Opinion: Confessions of a trail dumb downer

Is it trail maintenance or trail sanitation?

Opinion
A rock ramp on the right was built in Noble Canyon Trail.

A rock ramp on the right was built in Noble Canyon Trail.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the opinions of Mtbr.com.

That rock that you would always pedal-strike, I made it smoother. That ditch you could almost wheelie across, I filled it in so now you can roll it.
That tight switchback that you could hop around like Ryan Leach and all your friends were impressed, I made it so you can pedal around it.

I have a confession: I am the guy who dumbs down your trails.

Over many years and miles of trail work, I have smoothed, buffed, filled in gap jumps, opened up corners, bench-cut narrow trails, dismantled wooden features, made mandatory drops rollable, armored stutter bumpy corners, cut out roots, rerouted trail, and I apologize for none of it.

This is a warning to unofficial builders who want to alter this difficult trail.

This is a warning to unofficial builders who want to alter this difficult trail.

Let’s back up a bit and get some perspective on this issue. I grew up in a northern California town with a burgeoning mountain bike community; above town there is a university with a campus with expansive meadows and acres of dark redwood forest, and a budding renegade trail system. I began mountain biking in high school with two buddies. As our skills progressed and we searched farther and farther for cool trails, we added to the growing underground build scene, and built a steep downhill trail close to town on the university property. Though completely illegal and equipped with little more than our bikes and a rake between us, we “built” our first trail. The result was steep, rocky, surfy and unsustainable. Don’t worry, no campers died during the process (If you have ridden this campus you know what trail I’m talking about.)

I continued building trails without permission over the years in California and in Central Oregon, when I moved here.

Rock drop requires proper technique.

Rock drop requires proper technique.

The theme was always steep and technical, usually as much fall line as possible. Eventually, I joined my local trail association because I decided I could put my efforts to better use by cooperating with the authorities to develop legal, land owner approved trails. Now, I am a trail crew leader, designer and head builder with Central Oregon Trail Alliance in Bend. My main focus is the more technical trails we build and maintain. I have also adopted two trails and have added a lot of my personal flair to both. Ever ridden South Fork or Whoops? Those are my babies.

Continue to page 2 for more from this story and full photo gallery »

About the author: Lev Stryker

Lev brings a long history of cycling to Cog Wild. He started mountain biking at fifteen in Santa Cruz and never looked back. Name a type of cycling and Lev has probably done it. From racing road bikes and DH racing to Freeride trips to Whistler, and everything in between, Lev likes to have fun on a bike. He lives in Bend with his wife Kirin and daughter Nola. Lev has been riding in Central Oregon for over 16 years and has intimate knowledge of the trails and road rides.


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  • Kevin Woodward says:

    I don’t have a problem with good trail design and anti-erosion work to ensure a trail holds up over time. What I do not like is those who without a second thought take a saw to a perfectly nice 6-8 inch log that any rider who can fog a mirror can roll or bunny hop over, or dump a bunch of mud and dirt on a pile of well-placed logs or rocks that have been a familiar feature for a year or longer. We need to keep the term “dumbing down” a trail in context and not confuse it with proper maintenance.

    • Michael Linehan says:

      “We need to keep the term “dumbing down” a trail in context and not confuse it with proper maintenance.”

      Exactly. Well said, Kevin. There might be overlap in some cases (that people might then argue about) but I have seen dumbing down that was NOTHING to do with sustainability. I have been ticked off several times to see features I was looking forward to riding someday just destroyed. By all means, make a ride-around — but don’t take away a perfectly good and interesting feature just because you can’t ride it.

      I’m 63 and I want to grow as a rider. I don’t want trails dumbed down to my current level. For those doing that kind of dumbing down, please find simpler trails to ride.

      • RM says:

        The obvious answer is that people shouldn’t do unsanctioned trail work. Locally we’ve had a couple of situations where well meaning rogue volunteers made changes to difficult trails that avoided the very difficulties that gave the trails their character. The legit trail builders had to spend their time undoing the changes instead of working on new projects. Contact your local mountain bike assn before changing any trails.

    • reallyoldguy says:

      I miss mountain biking trails that used to be true singletrack, 1 tire width wide. I also miss multipurpose hiking trails, that were narrow enough for hikers, roots and obstacles that were easy for hikers to step over but needed a bit of skill to bike over. I believe trails should be left as natural as possible, not paved dirt highways for roadies like Lev Stryker. You have the maximum derision I could possibly express. Disguising trail dumbing as “trail maintenance” is despicable. And who is this derision coming from? A person who was there when “Mountain Biking” was invented. Someone who still believes bikes and riders should adapt to terrain, not the other way around.

    • Kevin Woodward says:

      Couple more thoughts to add. Remember these are mountain bike trails, not sidewalks. Hikers and horses are always welcome, of course. Also not every trail is a flow candidate where all obstacles should be removed and/or smoothed out. The author of this story mentioned the trails above UC which *used* to be fun but have definitely been “dumbed down” in the last year. I actually saw a skateboarder on Mushroom Hunter yesterday. Mountain bike trails should not be optimized for a beach cruisers, either. The changes made to these great, classic trails by a misguided and well-intentioned few has opened them up mostly to out-of-town groups of 20-30 riders that ride at high speeds in pace lines with no sense of MTB courtesy to others. Some don’t even wear helmets. Remember these are “illegal” trails and over-use is a real threat to eventual closure to everyone. The author also mentioned trails like Whoops in Bend he has worked on. Note that many of those are now one-way trails to minimize danger of Strava-induced collisions. Berms and erosion control yes, taking the fun and challenge out of the sport no. Before you grab that shovel, consider the difference and impact on other riders. Please.

    • dorse says:

      I’m with you on this. There is a difference. Say good bye to IMBA trails.

  • taletotell says:

    Good and bad can come of this. In NY there are no remote places for challenging trails. The result of following this approach would mean only manacured flow trails. Local authorities kill jumps and drops there. The land managers need to allow technical features or there simply won’t be any.

  • Brian says:

    Great, well written article, and I agree 100% with maintaining trails to prevent erosion and maintain sustainability. That said, there are a few points I disagree on.

    First, “made mandatory drops rollable”. Why, other than if said drop was an edge eroding back every rainfall and crumbling from use? Reasonable mandatory drops (reasonable being relative to the difficulty of said trail) are fun, challenging, and part of the sport. If a rider rolls up and feels that drop is beyond their skill or comfort, they can dismount and walk it. Sure, make it sound and sustainable, but don’t make them easier just to increase perceived access.

    “Trails close to town should be the easier trails, with the more technical advanced trail further out and harder to find.” Why? Why should riders desiring a more technical ride, perhaps a quick loop while they have an hour of daylight after work, or at lunch, have to go further out, either using more time to take easier trails to access, or burning more fossil fuel to get to? Sure, mark the trail as the difficulty it has, but don’t punish the technical rider because someone might make a poor decision and ride a trail they aren’t up to riding. As well, if the more technical, “fun” (by the author’s own admission they are more “fun”) trails are harder to locate, that discourages those who are advancing to those levels from advancing and staying with the sport. I realize, the idea is such riders would network socially and join the community to find them, but what of introverts? What of those who don’t want yet another social circle for whatever reason?

    “The trails that are on the maps and in guidebooks, have an established trail head and have a trail rating, and need a bit of homogenizing to serve the masses.” This ties in with the last, really, but again, why? Yes, beginner trails are a good thing, and flowy trails are a blast, but why homogenize all trails that appear on maps, and in guidebooks? Especially given that such publications have the easy ability to give a rating for each trail, I say that making them all easy is a disservice to the sport. Sure, there will always be the secret (ish) local trails that those who know and love it work hard to keep out of the general knowledge. That is great too. But why not have advanced and expert level tech trails that appear in guidebooks, maps, and on countless forums and apps? Why not allow the rider passing through or visiting for a short time to find the technical trail they crave, ride it, and make it back to the hotel to change for dinner with the in laws?

    Again, I think combating erosion, improving sustainability, and addressing issues that arise concerning both are important, but homogenizing all the trails, including those close to town or ride/park centers is a step backwards. There is a place for both easier, smoother trails, AND technical, difficult trails, even close to home.

  • Mark Flint says:

    Brian, regarding trails close to down, it’s a matter of numbers. Riders with advanced technical skills are a small percentage of the riding public. Add in the casual hikers, dog walkers and trail runners likely to go to these trails and it makes sense to provide the most miles for the largest numbers of people. When there’s room and it’s feasible, there’s no reason not to add technically challenging routes to a system that has beginner/intermediate level trails.

    That said, when terrain/topo allows it — and biological and cultural concerns are addressed — providing more technical lines adjacent to the easier trails makes good sense. We do this where it’s possible, especially if we can put them on rocks. Rocks don’t erode. Well, they do, but at such a slow rate we don’t need to worry about it..

  • John says:

    Who made this guy the end all, be all authority on the subject? I appreciate the proactive approach towards sustainability, but determining on one’s own, through some misguided, self-anointed authority what my local trails should be like. F*ck no. You shove that…

    The fact that he’s been riding longer than most doesn’t make him some monarch over trail building. I understand what he was trying to accomplish with this article, but tonally, this guy got it all wrong.

  • jeff says:

    maybe you touched on this. I didn’t read the whole article, but as far as dumbing down goes I think the best approach is to build an alternate “easy” trail around the feature. If theres no eroding, or other environmental issue it’s a shame to take features out of a great trail. It’s often the features that make them great.

    • shredchic says:

      Your suggestion to cut an easier go-around does make the trail footprint wider, so it does create additional erosion. Please don’t do that!

  • Bill says:

    You can build a trail for both beginner and advanced riders. 10 ft tabletops can be cleared by advanced riders and ridden over by novice riders. What needs improvement is trail guides and markers. Riding is fun but maintaining is hard and upkeep not fun but we need more riders to help out on maintenance.

  • Tony Lapinskas says:

    Thanks to God, the USFS and Pisgah Sorba, here in western NC, we are blessed with a variety of trails that anyone can enjoy, Three years ago we started riding the fun trails at Bent Creek then as our skilld progressed, moved on to Dupont and Pisgah. When we came to a part of a trail that was not in our skill level, we’d yell “chicken” and get off and walk around it or down it. We found that with wider bars, shorter stems and riding with your butt crack a half inch from your rear knobby allowed you to do. The trails didn’t change, we did. I can see “dumbing” down a trail for preservation or maintenance or to prevent a serious injury or fatality, otherwise, please leave them alone.

  • shredchic says:

    There’s a few separate types of “dumbing down” issues brought up here:

    1) Unmanaged social trails:
    Ultimately these trails are not managed and are not supposed to be there. It’s basically the wild west. Trail builders seem to get a little OCD with adding fill dirt over roots and log overs, etc. which isn’t hurting anything. But in my neck of the woods, some hack down trees or manzanita just to avoid going around or between them. Some cut through vegetation to make straighter go arounds to avoid curvy parts of the trail and then fail to renaturalize the old route. I give my 20 hrs./year toward legal trail building work days, have read the IMBA trail building handbook, and I’m not uneducated about what it takes to build sustainably. None of those mod’s are done for the sake of sustainability, but purely for faster downhill times and they are destructive to the environment. This has got to stop.

    2) Land manager rules:
    In CA state parks for instance, you can’t even casually cut back the poison oak, let alone bank a turn. These are stupid rules, but that’s what we’ve got and at least they give us some trail access. Get involved in your local advocacy group to lobby for rule changes when they come up every once in a blue moon.

    3) Flow trails:
    Not all trails need to be chunky and harsh. It requires skill to clear doubles and navigate berms well, but beginners can also ride them and still have fun. It can be a nice addition to a trail portfolio which includes old-school technical trails.

  • DrDon says:

    Mountain bikes cause erosion in varying degrees depending on topography. My perspective on sustainability has changed since I started riding in my mid-twenties over 20 years ago. Pisgah, Gambrill, Canaan and Rothrock are east coast examples of trails that have relatively less erosion than flat and water basin trails but they too can erode. I don’t like dumbing down trails but I dislike erosion and loss of access even more.

  • jh says:

    mixed feelings. Sustainable trailwork is great. You are doing us all a service by armoring up the trail here and there. However, making obstacles rollable for no other purpose but roll-ability does us all a disservice. When I was learning to ride, the parts of the trail that I thought about the most were those bits I couldn’t clear. I would look forward to the drop, or the big rock, and try to clear it each time. For new riders, getting off and walking down/up these obstacles is not a big deal. And, I bet most of those riders will think about that section as the gnarliest part that they wished they could ride. It becomes an ideal, something to strive for. Keep trails sustainable, but don’t take away the exciting parts that are just a little too hard and help us all grow.

  • Doobi says:

    That rock rock you removed because you pedal strike it, well you could have learned to time your pedaling, Maybe others used it a make or to bounce their tyres of mid corner. That ditch you couldn’t quite wheelie, others could. That tight switchback, if you spent half as much time learning to ride it clean as you did widening it out maybe you’d be a better rider.

    In the age of instant gratification too many riders want to dumb down a trail instead of spending the time to smarten up their riding,

    I’m all for erosion proofing work but dumbing trails down just to make it easier or faster now is short sighted and lame. To do it on a trail someone else has put the effort and time in to build is just a slap in the face of the trail builder.

    Not every corner needs to be bermed, Just because it’s not bermed doesn’t make it “off camber”
    Not every step needs to be rollable. not every rock needs to be dug up and removed. Not every trail needs to be 1m wide….

  • Steve says:

    Only thing that sucks in MN is the dam trails close when gets a tiny bit wet or rains! Leave em open!! If you wanna ride smooth trails go ride on pavement! Or maybe leave a few trails in the Twin Cities open when there wet! I thought mountain bikes were made for dirt and mud?!! Frustrating and very weird! Let me say this… I do appreciate all the hard work that the MORC puts into the trails locally!

  • eb1888 says:

    The IMBA Trail Guide and DVD are far too simplistic. They lack instructions and examples on how to create and maintain high quality technical trail sections.
    There is one example of a switchback around a tree.

    Trail design and construction is an art like a 3D sculpture with movement.
    There can be a flow to a technical trail with different complex features one after another using the natural terrain. Each part has to be sustainable and the whole thing drain quickly. But each feature has to be thought out to be the right radius and angle and type of surface. A rock garden here to slow down the rider before tight trees and a switchback into a drop and off camber curve with a ditch and fall away on its side. Followed by some whoops to fly if you can carry speed through that off camber curve.
    Building and linking with a rider’s skill and speed factored in takes an artist and a lot more time and effort. That should be rewarded.

  • Dano says:

    You want a smooth ride, buy an eBike and tool around the paved trail outside your old folks home. Otherwise, leave the trails alone.

  • derby says:

    Brave contribution Lev! As a 20+ year occasional volunteer trail builder and maintainer, I want to say “Thanks!” for your expert trail builder perspective and leadership. The large majority, thoughtful riders, from beginner to expert ability, respect your knowledge and hard work 200%!

  • Brete says:

    Nonsense. The men & women who’ve invested the time, money and bruises to develop their skills are MORE deserving of close-in, after work trails — not LESS deserving.

  • bb says:

    The problem most of you seem to have is weird. Around here several times people have make artificial challenges in the middle of trails and then try to block any way around them. Another problem is that people make shortcuts and straighten trails. I guess they’re so lazy they don’t want to waste time on the curves. I say do a quick lap around the parking lot and go home, your best time ever!

  • Fleas says:

    We’ve had people come out and cut out narrow tree gaps (rather than finessing their handlebars through), and lever large rocks out of the trail (leaving a big mud hole). I like the idea of a “filter” at the entrance to weed out underskilled riders – or at least give them an idea of what they’re in for, but in the case of difficult trails…

    How many people are riding them anyway that trail wear is even a passing concern?

    If traffic counts demand it, sure the trail needs to be armored and drained properly, but if the trail is a top 10% of riders sort of thing, then how much wear is it really seeing? I think sometimes the man-hours are wasted in “fixing” something that almost no one wants fixed, while maybe they should be spent making some easy trails for others to build their skills on (and flow trails are not building those skills).

  • ThatGuyOnABike says:

    I fully understand the need to armor roots and troubleshoot erosion, but here is what I don’t understand– There is a section that is going to get covered in large rock for armor; why are the rocks arranged on so many trails to provide and easy path and roll over? Large rocks could be arranged to be more technical and challenging while still providing root armor. I’m no fan of pedal strikes, but the way rocks can be arranged to make the rider raise a pedal, or strike it, is just another feature that nature has already produced. We can preserve those types of features by simulating them with natural armoring techniques, in order to keep that Double Black listing!

  • Bryan says:

    That camper-safe trail is one of my all time favorites! THANK YOU!

  • tony says:

    Our local public forest has several relatively new, IMBA-approved-design trails that all get crushed gravel on them for sustainability. One of the unforeseen consequences is a great increase in the potential speed these multiple use trails are ridden, often by less experienced riders. I have seen and heard of (and been present for a few) more very close calls with hikers and other bikers in the last year than in the previous 15 years. This doesn’t make Lev right or wrong, but it is worth noting.

    I do also agree with some of the less vitriolic posters above that “sustainable” and “dumbed down” don’t have to be the same thing. One of the questions trail builders need to ask themselves is “how will this trail be used”? A backcountry “social” trail that maybe 10 people will find and ride in a year (yes, those exist) doesn’t need the same treatment that a trail does that starts literally on a college campus.

  • duder says:

    Completely disagree with this: “Trails close to town should be the easier trails, with the more technical advanced trail further out and harder to find.” Really no reason you cant have a mix of both.

    I am pro sustainable trails, sustainable trails can also be technical though. Definitely not a one size fits all argument here.

  • evilbeaver says:

    Wow you just admitted you are the worst type of trail builder out there. I can’t wait to meet you.

  • Steve says:

    One thing appears forgotten in modern trail design. The infinite satisfaction that comes from finally conquering that part of a trail that was beyond your skills for a long time. That feeling used to be part of the definitive mountain biking experience. Now it’s being washed away by a wave of “accessibility for all” advocates. True mountain biking is not an activity for the masses, to try and make it that way just destroys its very essence.

  • Tom says:

    Lev, thanks for all your hard work. I concur with most of your points, but would 1) also like to see technical trails that are not far away, and 2) like you to guide me towards the “unmapped” more tech trails near Bend (my wife and I come down twice a year, and she loves the Smooth Groove of Bend, and I do too, but also wish for a little more challenge while there). Personally, if I could add one thing to Bend, it would be to make a 10 mile trail that duplicated the feel of the first 1/4 mile of COD!

  • fasterjason says:

    This story plays out all over the country. My trail building philosophy has changed a lot the past 25 years. While we still face challenges, mountain bikers have more respect these days compared to the late 80s and early 90s, evidenced by the vast number of trail systems. This is due to countless volunteer hours and improved building techniques.

  • Jennifer says:

    Trails should be left as designed unless there is a chance the trail will get ruined by use or erosion.

    Smoothing a drop or out ramp or a step up, if not needed because of the 2 reasons mentioned above is needless..

    Not everyone will be able to ride every trail.. Not everyone is going to be a race car driver though they can drive a car down the paved road.. Not everyone is going to be a professional base ball player because they got a home run in Peewee..

    I want to be a professional downhill racer.. I know I will never be.. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t dream and practice at it..

    I am a fairly new rider (my 3rd year) and I am happy to walk a section that is to tough and in doing so I can build up my skill set so at some point I will be able to ride it.. If someone comes along and dumbs it down then I will have no reason to get better at my skill set since I won’t need better skills..

    Why should talented riders be moved from the trails they have been riding because they are closer to access for everyone..

    Being forced to search or build elsewhere because the trails have been deemed to difficult for the masses and dumbed down, This just leads to more illegal trails and more bitterness between land owners, trail builders, riders and others that see new trails popping up where there were none before..

    There is no shame in walking a bike if I feel it’s unsafe or I am not capable enough of a rider to make it.. I just get back on after the obstacle and ride again. No biggy.

    If I find the trail is to tough.. (of which I found many my first year of riding, which now I can ride and really enjoy and get a major sense of accomplishment) I don’t go back to it for a time ( avoid it) and I have found when I do go back it’s not nearly as monstrous as I first thought since now my skill set is much better and it’s actually a fun and challenging trail..

    Other big thing… If you are lacking skills.. Go and take a class on bike handling.. Ride with people who take you under their wing and allow for you to mess up but still keep asking you to come back and they give pointers.. Pick the area to ride in that is challenging you… Ride there often and you will get better.. I ride at LSF which I found super tough to ride but each time I go it gets a little easier.. I pick better lines.. I GET BETTER…

    If you are a rider who likes rolling trails or smooth terrain then ride it, but don’t change other trails to make them easier.. Get more practice in.. Work at getting better.. And unless you have major resources where you can build a separate “easy line” next to the main trail then leave them alone..

    Some trails are built to be tough.. They were built by someone who had a vision of what they wanted in that trail.. Almost like a painting.. It’s artistic.. So how would you feel is you painted a picture and someone came along and painted over it?

    Trail building take a really long time and building a proper trail that takes into consideration erosion, landscape, elevation, flow, climb angle , secondary access, passing zones, etc, etc is huge work and while some of these trails maybe prone to erosion because of bad design these trails could use some TLC.. and some need to be diverted for sustainability..

    SO, THE ONLY TIME A TRAIL SHOULD BE MODIFIED IS WHEN BEING LEFT ON IT’S OWN IT WILL LEAD TO TRAIL FAILURE WITH THE SAME AMOUNT OF USE AND IT WILL NOT BE SUSTAINABLE.. Remember to leave as many features intact as possible.

  • Ron says:

    Two of my favorite trails have some very technical sections. These sections are marked with signs warning of the difficulty. There are also bypasses built around these sections for riders of lesser ability. This makes the trail more enjoyable for everyone and gets more riders out there to enjoy the trail. I think this is an excellent alternative to ‘dumbing down’ a trail and should be implemented wherever and whenever possible. Further I, believe this shoudl also be a method to improve the no challenge trails that less experienced riders enjoy but that are generally avoided by more experienced riders due to the boring nature of these trails. I know this is not an alternative for all trails but the potential is there for improvement on most trails I have ridden.

  • fasterjason says:

    I want more technical trails, if I had my way you would need a trials bike to clean some sections. What are the options? Alternate lines and augmented features work, as well as technical loops off the main trail. If you don’t challenge riders, their skills won’t improve.

    If you think the trail is too easy, volunteer and make your voice heard. Better yet, buy some property and build whatever you want.

  • Bryan says:

    As others have said, there is good dumbing down and bad dumbing down. All depends on the specific trail. People try to simplify the issue and call it all good or all bad. Love that warning sign!

  • Danna says:

    don’t roots help to control erosion? doesn’t it make the trail LESS sustainable to cut them out? He lost me there…

    I see a lot of “maintenance” that just looks like scraping out all the rocks and roots and building a couple of rollers out of red clay. The trail then needs constant maintenance and makes land managers think allowing mountain biking on trails is an added expense.

  • Pablo says:

    Wow, Lots of comments! I agree that we need technical features, but if a trail sees a rider badly injured, just watch the authorities destroy your trail completely along with any other trail encompassed by their property rights. It won’t matter if they are a newby or a veteran rider, liability is liability, so some balance is needed… Just don’t give in the the strava bypass crowd trying to save .1 seconds by eliminating a challenging feature!

  • Scott Hubbs says:

    I am the trail coordinator for the trail system where the sign is posted. these trails were built by myself and my younger brother and they have been a work in progress for 27/28 years now. They were built because we didnt have anywhere else to ride and also to practice so when we went riding is Pisgah we were able to transfer our skills to the mountains. We started in the mid 80′s building these trails and have a hell of alot of people who like what we do and yes some who dont. We built them for us and not the masses. A few years ago we got the chance to open them up to the public and have many riders come from all over the country and ride. We currently have 17.5 miles on the ground and will be putting in more in the future. We didnt build these for flow and worked to keep the sustainable by bending IMBA rules. We work hard with our local Parks & rec and have a great relationship with them. They often ask us if we would like more land to work with and know us by name as we do them. So my words to the author of this article is that you are not in my shoes and dont know what I know in bending the rules to make it work. So why dont you come to Charlotte N.C. and ride the BYT or any of our other trails in the area. We have all types of trails to suit you and your riding style no matter what it might be. Proud member of the Tarheel Trailblazers and one of its founding members.

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