COMBA: Biking Boom Propelled us 10 Years into the Future

Gary Moore, middle. Photo courtesy COMBA.

Gary Moore is the executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, COMBA. The group is dedicated to the interests of the Front Range mountain biking community in and around Denver.

In this episode we ask:

  • What is the Colorado Mountain Bike Association’s mission and how large is your membership? How many miles of singletrack does COMBA help support? 
  • When and why did COMBA get its start?
  • How long have you been with COMBA, and how did you get involved?
  • Did the recent boom in mountain bike participation translate into COMBA membership growth?
  • What is the biggest misconception the community tends to have about their local advocacy groups?
  • What are some of the most popular trails your group helps support? Are some Front Range trails particularly popular with MTB tourists?
  • Are there many opportunities for new trail builds on the Front Range? Can trail growth keep up with demand from new residents, and new riders?
  • How do you decide which trails projects to pursue?
  • Is unauthorized trail building a problem in the Denver metro area? 
  • What does the current discussion around e-bike trail access look like for COMBA, especially when it comes to city and county trails along the Front Range?
  • What’s the biggest constraint or major challenge COMBA faces in carrying out and achieving the mission?
  • What’s next for COMBA?

To get involved or learn more, visit COMBA.org.

A full, automatically-generated transcript of this podcast conversation is available to Singletracks supporters.

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Transcript

Jeff 0:00
Hey everybody, welcome to the single trucks podcast. My name is Jeff and today my guest is Gary Moore. Gary is the executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, also known as COMBA. The group is dedicated to the interests of the Front Range mountain biking community in and around Denver. Thanks for joining us, Gary.

Gary 0:23
Thanks, Jeff glad to be here.

Jeff 0:25
So tell us a bit about the Colorado Mountain Bike Association. What’s the organization’s mission and how large is your membership? Well, we are currently around 17 1800 Members, we have a goal of reaching 2000 And being the first single city in the chapter to get to that level.

Gary 0:46
We’ve had a lot of successes here lately. But you know, the the big challenge here for COMBA is just the area that we try to cover as a single chapter, we’re responsible for Denver, and its 2.6 million residents, which is about half the state’s population. So we oversee, oversee may be overstated, we get involved in and try to help steward and manage four to 500 miles of trails here in the area. Wow.

Overall, our mission is pretty simple. We sum it up as more trails and better trails.

You know, we’re looking for those opportunities to really help people enjoy the outdoors the way that they want to and where they want to as much as possible. So that comes down largely to just kind of updating the systems, you know, so many of the trails in this area are legacy trails that were you know, game trails, or wagon roads, or things that did not start out master planned or designed for any natural surface use really, especially bikes. And with the population, you know, Colorado, Denver, especially Front Range, we have a really high percentage of people that want to be outdoors and recreate in the outdoors. That’s why a lot of us live here, right. So we’re trying to do what we can to make that a sustainable and manageable recreational opportunity to get out on bikes on single track in the area. So much of it is focused on trails, operations, our projects, maintaining and building and that sort of thing. We do as much as we can in the way of supporting the community, when it comes to helping women, beginners, bipoc, community, those kinds of things. People that aren’t traditionally the main bulk of mountain bikers. Our women’s program is growing in leaps and bounds. We have a great leader there, that’s a volunteer, Britt Foreman is our leader for that program. In the last couple of years, we’ve actually been able to get some more funding for that, and expand that into some Spanish speaking clinics entirely held in Spanish. And those kinds of opportunities to really just try to reach out to as much as a community as possible and see that everybody has a chance to have a good time out doing what we love to do. Yeah,

Jeff 3:19
that’s cool. Well, so you said that COMBA sort of covers the Denver area, what are like the bounds of that? I mean, I assume we’re talking the metro area. So there’s suburbs and things like that. And there are other clubs, that you guys may be kind of run up against, to the south and the north. So what do you consider, like sort of the geographic balance for, for where you do and your work and advocacy?

Gary 3:46
Yeah, there’s, you know, we have great partners in Boulder and Colorado Springs, the winter Jordan, north and south. Really, you know, Denver itself doesn’t have much of the in the way of trails in town, but something that we’d like to see more of, and something we’ve worked with Denver Parks and Rec recently in the last year on trying to find more opportunities to bring the trails to the people. Now, that’s something that I learned after moving here that so many people live in the Denver Metro area grow up here, that really never make it to the mountains. It’s not always the easiest thing for them to accomplish. So we’re looking at ways to bring bike parks, and other you know, soft surface natural surface trails into the city itself. But by and large, the majority of the trails exist in the foothills along the front range west of Denver. I live in the Morrison area, which is very west Denver, it’s as West as I could be and not be up in the mountains gives us great access to that. We’re fortunate in that in that way. But so we kind of reach you know, there’s some overlap with boulder up around Gilpin County, out around Black Hawk and a project that we’ll talk some more about here in a minute. And then reaching down towards Colorado Springs, and then we say kind of roughly out to the Continental Divide for those in the area that that are familiar, Kenosha. Grinnell is about as far west as we really get involved, but it’s a it’s a pretty substantial geographic area.

Jeff 5:25
Yeah, for sure. That’s interesting that you you mentioned, you know, a lot of folks who grew up in Denver, maybe they have never been to the mountains, or they don’t go out that often. And, yeah, I mean, a lot of us probably don’t realize too, like if you live just on the east side of Denver, like in one of the suburbs there to do an after work ride. I mean, you’re driving what at least 30 minutes in traffic more.

Gary 5:48
Oh, probably. 45. Yeah. Yeah. Just just to get over to the foothills. Right. And then, you know, the, the trail systems are another 1530 45 minutes where they’re potentially depending on where you want to go. So yeah, it’s, it gets tough to do that as an after work rod.

Jeff 6:06
Yeah, yeah. So definitely, I can imagine there’s a lot of interest in in having trails that are closer to the city there.

Gary 6:15
Yeah, and there’s, there’s some opportunities springing up, you know, around Cherry Creek Highlands Ranch. Up in Adams County, Arvada, there’s, there’s some things that are coming along, that are gonna bring, you know, smaller systems, to be sure. And some of those are just maybe a pump track or a skills area or something like that, that we can add to an existing park. But every bit helps, right?

Jeff 6:39
Yeah, for sure. So when and why did COMBA, get its start?

Gary 6:45
COMBA started, you know, essentially, in 1991, we had the first local mountain bikers that worked for Lockheed Martin, on the south side of Denver, and they had been enjoying mountain bikes and, and on whatever trails were available at the time, particularly around the Deer Creek area. And, you know, they found that they saw that the trails were needing some love and that they could use some enhancements and, and some things that maybe were a little more bike specific. And they really just, it was probably six or seven guys that really started volunteering and getting involved with that local land manager. So it kind of sprang from there. You know, we have a pretty similar story to most groups, I would suspect that you once you start getting involved in having these conversations and relationships with land managers, you start figuring out what some of the other hurdles are to tackle. And there are always projects, both for creating new trails or keeping access to existing trails that come up, as, as we go along. And, you know, at some point, it became necessary to really organize become a nonprofit, become a 501. C three, and start becoming more, I guess, organized in our efforts, picked up the I guess we picked up the moniker of COMBA in the late 90s got our 501, c three around 2005, somewhere in there. And just continued to grow organically until until they hired me really in 2016, I was our first full time staff member. And it gave us a chance to really sink our teeth into this on a full time basis.

Jeff 8:37
Yeah, I mean, forming in the 90s is I’m actually surprised that seems kind of late for a city the size of Denver, and just kind of given a lot of the other groups around the country, do you think was part of that? I mean, for a lot of groups, their origin story involves like, you know, trail access issues where, you know, people have been riding and all of a sudden somebody said they can’t ride there anymore. Has that has riding been more acceptable? You think in Colorado like was that? Was that never the issue. And so that’s longer,

Gary 9:12
we still have our struggles, you know, our friends up in Boulder are still very much experienced these kinds of challenges. You know, it’s amazingly tough to get access to trails up there. You know, the Denver area is fortunate in a number of ways, but we have some land managers that are very much you know, up to speed with the times, I guess, in many ways in terms of understanding what the community is after. I think that there’s still a lot of hurdles there to to get over and figure out exactly how we provide for and create these experiences in metropolitan areas specifically, but you know, to answer your other question, Denver, Denver really only started explode about 10 or 15 years ago. So you know, 1991 This was a very different scene here. And what we’ve heard is, you know, Colorado Springs has Medicine Wheel is there in the chapter. They started in 91. Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance, I think also started around 91. And the Fort Collins was similar. So clearly, there was a watershed moment there in the early 90s, when the Front Range began to really adopt mountain biking and start to, you know, take on some of those paint those pinch points for land managers and in accommodating this new user group.

Jeff 10:36
Yeah. Well, so you mentioned that you came on board at conga in 2016. What were you doing before that?

Gary 10:46
Well, you know, I got started riding bikes off road in the 70s growing up in SoCal, you know, riding 27 inch 10 speeds with BMX handlebars. And we rode mostly in the canyons, we did a little bit of, you know, build a berm here or jump there kind of a thing. But mostly, we just rode the old moto trails and spent a lot of time walking broken bikes home at the end of the day, because they just, they were not built for that kind of writing, that’s for sure. Yeah. You know, my wife and I got involved with volunteering for SORBA Woodstock outside of Atlanta, in 2010. And I really fell in love with that whole effort of trail building of the art and science of creating these natural surface trails to provide a certain experience for people. And it’s just fascinating to me, I mean, you walk into the woods on a new trails project, and you look around, and you’ve got this, this empty canvas and so much to accomplish, and it can be really daunting to figure out where you want to go and how you want to make that happen. And so I really just fell in love with that, and was doing so much volunteering in my free time there with SORBA. That, it started to be something that I felt like I really wanted to pursue. As a career, I had been working as an IT professional for about 12 years, that was my, my second career. And getting out and getting away from the computers, spending time in the woods, building trails, creating these experiences, and really just being overwhelmed by the soul food that comes along with that the opportunity to create these, these experiences in the woods for people and just see the joy that that brings them in, and that you know, is going to be there for a long time. Yeah, I mean, most of these trails, you know, bridges and these things they’re, they’re gonna be around for for generations. And that really hooked me it was something that I felt like that at this stage of my life was something that I wanted to be more involved in my community, I wanted to have a bigger impact on the way that people were recreating, and finding their time in the woods. And having that be a good experience for for everybody. So I got a chance to take an executive director role there in Woodstock with another nonprofit that was working on concrete trails, as I call them, because people don’t use the word path enough. But you know, the 10 foot wide stuff that is so awesome to have in a community to get you out of your cars and, and off the roads. And that was a great experience there for a year and a half with Greenprint. Alliance. But the opportunity came up here to to come be the executive director for conga. And, you know, I mean, the chance to work for a nonprofit pursue mountain biking, you know, on a daily basis. This is what I do every day is talk about bikes and trails. Yeah, I’m in, you know, bring bring me I’m ready to come out here. Our kids had gotten to a point where they were graduating high school and college and getting ready to leave the nest. And this was the perfect next chapter for us. So we’re super stoked to be here. It’s been about six years now that we’ve been in Colorado, and it was a huge learning curve. You know, the the effort out here for pursuing Trails is very, very different than it was in Georgia. And I think that’s true, you know, across the country, that the the nature of public lands, the nature of the trail experiences is so different within each region. So it’s been a wild ride, but I’ve really enjoyed, you know, being able to be here and pilot COMBA and, and grow this organization to the level that it needs to be to take on the challenges that we’re faced with.

Jeff 14:44
Yeah, yeah, that’s awesome. And you get to do it in Colorado of all places. I know, right? That’s, yeah, you’re living the dream. Yeah. Pinterest. So. So a lot of folks maybe are familiar. You know, we wrote some stories toward the beginning of the pandemic. about just how overcrowded a lot of trails were becoming when things were locked down, and especially along the front range, it seemed like that was that was a major issue. So I’m curious, you know, were two, three years in to this, this whole pandemic, post pandemic period. How has that? Has that changed? For one thing? You know, are we still seeing those levels of participation? And to like, what, how does that affect your job and what you’re trying to do in terms of the mission?

Gary 15:33
Well, we were already overcrowded before the pandemic hit. So when we saw this spike, that really blew the lid off of things we you know, we work very closely with a local state park called Staunton State Park. And last year, year before first year of the pandemic, I guess, we saw a spike in activity out there that was not expected to be seen until 2030. So it was this exponential growth that that just propelled us 10 years into the future. Some of that has, you know, receded a bit or not quite, you know, a lot of those people that used to do something else and then had to go find outdoor rec have have probably gone back to doing what they could do,

Jeff 16:23
and went back to watching the Rockies in the Broncos.

Gary 16:26
Right? You know, going into gyms, whatever they were doing before, they were all of a sudden out on the trails, but it was a really interesting time. I mean, it was palpable, you could you could ride around and see people on bikes that clearly hadn’t left the garage and 10 years. No helmets, you know, Bluetooth speakers strapped to handlebars, flip flops, it was the whole thing. So, you know, it’s definitely an interesting challenge that give us a little peek at what is coming. You know, we know that the Front Range population is continuing to grow, especially around Douglas County a little bit to our south. And it’s something that, you know, the land managers definitely need to respond to and are trying to figure out how to manage and we’re trying to be part of that conversation. In Colorado, we really have to also keep a very close eye on you know, what it is that brought us all here in the first place. You know, public lands are amazing the flora and fauna, the diversity of the ecosystems the the rich habitats that we have that allow you to go for a bike ride or a trail run and and run into a moose or, you know, maybe see a bear or a mountain lion if you’re lucky or unlucky, depending on your your pet. You know, that we don’t want to spoil that. And that was one of the first lessons for me was understanding that that was such a big part of the conversation here. We have so many people that have a vested interest in Colorado’s public lands, from preservationist that don’t want to see any new human impacts anywhere in the state, which is a tall order to those that want to conserve what we have Sportsman’s group that want to enjoy it responsibly growing, you know, outdoor rec is just growing in leaps and bounds. So how do we manage all that? You know, how do we know there’s a limited amount of space out there, we don’t want to ruin it. But we want to enjoy it and we want to enjoy it in in our personal preference. So we you know, one of the things that we’ve done here at Columbus that we’ve been piloting, driving really an effort called outside to 85, which is a a landscape level planning effort that was originally you know, kind of came out of a request from the Forest Service, one of our local Ranger districts was just overwhelmed with all of the recreational group voices that were coming to them and saying, you know, we need more room for horse trailers, or we need more bike specific experiences, or we need you know, hiker only trails that, you know, don’t have all this other activity, including bikers. So they asked us to kind of take the lead on, on, you know, bringing all those voices together and just presenting them with a five or 10 year plan to have a sense of how do they go about doing this without having a meeting every other day with a new interest group. So we we pulled this together and we expanded that to include land managers, wildlife managers, preservationist conservation sportsmen, all the all the ologists it wound up being a pretty good sized effort that we had to go out and get a grant for last year. And it really just take a look at this one section of town along Highway two 85, south west of Denver. And just like there’s a finite resource here, and let’s start with what’s the valuable habitat? Where are the migration areas? What are the parts that are least impacted by humans now, and let’s really just secure that let’s all agree across the table, we’re going to leave this as intact and protect us as much as we can. And then took a look at where have we already, you know, seen significant human impacts? And what can we do there to improve the recreational amenities, improved trailheads, add additional trails, add new management techniques, like, you know, designated use of directional trails and those kinds of things. And it, it gave us all the opportunity to just come to it’s a non binding agreement. It’s a gentleman’s agreement, if you will, but it’s still a plan, it’s still we can look at maps, we can look at lists of projects, we did tier one that are ready to go now tier two, need a little more assessing out and tier three that really need more conversation. And we came up with a pretty good plan going forward, that gives us an opportunity to figure out how to do what we need to do here responsibly, you know, create those recreational opportunities while not spoiling the lands.

Jeff 21:25
Yeah. So I mean, it sounds like you’re you’re constantly balancing different competing priorities and managing relationships with different user groups. What are some of the, like misconceptions that folks outside of advocacy have about groups like COMBA and other advocacy groups?

Gary 21:47
You know, I think I would break that into two groups, you have the people that are outside of mountain biking, the other advocates, the land managers, other people I described with the 285 project. You know, there, unfortunately, their conception of or perception of mountain bikers is is a, just a unquenchable thirst, we want new trails everywhere all the time, right. And so that’s a lot of what we’ve been working on with projects like oh, 285 is showing them that we are also conservationists, we also would like to see the land preserved. We’d also like to see people recreating responsibly, and that we’re here to be part of that solution as well. Inside the mountain bike community is a different story, they, you know, what we hear a lot from all of my fellow advocates that I that I work closely with, most of the mountain bike community just thinks that we have way more control over these projects than we really do. You know, I say a lot that we get too much blame, and we get too much credit for nearly every project. And we’re part of that too, right? I mean, we we will crow and say, look at this amazing new thing that we brought to bear when, because we need to, to, to keep that support and to keep people you know, feeling like we’re accomplishing for them, which is what we’re here to do. But we also need to really help people understand that we don’t own any land, right? We’re always dealing with a land manager that has their own set of priorities and responsibilities and goals and missions. And everything that we can do to be a part of that process. And to try to get the outcomes that we’re after is what we’re here to do. You know, we have created COMBA in a way that we can plug in and be able to assist a municipal land manager or county, land manager, state, federal, whomever it is, with the full lifecycle of trails, from concept and design and planning, fundraising, construction, to maintenance and continued optimization of those trails, just depends on on what expertise they have, or what expertise they don’t have. And we’re, you know, we’re greasing the skids, we’re nudging things this way. And that way, we’re having, you know, the the impacts that we can have, but trying to explain to the community, especially in the social media driven world. The nuance of every one of these projects just isn’t tenable. It’s not going to happen. And so we do tend to sort of paint in these broad strokes of this was a COMBA project or this wasn’t a COMBA project. And I think that’s that level of black and white. works for us. Sometimes it works against us sometimes. But the important part the takeaway that I would like people to have is just understand that we are constantly added, we are constantly working on these relationships, we are constantly trying to move projects forward, we’re constantly trying to improve the trails that are here. It’s not always obvious on the outside, and the product at the end of the day isn’t necessarily what everybody hopes it would be. But that, you know, part of that comes back to the mountain bike community itself are so incredibly diverse, from beginners to experts, you know, cruisers to shredders. It’s hard to build a trail for all of those experiences, when we only have a couple of bites at that Apple every year.

Jeff 25:42
Right? Yeah, yeah. I mean, you make a good point that groups like COMBA have become especially good at, like you said, greasing the skids, and just making these projects as easy as possible for land managers to say yes to and then to execute. I mean, like, 10 years ago, you know, clubs, like Columbo, I don’t know, do you guys have your own like trail building crew? Or do you contract with others? Okay, yeah, so that didn’t exist 10 years ago, right, most clubs would have to, you know, they say, well, we don’t know how to build trails, either, we’ll have volunteers do it. But now they’re, they’re able to provide those services in a professional way, from design to construction to all those things.

Gary 26:26
I mean, we, we actually get hired as consultants. Now, that’s one of the things that we’ve been able to change in the last few years, we don’t give everything away anymore, which is a big part of how we’re able to accomplish everything that we are, and to tackle the size of the, again, the geographical area alone, but just the number of miles of trails, and the number of new trails, projects, you know, you can only sell so many T shirts, and we only get so many members. So we’ve we’ve learned a lot about, you know, what grants are available, how to get that support from the community. And, and like I said, you know, there’s places where it’s perfectly reasonable for us to be, you know, the trail designer, the trail construction crew, the construction manager, we can help, you know, create RFPs any, any part of that process is something that we typically have way more experience in than, you know, say a local municipality that has never had a trail system doesn’t have a Parks and Rec Department doesn’t have a mountain biker or trail runner on staff. And they’re really coming at this without a lot to go on. And one of one of my job’s is to go in there and, and partner with them and convince them that what we don’t know, we know, the people that do, and we can help you make this the best possible project that you’re looking for, you know, each of these, especially a city, I mean, they only get so many chances to build a new trail. And to mess that up is is horrific. You know, I mean, we getting that right out of the gate is a tough thing to do. I mean, even for those of us that have been doing this for a while, and you can talk to trail builders that have been working in the industry for for three or four decades. And they’ll tell you there’s there’s still stuff to learn, there’s still things to figure out how to do a better job of designing a trail constructing a trail, we see those techniques change all the time, and expecting a local land manager or, you know, even the the Forest Service, which manages so many trails already, they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience in planning and design and construction. And we see a lot of times that these groups go out and hire the low bid for their RFP and and the trouble begins usually right about that for me.

Jeff 28:55
Right. Well, let’s talk a little bit about some of the trails that come by help support what are some of the more popular ones and are those are the ones where you tend to also end up spending a lot of time doing maintenance?

Gary 29:10
Yeah, I guess we could spend some time defining popular is that the ones that you want to ride are the ones that get written. You know, the the ones the ones that are closest to population areas, residential areas, they get written the most and therefore people you know, get very attached to them and have a lot of opinions about them. Jeffco open space is really our largest land manager here right up next to where everybody lives. You know, they’re kind of the gateway of the Rockies. They’re in golden. And they have some of the biggest challenges in that their trails have been around the longest they see easily the most use. They’ll tell you that there are 240 miles of trails see something like 7 million visitors a year. Wow. And that’s All almost entirely on bidirectional multi use trails. So a lot of user conflicts a lot of people out there with with differing ideas about how to recreate on the same trails. Yeah. So in that definition of popular they get, they certainly get the most use. What we’re seeing and what I hope will be true if it is not already is the newer trail systems that we’ve been able to bring online in the last few years. Since 2019, we’ve opened the Floyd Hill open space trail system. We started two years ago with Maryland mountain and Black Hawk. And each of those two systems brought the first ever and this is really hard to believe and say out loud, but the first ever purpose built bike specific bike only downhill directional trails in the area that are on public lands, and were conceived, designed and built for that purpose, we now have three, three, we’ve been fortunate the Jeffco, open space has re designated a couple of their trail segments to be bike only and directional one of those is a super popular trail near golden that they actually do an alternating use thing on that one, we just came up with that agreement with them about two years ago. That’s been amazing to be able to separate the users in such a highly densely populated and high use area. But yeah, these new trail systems are 1520 minutes off the front range, they tend to be higher in elevation. So they’re 510 15 degrees cooler, there’s fewer people there because you for the most part have to drive to get to them, which isn’t always our favorite, but it’s one of the things we deal with. But we’ve been able to to do them the modern management there you have kind of a dedicated climbing trail that you share with hikers and trail runners. And then bikes have specific routes down that are just specifically for that. And yeah, I mean, at the end of the day for most mountain bikers, that’s that’s why we’re making these 45 minute climbs, right is to get to where you can turn and point that thing downhill. And the last thing you want to do is stop 15 times on the descent for every other trail user that’s out there, including other bikes that they’re coming up hill at you. So we’ve really put a big emphasis in the last few years on finding those opportunities to build a bike only trails that are directional, and lead to really just enjoy what you’re out there to do without worrying about you know, having to stop or worse running over somebody. You know, we see a lot of that with kids and in dogs and those kinds of things that are out there on the trail. So having a dedicated trails are great. I think people are really enjoying Florida Hill, Maryland mountain. We’re building another system in Idaho Springs that will be similar. And yeah, we’re that’s where we’re fighting them. The most opportunity is just that one layer back further west off of the front range foothills. You know, Park County, Clear Creek County, Gilpin County, is where we’re getting to create those brand new experiences that people really seem to be digging.

Jeff 33:29
Yeah, yeah. I mean, are you Are you pretty much tapped out on the Front Range itself? Like the western slope there? Sorry, Eastern, Western, I don’t know, western slope. I

Gary 33:41
think western slope is Grand Junction. Those folks over there?

Jeff 33:45
Well, you know what, I mean the point where it’s flat, and then it starts going up? Yeah. Oh, like, you know, Apex and Falcon and Mount Falcon. I mean, those those areas have been there for a long time. They’re the first ones people come to when they’re they’re driving toward the mountains. Are there opportunities to build more trail systems kind of in that zone? Or is it pretty much built out at this point?

Gary 34:11
You know, I it’s a it’s a bit of a charged question. But I think for the most part, we have what we’re going to have here right along the foothills that comes down to land manager preferences and priorities. Currently with Jeffco open space, they’ve they are managing to a trail density per mile kind of a metric. And they largely feel like they’re they’re Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the other sort of overlaying, you know, wildlife interest in land management in Colorado. And they’re also very concerned about the current interface between the Front Range population and our public lands. So, you know, I think that we’re for the near future looking at incremental progress, like, you know, we talked about a minute ago with re-designating some trails, perhaps adding some additional trails that parallel each other and setting aside designated use on each of those is something that we promote and advocate for quite a bit, trying to find ways to make it so that we still keep that balance that we’re looking for with conservation and recreation. But that we don’t make it so that every good trail experience is something you have to drive to. Right. We liked the I liked the idea of being able to just ride out of my house, you know, I live next to Bear Creek Lake Park, not the most entertaining trails in the world, but it’s certainly better than being on concrete or road or something like that. And yeah, and, you know, five or 10 minutes bike ride to get over there. And and it’s definitely worth it on many days. So it’s a tough one, it’s a tough nut to crack. I think that we are having the best conversations we can have with land managers around that problem. And like we said earlier, finding ways to bring those trails closer to where people are. But the reality is that the majority of what we’re going to get in the way of new experiences and new capacity is gotta be a little further off the front range.

Jeff 36:34
Yeah. Yeah. Makes sense. Well, so how do you ultimately decide sort of which trail projects to pursue? How do you decide I mean, obviously, come as limited resources. I mean, especially your time as the executive director. So how do you? How do you decide which ones to pursue? Is it the easy ones? Is it the more strategic ones like what’s what’s kind of the metric you use?

Gary 36:59
Well, ultimately, we try to pursue them all. You know, I have a wonderful trail director, Gil McCormick, that has lived in this area forever, is absolutely indefatigable, when it comes to pursuing every trail opportunity anywhere within our area and some beyond our area. So we have a pretty good sized spreadsheet of that is our wish list or our project list are things that we’re either actively working on, or that we hope to get a chance to sink our teeth into, at some point. Really, the our approach is, we like to look at the entire area, and we sort of have an inventory of those trails and those trail experiences. And one of the we look at where those holes are, you know, the vast majority of trails really as they should, or right down the middle, they suit the most people. It’s that intermediate give or take level experience. And, and we don’t, we don’t have the terrain. And we haven’t historically had a lot of green level trails. For beginners. That’s a challenge. We before the pandemic, we had a pretty robust beginner program every summer, where we try to help people get out on bikes and you know, just figure out how to do that more enjoyably and confidently. And there’s very few places that we can take true beginners around here. And so that’s always something that we’re keeping an eye out for, can we bake that into a trail plan. And then the other end of the spectrum is the you know, the black double black, the advanced and expert level riders that we also very rarely get the opportunity to go build a trail that suits that experience. And there’s some, some fairly obvious, I think factors that lead into that when a, when a municipality decides they’re going to put together a trail system and creates an outdoor recreation economy for themselves. They want to bring as many people as possible, right, they want that trail that’s going to meet 80% of the riders needs, and encourage those people to come and shop and stay in and enjoy what their talent has to offer. So finding the opportunity to hit that bottom, you know, 10 20% or that top 10 20% Is, is tough and and particularly the upper end of the scale, because it tends to be really hard to create that experience that is sustainable and maintainable. When, right. And that also becomes a tougher sell for land managers. And there’s a it’s funny, but there’s there’s sort of this perception that those trails bring a higher level of liability risk for them. And I think most mountain bikers will tell you that a majority of our accidents tend to be JRA. Right? Just riding along right. I know my my worst one was on a trail and do exceedingly well and just probably didn’t have my mind on it that day. So yeah, we do try to educate the land managers about those levels of risk and the desire to have these different experiences. Ultimately, you know, it comes down to, like I said, we’re pursuing everything all the time with as much time as we have in a day. But what can we actually get approvals for? What can we find the funding for? And that’s what gets built next.

Jeff 40:32
Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned earlier that JeffCo sees what 7 million visitors to their trails every year, which is incredible, credible number. Is that? Do you have any sense about how many of those folks are local, sort of to the Denver area versus folks who travel in? I know, when I lived in Colorado Springs for several years? I mean, it was obvious in the summer, that there’s just more traffic, there’s more people visiting from out of state, out of town. Is that a challenge when some of your users, trail users are coming in from other areas that are not necessarily folks there who can be involved in supporting the club and helping maintain trails and that sort of thing?

Gary 41:22
Yeah, for sure, there’s definitely some challenges there. I don’t know that JeffCo knows what percentage of those trail users are residents versus out of town, my guess is they probably have some sense. And obviously, that’s going to be a bigger impact and natural surface trails in the summer, like you mentioned, I was, I was driving around trying to get some things done yesterday, and I swear, I didn’t think anybody had a Colorado plate on there. You know, and we see a variety of challenges there with that, with people coming in from from out of town, and Colorado is a rugged place compared to most trail systems and most public lands, and our errors, then, you know, people people come up here, and they’re like, Oh, I love mountain biking. And, and, you know, Colorado sounds like an amazing place to do that. And they’re not wrong. But, you know, we learned firsthand moving here from Georgia that the, you know, the trails are steeper, they’re rock here, they’re more technical, and they tend to be, you do all your climbing, and then you do all your descending a 45 minute to an hour climb that covers 1000 1500 feet straight out of the parking lot, it’s kind of the norm. And it’s not going to be smooth, and it’s not going to be at a grade that you would prefer. It’s a challenge. And even here in the in the Front Range, you know, the foothills start at around 6000 feet and and easily go over 7000 our trail systems, like I said, that we’ve been building the last couple of years Florida Hill is starts at seven and goes up over eight, Maryland mountain starts at eight and goes over nine. It’s not hard, our North elk Creek system starts at nine and goes over 10. So it’s, it’s a very different experience than most people are prepared for. Our weather can change very quickly here and fairly brutally. People are not used to in the middle of a summer day having 50 degree rain and hail falling on you with lightning everywhere. So you know, not to mention the wildlife concerns and and what that brings in terms of our rattlesnakes and other large games that are out here. So there’s just a lot to be prepared for. And I think that that’s something that we don’t necessarily have the right voice, the right channels to communicate with those groups. But we do have to plan for them to be out there. And we do have to, you know, deal with that and plan for that additional capacity, which is probably more than a lot of local organizations are having to deal with because they’re just not in a place that sees the kind of ecotourism that we do here in Colorado.

Jeff 44:20
Well, I want to ask a question about illegal trails and sort of unauthorized trails that that maybe people are building or get created socially in different spots around Colorado, I mean, and everywhere else as well. Is that much of an issue for you does Chromebook like get the blame for that? And you guys are always like, trying to try to do PR when something like that comes up or or is that? I don’t know, or is that not an issue for COMBA?

Gary 44:55
I think it’s an issue everywhere. There are always going to be The people that go out and try to create either their own access or their own experiences. You know, some of the unauthorized trails are just things that spring up behind neighborhoods and others are full blown constructed trails people going out and just digging their own and creating their own experience. And, and I can, you know, I have some empathy for that, right? I mean, we all want to have the experiences that we want to have on our bikes. It’s one of the reasons that I’m in this position is that I also want to be able to create those experiences and add the type of writing that I’m interested in seeing as well as creating as much of the a diverse amount of experiences for everybody as possible. You know, it happens, because, you know, the land managers are not able to provide those experiences for a variety of reasons. And we get that, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t excuse the I’m just gonna go do it myself mentality. And it definitely works against what we’re trying to accomplish. We and actually, we were just having this conversation here with my counterparts in Colorado Springs, and in Boulder. They’re actually seeing even more of it than we are in this area. Particularly, I think, because Boulder has such a hard time getting, you know, authorized trails. So people are like, Yeah, I’m just gonna go do it. If they make me tear it up, or they tear it up themselves. So be it, I’ll go figure out someplace else. Yeah. But it hurts our relationships with the land managers. You know, we have some land manager partners out there that have gone so far as to say, you know, we’re not going to discuss anything new, until you get a you know, road trail building under control. And that’s

Jeff 46:59
just tough, too. I mean, you mentioned that you guys have 1700 members, you know, hoping for 2000. But, I mean, realistically, what there’s, there’s easily 100,000 people in the Denver Metro area who ride mountain bikes.

Gary 47:15
That’s been my thumbnail was about 100,000. Yeah, we don’t know for sure. But I think that’s a reasonable guess.

Jeff 47:21
Yeah. So you get you get the blame. And I mean, it’s not, you know, you have little to no influence over the majority of those folks. I mean, maybe maybe some some sort of moral high ground where, you know, people are appreciative of the things that come by does, but yeah, at the same time, yeah, that’s, that’s kind of out of out of Compass hands, right?

Gary 47:43
There really is very little we can do, you know, we we certainly tried to pass along that message. But, you know, people that are that are building their own trails without authorization. They know that they’re building their own trails without authorization. So they’ve already made that decision. And there’s really not much that we’re going to be able to say, that’s going to change that mindset. You know, what, what I would encourage them to do and, and I think that we’ve had some luck in the last year or two, especially at reaching some of those people, with our projects, and showing them that you might be surprised if you come and get involved with your local advocacy group, at the impact you can have working within the system, we do get the opportunity to do these things. less often than we would like, but they do come along. And you know, it’s a little bit of a it’s a little bit of a vicious cycle. Right, you know, when when you have, you know, my estimation, my guess, is that the majority of people that are doing their own trail building are at the upper end of the Ryder scale. They’re building trails that are at the upper end of the technical skills needed end of the spectrum. And they’re doing that because they don’t get the experiences that they’re looking for through our projects. But what I’ve been trying to communicate here of late is that one of the reasons that we don’t have those experiences in our projects is that we don’t have that part of our community. They’re working alongside of us. We do a lot that is driven by volunteers and you know, the old, the old adage of, you know, the decisions get made by the people holding the shovels is true. You know, I understand people are busy, not everybody has a chance to get out and volunteer. But I think you’ll find that you can get a lot more of what you’re looking for For by working with a group like ours, help us expand our knowledge in the way that we’re looking at trails and trail projects, by being involved with what we’re doing, bring that passion, obviously, they’ve got time they’re out, they’re out doing this all by themselves. You know, bring some of that energy and that passion and expertise to what we’re trying to do, and do it in a way that, you know, that’s not going to get torn up by the land manager when it gets discovered. I can’t say that we’re going to be able to be everything to everybody. But I do think that some folks at least would be surprised that they could have more of an impact on what we’re doing, and creating here by getting involved with us, then they’re just going off and doing their own thing.

Jeff 50:49
Sounds. Yeah. Sounds like a great approach. So quickly, I want to talk about another perhaps controversial topic, and that’s e bikes. Is that a big thing in the Front Range? And for COMBA? E bike trail access?

Gary 51:04
Yeah, no, I mean, you know, e bikes are still the third rail of mountain bike advocacy, right? It’s, it’s the newest technology to come down the line. And we see this over and over with the mountain bike community. You know, we we argued about, you know, suspension forks, we argued about disc brakes. We argued about 20, Niners you know, and it seems like everything that comes along is is kind of a threat to that, that culture of mountain biking, that experience of mountain biking that, you know, we get pretty passionate about, you know, mountain biking is, is arduous, in most cases, it’s something that you have to work out to be good at, and to really enjoy. And understand the mindset of not wanting to see that made easier for for other people. At the same time, it’s their experience, it’s not yours and use it allow people to go and recreate the way they want to recreate. So we’re pretty fortunate here to get to answer your question more directly. All of our local managers and managers and I think we have eight or nine different land managers that we are working with regularly in our area, that’s one of our challenges. They all got on board with allowing e mountain bikes on natural surface trails, pretty early. I mean, within the last few years Jeffco like the

Jeff 52:28
Colorado two was, was one of the first to I mean, just, at minimum, provide clarity on that, you know, whereas a lot of other places they were trying to decide, should we shouldn’t we, and it seems like a lot of the biggest studies to have happened. Like I know, Jeff co did a big one on ebooks. And

Gary 52:47
Jeff has been a leader on that. And they stepped up with a pilot program several years ago now and and I think it’s been an official policy of theirs for the better part of two years now. I’ve lost a little bit of track of that. But you know, Forest Service remains the only one in our area that doesn’t allow a mountain bikes on their on their trails yet, and the process they’ve got for working through that is overly complicated and creates more problems than it solves. So that’s that’s kind of the current conversation there with with the feds. But you know, what we’ve seen here in our area, we we survey our members. And that’s one of the questions that we ask of our members in our community is the current ideas and stance on on E mountain bikes, because we’re here to represent them and we need to know what they think and how they feel about this. It’s still very polarized out there. But we’ve seen a 15 point swing from very much opposed to in favor of E mountain bikes on single track in the last three years. To the point that we have almost 50% that are in favor of them and another 2025 that are neutral. So there’s only about 30% that are still in that get your motorcycle off my trail. And I think that to me, one of the interesting parts about E mountain bikes is that we don’t really still know what E mountain bikes are going to be. They’ve changed so much in the last five years. You know, what we saw five years ago was was kind of ridiculous. But I mean anybody that has seen the reveal this week of the new track fuel E X E, I think it is. Man, it’s pretty slick, you know, the the motor is small, the battery is small, the weight is low, that you can build that up, you know, probably in the mid to upper 30s. And I think that we’re just don’t know where this technology is going and ultimately what that impact is going to be both on the trails and the other users on the trails. My biggest concern and and one of the two talking points that I’ve tried to get out there in the world, if you’ll indulge me, I’m not a big fan of the class 123 system that is was developed for street and commuter bikes. In applying that to E mountain bikes, all e mountain bikes are class one, by and large, there’s some hunting and sportsman stuff out there. But the ones that the major manufacturers are making are all class one already. But the difference between a 35 Newton meter peak power bike, and an 85 Plus Newton meter power bike is a very different experience I’ve been on both the way that those behave on the trail is very different. I think the impacts are probably overblown, other than you do cover more ground, and therefore technically, you’re going to touch more, more inches of dirt in a in a mountain bike ride, right? Or you could you don’t necessarily have to. But I think the difference in the power of the bikes and some of the other technologies that that are coming down the line, you know, automatic gearboxes are being launched and, you know, suspension systems that that adjust themselves and all these things that are going on in bikes. Yeah, I just don’t know that we really have the language right now to work with our land managers and say, This bike is, you know, of this nature and provides this experience and potentially has these drawbacks, whereas this one is a very different animal and is going to be used extremely differently at the higher end of the power scale than the others. So I’m not likely to see my dream here. But I’d love to see the bike industry, get on board and do some work around giving us some some of these differences between the different bikes that they’re manufacturing, they’re actually irrelevant. You know, I don’t, I don’t see class two and class three e bikes out on our trails. So everything’s a class one. So now they’re all just the bikes? And is that necessarily the conversations that we need to be having? I think we’ve got some way to go with that still.

Jeff 57:13
Now, you make a really good point, and that all the bikes are I mean, talking about class one, two, and three is confusing. And it’s like you said, it’s kind of worthless, because most of them are class one. But yeah, I mean, it seems the real distinction is are you is this, like a downhill bike that now has access to these trails that downhill bikes didn’t used to bother going to because nobody wanted to haul them pedal and carry them whatever they needed to do to get to the top now they can ride those up to the top and bomb back down them. And so yeah, that is a different experience than if you’re writing something a trail bike like the the new trick fuel, where, you know, you’re still riding it generally like a mountain bike and accessing the same trails that you were accessing before. So yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Gary 58:05
Good, but you can help me push that.

Jeff 58:08
Right. So I’m curious to know, what is the biggest constraint or major challenge that COMBA faces in carrying out in achieving your mission on the Front Range? Well,

Gary 58:24
you know, funding is almost always the biggest limiter. We were fortunate that we have a lot of projects out there that we could still be pursuing. You know, we’ve we’ve grown COMBA over the last five years to the point now, where we are directing roughly about a million dollars a year to trails efforts, from advocacy to planning, design and construction. A big chunk of that now is maintenance. Going back to what I was saying earlier, we have to we have to show our partners here that we’re going to take good care of the toys we have before we asked for more. So we’ve started a seasonal crew here last summer, and we’re doing it again this summer. You know, so we’ve grown from just me to three full time staff, and eight full time seasonals that are all just the eight are all working on trail maintenance realignments, those kinds of things throughout the summer and just trying to do the best job and making the trails that exist as as least impact on the land as possible and enjoyable to ride as possible. So you know, we always need more volunteers. We always need more sponsors and donors. We always need more members. You know, we were talking a minute ago about there being roughly 100,000 mountain bikers in the area and that we have 17 1800 members right now. That’s what 2% That’s a lot of untapped resource out there that we could put to use You know, we just came through membership drives in May in June. Those went extremely well, last year, we’ve seen a little bit of a downturn in that this year seems to be looks like it’s linked just to the economy and that people are putting more money in their gas tank than they were just six months ago. Yeah. But we just need we could we can use more people to get involved. You know, we say all the time. And I know sort of, of Woodstock said this and everybody else that I’ve talked to, you know, your money or your time, we can make good use of either we can have you working in planning and helping us fundraise we can have you working in communications are actually out working on the trails. Or, you know, if you can become a member, or you have the opportunity to make a donation directly to us, we can, we can put that stuff to use immediately. So, you know, other than that, the, the only other real impediment to, you know, seeing our vision and reaching our goals, is, as I talked about before, Colorado is incredibly politically charged around its public lands, there are a lot of competing interests, there are a lot of well funded voices out there, that makes it challenging to kind of get to where we want to get with some of these projects, it’s, it’s really just time consuming more than anything else, we do a lot more advocacy than we do trail building, we, we talk all the time about how trails projects are the tip of the iceberg, we’ve, we’ve probably put in 80% of the effort before you ever hear about a project or start to see, you know, any impact on the ground itself. And that’s, you know, that’s harder stuff to fundraise around, you know, when we have a new trail like we do right now going on, or we’ve been fortunate enough, you know, the last couple of summers, we’ve had big trail announcements, and that always gets us some additional support. But the hard part is selling our sponsors in our community on just supporting us in the day in and day out pursuit of these projects. It’s it’s a lot of work. It’s complicated, it’s detailed, it’s nuanced. It’s frustrating, it’s exhilarating, you know, but you know, that really is, is what it comes down to is, were the ones here in the Denver area that are working to help you get those experiences that you want. And, you know, we feel like a $39 annual membership is is pretty low cost of entry there. We had a we had a a drive slogan a couple of years ago of, you know, trying to get people on the monthly membership. And it was, you know, buy us a burrito, you know, if you would, if you’d spend five bucks a month, you know, just buy us a burrito once a month. We could do a lot with that, you know, you’d look at, we probably see upwards of $100,000 in membership revenues every year with are less than 2%. Imagine what that looks like with 4% or 6%. You know, the math is pretty easy. And you start having a real impact on our budget and our capabilities and what we’re able to accomplish.

Jeff 1:03:23
Yeah, yeah, you make a good point. I mean, it is. It’s pretty amazing what a low bar that is. And yet, it’s still tough for groups to clear that. I mean,

Gary 1:03:33
man, it’s not even a tire, right? You can’t get a tire. Or,

Jeff 1:03:37
like you said money or your time. And so yeah, I mean, who can say I don’t have time to volunteer to you know, do a trail work day, every now and then if you’re riding your bike, I mean, you’ve got time to ride your bike. So yeah, maybe one of those rides instead, you know, you show up on a Saturday and bring a shovel? For sure. Yeah, for those folks who are on the fence about like, oh, I don’t know if I should support I mean, it’s a catch 22 If you’re sitting on the side, and you’re saying well, they’re not doing the things that I want them to do, or I feel like they’re not building enough new trails or whatever. It’s like well, you know, if we had support we could do those things right. So yeah, again, that’s fine, largest. Yeah. Well, what’s next for COMBA? What’s what’s on the agenda for for this year and for the years to come?

Gary 1:04:27
Well, the big excitement right now is a trial we call powder keg. This is our newest trail in the Maryland mountain system in Black Hawk. We have the rarest of opportunities here where we have pretty fair amount of control on this particular one the city has allowed us to take over from concept to design. We fun, we raise the money for this we went out and hired the builder that We were the most interested in working with on this particular kind of trail some a group called jagged X trail designs that has some experience and reputation for building steep and chunky trails like this. So this one sits up there with our other two bike only trails in the Maryland mountain system, but it’s an advanced expert level trail. It’s, it’s I think somebody used the term properly scary. It’s steep, we had a nice test in tune day last week, and and it’s it’s steep, it’s Rocky, it’s gnarly. It’s all handbill. We’re real, really using the topography that’s available here in Colorado, you know, so much of trail building now is is machine built trails that kind of, you know, many times go in and just remove all the interesting part of the terrain, and then try to build it back in by hand. And we really wanted a shot with this one at you know, a lot of this trail is just raking ride, literally, we remove the duff and said, Here you go get from here to there. Some of its armored, some of it is natural rock slab. But it’s just, it’s really our first opportunity and the result of two years of advocacy at going out and really building something that’s unique and exciting and fits a niche that we just don’t ever get to pursue anymore. Well, not anymore, but ever. I mean, it’s just this thing just doesn’t exist around here. And you never know till you’re done. You know, people always want to say, What’s this Trent? Like, what’s iterated? And, you know, let us build it and give us a year of wear and tear on and we’ll tell you, we’ll tell you what kind of trail we have at the end of that process. But yeah, we’re super stoked is supposed to open here later this summer, mid to late August. Hopefully we can get the public out there and get them on this one. Right behind that we have our new trail system nada springs that we got started on finally, that was five years of advocacy on that one. I’m practically a member of the city staff there and I springs. I think

Jeff 1:07:07
you’ve got a

Gary 1:07:08
budget. Yes. Yeah, for sure. But yeah, I think I’ve got more experience on this project than anybody in the city except for the city administrator. We’ve gotten a new mayor and new city council, new city planner, you know, there’s been a turnover while we’ve been involved. So exciting to finally see that come into fruition. But that, again, is one of those that, you know, we’re having to raise over a million dollars to create the system we’ve gotten about halfway. And the only reason we’re not building today up there is is funding. So that one’s that one’s one that we continue to apply for grants. I’ve been turned down for two in the last month here, but keeping my chin up on that one. But we have some other irons in the fire to try to figure out how to raise that money. But it’s going to be a really, really great addition. And those three Floyd Hill, Maryland mountain and Virginia Canyon and Idaho Springs are all within 15 minutes of each other. So we’re also working with you know, the the Oh rack office, outdoor rec for the state. And trying to come up with a marketing plan and an overall master plan that links all three of those systems together to create a destination where people can actually come and enjoy the kind of mountain biking, I think most people would expect to be in the Front Range already that for whatever reason just hasn’t been here yet. Yeah. Other than that, man, you know, we’re just gonna keep at it, keep our nose to the grindstone and we pick up, we pick up every call and answer every email and attend every meeting that has any chance of making the mountain bike experiences the Front Range better. And, you know, that’s what we’re just gonna keep doing day in and day out.

Jeff 1:08:57
Yeah, well, that’s awesome. I mean, obviously, to your your group has such a huge impact on the writing and the mountain biking scene in Denver. You know, whether you’re a member or not, you’re affected by what COMBA is doing. And from the looks of it. Yeah, you guys are doing great work. And I know a number of people appreciate that for sure. Awesome. Well, thanks again, Gary, for taking the time to chat. It’s really great. Learning more about COMBA and hearing what you guys are up to.

Gary 1:09:30
Awesome. I really appreciate the opportunity. You know, one of the things that we have the hardest time is is communicating out our mission and our efforts. And so it’s really great to have this opportunity appreciate.

Jeff 1:09:41
Well, you can learn more and find out how to get involved and support COMBA, visit comba.org And we’ll have that link for you in the show notes. So we’ve got this week. We’ll talk to you again next week.

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