I work with a bunch of people that ride mountain bikes and take every opportunity to do so. Because we live in Santa Barbara, we have the benefit of year-round riding conditions. Mountain bikers of all stripes are on the trails every day. This also means that there are hikers of all kinds out there as well. All too often, in my dealings with customers and co-workers, I hear about confrontations between hikers and mountain bikers that leave me stunned. There is certainly an us-versus-them dynamic happening on our beloved trails.
Mountain biking is a permanent part of the cycling world, enjoying a $6 billion market share of the US Economy. In 2016, that was 24 percent of total bicycle sales in the US that year. Mountain bike usage is on the rise. Now that e-MTBs (pedal-assist mountain bikes) are a thing, trails once thought too remote or too steep for traditional mountain bikes are suddenly accessible.
According to the pro-hiking set, mountain bikes and eMTBs are responsible for causing terror on the trails. Shock and awe. To them, there are legions of mountain-bikers flying down the trails at top speed, terrorizing innocent hikers and their families. Threatening their way of life. Curtailing their civil rights. Frightening them, the innocent locals, who are only out on the trail to find peace and enjoy nature. “Make the trails great again!” they scream (not really, just paraphrasing).
However, if you were to hear some of the conversations that mountain bikers have about hikers, you would think that they, too, are being denied the freedom to ride where they want. According to the pro-biking set, the trails are full of elite, crabby traditionalists that have nothing better to do than to complain about the frivolities of cycling with hatred and vitriol. They stand in the mountain biker’s paths and brandish their walking sticks. “Rid the trails of the walking dead!” the bikers exclaim (also not really, but you get the idea).
Conflicts and the development of trail management to accommodate bikers are well documented. When viewed through an anecdotal lens, it sounds like a fucking war zone up there.
There is also the question of conservation. A nature conservationist who is against mountain biking may cite the 1977 ban of bicycles by the US Forest Service in response to the growing number of people riding bikes on trails in federal wilderness areas as a good reason for bikers to stay off the trails. This was an addition and a re-interpretation of the Federal Wilderness Act passed in 1964, the core thesis of which was to leave the wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Fortunately for mountain bikers, this does not cover our local front country trails. To be sure, a lot of our trails are in the Los Padres National Forest, which does contain ten federal wilderness areas. However, our front country is not designated as such, and the federal wilderness laws do not apply. At the time of this writing, mountain biking is permitted on all trails in the Santa Barbara front country.
Even armed with that information, trying to reason with an upset hiker is near impossible. Some people take the perceived ruination of their personal serenity and communion with nature with an almost religious fervor. This type of emotional response to others having fun is, of course, not the fault of every mountain biker. But this potential of conflict is enough to make some bikers believe that every hiker is a pretentious douchebag who thinks he owns the whole trail just because he lives close by.
I am reminded of an interaction with a customer who came in looking to learn more about pedal-assist bikes. I showed him the road-specific models first since they were closest. However, this gentleman was more interested in e-MTBs because he was used to riding and commuting on a mountain bike. While I went over the features of the bikes, their motors, batteries, speed and such, I began talking about their performance on the trails. It was then that the conversation turned weirdly conflicting. The following is a reenactment of how the conversation went:
Customer: “So, my good man, how fast do these contraptions go? What’s the top speed?”
Me: “Good sir, I am glad you asked. The top speed is 20 mph. It is at that point the motor ceases to assist. However, the rider can still coast downhill faster than that without any hindrance from the motor.”
Customer: “Twenty! My word, that is certainly too fast for a mountain bike.”
Me: “Do remember, sir, that is the top speed the motor will go if pressed to do so—”
Customer: “Blazes! Why, would anyone want to go tearing around that fast through creation? Why it boggles the mind!”
Me: “For one to take full advantage of the power assist, the motor must have that much power for getting up hills and such. Most people will probably not by flying up hills at 20 mph—”
Customer: “Exactly my point! These beasts have the potential to be extremely perilous to hikers. Imagine being struck by one whilst out enjoying all that God gave us? Their use must be prohibited from the trails at once!”
Me: “That would certainly be terrible. However, good sir, there are currently no restrictions on the use of pedal-assist bikes on the trails. E-mountain bikes are certainly here to stay.”
Customer: “Please do not take this as an attack upon your station, for you are a mere bicycle salesman. But there goes the decline of civilization, good sir, right into the sewer! Good day!”
Customer: “I say good day to you!”
I came away from that conversation wondering if I was going to have nightmares. I sell mountain bikes for a living. I am in that sphere. I personally have never had a conflict with a hiker on the trails as I usually ride slowly, with a bell as a responsible rider is wont to do. The objects of my outings are not to see how fast I can go, it’s to be outside, stay fit and enjoy myself. But that is only my experience. Others to be sure, like some of the mountain bikers that I work with, prefer to go fast. That is their leisure. It just so happens that the only place they can recreate is on the same trails that everyone else uses. The result being, hikers and mountain bikers are going to end up in the same place at the same time, like it or not.
With that in mind, there exists trail etiquette that everyone should follow, if conditions permit:
In a perfect world, mountain bikers should always yield to hikers. There is a responsibility that comes with wheels and speed when there are pedestrians about. However, when a bike is descending, it is much easier for the hiker to yield. It takes a lot of energy for a person and their bike to decelerate quickly enough to avoid a collision. Even when a biker is struggling up an incline, a hiker could, if they felt like being a decent human being, take a second to step aside to let the biker pass. If a biker is not able to stop or is being reckless and shredding too close for comfort, shouting at them, or even worse, intentionally blocking their path to make a point, is just irresponsible. That’s how crashes happen. That’s how fights start. What does that accomplish? Did you wake up one morning with the mantle of trail king thrust upon you?
Negative. That just makes you an asshole.
The same goes for the bikers. Use a trail bell. Control your speed. The trails are not exclusively yours and we do live in a community with thousands of other people. Going fast is fun but realize that you may not be alone. Just because there is no one to enforce any speed limits doesn’t mean you can use the trail to your abandon. If you choose not to care about the well-being of others around you, that makes you an equally devil-may-care idiot. Also, you and your bike are likely to be broken if a collision with a hiker is imminent.
Our trails and access roads are certainly something to take advantage of. We should never take them for granted. However, this enjoyment of our natural resources comes at a price. With more people out in nature, we must all keep in mind that we live in a society. No one person or group can claim the exclusive enjoyment of our trails. All of us need to go out into nature with the expectation that we will cross paths with another person eventually. Etiquette must be learned and practiced. Bikers, remember that hikers are not out there to yell at you and get in your way. Hikers, keep in mind that mountain bikers are not out there to deliberately ruin your audience with nature. Getting angry will only lessen your harmony and bum you out.
For more information on trial use and conservation in the Santa Barbara area, visit the Sage Trail Alliance website.