Opinion: Wet Weather Racing and Trail Protection Policies

Mountain bike racing is a ton of fun: it’s one of many great aspects of our sport. Races offer a chance to line up against your buddies, or strangers, and see how you stack up.  They’re an opportunity to push yourself harder and further than you ever have before, and have a little support while …

Mountain bike racing is a ton of fun: it’s one of many great aspects of our sport. Races offer a chance to line up against your buddies, or strangers, and see how you stack up.  They’re an opportunity to push yourself harder and further than you ever have before, and have a little support while doing so. Even if you’re not that good at it, like me, racing can still be fun.

Races can do great things for the trails as well. They draw people to the venues, and pre-race work parties get the trails in pristine condition. Most of the time racing is a win-win situation for everyone involved: land managers and race promoters make some money, and people travel to visit the area and spend money in restaurants, local bike shops, hotels, etc.  Folks get a chance to have some good fun, push themselves, make memories that last a lifetime, and the trail is usually better off after a race than before.

Unless Mother Nature conspires against us, that is. When that happens, someone will be left floating down the proverbial creek without a paddle… and that’s exactly what happened to one of my local trails recently.

An XTERRA event was held at Hickory Knob State Park (HKSP) on March 24, 2013.  It rained hard the day before the event and during most of the race as well.  Much of the trail was actually under water during the race.

Bottom line: the race should not have been held on that trail in those conditions. The weekend after the event, several of our local SORBA-CSRA members went to assess the damage, and reports were grim. Michael Drawdy, a long time trail steward and volunteer (who has spent many hours cutting downed trees off the trails at HKSP) said this:

“This trail is absolutely crushed. Foot after foot, yard after yard. This trail does not exist as it did a month or so ago. It will take more hours to bring it back than the majority of people are willing to volunteer.”

The trail was so badly damaged the park closed it until it could be repaired.  Of course, the park doesn’t have the manpower or budget to repair the trail themselves, so the work will be left to volunteers. SORBA-CSRA members originally estimated it would take approximately 400 man hours to repair the damage, but a professional trail builder put the estimate closer to 800-1,000 hours.

The Lakeview Loop at HKSP used to be narrow buff singletrack. These ruts will hold water, and continue to get worse over time. Most of the trail was left badly rutted after the XTERRA event. Photo: Angela Allen

Since the race promoter wasn’t local to our area, it made the situation that much worse.  Most local mountain bikers were left feeling like we’d been ransacked and taken advantage of.  It seemed like the XTERRA race organizers had come to our area, made some money, and left, leaving the trail destroyed with no intention to fix it. Local riders, who had spent years building and maintaining this trail, were understandably angry.

Pointing Fingers

Let me make one thing clear: I didn’t write this article to point fingers, place blame, or trash talk anyone involved in the HKSP XTERRA event.  It’s simply one example of a race that shouldn’t have happened, and it’s one I’m familiar with.  This isn’t the first time a trail has been damaged by a race in inclement weather, and I know it won’t be the last.

Instead, I wrote this article to discuss race policy and trail protection from various points of view, so we can all understand the viewpoints of the different parties involved, including land managers, racers, promoters, and local trail work volunteers.  Hopefully, this article will also serve to help educate some folks as to when and why a race shouldn’t take place on a trail, so in the future fewer trails will be destroyed and closed because of a race.

When A Trail Shouldn’t Be Used

A trail should not be used (whether for a race or some other event) when doing so will result in an unacceptable level of damage. 

First, you have to consider the trail surface.  Rocky and sandy trails handle rain better than flat, low-lying, and clay-based trails. The famous Snake Creek Gap Time Trials, for example, are held regardless of weather: rain, snow, sleet, it doesn’t matter.  As long as the shuttles can get the racers to the start lines, it’s on. For that trail system, it works. That section of the Pinhoti is famous for its rocks, and even the non-rocky sections are still pretty rocky, so the trail can handle lots of riders even when soaked.  Sure, there are a few mud holes here and there, and the doubletrack can be super muddy, but the vast majority of the singletrack is so rocky it’s virtually weather proof.

This doesn't look like serious damage at first glance - but look closely. The trail is cupped, leaving water nowhere to run except down the trail, where it will pick up speed and move sediment, making the trail even deeper, which will channel even more water, which will move even more sediment, making the trail even deeper, which will move even more water.... It might not look bad now, but over time the trail will become a hole in the ground. Photo: Angela Allen

The type of event must also be considered.  How many racers are competing, and how many times will they traverse the trail? Is it a single loop or point-to-point, where everyone rides the trail one time, or is it a 12-hour race were riders do as many laps as possible around an 8-mile loop?  The first type of race may be okay to run in the pouring rain, but the second style might not be okay if the trail is even slightly damp from rain several days prior to the event.

These factors need to considered early in the planning stages before announcing the race.  For instance, don’t plan a 24hr race on an 8-mile loop with a lot of clay-based soil during the wettest month of the year. You can see how that’d be poor planning, right?

Damage: How Much is Too Much

Earlier I used the phrase “an unacceptable level of damage.”  Exactly what that definition means will vary from trail-to-trail and event-to-event.

When a person plans an event, they should consider how much of the trail will be damaged, how much effort will be required to repair it, and if it’s worth it. A few mud holes scattered throughout the trail system usually isn’t a big concern, whereas rutting up the entire trail is a problem.

Another view showing the cupped trail. The trail should be outsloped - meaning on the low side of the hill the trail should be a little lower than it is on the high side of the hill. Outsloping lets water flow across and off the trail, whereas a cupped trail will act like a funnel sending water down along the trail. Photo: Michael Drawdy

The significance of the event itself must also be considered.  A local week-night race series simply isn’t important in the grand scheme of things: only local riders are competing and there aren’t any big sponsors or real titles at stake. Such a race is easy to reschedule if the weather will be nasty, and it’s not worth ruining a trail over.

But what about a bigger event, that may be part of a national or regional series, where many racers are traveling to the event, often from all over the country or world? Then, it gets more complicated. There’s a lot more at stake.  Rescheduling simply may not be an option: too many people, organizations, titles, and dollars are involved.

Anytime a race shouldn’t happen, there needs to be a Plan B.

Click here to read Part 2.