technical trails around for beginners or warm-ups or even just those days when you’re feeling tired but still want to ride. There’s a lot of elitist bulls**t in this sport, and nobody should feel ashamed for wanting to ride something less gnarly.

    • Richard Shoop

      Well said. Thanks for your comments.

  • ed.oconnell

    I b 75-1/2 and can still do some tech-trails, but I agree that “flow-trails”, however you define them, are a kick in the ‘ol proverbial rear-end. // I live in Auburn, CA — just down the “hill” from Lake Tahoe and all the ski areas — and have so many flow-trails to choose from that the most difficult part of my day is the decision about which one to ride. // With the boomer gen aging it’s my un-humble opinion (it’s my opinion no opinions are “humble”) that if manufacturers, magazines, forums, and ‘net advertisers promote these kinds of trails they’ll promote more sales … plus, if you take a look at all the fat-folks around you’ll see why ALL of America needs to think about climbin’ on some kind of bike because of the basic fun and inherent ease on them ‘ol joints. // Fact: Only 10% of us elder types (them over 65) exercise regularly; so it’s no surprise for me to see 50 and 60 year olds with canes, mobile chairs, and so many disabled stickers showin’ up that there’s more parking for them than the other customers. I’ve even seen more “disabled” persons board planes ahead of the regular customers that even 1st class has to wait. // BTW, I keep an open mind about disabilities because my wife is handling Multiple Sclerosis. // Mmmm, maybe I’ll start submitting articles somewhere that can reach and promote mountain biking for the pre-dead <– That's the new Kalifonicrazy snowflake term for "old" … you know, like the laughable term of pre-owned vehicles rather than "used". // Last: What's wrong with promoting ALL kinds of mountain biking? //
    Well, off for a ride in the snow. Hope u'all don't crash and burn. My wife says I'm not happy unless I come home with some blood showin'. ???? <– Pre-dead guy.

    • Richard Shoop

      Dude, you rock. Thank you for your comments, and keep on riding.

    • Shane Kweens

      Ed that is some great story telling! It’s a lost art these days of virtue signaling social justice warriors that just whine and moan. Just keep riding! If you’re bleeding… your living!

  • Mikeyathome

    On a different track… What to you recommend for top flow-trails on the US east coast?

    • Richard Shoop

      I just went to the Fork Area Trail System in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago. It has some great flow trails. I’ve also heard that Dupont in North Carolina has great ones as well.

  • Shane Kweens

    Not a big fan of smooth man made trails of any kind. I will always consider them more dirt jump and BMX oriented. That said I rode one today as my first ride back after a wrist injury because it was much less jarring than the tech trails I like. Also, I feel they have a place for introducing beginners to the sport.

    • Richard Shoop

      Yes, those are two very good reasons why flow trails are a vital part of our sport. I used flow trails to ease back into mountain biking after sustaining a shoulder injury at the start of the year. I am very thankful we had a flow trail in town.

  • SCouture

    Flow trails are the perfect technical level for those of us (I’m 66 years old) who love mountain biking but no longer have the fitness level/muscular strength/wind capacity to ride the more rocky/rooty technical trails like we have here in New England. I suppose that one day I’ll need to switch all pedal power to an e mtn bike to continue riding, but I’d like to hold out for as long as practically possible.

    • Richard Shoop

      Great comments. I totally agree. Flow trails definitely benefit older riders who want to stay in the sport but can’t always handle rough, technical trails.

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