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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.