What should be one of our biggest pet peeves in the sport of mountain biking is altering trails, something I mentioned in my article about Trail Fouls. Surprisingly, if you read the comments, not everyone shares that sentiment. Don’t alter trails people! Simply moving a few things around for any reason can be dangerous for anyone who comes up on an expected “modification” at speed and doesn’t have time to react to it. Some people move rocks and obstacles to make lines easier because they are not willing to walk a feature until they practice it long enough to clean it. Some people add features to make jumps or create tech where there is none. Some, unfortunately, vandalize trails with malicious intent. This article is about the latter.
In the past few months there have been increasing reports of persons altering trails to harm bikes and their riders, some of them extreme. I was shocked at the dozens of examples in comments on a recent Singletracks.com Facebook thread about directly and indirectly assaulting riders. I live and ride near metropolitan Denver, where a population explosion has resulted in overcrowded trails and increasing conflict issues. These conflicts have ranged from shouting matches to full-on assault. It also appears that some individuals have elected to destroy or alter trails in order to punish or harm mountain bikers, something I experienced first-hand two weeks ago.
The Dakota Ridge trail, as featured in this recent Nate Hills video, is arguably the rowdiest condensed section of singletrack in the congested Colorado Front Range. It is often ridden as part of a loop that also includes a scenic meandering climb through the picturesque Red Rocks and Matthew Winters Parks. The “Hogback” of the Dakota Ridge trail, colloquially known as “DR”, is a paleontological marvel with a ribbon of gnarly singletrack embedded along its rocky spine. This short section of trail is littered with technical features and requires both a deft skillset to negotiate technical singletrack, and an inhuman ability to climb steep anaerobic sections. Very few people can do it all without a dab or two.
On an unusually warm day in March I rode this loop, with the intent of finishing the ride via the Dakota Ridge trail, something I do often when the weather cooperates. As a result, I am very familiar with this trail. Most riders prefer to circuit the hogback north to south, which I did this day. After the steep climb to the start at the top, I took a break, padded up, flipped the suspension to full squish, and pedaled southward, ready to tackle the gnar. The northern end of the spine is choked with embedded rocks that erupt from the trail like teeth, juxtaposed against off-camber slabs of sandstone — there is very little in the way of “true” singletrack to be quite honest. You basically pick a line, lean back, hang on, and hope for the best before exiting this rocky chaos into a saddle on the ridge. The most northern portion of DR is a blast, but only a prequel to the insanity that lies ahead.
It was a pleasant day, and I blasted through that section without a hitch despite the plethora of hikers I encountered, and nothing seemed unusual, except maybe all the hikers were really pleasant.
Immediately following the saddle is a section that is a true test of strength and endurance, an unrelentingly-brutal stair climb with two sharp switchbacks. I hit the lower section with everything I had, but even in my state of haggard hypoxia I could not help but notice something different: someone had moved rocks and sticks to keep riders off of a “cheater line” that developed over the winter. “That wasn’t there when I rode this trail two days ago,” I thought, followed by a quick “thanks to those that maintain this trail,” making a mental note to volunteer to help build a new south section that’s currently in progress.
I made it most of the way up, but didn’t have it in me to get to the top (I never do), so I walked the rest. I chastised myself for eating so many Girl Scout cookies this winter, rested, then threw a leg over the bike and carried on, picking my way through the rough ridgeline with only one goal in mind: hitting the jumps near the end of the trail. “That’s why I put up with all this,” I wheezed, “hauling my fat butt up these stairs so I can bomb down the other side.” It’s so worth it though…
Riding the top of Dakota Ridge is a delicate dance. There are some places that require ballet-style finesse, a mixture of track-standing and body-English, interrupted by cursing from pedal strikes that promise to throw you off your line. You don’t see that stuff in the Nate Hills video, but trust me, we all have to pay to play if you want to ride the DR.
After cruising for a few minutes I came upon one of my favorite rock rolls. Like all of the features at Dakota Ridge, there’s more than one line, particularly in places where there is an intimidating feature. The beauty of these lines is that they all blend very well into the surrounding rock and do not stand out too much from the main singletrack. This particular roll is sentimental to me because clearing it for the first time a few years ago was a milestone that unlocked the confidence I needed to clean the bigger features here. In retrospect, it is not that bad, but standing on the lip of it and looking over it makes you realize how rough and ugly it looks to newer riders.
A hiker was nearby as I approached it, and he politely stepped aside to let me pass and roll it. “What the heck?” I said aloud as I came to an abrupt halt at the lip of the feature. I turned to the hiker and explained that someone had placed a large flat rock on the lip, something that might easily tumble and trip someone up, causing an accident. A bad one. “Someone did this here last year too,” I continued, stepping off of my bike to throw the rock slab off of the trail. We exchanged a brief conversation about how the world is changing and how malignant some people can be, before I got back on my bike, rolled the feature, and sped away.
Not long after that, however, while coming around a blind corner, I heard more hikers and slowed to a crawl. Thankfully, I wasn’t going fast, because someone had also moved a very heavy rock into the middle of the trail. It was about a foot tall, and I stopped to move it while greeting the hikers. We all agreed that hitting that rock at full speed would have caused someone to go over the handlebars. I shook my head as I started pedaling again, mumbling something about “punk kids,” thinking the worst was behind me.
I was wrong.
A few seconds later I slowed to allow another family of hikers to pass who were walking uphill and quite honestly in the way of my first favorite jump. Suspicious, I dismounted and walked up to the jump, which is a wide slab of rock that was admittedly created by bikers for bikers to make a nice little kicker–an anomaly here. It had been there for over a year at least, a solid jump that on any other day I wouldn’t think twice about launching off of, despite the 100 foot fall on either side if you happen to booger up the landing. Something looked askew.
One of the boys in the hiking party saw me inspecting it and told me that they were using it to sit on, but it was too wobbly so they got off. I explained what I had seen and what I was doing. Someone had taken rocks out from under the slab, and rearranged the slab so that it would teeter, setting someone up for a crash. The boys didn’t do this, of course–I don’t think there is any way they could have–but someone did. I started to see a pattern, and the pattern worried me. I snapped my first photo that day, and reminded myself to report it to the Ranger.
It was at that point that I lost faith in the integrity of the features that lay ahead, features that I had so looked forward to hitting for the last hour of my ride. I approached the next jump with caution, and my stomach turned as I realized that someone went well out of their way to practically destroy it. It was “the jump.” My favorite jump. “Those buttholes,” I whispered to myself, recalling that on several previous occasions people (not nature) had removed material and rock to make this feature un-rideable. But this was different. It was by far the most blatant act of trail destruction I have ever seen at Dakota Ridge. I snapped another photo, and begrudgingly went around it, skipping the next feature because I was now too nervous. With anticipation, I approached the last sequential feature here–a drop–which I was determined to do. It was the reason I came all this way, after all.
I looked at the drop carefully, because something did look a bit off. By this time my hiker friend had caught up to me again and I explained what happened. There was this fine silt-like material on the takeoff and landing, a peculiarly different color than the soil around it. “What is this stuff?” I asked the hiker, who was making his way down, waiting to see me go off of the drop. We didn’t know, but it looked odd, but not dangerous. I had some concerns that this material might make the landing more slippery, but I reasoned that the landing was already becoming sketching due to erosion, and I hit it all the time. There also seemed to be more of a lip on the drop, and I wondered aloud again how anyone could physically make this happen, trying to reassure myself that it was all in my head. I deciding to go for it and not let the trail terrorist win. After all, I’d gone off this drop more times than I could remember and never had a problem.
So, I hopped back on my bike, cleared my head, stomped on the pedals, while reminding myself that I’d basically wheelie-dropped it a week ago with no speed at all and landed just fine. I visualized myself going off of it and sticking it, so I felt that I had no reservations. Plus, I had plenty of room and plenty of speed and no hikers were in the landing, so everything was fine.
Except that it wasn’t.
As I went off of the drop, my rear wheel kicked up and I pitched forward, something that has never happened to me here before. I quickly leaned back to correct the landing angle and avoid going over the bars. It worked, but the landing was slippery and I lost some control when I hit, but recovered. My bottom hit the rear tire and forced me into the back of the bike, but I was able to ride it out. I was hurt, though, and tried to figure things out while acting tough in front of my hiker friend. Every curse word I knew flashed in my mind in the next nanosecond.
Playing things back in my mind, I realized that the rear wheel grabbed my shorts and forced my groin into the rear triangle when I landed. I got racked pretty hard, and the saddle hit my lower abdomen. If you’ve ever had this happen, then you can identify with the visceral discomfort that quickly ensues.
I doubled over for a second, and the hiker walked down to make sure I was ok. “I’m fine,” I lied, putting on the best face I could while picking my bike up. The hiker made a comment about wanting to kill people who tear up trails like this, and at that moment, I shared his enthusiasm, plotting my revenge if I ever came face to face with the hooligans responsible for essentially cock-punching me by proxy.
I again reassured the hiker I was ok, jumped on my bike with a sense of painful embarrassment so that I could flee the scene and just finish my stupid ride. I was mad now, trying to stay on the bike and not allow the pain to cause another fumble, in disbelief that all of this trail damage happened in the past two days.
I finished out the ride, stopping to look at one more big drop that had been altered 2-3 weeks earlier, where someone placed a lot of rocks on a drop presumably to just keep people off of it. I wasn’t so sure anymore, recalling that just last season someone set up a rock slab with a longer stick pointed up so that someone would hit it and crash if they were foolish enough to hit that drop without scoping it out first. “Could this be the same person doing all of this?” I wondered.
After the ride I immediately reached out to a contact at Jefferson County Open Space, who said that they are looking into it but initially disagreed that the photos I sent appeared to have malicious intent. Unfortunately I did not take photographs of a lot of the “booby-trapped” features I came across until it was clear it was a pattern. Also, I admit that my crash may not be a direct result of this saboteur, but in the end the result was the same: these trail modifications caused a mountain bike crash.
The reality is that most days millions of people share multi-use trails and get along great. I would like to believe that all of us share the common goal of enjoying nature via the paths we explore, no matter what method use. Unfortunately there will always be a fringe minority that feels otherwise, occasionally resorting to dangerous gestures to get their points across.
No matter what you ride, it is always a good idea to scout features before you hit them. It is also important to report acts of trail destruction, vandalism, and sabotage to local authorities. Above all, be polite to everyone, even if others aren’t polite to you. The smallest act of diplomacy may reap advocacy dividends, even years down the road.