Stop Apologizing: How to Pass and Get Passed on MTB Trails

Mountain bikers should stop apologizing, and start saying thank you. As they say, communication is key.
Photo: Matt Miller

I’m not a fast rider. I’m not a slow rider. I guess you could call me a half-fast rider. While grunting my way up a long, sloggy, technical climb at Annadel State Park in Northern California this past weekend, cursing the lout who chose the route (me), I heard an e-bike behind me clearly desiring to pass. I’ve got no beef with e-bikes, I own one. It’s rad. But this person did not say “Hello,” “Hey there half-fast, I’d like to pass,” or even just a simple “ding.” No, they started to pass on my right and I’m not ashamed to say I moved to the right. The message was not received. They moved left to try again. I moved left, and my elbows extended of their own accord. When he found enough room to maneuver around my pissiness, I advised in as friendly a tone as I could muster (between gasps for air) “Hey, you probably want to call out your pass” to which his fully head-phoned head responded “Hi!”

E-bike or no, that was poor etiquette. And perhaps my response was a bit dickish as well, but like in any relationship, we teach people how to treat us. If we want Mr. E-Jerk to become Mr. E-Harmony, “teachable moments” must be employed. I had an exceedingly diplomatic speech prepared for him in the unlikely event I found him midway up the trail with a dead battery, flat tire or perhaps a spear in his back. Of course, none of these things happened. I internalized my burning indignation and now it will show up as an ulcer or a weird twitch two years from now. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privy to the conversations of new and mostly female riders lately who can’t seem to stop apologizing for their slow climbing. For their slow descending. For their presence/existence. As I’ve noted previously in these pages, I used to be an apologizer. Dependably last to the top while my friends waited, I’d arrive sweaty and croaking out an “I’m….sorry…I’m….so……………slow….” Nobody cares. Unless you happen to be that PITA (Pain in the Ass) that folks are actually trying to get rid of, your pals don’t mind a break at the top. 

A slower-than-me friend I ride with arrives last to the top and says “Hey! Thanks for waiting!” This small but important shift in language is a game changer. Those at the top know you’re okay, don’t need comforting or consoling, your soul is not crushed on account of being dropped. The tone you set with “thank you!” vs “I’m sorry…” can also shift your own outlook from ‘partly cloudy’ to ‘mostly sunny’—“my friends are cool!” vs “Man, I suck.”

“But really, what do I do when someone wants to pass?” 

Okay, probably not what I did at the top of this story. At first glance, the answer seems quite simple. Look for a safe place to pull to the right, one that does not require you to fully stop, and allow the nice rider who has cheerfully asked to pass to pass and then say “Have a great ride!” But it’s not always that easy. What if pulling to the right puts you inches from the edge of the Grand Canyon? Thee who wants to pass needs to assume the larger risk of doing so. And maybe the person being passed just feels more comfortable stopping. That’s fine, of course. Just know that it’s up to you, that you don’t need to hurl yourself into poison oak, off a cliff, into a pride of pumas to let someone by. And above all, communication is key. When I want to pass, I say “Hey there! Looking to pass when possible—no rush!” And when I know someone wants to pass and I see a good spot, “pulling to the right/left, have a good one!”

When passing in opposite directions, the uphill rider always has the right-of-way. ALWAYS. But again, there are nuances. If I’m descending a wide dirt road and someone is riding up, of course I don’t need to stop. Plenty of room. But as the trail narrows, judgement is required. Is there enough room for me to continue downhill without disrupting the uphill rider’s progress? Do they look like a beginner who is going to be intimated and stop if I proceed? These are all judgement calls. For me, when in doubt, I stop and let uphillers go. 

What about e-bikes? They don’t have an uphill disadvantage, so does the same rule apply? I’ve asked myself this while climbing on my e-bike. In my opinion, yes, the same rule applies. Otherwise chaos will ensue. Like those times in traffic where someone is trying to be nice but does something weird and it just causes a massive cluster funk because nobody knows what anyone is doing or why. Predictability is key whether on the road in a car, on a bike, or on a trail. 

For the new rider, the timid rider, the potentially intimidated rider, please remember—this is your trail too. Stop apologizing. Put a smile on your face and wobble up that single track while the downhill bros yield. Give them a hearty “Thank you!”, and let them know how many are behind you. With very rare exception, the heart of even the most grizzled and grouchy old mountain biker is warmed by the sight of a fresh-faced newcomer. Courtesy, common sense, and communication are the keys to a long and healthy mountain bike life.