I ride much differently when I am with one friend in particular. The bulk of this differentiated riding stays more in my head rather than it manifesting through my bike on the trail. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the self-conscious thought processes weren’t there.
Why do I get this way when I hit the trails with my buddy? Well, he works for our local trail organization and is responsible for building and maintaining the very trails we usually find ourselves on.
Are the trails too wet? Am I adding to the brake bumps? Should I have pulled over for those hikers that stepped off? Did I “shralp” that berm too much? (Just kidding, I can’t do that). These are the types of questions that seem to constantly run through my head.
And while I am probably over-exaggerating about the level of paranoia I have riding with this particular friend, I have wondered what really grinds a trail builder’s gears. I asked a couple of professional builders and I was surprised to find that slapping berms wasn’t at the top of their lists.
Alex Brieger is the Trails Program Manager for Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) in Bend, Oregon. The small nonprofit is responsible for building, managing, and maintaining over 600 miles of singletrack in the area.
Brieger grew up in Tacoma, Washington. His introduction to mountain biking was in the early 2000s when an uncle passed his old bike, a fully rigid Nishiki, onto Brieger. There was an eventual upgrade to a hardtail that followed Brieger through high school and into college.
During college, Brieger not only continued to mountain bike but also found a community he could ride with. A post-college move to Leavenworth, Washington in 2012, had Brieger diving more into mountain biking and he moved on to full-suspension trail bikes.Brieger was hooked.
This new passion didn’t stop with riding. Brieger quickly connected and volunteered with his local trail organization, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the nation’s largest statewide trail organization maintaining trails across the state of Washington. Volunteering eventually led to a job with the organization in 2016 and Brieger got his first taste of being a professional trail builder.
2020 brought change and new opportunities for Brieger. After moving to Bend, Oregon, Brieger worked in a local bike shop, and, you guessed it, volunteered for his new local trail organization, COTA. It wasn’t too long until Brieger found himself in the role he now occupies with the organization.
Leave the trail work to the professionals
One thing that most of us don’t realize is the complexity that comes along with being a professional trail builder. Often, we may think trail builders are folks who just happen to be really good at moving wheelbarrows of dirt and shaping turns. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
During our conversation, I began to understand the many hats Brieger wears as the Trails Program Manager. He is a trail builder, but also a part-time geologist, fields questions about water drainage and animal habitat, all while coordinating many volunteers. The pet peeve options are plentiful.
For Brieger, however, the thing that really grinds his gears is unasked trail work.
“It’s taking trail work into your own hands,” he said. “It’s adding or removing features to an established trail because the person thinks they have a better way.”
Being part of the mountain bike community, we all know that there are going to be some trail features we don’t like or that don’t fit our riding style. Maybe it is an entire trail. When a trail user makes a change or removes a jump because they “doesn’t like it”—it throws a wrench in the overall plan of the trail organization.
“As a trail organization, we have everything already planned. We have to build progression and jumps based on skill level which is based on the trail’s character. Most people who take trail work into their own hands don’t know any of that.”
Brieger feels that most people who take this trail work upon themselves think they are helping out. “They usually don’t know enough to do the work correctly. Plus, we don’t want trails to change in such a manner that the characteristic of a trail is completely different.”
Perhaps more than extra work, safety becomes a major, and obvious issue. “We don’t want someone to come around a corner and hit a jump that’s never been there. If COTA adds a jump, there is signage and online awareness.”
Brieger pointed out that it doesn’t even have to be adding a new feature, but drastically changing an existing feature can be just as problematic.
We often don’t think of trail features being in a particular spot for a particular reason. Brieger explained how different features can help in slowing speed, maintaining speed, setting the rider up for another feature, etc. One change can mess up the entire trail’s flow. Don’t be that guy.
Another trail builder that brings a unique, and perhaps different perspective to this conversation is Kyle Jameson. Jameson owns and operates Black Sage Dirt Works, where he and his crew split their time doing residential excavation as well as trail building. Jameson is also pretty good at mountain biking. He grew up in Davis, California.
“It’s smack in the middle of California in almost every direction and it is super flat there,” Jameson explained, “so it was tough to grow up and be hooked on mountain biking.” The town lacked elevation, so Jameson dug jumps and lines in ditches around town.
Mountain bike camps got Jameson out of Davis and up to Whistler, BC. After one summer he was hooked and worked all winter to save for summer camp.
Camps helped Jameson progress as a rider, but he also made connections in the mountain bike industry. Scott Bikes was looking for an up-and-coming kid, and a 15 or 16-year-old Jameson fit the bill. Jameson still rides for Scott almost 20 years later.
Despite focusing on a professional mountain biking career, Jameson still pursued trail building, attending courses to eventually be certified. It was now 2010, bike parks and pump tracks were booming, and Jameson was in a position to build. “We formed the Coastal Crew, we filmed that video segment. Those dudes became super famous and helped build this massive gravity bike park after that.”
For a handful of years, Jameson traveled and rode mountain bikes, and then would help build bike parks when he was back home. That took a toll. Jameson wanted to settle down. He started his own company, Black Sage, in 2020, with “residential excavation as our bread and butter, and trail building as our specialty.”
Trail fairies don’t exist
I wanted to talk with Jameson because I felt that he might bring an interesting perspective to this conversation. When we think of trail builders, we might think of folks like Brieger—volunteers or employees of a non-profit trail organization. The fact that they will be the ones digging, shaping, fixing, and maintaining trails.
But that isn’t to say that Jameson and his crew aren’t invested in the trails they build. Many of these trails are the same ones they ride on a weekly basis, so to say they just build and walk away would be a lie.
As Jameson transitioned to discussing annoyances when it comes to trail building, I couldn’t help but think of an article I wrote on the pessimism of mountain bikers.
“One of my biggest pet peeves, and why I don’t focus primarily on trail building, is that people think these trails and features just sprout out of the ground,” Jameson explained, emphasizing the fact that people take trail use for granted.
There is a need for trails, a desire for trails, but, often we don’t think about the time, money, and effort that goes into developing a trail. If this is something that annoys Jameson, as a private contractor, I can’t imagine how much it irritates everyone who works and volunteers for their local trail organizations.
What can we do?
It seems both Brieger’s and Jameson’s pet peeves can be solved with one solution: get involved with your local trail organization. Donate money. Show up for a dig day. At the very least, become a member.
Getting involved in your local trail organization and helping to build and maintain trails is be a great introduction to trail building. You’ll learn about drainage, bench cutting, flow, and many other things. You may even learn why that one feature, the one you really hate and have thought about removing, is on the trail and the purpose it serves.
Volunteer long enough and you will learn about the incredible amount of time and money that goes into getting a trail built. You will see that these professional trail builders double as grant writers, pleading for the funds to build the trails we may take for granted. You will see new trails getting built and remember back, perhaps 10 years ago, when that trail system was being proposed.