Sterilized Singletrack: A Spreading Epidemic

Bull Mountain has been castrated. What used to be one of the last remaining bastions of technical mountain biking in the state of Georgia has been cut and bled of its virility. What was once a true man’s trail (or a true woman’s trail 😉 ) for those who wished to challenge themselves is now a trail fit only for eunuchs.

Examples

Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

This section of the trail needed some maintenance, so a trail machine was driven straight up through the bottom of the trench, making it even deeper than it was before.

Areas that used to be slightly challenging with a few rocks and ledges to play on are now more like a freeway through the forest instead of a true trail.

As another example, look at what has been done to one of the nicest little rock gardens on the entire trail. The recent trail work has removed any sense of challenge or difficulty. There is now a bulldozed path through the rocks that a beginner on their first mountain bike ride could navigate:

All of the rocks have been moved into two big piles, making it beyond easy to pedal up this short climb:

Sections of trail that used to be delightfully chunky and had not eroded in the slightest are now as smooth as a baby’s bottom:

As my final display, I’d like to present a short climb that is perpetually wet due to a spring right next to the trail. The slow erosion had created a challenging, rocky climb that, while difficult, was not exceptionally tough to clean. Easily over a thousand pounds of rock has been removed from this section:

The Problem

So why do I have my undies in a bundle over this?

Well, if quality reroutes had been built around some of these seriously washed-out trenches, I would have been fine with that. Much of the Bull Mountain trail wasn’t quality singletrack to begin with: it was old mining and logging roads that have naturally reverted back to singletrack. Rerouting the trail onto a quality bench-cut grade would have made sense in places.

Quality rerouting is precisely what has already done with several sections lower down on the same trail and over in the adjacent Jake Mountain area, and those new trails are fabulous! While they are very smooth and easy, they are designed astronomically better than the old trails were–you’ve got to take the bad with the good.

However, on the upper Bull Mountain trail, instead of spending the time and effort required to do quality reroutes, a mini trail dozer was driven straight up the mountain, blasting a freeway through the bottom of already washed-out trenches.

Newsflash: if you don’t do something to fix the underlying problem, your newly bulldozed section is going to wash out eventually too! And when you dig even deeper into the mountainside, erosion is going to be worse than ever before.

The Epidemic

What irks me even more than the bulldozed trenches are the areas where rocks were removed from a perfectly rideable, sustainable trail. None of these sections were what I would even rate as “expert.” They would have been rated as upper-intermediate to advanced at worst.

So what gives? Why were rocks removed from a perfectly good trail–one of the only somewhat challenging trails in Georgia, at that?

This “trail maintenance” is symptomatic of an epidemic that is sweeping the Southeast, and to some extent, the nation as a whole. Bike198 published a great article on the subject, and has referred to this epidemic as “dumbing down the trail.”

In short, today’s riders seem to have a sense of entitlement when they hit the trail. They seem to think, “Hey, it’s a public mountain bike trail. I should be able to ride this and have a good time, no problem.” Some of these people have only been riding mountain bikes for a couple of years, and have been so focused on fitness (or not focused enough, possibly) that they haven’t spent the time to develop any substantial bike-handling skills. When they ride a trail they can’t handle, they complain–and unfortunately, their complaints are often heard, and trails like Bull Mountain potentially get dumbed down.

Here’s the thing: not every person should be able to ride every trail. If every trail was a smooth, featureless path through the woods, we mountain bikers would become little more than road bikers with better scenery!

There should be trails out there that are challenging, difficult, and yes, dangerous. Sure, they should be built sustainably, too: but difficult trails can be very sustainable. And I’m not arguing that every trail should be insanely difficult: I’m arguing that we should have a good variety of trails, and from where I’m sitting it looks like we are most sorely lacking in difficult trails.

It isn’t the responsibility of the land managers to protect riders by making sure that trails are so vanilla that the chance of injury is virtually nonexistent. It is the responsibility of the riders to be honest about what their skill level is, and to be smart enough to get off of their bike and walk when they are in over their heads.

Mountain biking is about challenge. It’s about pain. It’s about getting outside of your comfort zone and seeing what you are truly made of. While other subcultures may be attacking personal responsibility, we are one of the few groups of people that should be upholding it as a fundamental fact of life.

So if you don’t want to challenge yourself, bust open a bag of potato chips, grab the remote, and hold down the sofa all weekend. If you do want a challenge, then do your part to stop the spread of sterilized singletrack!

Your Turn: Please voice your thoughts and opinions on sterilized singletrack in the comments section below.

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