Return to the WOMBATS home page Return to the WOMBATS home page

Benefits, Newsletter, E-Mail List, Chapters, New and Returning Member Forms
Benefits, Newsletter, E-Mail List, Chapters, New and Returning Member Forms
Current Schedule (SF Bay and Anchorage), Rating System, and Riding Tips
Current Schedule (SF Bay and Anchorage), Rating System, and Riding Tips
Skills Clinics, Teacup Tango, Mt Tam Camp
Skills Clinics, Teacup Tango, Mt Tam Camp
Jersey, Tee Shirts, Tea Towel, Patches, Sticker
Jersey, Tee Shirts, Tea Towel, Patches, Sticker
riding tips : manners Mission, History, Founder, and Articles by WOMBAT Members Sponsor and Related Sites Membership, News, Chapters, etc.

Mountain Manners and Trail Access, the Karmic Konnection

By Jacquie Phelan

This article can be found in Mtn. Biking Southwest Idaho by Stephen Stuebner, as well as a Swiss book coming out in 1996 on the history of cycling. I conceived these rules in the early eighties, and note that IMBA uses a few. To some, my Miss Manners-inspired opinions were seen as real sticks-in-the-mud. Time has shown them to be the needed (and "newly discovered") antidote to trail tension.

When the bike was invented, back in the 1880's, back before asphalt had been invented, all roads were dirt roads. They were carriage routes or narrow footpaths that linked up towns and villages. Barely anyone ventured more than ten miles from their birthplace, and only the coachmen and drovers knew how to really get about, since maps were not made in mass printings.Spring meant nearly unnavigable muddy roads. Travel was a cumbersome, tedious and expensive luxury.

Then came the safety bicycle, a user-friendly cousin of the high-wheeler.Within a decade they were everywhere, affordable to even the blue collar laborers and women, requiring no stable, no livery and no food. They were likened to two wheeled instruments of the devil, and laws were quickly enacted requiring a runner waving a red flag to precede any cyclist venturing into certain towns to warn the populace and prepare the drivers and their nervous teams!

The social order was in the process of being rearranged. Anyone with a sense of adventure and a little money (a bicycle cost an average worker a month's wages) could cruise the rich part of town after work or on the weekend, and venture "abroad", learning about the neighboring towns and cities without porters, luggage, and long vacation periods. The average worker could go out into nature, and return, invigorated, in a couple of hours. There was considerable concern about the mixing of bicycles and pedestrians and worst of all, carriages. To avert a roadside war, the etiquette had to be established.

Another element changed the world forever: women who could afford the machines could enjoy the outdoors without a chaperone. It was the beginning of the women's rights movement. Thousands of well-educated middle-class women learned of the joys of exercise and self-determination, not to mention comfortable clothing, on board a bicycle. It would be another thirty years before they won the vote (in the US--sixty years and more in Switz) , but in the 1890's women and their Wheels, as the bicycle was called, would create a social revolution that has still not completely been "won".

The political-social drama has been re-enacted in Marin County beginning in the mid 1970's, with exuberant young riders encroaching on the formerly unknown trails of the privileged few. A few of the bikers could have used a flagman, and thanks to them, a lasting impression was made. Rules were passed (without the encumbrance of due process) barring bicycles from trails narrower than 15 feet across. This should not matter to the rest of the world, but for the fact that there seems to be widespread imitations of Marin County's unfair, unjustifiable rules regarding where bicycles are appropriate.

The foremost reason offered here on our Watershed lands is: "we are not in the recreation business". If your area is facing problems, and the area is intended for recreation, then they should not emulate a non-recreation area's rules. Oddly, all the reports of the seventies refer to the watershed's"beautiful natural setting" and restorative backdrop.

Trail closure is probably going to happen where you live. The rule will have no basis other than our Gnarly image. If you measure erosion, bicycles do less than horses, and about the same as hikers (an erosion study commissioned in Marin was scuttled to cover up this inconvenient fact), and if you measure safety, you would find we are amazingly safe in terms of user-miles. Well,there is one basis for an anti-bike sentiment: the bikes feel "foreign"to other users. New. Weird. Scary. Just like they were a century ago.....And cyclists need to take precautions to make a good first impression. Our commercial and media images do not contribute to the impression that we are in perfect control, nor indeed, that most of us are not riding in order to jump over cliffs. We're out to have some fun, and get fit as well. Maybe we're even using them as transportation. Alas, this is what I call the"Boring Truth". Nobody thinks that bicycles can be sold if the Boring Truth is what you use to sell them.

Disregard this cautionary note if you don't mind driving or pedaling to ski areas for your off-road fun--ski resorts want your business, and will overlook a couple of cranky letters from the (very) few hikers that detest mountain bikes. They will also charge you dearly for the privilege of playing on their mountain.

It's the town parks, public paths, easements and outlying canyons that will be off-limits to cyclists within five years. The ones you ride to after work, to spin away stress. I've ridden enough evening group rides around the country, while on my "lecture circuit", to know that groups behave differently than individuals, (competition arises spontaneously)and how this fact is dealt with will determine the fate of mountain bicyclists around the country.

The amount of access to public land we get is the bottom line of a complex equation where volunteer educational efforts, degree of political savvy(on all sides), geographic and demographics and even media exposure are variables. If, every week, large herds of cyclists --a herd is more than four people-- buzz through certain areas within pedaling distance of the town bike shop, and routinely clear the path with a yell or a squeal of poorly adjusted brakes, this is a powerful negative component in the access equation. It would take hours of Mountain Manners talk (from your peers)and hundreds of community service hours repairing routine trail wear to offset it. Think how inconvenient it is to come upon a group of 20 hikers hogging the trail, perhaps all transfixed by a hawk sighting. Now just trade shoes.

My RX for instant (mutual) respect on the local trails is this:

  1. Always assume there is someone around a blind turn. You're near a big town with lots of outdoors fiends like yourself. Go ahead and get up to speed only where you can see there is no one up ahead, then slow down to a crawl before the turns.

  2. Maintain traction at all times, resist the urge to skid. It leavesa calling card: "Bozo was here".

  3. Never take alternate routes to the main path in single track rides. It is unfortunate to see a trail split several ways just to satisfy a rider's urge for novelty. We really look bad there (although, again the actual erosion is negligible -- it's just crummy PR) . Build up log walls to deter switchback cutting and high-berming.

  4. Announce your presence with a cough, or if you have a bell, ring it from way back so it's not a shock. I like to let the walker or rider choose where they want to let you pass, instead of my dictating where they should go. Humans are not slalom poles to be skillfully negotiated. Besides,no one really knows if you mean "move left" or I'm on your left" when all they heard was the word "left!" If you're with another person, simply saying hello alerts others, provided you are going nice and slow. When someone scowls at you, realize they've had a bad experience and are projecting it on you, grant them some dignity and don't scowl back. We don't need a war.

  5. Ride slowly and well-spaced (several bike lengths between riders -- one foot per mph) for the part of the ride that is within three miles of any parking lot. As a rule, weekday hikers and their dogs seldom go beyond a 6-mile round trip.

  6. Refrain from group training rides except at unusual times like 7am weekdays, and never on weekends -- race on the weekends. Or train en masse at distant, remote spots, never within 3 miles of parking lots where people with baby strollers, dogs, and children can be found. In general, a group bigger than four needs to break into smaller clumps. Twenty riders is bad news. String it out, subdivide.

  7. Quiet things down. Toe your brakes in so nary a peep escapes. Talk after stopping, not while you're riding (unless it's a staid 3-5 mph).No one can hear you anyway, and you can't hear them. If you have to shout it's an intrusion on other's peace. When I'm picnicking on a hill, all I ever seem to hear is: (sound of knobbies approaching) saying is: "Last time I--(unintelligible)" "WHAT?!??" "I SAID: blah BLAH blah (still unintelligible)"."WHAT?"

  8. No-go logos. Nay on the neon. Pardon my strong opinion that LOGO'd clothes belong at the races only, not while training at home. Think about words on shirts and shorts as commercials. Then remember how some people go to the woods to escape civilization. We interrupt their reverie "with a word from our sponsors"! It must seem to hikers as if there's no thing we'll be doing is handing out coupons...

  9. No bike shops or tea parties on the trail surface. What do I mean?I mean, fix (or inspect) the bike well away from the road or trail, not upside down in the middle of the darn intersection. Stop and socialize on one side of the trail, preferably off in the weeds, poison oak, what have you. Bordering both sides of a road or trail makes for a hemmed-in feeling to other users. We're all guilty of this one. Intersections and waiting points should be left clear regardless of the fact that you think nobody will come along in the next few minutes. Do I need to add: don't lie your bike down where people are walking, spectating, etc. Here in Fairfax,kids fling down their bike in front of the bike shop door and run in! Sort of an away-from-home version of the roller skate on the doorstep, huh?

  10. Establish "Experimental Etiquette Zones" (carved signs made by local high school shop) should be fabricated and posted to remind people that excruciatingly polite behavior can be turned on like one's headlights in daylight test areas, then discarded once one has reached the high country devoid of all other users. All paved bike paths should be such zones, and public awareness of this should be increased with a local media campaign.All us skaters, walkers, cyclists and joggers act as if we are the only people on the path, stopping to socialize (there's no law against it) or swerving wildly to avoid one another. Multi-use paths (lovely term, no?)are for neutral, low-speed car-free pedaling, and should never be used as a time trial training route. Remember that the children learning to ride and the grannies getting re-acquainted with two wheels ride there -- they'll graduate to the dirt, but they should feel safe on the bike path, for heaven's sake.

Go to the next planning meeting where development of popular riding areas is being discussed, meet the local auto-intensive environmentalists (everyone who uses cars more than bikes) (oops, pardon the pigeonholing!)and ask what you, a dedicated environmentalist yourself, can do to help.NOBODY wants to see such-and such canyon packed with "townhouses", except the person subdividing that juicy parcel. I think that folks are so desperate for help to slow down development that they will accept even our assistance!Imagine hopping into bed (in the political sense) with a Sierra Clubber!This is not possible in Marin due to the environmental caste system, but elsewhere it is surely possible.

Participate at least once a year in trail maintenance work days. They're fun and you get a great sense of accomplishment putting in water bars,and smoothing ruts. Kinda makes you want to buttonhole the folks who "wreckit for everybody" and give them a good talking to. But...

Isn't it better that young people take their risks in an outdoor sport,than on the street or in a bar or worst of all on the street after being at the bar? Exactly where do you expect the rebellion to show itself? Know that thoughtlessness is a phase even you went through, and don't condemn.I always suggest to reckless riders that they come to the next race, and in the mean time practice a little further away from civilization. One must master the diplomatic delivery, and it's not easy, because you want to express your frustration about all "bad guys" onto the jerk in front of you, but chances are this person doesn't have a clue that what he or she is doing could be construed as rude. If you must pontificate, leave the person with a way to save face. Outright condemnation never gets the message across.

Statistics don't lie, our sport is a safe one, we only occasionally "ding" ourselves, and the reason hardly anyone has died riding mountain bikes (compared to skiing) is that most people ride with good common sense.

If you have a crash, conduct your own accident post-mortem: was it something that distracted you from that tuned-in trail concentration you need to stay upright on a mountain bike? Yep, if you hadn't spent three seconds gawking at the weed in your derailleur, your front wheel wouldn't have found that rut, you wouldn't have sailed over the bars, etc... Or was it turning your head to talk? Or not knowing they'd put a new ditch in the blind turn in the trail? Or having a beer before a night ride? Most crashes are due to poor judgment or poor concentration, and happen more often to neophyte riders than experienced ones. But even the pros can't assume everything is smooth or that other riders or drivers are in perfect control.By taking in all cues through your eyes and ears and nose, hands, feet you are returned to the innocent, animal state. One hopes one's riding buddies are equally focused on the ride...Oh, by the way, quit blaming everything and everyone but yourself. Keep your equipment tuned and up-to-date.

Before the urban mountain biker becomes an endangered species, and the"habitat" shrinks to nothing, consider evolving!

PO Box 757 Fairfax, CA 94978 415 459-0980