Should Mountain Bikes Share The Trails With Motorcycles?

What do you do if you encounter a motor biker on one of your favourite local singletracks?

what can mountain bikers do when encountered with motorized traffic on non-motorized trailsMy last ride of the season before snow flew, I was taking Giant’s new Trance X 29er demo bike for a test ride. After work that day, in the last hour of autumn daylight, I set out on one of my favourite local singletracks. It’s the trail I’ve probably ridden most, so was a fitting place to test and compare this demo bike to other bikes I’ve ridden. The trail consists of about a 2km climb of moderate grades traversing a steep side hill slope, making use of seven major switchbacks, From the top, riders look forward to savouring those hard earned 450 vertical meters by blasting another 2km, (about 10 minutes worth,) of fast, buff, bermed, flowy, singletrack downhill. This trail holds a special place in my heart mostly because three years of my life’s spare time were spent building it, (and with a lack of all modesty I must admit it’s a damn fine trail!) An encounter I had with a motor biker that evening forever changed the way I felt about my trail and the people using it. More on that in a bit.

For the past three or four years I’ve heard local mountain bikers complaining about their encounters on the trail with people riding motorbikes, but never really gave it much consideration. There didn’t seem to be many of them, and because I couldn’t see it being much fun to ride up tight narrow trails with switchbacks and steep side-hill on big, clumsy, awkward motorized machines, motorbikes didn’t concern me. The technical, twisty downhills in this neck of the woods can be ridden at least twice as fast on a mountain bike, as on a dirt bike, so why should it could catch on? And so what if once on a blue moon, some motor biker finds his way onto a trail? Its no big deal.

Or is it?

Fresh section of uphill bike trail

It is difficult not to be a little over protective of a trail after digging into steep sidehill like this for 4 kilometers!

When I unveiled my trail to the community, its popularity soared. Things begin to look different after investing so many tough hours into building a pristine trail, and then watching the effects of rider traffic take its toll. Like having a child, after releasing a trail to the world, you feel a duty to protect it from all harm, and so every braking bump, skid mark, or animal hoof becomes a soldier in a marching army out to destroy your hours of selfless work! The thing is, you can’t really defeat them all, and learning to let go of your creation and let it ‘grow up and live its own life’ is an important part of the trail building process. After all, you built the trail for people to ride, so it’s insane to believe that it will stay exactly the same throughout its life.

I thought I was doing good at accepting my trail’s graceful ageing. One year it hosted two big bike races, both with around 500 riders, and it came through with only a few loose corners and a few new braking bumps. I felt pretty secure that my trail would continue to exist for future decades with only a small amount of touch-up here and there. Of course, I only factored in traffic from mountain bikers and hikers. Even though I built it as sustainable and by the book as I knew how, I never envisioned having to make it motorcycle proof. Honestly, I don’t even think it’s possible to do so with the terrain involved here.

The issue surrounding motorcycles and the impact they can have on trails finally came to light on me this summer. My wife and I were enjoying a peaceful ride up this trail on a drizzly day in mid-summer, when that peace was horribly interrupted. What began as a dull, motorized roar in the distance, soon became closer and more obnoxious. We were passed by two motor bikers, skill-lessly revving and spinning the hell out of the switchbacks and climbs ahead of us. Dressed in blue jeans and donning ball caps where their helmets should have been, we could tell these guys were not out there for sport. They were probably just bombing around the dirt road below us when they came across a singletrack trail that they thought looked interesting to explore. Innocent enough, yet I was left feeling deeply disturbed by the event. I believe it’s fair to say my wife, who’d put in some digging hours out here herself, was downright angry, “They’re wrecking our trail! You should tell them not to be here.”

I, however, know better than to argue with the red necks around here, (by their style and attire, these two were definitely “good ol’ boys”) so I avoided any confrontation, and pulled off the trail and let them pass up ahead far enough that we couldn’t hear them any more. As I said, their presence on the trail disturbed me, but it wasn’t anger I felt, rather something more akin to fear. Fear that my precious work was not as safe as I believed. I was appalled at how much trail these two dirt bikes could eat up in such a short time. They left a rut in every corner and loose dirt on every short little steep pitch. It wasn’t enough damage at the time that it needed fixing, but I figured if even just these two boys were to ride this trail once a week, within a year the trail surface would be totally f*%#ked!

riding a sweet section of downhill singletrack

My lovely Wife enjoying a sweet DH section of the trail she helped build.

Fortunately, the fear subsided some throughout the year as I didn’t have any more encounters with motorcycles on my trail. At least not until my last ride of the season. Remember the ride I started telling you about at the beginning of this article? I left off with a surprising encounter I had that evening with a motor biker riding my trail, which I’ll now get to.

The fall weather here is certainly moist, so the trail, was damp, but it wasn’t soft. I was alone, and running short of daylight. I had made it up the climb at a fast pace and dropped straight into the downhill, not bothering to stop at the viewpoint at the top. About a quarter of the way down, there is a really tight, banked right hand corner that I wouldn’t call ‘technical’, but does tend to throw off newer riders, and is probably the one spot on the trail that some inexperienced riders will actually get off their bikes and walk. As I was nearing this spot on the trail, I heard the unmistakeable buzzing of a motorcycle engine. The fear, (and maybe a bit of anger this time,) came back as I thought to myself, “Great! Some stupid dirt biker is probably trying to climb up my downhill. I bet he’s spinning out the entire way!” I was not looking forward to the confrontation I felt approaching.

However the scene on the trail was not quite the image I was expecting. At the very corner I described above, I met the guy on the dirt bike. Unlike the encounter with the two red necks months before, this rider was dressed in proper gear, and was as alone out there as I in what had by then become dusk. I stopped and said “Hello,” and he removed his helmet smiling and greeted me back. He explained that he had been at this spot for a while attempting to clean the tight corner, and asked me if I could do it on my bike? And I told him I could, but some mountain bikers can’t, so wasn’t surprised he was having difficulty on his huge ass motorcycle. He then proceeded to go on about how amazing he thought this trail was, and admiring the hard work put into it. He also told me that he had just gotten some new tires for trail riding, so he wouldn’t spin out on the uphills, and expressed some disappointment in himself for accidentally spinning out on one of the switchbacks, which surprised me as I couldn’t remember seeing any sign of trail damage on my ride up, (and believe me, I am always looking!)

enduro bike rider on trail

Though most mountain bikers would prefer not to encounter motorcycles on their trails, they still need to consider the ways they might react when they do.

Something important struck me at this moment. I realized that he was not an enemy. He was out there trying to perfect his riding of a section of trail that he found challenging which showed me he had a genuine love for his sport and was trying to get better at it. He also displayed gratitude and respect for the work put into the trail he was on, which is more than I can even say about some other mountain bikers. He was kind, courteous, respectful and genuinely having fun in the mountains. What wasn’t lost on me in that moment was that he was basically just like me, just like anyone with a passion for mountains and sport. After a quick chat, I couldn’t help but admit to him that I was the one who put most of the work into this trail, and I told him that I was happy he appreciated it. I also thanked him for being both respectful and considerate of the trail surface, and since it was starting to get dark, I left him and continued my ride. When I got home, a new outlook into my trail began to take on form for me.

Now, I know that motor bikes are not something you ever want to see on one of your local singletracks, the noise alone is reason for distaste, not to mention the erosion they can create. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular guy had every right to be there on my trail. He had the same right myself and any other mountain biker, hiker or other user claims to have. We all have the right to use this earth, challenge ourselves, and have fun so long as we respect this land and the other people using it. The moment we stop respecting, is the only moment we lose our right to be there, no matter what user group we are. Any one can litter, any one can do damage to a place. Even hikers can do damage. I mean, existentially speaking, what damage could a motorcycle do to the side of a mountain worse than the meter wide, and in some places meter deep scar I’ve already left in the side of it when I decided to dig a “trail”? To the earth, my work might be interpreted as an act of vandalism in itself!

I also thought about how different that situation could have been. I could have gotten angry and told him that he was going to wreck my trail, (as if I own it or something,) told him he shouldn’t be there and should leave. I wonder what would have been the result of that? What respect would he have for mountain bikers, and all the work they do out here if I had done that? Less, for sure, and if he is to encounter enough mountain bikers like that , he is sure to lose any respect he had, may even grow to hate us and take pleasure in ruining our trails. What’s worse than a motor biker on your trails? A motor biker that thinks mountain bikers are all a bunch of ass holes! I know that in that moment, I worked to help create less conflict between motor bikers and mountain bikers. I know that he will try to be even more mindful of the trail he is riding and the other users on it.

not for motorized use signage on mountain bike, hiker and equestrian trailsMost people’s first reaction is to create controversy by telling them that they’re not allowed to be there. The result is a loss of respect and ultimately more controversy. These are how wars are started, and in war there are no winners, only dead soldiers. I can only hope that the others he is bound to encounter on the trail in his pursuit of freedom via motorized machine will not be the type that cause him to lose respect for us. I hope that he will go forth as an example to others of his kind, and so grow a community of trail conscious motor bikers, as opposed to renegade ones. We can’t keep them all off the mountain bike trails, anymore than you can keep all the mountain bikers off the hiking trails, (come on, don’t play innocent, I know you have!) but we can form a friendly relationship with them, open up a peaceful and mutually respectful dialogue with them. Who even knows, but that we might be able to join with them for a common cause, because after all, we are probably more alike than we are different.

2 thoughts on “Should Mountain Bikes Share The Trails With Motorcycles?

  1. I enjoyed your article. As someone who rides both mountain bikes and Dirtbikes, I have come to appreaciate the differences in trail building for the two. The MTB trails I make take a much longer time, as the riding surface must be better prepared and harder packed (which can take a long time in the Pacific NorthWest). The Dirtbike trails I make I usally just hack out all the major brush/logs and then ride it over and over until it looks like a trail, and soft loamy dirt is no big deal.

    Making a trail that can stand up to both is hard but doable, and I do think there is a place for multi use trails. But for the most part, I would not want to ride my MTB on Dirtbike specific trails. At least in my area, the ruts get much to deep and the soil not hardpack enough.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I was hoping to hear from somebody who participated in both sports. It is a bonus that you also build trails for both mountain and dirt bikes. I too would rather not ride my mountain bike on dirt bike trails for the same reason: They are usually too rutted and loose.
      I don’t know what it would take to make trails in our area that could withstand large amounts of motorized use, but I do believe it is possible to accomodate very light usage without too much extra planning. It is something that both user groups really need to get together and talk about in a positive and constructive manner.

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