The Angry Singlespeeder: We need primitive trails

Raw, primitive trails are an integral part of the mountain bike experience

Opinion

Pisgah

Photo by derekdiluzio.com

I spent some time last month in a place I’ve wanted to ride my whole life but have never had the opportunity—Asheville, North Carolina. It was everything I hoped it would be and more. The trails surrounding Asheville are incredibly diverse, from rocky, rooty, muddy gnar in the Cove Creek area of Pisgah National Forest and massive Moab-like rock faces in DuPont State Forest to eye-watering, high-speed descents with huckable transitions in Bent Creek Experimental Forest that lose nearly 2,000 feet of elevation in a handful of miles.

What really struck me was when the local folks I was riding with in Pisgah said that very little maintenance is ever done on the trails. The trails around Cove Creek have been in existence for more than a century, originally built as logging and skidder trails that crisscross the verdant and green foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. They’re multi-use, open to any kind of non-motorized recreation, and based on their condition, they seem to do just fine on their own.

According to the locals, the forest service wants the trails left the way they are, with little to no modifications or maintenance, and absolutely no new trails. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re lazy or because they have no budget for trail maintenance. Either way, they are what they are. Just ride the hell out of them and leave your shovels, MacLeods and pickmatics at home. Sounds good to me.

Now Pisgah is a rather unique example because the trails there have been in existence for so long. But by new trail standards—and by the US Forest Service’s (USFS) own Trail Strategy document—most of Pisgah’s trails could be classified as unsustainable because they lack specific social, environmental and financial sustainability standards.

Flume

The trails in Pisgah don’t have rolling grade reversals, adequate drainage and other trail engineering features that make modern trail building an obscenely expensive and time-consuming endeavor that can take an entire 10-man crew days just to build a half-mile of singletrack.

As an example, in the Lake Tahoe region, a mile of sustainably built singletrack can cost in excess of $100,000 in labor, an absolutely stupefying figure. Granted, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has among the highest USFS trail building standards in the country, and some of the trails require serious engineering, but still, six figures per mile?

As a trails and access advocate who volunteers at a trail day about once a month, I understand why we must build sustainable trails. However, what really irks me is when I hear people badmouthing what they consider to be primitive trails. They’re not properly engineered. They won’t stand up to the test of time. They don’t drain water properly. They cause erosion and environmental destruction. They don’t provide a fun recreational experience for a wide range of users.

What’s wrong with raw, unrefined, natural trails? The way trails were back when mountain biking was still a sport in its very infancy. Primitive trails are what I grew up with as a kid in Western Pennsylvania, riding rocky, rutted, gnarly fall lines and muddy trails and deer paths cratered out by horse hooves. These rough and somewhat dangerous trails are where I gained the bike handling skills I have today.

TS Epic

Photo by A.E. Landes Photography

Recently I was reunited with this type of riding when I raced the Trans-Sylvania Epic in central Pennsylvania. My favorite day was Stage 5 at R.B. Winter State Park. Old School Pennsylvania is the only way I can describe it. Primitive singletrack that’s on the verge of being reclaimed by the forest hiding numerous rocks and holes that can swallow your entire front wheel, double track with tons of sticks and debris that can get kicked up and rip your derailleur off, old bridle paths that look like they haven’t seen use in decades, multiple stream crossings completely void of any bridges and widely scattered punjee sticks (low cut saplings) that can pierce right through a tire.

The raw, primitive, unrefined trails that see little to no maintenance are the kinds of trails that really build skill. What kind of skills do you learn riding a trail that was made by a machine, groomed to perfection and void of any rocks, roots or other obstacles that could send you careening over the handlebars?

San Diego

Down in my old stomping grounds of San Diego there are primitive trails everywhere. Old moto and jeep trails dating back to World War II that have rain ruts so deep and wide that your entire bike can disappear beneath you; loose, rocky and rutted sections of trail that shoot you to and fro like a pinball in an arcade; trails so rocky and loose they earn nicknames like “Collarbone,” “Bowling Alley” and “Hail Mary.” All of them would be considered unsuitable by most trail advocacy standards. So what are you going to do, pave them?

There is a place in this world for primitive trails, and it would be wise for organizations focused on trail building and advocacy to recognize this and let these trails be. Don’t try and repurpose primitive trails to appease the lowest common denominator. You’re doing a disservice to mountain biking.

TP Trail

Yes, I completely agree that sustainable trails are good for helping grow our young sport, but riding raw terrain originally cut by man or even animal and shaped by Mother Nature through rain, wind, snow, fallen trees and a number of other natural processes is innate to the experience of being in the great outdoors. Not every trail should be like a bike park or pump track.

We need primitive trails because they create an amazingly fun experience from a completely different perspective not hogtied by bureaucracy and red tape. And paradoxically, provided these primitive trails hold up over time, they become so cherished by users that they are adopted into existing trail networks…kind of like the trails in Pisgah.

Pisgah

Photo by derekdiluzio.com

I always knew that Pisgah was a special place. But after learning of its mostly hands-off trail maintenance status, it has become all the more special to me. Riding trails carved more than a century ago and maintained primarily by Mother Nature. What some might consider unsuitable, I consider mountain biking in its most pure, raw and unfiltered form.

Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at singlespeeder@consumerreview.com. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.

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Pisgah

Photo by derekdiluzio.com
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TS Epic

Photo by A.E. Landes Photography
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Pisgah

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About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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  • Greg says:

    Absolutely agree that we need a variety of trails including primitive ones. In spite of 30 miles of excellent local trails lovingly maintained by local riders, one of my best recent rides was the “discovery” of a few miles old, unmaintained, singletrack horse trail on National Forest land. That was a fun ride. Various local trails get more maintenance than others but ALL of them are fun to ride — even ones that haven’t been “cleaned” in a couple of years.

    I just had the opportunity to ride at Dupont forest for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s important to recognize that the geography, weather, and the number of people using the trails play a role in whether a primitive trail will last long enough to be enjoyed. It’s hard to compare San Diego to Asheville – SD trails are more accessible to more people and more sensitive to rain than Pisgah or Dupont. Without either lots of maintenance or access restrictions, I don’t think SD trails would withstand use after rains that NC trails shrug off.

    Primitive trails have their place, but use, weather, geography, soil, etc. all have to be considered as to whether they will last 100 years like in Pisgah or just a few months like in a rainy El Nino winter in SoCal.

  • rain says:

    My recent Sierra experience is that even horse friendly singletrack is much better than navigating ATV/OHV moondust. As their budget dries up, USFS is forced to ignore maintenance of abandoned roads. Some of these are being re-branded as trails while mother nature seals ‘em back to singletrack with succession growth. Unfortunately, if any such trail happens to connect OHV routes, juvenile ATV users will inevitably work around intended obstacles and churn it to shreds. . .
    I’m gonna say it politically correct or not. ATV crap needs to be banned completely before we have to admit it was too late. Nothing but destruction.

  • trailsnail says:

    I like a groomer here and there. However riding single speed and rigid it seems like the rougher it gets the bigger my smile gets and the faster I ride.

  • John says:

    As my skills improve, I seek out and enjoy rough trails more and more, and am increasingly bored with smooth flow trails. I know I’m not alone in that thought in the areas I ride most often. There needs to be variety. As mentioned, what is needed is more trails, not the dumbing down of the existing trails.

  • clarkrw3 says:

    Totally agree!!

  • Dispatch says:

    You want raw, ungroomed, primitive trails to ride in Tahoe? Check out Northstar Bike Park.

  • HEMIjer says:

    Only been to Pisgah once loved it and hope to be back soon. Just wriitng to say this is one of the best pieces you have written, I agree 100% long love backcountry riding.

  • Raym says:

    I totally agree

  • Brooks says:

    Trails should be roughed in only and then ridden to a point where maintenance is only minor. Initial route selection is everything. Machine built trails give too much weight to the fact that a “Machine” must navigate them in order to be built. Think highways versus Forest Service Roads.

  • guy.spiher@gmail.com says:

    Agreed.
    Where I ride has become almost all groomed and bermed. There are still a few holdouts jealously guarded from the machine built trail craze but not surprisingly they are also the least ridden of all the trails. I find it ironuc that with the latest crop of super bikes that riders continue to clamor for ever faster and easier flow trails.

  • Juan says:

    I agree, or at least that’s what we are used to here in Colombia, raw, eroded and constantly changing trails.

  • Cheese says:

    Some say horses & bikes can’t ride the same trails, but I say nay.

  • RP says:

    Ironic, I can’t remember where my brother in was at the time, but asked about trails like that and the guy looked at him and said, ” oh you want the old school trails”

  • Banjo says:

    I live in AVL and ride Pisgah weekly. It is truly awesome trail. My worries are that it will be changed and dumbed down to make it sustainable. Its already started happening. Not every trail should be massive boulders and drops…but not every trail needs to be grade dipped, pavement smooth dirt either. High use = maintained… Gnar should be left to Momma Nature to decide what is right…

  • KTMrelic says:

    Its like what happened in skiing: The masses come up for their perfectly groomed trails while the gonzos look for off-piste adventure.

  • Kurt Kurtz says:

    I like the old school trails and seek them out. It hurts when an area has become popular and some self-appointed trail boss starts removing the roots rocks and logs. I have heard the excuse that its for safety but usually its because the lack any skill. A primitive trail is fun and sometimes a real challenge. When I first started riding that’s all there was take it or leave it. I have found a lot of newer riders over the last couple of years do not like to ride primitive trails but seek out flow trails or bike parks like Whistler and Duthie, good fun without a doubt, but they are missing a great experience.

  • tyrebyter says:

    Apples to oranges. Leave a trail alone in North Carolina and the forest reclaims it. Ignore a badly built trail in New Mexico and it can be seen from space in a few years. As for $100k/mile, I’m not sure you understand the word ‘volunteer’, or I’m missing a lot of burritos on trail days. Nice article, all the same.

  • Andrew says:

    Interesting timing for this article.

    Our local ride (Manly Dam, in Sydney, Australia) is having substantial trail stabilisation performed. Largely I see it as a very good thing. The trail is heavily used and sections can be sensitive to traffic erosion when wet. Plus it’s great to see the authorities putting dollars into the trail. However, some of the personality/challenge has been sterilized from a couple of primitive challenges.

    There is definitely a balance to be found. A distinction need be made between sanitising and stabilising a trail. Authorities can quickly turn ‘maintenance’ into sanitizing as a means to ass-covering. It’s nice when the work can honour the primitive aspects of the trail – if they are stable, leave them be. Particularly with an iconic trail.

  • andy says:

    angry, most trails are primitive junk. have you lost your mind? this column is way, way ,way off track.

    that said, why don’t you go ride off track? it’s the same as riding junk trails. which, probably make up 99.999% of all trails on this planet.

    kudos to all the guys out there who make kick ass trails. i appreciate your work.

  • Cheese says:

    Exactly tyrebyter! Whoever decides what is “sustainable” seems to beleive all terrain and topographies are the same. East coast, rooty, rocky greenscapes are not as fragile. In PA, I’ve seen well established trails get closed and by the next riding season, there is little to no evidence that it was ever riden. Invasive plants and deer probably do more harm than a little erosion from a rustic trail.

  • RK says:

    Great Article ! You should print this out and staple it to imba’s front door and glue it to the employees foreheads.

    Machine built trails are kind of a joke. Like taking a powder run and grooming it into sterility. More primitive trails please ! Ride rowdy and loose on thin trails !

  • IrieOutdoors says:

    Having grown up riding on a rigid bike in Asheville, I absolutely agree. I live in Seattle now, and while I think Duthie is amazing, I really love mountain biking for the experience of being in the wilderness. When there is too much management of the trails, they get a bit sterile IMO.

  • Tom says:

    We need both kinds, and I love both kinds!

  • JD Dallager says:

    At the risk of sounding firmly ambivalent, I think all kinds of trails have their place. Why do MTB skills instructors start you off in the parking lot? Why do groomed pump tracks encourage people of all ages and skill levels to improve? Why do ski/MTB runs/parks have bunny trails, Blues, Blacks, and Double Blacks? Because to grow a sport, you need to provide challenges and performance-stretching opportunities for all levels of ability…..from beginner to experienced, young to old, reticent to aggressive. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, flown fighters in combat, ridden moto enduro when younger, done road cycling for many years (I’m 67) and am now into my third year of MTB’ing. The challenge for me at my age is to continue MTB’ing for at least another 20 years, to encourage and introduce others to the fun I have MTB’ing, and to challenge myself on a variety of trails. Some days those are sketchy trails, some days those are at bike parks, some days those are at 10,0000 feet in the Colorado mountains. They’re all good…….because some days I “have it” and some days I don’t.

  • Bob says:

    Couldn’t agree more heartily, and I’m so glad that the primitive trails were available for years until the “do-gooders” homogenized them. Well, what can one expect in socal? At least there are a few trails that haven’t been raped and are far enough off the radar that they’re probably safe from molestation.

  • bryan says:

    This article is spot on IMO. Although a fast smooth flow trail on occasion is nice, it’s on the rocky rooty unmanicured trails where I cut my teeth. I have volunteered trailwork duty from time to time, and at times I have questioned why we were cutting and removing the downed trees and embedded rocks. The answer was something like “what, are you a downhiller or something? We have to make it ridable for new bikers too”. I think there is a little too much sanitizing of some local trails, but the old trails are still around for a thrill if you’re so inclined. Around here old school bike parks like Plattekill mountain still build the gnarly rocky, loose, off the back of your seat fall line trails that scare the crap out of you, and Mountain Creek builds a trail for any style rider.

  • Bryan says:

    I think the article implies that sustainable trails are easy and non-sustainable trails are technical. I would consider a 12′ wide, well designed, hand built trail through rock gardens to be more sustainable than a machine built, 3′ wide trail benched into a hillside-if your idea of sustainable is minimal environmental impact and minimal sediment transport over time. But I do agree with the underlying message of keeping trails primitive and not over building them.

  • bicyclezero says:

    Yeah – engineered trail are great fun but miles away from the original spirit of the sport. Whenever I’m on a new NEMBA trail up here in New England I think to myself, its a NEMBA trail – they won’t put anything in here that could get me killed (not without a chicken chute). What fun is that?

  • sharon says:

    I like the machine built trails cause that’s where the masses stay, leaving the natural trails to those who can find them.

    Unfortunately, once they are found, at least in our populated trail network, they do require maintenance so they don’t become too eroded and loose their ‘primitive’ nature.

  • Gary Hartman says:

    Depends what you refer as primitive trails, wild animals,lions elephants, come to S.A, you can do that here.We have a few nice trails at night, dodging the odd Blesbok,impala..Zebra,

  • Paul Tannahill says:

    “Down in my old stomping grounds of San Diego there are primitive trails everywhere. Old moto and jeep trails dating back to World War II that have rain ruts so deep and wide that your entire bike can disappear beneath you; loose, rocky and rutted sections of trail that shoot you to and fro like a pinball in an arcade; trails so rocky and loose they earn nicknames like “Collarbone,” “Bowling Alley” and “Hail Mary.” All of them would be considered unsuitable by most trail advocacy standards. So what are you going to do, pave them?”

    That is exactly what is happening in my current home town of Lebanon, Oregon, and it breaks my heart. Time to find a new home town.

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