Dirt Rag Magazine

Singletrack to School: How one Arkansas Town is securing its cycling future


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Words by Frank Maguire. Photos by Scott Schoen.

Since you’re reading Dirt Rag, it’s a safe bet that you think bikes are a pretty great human achievement—right up there with sliced bread, space travel and Saturday morning cartoons. As with all great inventions, bikes should be measured by their ability to change and improve people’s daily lives. I think we can all agree that more people riding them would make the world a better place—more smiles per miles, as the saying goes.

One way to get more Americans cycling is to start them young. You, yourself, probably began riding early: a parent running behind you, a steadying hand on your back until it was no longer needed. And if you’re honest with yourself, that love of riding is what you looked for when you returned to two wheels as an adult and developed what is now a lifelong passion. Is it possible to engage kids at an early age, instill that commitment and joy in a way that will let them skip over the “too cool to ride” phase and continue pedaling into adulthood and beyond? A rethinking of how kids are introduced to bikes as well as singletrack is leading a new model of future biking citizens in many places across the country.

But to actually get kids on bikes goes against two other trends in America: increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the fear of what happens when your child is out of your sight. Bikes, particularly mountain bikes, mean both motion and independence. Exploring trails and the world beyond where the sidewalk ends is a lifelong lesson in self-sufficiency and confidence. Nationally, the Safe Routes to School program has opened the door to more bikes as transportation in many communities. Physical education classes in some places feature fleets of bikes, and now communities across the country are starting to add singletrack to the mix.

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By introducing kids to the versatility of bikes in a somewhat structured format, these school systems are broadening their role in developing well-rounded children while bucking the culture of fear. No community has done as much to make lifelong riders out of kids as Bentonville, Arkansas.

Bentonville may not be the first place that jumps to mind when you think “outdoor lifestyle.” The corporate home and birthplace of Walmart, Bentonville was a small rural community until the 1990s, when Walmart began requiring its vendors to open offices in town. This business decision led to a rather quick population boom, with the number of inhabitants growing from less than 12,000 in 1990 to more than 40,000 today. Such growth could have quickly swallowed up the town, but a solid dose of civic pride and philanthropy led to keeping the small-town charm while prepping future generations for a life on two wheels.

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With a quaint town square and some significant public open- space areas nearby, Bentonville was able to follow the lead of other communities and develop a healthy bicycle master plan to connect the town’s neighborhoods. The Slaughter Pens trail network, connected to the Razorback Greenway and just a few quick minutes from the town square, quickly developed a national reputation for quality trails, including a freeride area, dirt jumps and a pump track. All of these things could exist, though, in their own vacuum, serving a small segment of the population that was already exploring on two wheels. In 2011, however, the community at large began to change that.

At first, the bikes-in-schools program started pretty modestly, with just 23 bikes and needed accessories purchased for the P.E. program at Lincoln Jr. High School. The success of that program sparked the community to pursue a much larger grant from the Walton Foundation and funding from other sources to create

a true school-system-wide program. Called “Trail Time,” the initiative set a goal to launch the bike program in all 17 schools in the Bentonville School District. Five hundred Trek bikes were purchased for multiple schools, and a bike shop was also created in the high school as both part of a necessary maintenance

plan and as a vocational-training course. Then a curriculum was created. As Alan Ley, the head of Bike Bentonville, said, “The trails [have] become an outdoor classroom.”

Such grand-vision projects usually take time for their impact to be felt, but according to Scott Schoen, the manager at Phat Tire Bike Shop in Bentonville, the effect was immediate. “Within six weeks you started seeing kids on trails,” he said. “Fifth- and sixth-graders—not just high school kids.” That impact wasn’t just felt on the trails themselves, but also in the bike shop. “We had kids bringing their parents in, saying, ‘I want the one like what we have at school,’ meaning Treks,” Schoen continued. This is a big deal, since the bike advocates (including Schoen) made the case to spend extra money to get quality bikes over a big-box brand. The advocates knew how crucial it was to make sure the kids’ first experience on trails had the highest chance for enjoyment rather than frustration. This might have meant fewer bikes initially, but it made the likelihood of long-term success possible.

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I had a chance last fall to check out the trails myself while visiting the region. Over the course of several days I got to cruise multiple times back and forth along the northern section of the Razorback Greenway that connects the various nodes of singletrack (including the Slaughter Pen Trails). From my hotel, it was a quick two-block pedal to the first stretch of dirt, the All- American Trail near Crystal Bridges Museum. That first taste of trail led pretty intuitively to the next and then the next one after that, drawing me into what was nearly a 20-mile ride. The layout maximizes the terrain and features, with rolling contour trails punctuated by sharp-edged rock gardens. One particularly cool stretch near Lake Bella Vista has the trail skirting along the edge of a rock outcropping that typifies the area and adds a visual mind game of risk versus reward.

My visit coincided with the Slaughter Pen Jam, the community- wide celebration of trails held every year in September. This year it was an official program of the Bentonville Parks and Recreation Department, meaning that whatever it may have lost in its street cred was made up for in scale and scope. From a trials and

BMX demonstration that was successfully integrated into the monthly First Friday on the Square event, to movie night in a town park, the Jam has become a continuation of the town’s efforts to embrace cycling in all its facets. That extends to the cross- country races, where the junior categories are some of the larger groups, and the legions of groms making their rounds to vendor booths looking for stickers and swag show the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for gaming conventions.

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At one point in my exploration of Bentonville, I took a side detour to Lincoln Jr. High School to check out what it meant to have the schools connected to singletrack. The small, probably less-than-10-acre piece of green space around the school had

been transformed into a trail playground. A short loop, complete with berms and boardwalks, created an inviting diversion to the standard entrance to the school. As if on cue, two kids who couldn’t have been more than eight rode up out of the trails. Deep in their own world, they barely acknowledged me as they continued their conversation and turned onto the next section of trail.

If this is what the future holds for communities that put forth the effort to embrace bikes, I am all for it. By elevating bikes at an early age to something beyond “toy” status and into something that expands horizons, communities have a chance to create a self-sufficiency that seems to be vanishing in America. Because if they can do it in Bentonville, Arkansas, then you can take the dirt to school just about anywhere.

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Singletrack Sidewalks: Colorado’s take on the program

Although Bentonville might be the largest and most complete singletrack program in the country, there are smaller-scale efforts that you can look to as examples. In Eagle, Colorado, a much more low-key use of public dirt is being proposed, but will still be a fun diversion for kids (old and young) commuting. Mike McCormick of Breck Epic fame was inspired to take advantage of the stretches of dirt that line the paved path leading to his kid’s school, after watching how much fun the kids were having taking the social trails off to the side. For McCormick, it sparked the realization that his kids can’t be the only ones who could benefit from such play.

In 2012, McCormick started talking up the idea with other riders and soon started working with the local club, Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, and Momentum Trail Concepts, a local trail- building company, to approach the Eagle town council and propose “Singletrack Sidewalks.” The citizen-led effort gained traction quickly because it tapped into a feeling of “let kids be kids” while not asking the town government for any hard-to- find funding. Last November, the council approved the plan unanimously, and now the community is looking at moving dirt this spring. Over the course of the next five years, the goal is to connect seven different neighborhoods in town with the two school buildings as well as the various trailheads, opening up a much larger world for all.

 

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Inside Line: First look at Advocate Cycles 27plus hardtail


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Here at Dirt Rag we’re huge fans of classic steel hardtails, and today we got an introduction to a new brand with a unique business model that is giving back to the associations that support cycling. Advocate Cycles is a new venture from industry veteran Tim Krueger and its first product is the Hayduke, a 27plus steel hardtail with a trail bike attitude and impressive versatility.

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While the company will of course need to make money to operate, it vows to turn 100 percent of its profits back into cycling advocacy organizations like IMBA and the League of American Bicyclists. While it is still federally recognized as a for-profit company, it is regarded in its home state of Minnesota as a new status known as a Specific Benefit Corporation. These types of organizations are required to uphold “a material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole, from the business and operations of the benefit corporation.”

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Built from Reynolds 725 steel tubing, it has a 44 mm head tube and BB92 botton bracket shell, and the rear end has rocker dropouts of Krueger’s own design that can be fitted with a 142×12 thru axle or the new 148×12 Boost Axle. (Read more about what makes Boost parts different here.) What’s nice is that the same 174 mm SRAM Maxle is used with all of the dropouts. Naturally it can be used a singlespeed as well.

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The Boost hub was created mostly to work with the many 27.5×3 tires that will soon be available, but the frame will also fit a standard 29-inch wheelset.

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One nice touch is that you can build up a Hayduke frame with all the standard parts currently used on 29ers, and if you want to switch to 27plus down the road you can swap out the dropouts for the Boost version and hit the trail. It will even work with a double crankset and the 3-inch tires if you use the Boost crankset.

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Other key details include a 68.5 degree head tube angle, 73 degree seat tube angle and 60 mm bottom bracket drop. It is designed around a 120 mm fork with a 51 mm offset and will be available in four sizes. The 31.6 mm seat tube has internal dropper post routing and a Thomson seat post clamp is included.

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The frame will retail for $750 and should be available later this summer. Krueger said the company has three more bike models it plans to roll out in the next few months as well. It will be interesting to see not only if the bikes will perform well, but if the company’s bold business plan will too.

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Life on the road with the IMBA Trail Care Crew


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By Lani Bruntz

Everyday it happens like clockwork: I meet another rider on the trail, or am just pumping gas, and I get asked, “So, where do you live?” I still stumble over the answer, which usually ends up being, “On the road,” or, “In that there Subaru.”

Before I can explain, I am interrupted with, “But where do you really live?” Depending on the day, I usually just give an answer that people are expecting to hear, which is to pick one place, a definitive home-base that I go back to. I either tell them Idaho, where I lived one year ago, or Colorado, where I grew up.

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But the truth is, my boyfriend Jordan Carr and I live out of a brightly colored, hard-to-miss Subaru Outback, flashing the IMBA logo, complete with two Trek bikes on the back and a Yakima roof box bursting with dirty riding gear and trail building tools. We travel the country working to share our passion for mountain biking and trail-based recreation as members of the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew. We visit a different community each and every weekend to educate the local mountain bikers and trail users on sustainable trail development. We collaborate with land managers to find the balance between their agency goals and providing quality recreational opportunities to benefit both locals and visitors. We discuss the health and economic benefits with community officials in hopes of getting them excited about trails.

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Every weekend, whether it’s in Brookings, South Dakota; or Ithaca, New York; or Moab, Utah; we are welcomed into the community by enthusiastic mountain bikers eager to improve access to trails and the experience of those trails. I accepted this job dreaming of all the different trails I would ride, and never adequately anticipated the impact these communities would have on me. In each place we visit, passionate individuals have mobilized into tight-knit communities—individuals who may have never crossed paths otherwise.  It is a passion for the sport of mountain biking and a passion to build and have high-quality trail experiences that bond these individuals.

Regardless of anyone’s profession, background, or even their riding ability level, bikes break barriers that would otherwise inhibit relationships. Riding bikes provides a platform for friendships to develop and, most of all, for a community of likeminded individuals to flourish. As the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew, my boyfriend and I take bits and pieces from each visit and share them with the next, weaving together a stronger, bigger and more inclusive community of mountain bikers. And while nothing puts a smile on my face quicker than a rowdy, rocky trail, or a fast, flowy section that rips through aspen groves, it is the close but diverse communities of trail lovers that make me want to settle down and find my place—to have my own community that I can be a part of.

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I am indeed one of the millennial generation who is deliberately choosing to lead a different life than the stereotypically mapped-out path of my parents’ generation: the baby boomers. The majority of folks I get to work with are ‘Boomers, and the idea of not having a home is foreign to most of them. While I sometimes agree with the person who wants to hear “Ketchum, Idaho,” in response to their question about where I live, the “IMBAru” is my place for now and allows me to get a taste of communities all over the country.

2015 Schedule

See if the IMBA Trail Care Crew is going to be in your neck of the woods this year and sign up to participate.

 

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Access Action: Portland, we still have a problem


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Editor’s note: We will be updating this post at the bottom as news develops.

Photos by Adam Newman

Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as a progressive and welcoming city for cyclists. It has one of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the country and it supports a huge road and cyclocross race scene. In 2008 it was the first large city awarded Platinum status by the League of American Bicyclists.

In contrast, mountain bikes are largely outsiders in the Portland cycling scene. While other cities in Oregon like Bend, Hood River and Oakridge have embraced mountain biking, the nearest trails are at least an hour drive from Portland. The city has dangled promises of working together in front of riders for more than a decade only to snatch them away at the last moment.

In Issue #158 (August 2011) Dirt Rag featured the frustration of Portland mountain bikers in an Access Action piece (Portland, We Have a Problem). Since that story was published, sadly not much has changed in Portland.

The city did build a pump track at Ventura Park—largely thanks to the generosity of bicycle accessories brand Portland Design Works—but it could only be described as modest. A 35-acre piece of property known as Gateway Green is being considered for off-road cycling development, but its future is far from certain.

Nevertheless, spirits were riding high in late 2014 when more than 200 mountain bikers packed a public meeting to voice their input in the future of a 1,300-acre property that borders Forest Park. Optimism for mountain biking in the city further swelled as Portland Parks and Recreation requested $350,000 in its budget for a comprehensive off-road cycling master plan and the Northwest Trail Alliance collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition delivered in person to a Portland Parks budget dialogue meeting.

It seemed 2015 would finally be the year that mountain biking came to Portland. Then on March 2, the bubble burst.

One of the few places within the city’s 133 square miles where cyclists can get their tires dirty was River View Natural Area, a 146-acre tract of undeveloped hillside that had been used by mountain bikers for years before the city purchased it from a nearby cemetery in 2011. The trails there are hardly epic, but they represent one of the only places in the city with trails open to bicycles that aren’t doubletrack or wishfully re-labeled stroller paths.

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Since 2011 cyclists worked hard within the bureaucracy of the city planning system to promote cycling in the park where it was still being allowed. The Northwest Trail Alliance organized trail work days, trash pickup and other events. The group even had a seat at the table on a project advisory committee, working with a technical advisory committee, a consultant team, and Portland Parks and Recreation to craft a future for the park that included mountain biking.

What they didn’t see coming was a letter from Portland City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish announcing plans to alter the recreation policy for the property. In fact, NWTA members were in a meeting with Commissioner Fish’s staff when the letter was released to the public.

“Exercising an abundance of caution and to protect the city’s investment in the River View Natural Area [the city] will be limiting activities at RVNA from now on to passive nature-based recreational uses,” the letter reads. “Mountain biking will no longer be an allowed use at RVNA as of March 16th.”

The reason given?

“Seven undeveloped streams flow through the property to the Willamette River. These tributaries and their forested buffers support critical habitat for coastal steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon in the lower Willamette, all designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.”

Environmental concerns are easily and often cited as cause to do (or not do) just about anything in Portland, but cycling had long been discussed as a legitimate recreation opportunity in River View.

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Professional mountain biker Charlie Sponsel has led the charge against the decision to close the River View Natural Area to mountain bikes.

In fact, the actual dangers to the streams and wetlands that support fish populations in the nearby Willamette River were identified at a January 14, 2014, meeting by the River View Management Plan Technical Advisory Committee as: 1.) Dogs on and off-leash; 2.) Off-trail use by cyclists and pedestrians; 3.) Illegal camping/party spots that create wildfire risk; 4.) Climate change.

Present at the meeting was professional mountain biker Charlie Sponsel. There were no promises made in regards to mountain biking, but “it was absolutely made clear that their goal” was to make a decision through the use of “a democratic, citizen process,” Sponsel told the Oregonian. Dogs are still permitted at River View Natural Area.

So despite the growing chorus of voices of citizens asking for more (or any) off-road cycling opportunities in the city, their voices may be falling on deaf ears. I reached out to Commissioner Fritz’s office multiple times for comment but did not receive a reply. She recently announced she will be running for reelection in 2016. No incumbent member of the Portland City Council has lost an election since 1992.

The investment the Commissioners cite in their letter stems from the controversy surrounding the city’s acquisition of the property in 2011. Funds to buy the land from a nearby cemetery—more than half of its $11.25 million price—were from city utility customers’ stormwater fees. The city justified the taxpayers’ purchase of the land by citing the environmental resources the property offers, but a state review agency found those claims largely unfounded. In 2013 a group of ratepayer plaintiffs sued the city after the Oregon Watershed Review Board found that the city’s claims “significantly overstated the project’s ecological merits,” according to court documents.

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As the Oregonian pointed out in an editorial scolding the city council for the bait-and-switch, allowing active recreation on the site would be in opposition to its justification for the purchase, and could potentially open the city to more lawsuits.

I reached out to Commissioner Fish for comment on the lawsuit and got a reply from Jim Blackwood, a policy director in Fish’s office.

“The City Attorney advised BES and Parks that the utmost caution must be taken to preserve the natural area status to stay within the bounds of the court’s decision,” Blackwood said.

In statements made after the March 2 letter Fritz has said that the ban on mountain biking at River View isn’t permanent, and points to the $350,000 off-road cycling master plan as a sign of the city working for its constituents. But in that very letter Fritz and Fish point out that the budget request is only that—a request—and states “community advocacy will be necessary to encourage the Mayor and Council to fund this request.”

So will the master plan be included in the budget? I asked Commissioner Fish’s office the chances of an off-road cycling master plan happening at all.

“We are optimistic about the budget ask,” Blackwood said. However the City Budget Office isn’t so optimistic, and recommended against funding the study.

“The cycling community has expressed strong interest in expanding off‐road cycling options,” the recommendation reads (Page 22). “However, the current focus of the bureau’s current capital plan reflects its most pressing needs: maintaining assets and expanding access to underserved resident.  Because this project is not included in capital plans and the bureau has other, higher priority capital needs, CBO does not recommend funding this project.”

Portland needs to address the discontent of mountain bikers in the city, but it is unlikely to pacify their request to reopen River View. In the Parks and Recreation budget request it states “This package would fund a joint effort with Metro to identify several sites, possibly within and outside of Portland, in which to build sustainable trails, access points, and facilities for off-road cycling that would not negatively impact natural resources.”

Given the city’s strict adherence to environmental concerns at the property it is unlikely that the decision to ban mountain bikes from River View could ever be reversed.

Portland loves a good protest, and in online forums and in discussions I’ve had with others, there is a growing sentiment among some mountain bikers that they are tired of working within the system. Ideas ranging from simply ignoring the ban on bikes to organized Critical Mass-style mountain bike rides have been floated.

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Riders gathered at the River View trails on the first day of the protest, but did not ride on the trails due to recent rains.

In fact, Sponsel organized a protest ride on March 16, the first day of the ban. An estimated 300 mountain bikers and supporters came to the event which was scheduled to ride the trails in defiance of the ban. At the last minute the plans were changed, as heavy rains softened the trails and the riders wanted to show they could be good stewards of the property by not using it when it was vulnerable. A ride around the circumference of the park was enough to draw TV news crews and photographers.

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More than 300 mountain bikers joined the protest ride.

Many have said they have no intention of heeding the ban at the River View Natural Area. Erik Tonkin, a long-time staple of the Portland mountain bike scene and owner of Sellwood Cycles, a well-known bike shop just across the Willamette River from the trails, wrote on his blog that he will continue to ride there, just as he has for more than two decades.

“The cemetery trails offer me sense of place,” he wrote. “I’ve lived and worked near to them ever since–without interruption, and by intention. The place made me the athlete I am.”

Video

This is a great video by Cory Tepper summarizing the issue at hand.

Updates

March 18, 2015: There have been rumblings within the Portland mountain bike community that the city’s Platinum status as a Bicycle Friendly Community should be reconsidered. I reached out to the League of American Bicyclists, for a comment:

“Yes, we do take off-road cycling opportunities into account when making the award decision,” said Nicole Wynands, the Bicycle Friendly Community program manager. “We also reach out to local mountain biking organizations and advocates, as well as IMBA for input before we are making an award decision. We actually received a good amount of feedback from mountain biking advocates when we reviewed Portland’s last application, and included a specific recommendation in regards to mountain biking in their feedback report.”

Many riders feel a reconsideration should happen immediately, and Wynands said communities have been downgraded before, but only through the standard renewal process. Bicycle Friendly Community awards are valid for four years, and the League has never changed a community’s status while its reward was still current. Portland’s Platinum status was last renewed in 2013.

Wynands said the League is crafting a joint letter with People For Bikes and IMBA to the Portland city government. We will update this post with its content when it is available.

March 19, 2015: Today key leaders in the bicycle advocacy movement sent an open letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and the City Council (PDF) admonishing the city for its handling of the River View Natural Area situation. It is signed by Michael Van Abel, president and US executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association; Jenn Dice, vice president government affairs at People for Bikes; and Andy Clark, the president of the League of American Bicyclists.

It reads, in part:

We know that sometimes other priorities for funding or even land use take precedence and bicycles are not given priority. We can generally accept those decisions. However, when those decisions are made in an arbitrary and capricious manner that cuts off due process, we must object.

We request that Portland Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Environmental Services, and any other city agency that administers public lands collaborate with the North West Trails Alliance and other local off-road bicycling advocates to develop a strategy to address the shortage of off-road bicycling opportunities in the city of Portland. We look forward to Portland living up to its status as a progressive thought leading city that embraces bicycling in all forms.

Unfortunately it also contains an error, stating that the funding for the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan has been denied. While the City Budget Office has recommended against funding the study (and against funding the Gateway Green project), it’s not dead just yet.

“The CBO recommendations … provide a starting framework for Mayor and Council deliberations on the budget,” said Andrew Scott, the director of Portland’s City Budget Office. “But there is still important information that will become available during the public budget hearings, Council budget work sessions, and further discussions with bureau management and our labor partners.”

“I think it’s safe to say that the Mayor and Council find the CBO reviews valuable in terms of setting a framework for the budget, but they make their own decisions about each individual funding request as it moves through the process.”

The next opportunity for mountain bikers to lobby for funding the study and the Gateway Green project directly to Commissioners is at the community budget forum scheduled for April 16 at the Floyd Light Middle School cafeteria at 6:30 p.m. Because the chance to speak is determined by a lottery system, the more mountain bike supporters are present, the larger the chance for their voice to be heard.

March 24, 2015: The Northwest Trail Alliance has informed its members that it has taken the first steps of legal action against the city of Portland for its decision to close the River View Natural Area to bikes. In an open letter, the group said it has filed a Notice of Intent to Appeal with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, citing the lack of public transparency in the decision.

“We do not take this action lightly,” the letter reads. “We would much rather work in partnership with the City to resolve the issue. However, the gravity of this decision, the lack of justification, and the lack of answers has lead the board to take legal action. We simply cannot stand idle.”

However, despite the growing chorus of those supporting civil disobedience, the NWTA doesn’t support such action: “We encourage our members and supporters to continue to make their voices heard in an appropriate fashion. At the same time, we cannot condone and strongly discourage any acts which defy current regulations related to trail access. As frustrating as it has been, we are committed to working within the system.”

According to BikePortland.org, the city has 21 days to turn over records used to reach its decision. Then there are several weeks of back and forth before the Land Use Board of Appeals renders its decision. It can uphold the decision, reverse it (if a law has been broken or jurisdiction has been overreached) or send it back to the city to reconsider, essentially putting all the pieces back where they were before. It could be mid-June before that decision is made.

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Friend or Flow: Are trails being too “dumbed down?”


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Words by Sarah Galbraith. Photos by Tristan Von Duntz.

The notion of flow exists in all kinds of sports,” says Mark Eller, Mountain bikers have, of late, seen the development of communications director with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). Eller has worked in skiing, snowboarding, surfing, and climbing, and now mountain biking. He points out that even tennis players are seeking to flow: “It’s not unique to mountain biking.”

Sports-theory academics have put some thought to the concept of flow, producing a long-winded and wonky definition and some papers on the subject. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has the title “architect of flow,” is also a distinguished professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, and he has coined a flow theory. He says flow is a rare and dynamic state characterized by dimensions like the merging of action and awareness, concentration on a task, the loss of self- consciousness, an altered sense of time, and a self-rewarding experience. In other words, when you’re flowing, you’re in the zone.

While flow is not specific to mountain biking, what is unique is that we’re constructing the flow experience, which Eller describes as a universal mental state. “Flow exists in somebody’s mind,”he says. “Building a trail that will make this happen is different for different riders.” A newbie mountain biker may find flow on smooth, wide trails, for example; intermediate riders may find it on doubles and berms; and someone with a lot of experience might find the flow in a rock garden or some other gnarly section. Regardless of where it’s found, today’s mountain bike trails are built to encourage flow.

Mountain bikers have, of late, seen the development ofthe flow trail, which is built by hand or machine specifically to create a flowing ride experience. Defined on the IMBA website, flow trails “typically contain features like banked turns, rolling terrain, various types of jumps, and consistent and predictable surfaces. Conspicuously absent are abrupt corners or unforeseen obstacles.”

The construction of flow was not always part of mountain biking, and therein rides the rub. Mountain bikers used to be a marginalized—often illegal—user of trails that were never built with mountain biking in mind. We rode fire roads, fall-line trails, and stolen hiking trails, or raked a path through the woods and called it good.

The new development of flow trails has left mountain bikers all over the world arguing about the merits of different trail-construction styles, and my home state of Vermont is no different. On the one hand, we’re lapping up Kitchel at Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Norwich University Trails in Northfield, Hardy Haul at Adams Camp in Stowe, Blueberry Lake and Revolution in the Mad River Valley, and Flo, the latest development in an entire network of flow in Stowe’s Cady Hill Forest.

On the other hand, though, Vermont’s riders have been highly critical of trail builders and mountain bike clubs for putting too much emphasis on flow trail construction. A vocal subset of experienced and longtime riders think builders are sanitizing trails, dumbing them down, and changing the character of our challenging New England riding. To these riders, we’re selling out on mountain biking by opening up trails for the masses.

“It’s like this ‘everybody wins’ mentality we have with kids these days,” said one rider in the Mad River Valley. “I learned to ride technical singletrack by riding technical singletrack.” He thinks others should have to learn the same way.

“It’s trail gentrification,” says another rider of the major redevelopment of Cady Hill Forest from old-school techy into new-school top-to-bottom flow. Further, he feels we’re monetizing mountain biking, making it too mainstream, and ultimately selling out on a precious gem that Vermont had long kept secret.

If you idiots could ride it, we wouldn’t have had to take it out.

Riders attacked local builders on social media this summer over the removal of a rock known as “the derailleur ripper” in a popular central Vermont locale. The spot had become badly eroded as the trail saw more traffic and less-capable riders were going around the rock, and state land managers said the rock had to go. The barrage of negativity after the rock problem was fixed led one builder to write in response, “If you idiots could ride it, we wouldn’t have had to take it out.”

While some are having trouble getting along, the increase in flow has its upsides for Vermont too. Plenty of expert and intermediate riders love the countless opportunities for catching air and arcing fast into turns that require little in the way of braking. And, importantly, there are now places to take beginners, kids, and families, and that was largely missing from our state until recently. A group ride can now include an array of rider types and abilities, and everyone can have fun in their own way on the same trail.

There are solutions, and finding them starts with a better understanding of the issue. Vermont’s Mad River Valley provides an excellent place to dive deeper.

“All we had was an expert network,” says John Atkinson of the trails in the Mad River Valley. It’s a prime riding spot full of black- and double-black-diamond-level riding and a population that has been riding it for decades. Atkinson is president of the Mad River Riders and the main energy source behind new flow trails like Revolution and Blueberry Lake in Waitsfield and Warren, respectively. He says if he had asked his membership a few years ago what they wanted for the trails, we would have heard, “Don’t change a thing.” But he knew their club was missing an entire contingent of riders, like women, beginners, and kids, so he spearheaded the effort to bring more-diverse riding terrain by adding these flow-style trails that are designed to be approachable to as many riders as possible.

As a result, the Mad River Valley was host this past summer to Mad River Rippers, a group of 60 kids learning to mountain bike, and regular women’s mountain bike clinics led by professional rider Ali Zimmer, neither of which would have been possible without these new approachable trails.

Atkinson continues, “Before we had these new trails, we had less than 50 members in our chapter and barely any women. Now we have 180 members and half of those are family memberships, meaning half of our members are women.” Obviously, more financial support through increased memberships and broader participation equals more trails and a sustainable future.

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The exceptional management of the construction and maintenance of these trails has also made Mad River Riders into a reputable partner for landowners, both private and public. The State of Vermont, for example, is now more than happy to work with the club and is actively pursuing additional new trail projects for state forestlands in the Mad River Valley.

Trail construction and maintenance are really all about the landowners. “When the state tells us to fix a section of trail, hearing ‘don’t change anything’ from our riders isn’t helpful. It isn’t an option,” says Atkinson. It is highly important to be good partners with landowners, especially if we want to, say, build more trails.

“We’re planning a new intermediate trail to parallel Cyclone in Camel’s Hump State Forest,” says Atkinson. “It will take traffic away from Cyclone and completely change access on that hillside.”

The trails are also getting easier to build and less costly to maintain with modern construction techniques. Flow trails can have the advantage of requiring less maintenance, although this is site dependent. Atkinson says that Blueberry Lake required nothing more this year in maintenance than blowing leaves and clearing some blowdowns.

“When we propose a new trail,” says Atkinson, “we get asked, ‘Do you have the money and time to maintain it?’” This question is increasingly easier for clubs like Atkinson’s to say yes to as they build more modern trails that have lower demands for upkeep. That means his club has more time and money available to build and maintain more trails.

There is a theme developing here: more trails, better trails. But despite all these pluses, there are still doubters.

“We hear ‘everything gets dumbed down,’” says Atkinson, “but that’s not true. Take Cyclone, an expert trail. We’ve used rock; it’s challenging. The riding’s not getting easier, it’s getting more fun.” And, new modern trails designed to handle increased traffic can also divert users away from our beloved-yet-sensitive old-school technical singletrack by providing alternate routes that appeal to a greater range of abilities.

Tom Stuessy, executive director of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, parent organization to mountain bike clubs like the Mad River Riders, points out that clubs don’t have to map all of their trails, either. Clubs can decide to publicize modern trails built to appeal to the masses and take the increased traffic while keeping old-school trails, like Cyclone, off the map and set aside for the locals.

It seems if ever there were a spot in Vermont for riders to have it all—plenty of trails, a broad range of technical levels, and a contingent of happy riders—the Mad River Valley is it. But can this really exist? It can and does in other locations, and I believe it can exist here in Vermont, too.

A shining example of one network doing it all is the Sandy Ridge Trail System in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in western Oregon, where IMBA helped the local riding community build a network of trails specifically designed for mountain biking. The network includes everything from beginner-friendly doubletrack ribbons of flow to high-end sustainable black-diamond-rated trails with rowdy roots, drops, and rock gardens. A quick image search of the place will show you what I mean.

“The response from the riding community has been hugely positive,” says Eller. He attributes the outcome to including the riders from the beginning. IMBA polled the riding community and learned that, while there was a solid network of beginner trails, Sandy Ridge was missing the intermediate and advanced riding that the locals craved. And so it was built.

Eller has a few pieces of advice for riding areas grappling with the flow issue. First, he warns not to get caught up on labels. “’Flow trail’ is a label that’s been hung on this effort to build fun purpose-built trails for a broader range of riders,” he says. But flowing trails can be beginner, intermediate, or expert. While this can be helpful terminology to describe the kind of trail being proposed, particularly when talking to landowners or the public who may not be familiar with mountain biking, a flow trail can truthfully have a wide range of appearances.

Second, Eller recommends that clubs take a system-wide approach to trail planning, rather than building one-off trails in a reactive manner. The Mad River Valley serves as a great example of a club doing just that as it expands its trail network.

Third, Eller recommends that clubs involve their local community. And therein is the solution for places like the Mad River Valley and Vermont as a whole: If you want a say in how your trails look, show up.

It’s easy to sit behind a computer and voice your complaints on social media, but that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

As Atkinson points out, it’s easy to sit behind a computer and voice your complaints on social media, but that doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Vermonters are lucky to have a robust network of trail clubs under the umbrella organization of VMBA. This high level of organization means there are club meetings, trail-work days, group rides, skills clinics, walk-throughs with landowners, advisory council meetings, board meetings, public hearings, annual meetings, and a summer festival. There are countless ways for riders to get involved, see how decisions are made, and voice their opinions.

We shouldn’t put all of our resources into any one type of trail, and no one in Vermont is advocating that we do that. A diversity of riding experiences is the goal. When our trail networks include trails that are designed to be ridden by the greatest number of users, our trails will be better supported by increasing club memberships and appealing to younger generations. More support for our trails and modern construction techniques that sustain trails into the future with fewer resources will mean clubs can be excellent trail stewards and partners for landowners and can turn their attention to building new trails. The involvement of riders who want to plan for our future by participating in their local riding scene is the only way we’re going to get there.

Sarah Galbraith of Marshfield, Vermont, is an ambassador to the Vermont Mountain Bike Association and co-president of her local mountain

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Access Action: Portland, we have a problem


Editor’s note: This Access Action piece was published in Dirt Rag #158, in August 2011.


By Greg Galliano and Melanie Strong

Situated between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Portland is cycling utopia, where cars yield to bike lanes and intersections feature green-painted bike boxes. This fine city is arguably home to the largest population of fixed gear pedaling in the country, and a thriving culture of cyclocross. For road riders, there are hundreds of miles of bike-lane lined roads to spin on inside and outside the city. However, if you’re a mountain biker in search of singletrack, you’ll need to strap your bike to your vehicle and hit the road. Although Portland is also home to the largest forested urban park in the United States—aptly named Forest Park—the majority of its 70 miles of recreational trails are closed to mountain bikes.

In 2008, Portland became the first large U.S. city to earn the Platinum Bicycling Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists. This was due in part to the more than 270 miles of on-street bike lanes, the number of businesses providing employee incentives to commute by bike, and the growing popularity of community rides like the Providence Bridge Pedal.

“Portland has had the courage to lead, to innovate, and to pursue a vision of their community that emphasizes choice, equity and quality of life,” said the League’s president, Andy Clark. “The job isn’t done, however. Platinum status isn’t forever, and it carries with it the responsibility of setting a high standard for other communities to follow. We recognize that compared to other world class cities for cycling, Portland still has a long way to go.” One of the improvements Clark and the League recommended was ensuring better access to city parks and recreation areas for off-road riding.

Shortly after the announcement, the local mountain biking community revisited an issue the city had long grappled with: how to move forward with a plan to develop singletrack riding in Forest Park. Currently, mountain bikers have access to more than 28 miles of trails in the park. But these are comprised primarily of gravel roads and fire lanes, with some of the most attractive dirt trails such as the 30-mile Wildwood Trail completely off limits to bikes. The local cycling community has long advocated for either opening some of the existing trails to bikes, or investing in the development of new trails. But with this challenge from Clark and the League, they recognized an opportunity to make some significant progress.

Their renewed efforts, however, were met with concern from the Forest Park Conservancy, the Audubon Society and local community association and neighborhood leaders. They worried that opening these trails to bikes could lead to over-crowding, and further damage trails already heavily used by hikers. A Forest Park Singletrack Advisory Committee was formed, and for the next year local community leaders from both sides of the issue discussed the pros and cons, and possible solutions. In July 2010 the Committee issued a 178-page report, stating “after many difficult meetings, the Committee presented their recommendations… the Committee did not reach consensus on any proposed trail actions.”

More than 20 community members—including members of the Northwest Trails Alliance and IMBA, as well as Portland Parks & Rec., Forest Park Conservancy, the Audubon Society—met for a year, and at the end they still couldn’t agree.

“When the committee started meeting, the direction was that the group should identify opportunities for increased biking in Forest Park by 2010,” said Tom Archer, president of the Northwest Trail Alliance, a local biking advocacy group. “But there are a lot of factors at work.” Beyond the emotionally charged nature of the issue, the committee was also working through the complicated land-use guidelines laid out by the 1995 Forest Park Management Plan. Even if the committee had agreed to some development of new trails, they would have been required to submit a land use application that would require additional time and resources. “Opponents felt like, ‘we’re not currently funding the Park appropriately, so why would we invest in new uses?’” Archer said.

According to the report, the committee recommended “a group of management actions” including the completion of a wildlife and vegetation study in the park, and a recreational user survey to get a better understanding of how the community would like to use the park.

So now what?

“The decision concluded that within the next two years the Parks Bureau would focus on the management actions and would not be building new trails or open new trail-sharing opportunities,” said Emily Hicks, policy coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation’s Commissioner Nick Fish. However, included in the Singletrack Advisory Committee’s report was a recommendation to improve two of the firelanes in Forest Park currently open to mountain bikers. “The idea,” Archer said, “is to ‘regreen’ the firelanes to give bikers more of a singletrack experience.” Portland Parks and Rec. has brought on a consultant from Vigil-Agrimis, a natural resource design agency based in Portland, to develop several scenarios for this project. His findings are expected shortly after this issue goes to press.

There are other more successful singletrack projects in the works in Portland as well. Improvements are underway along more than five miles of multi-use trail in Powell Butte, the second largest park in the city. An unused 30-acre parcel of land between two freeways called Gateway Green is being considered for development of bike trails. Plus Archer and NWTA are involved in two bike park projects, including what would become Portland’s first pumptrack bike park.

Until then, one need only take a look at any of the Portland-based cycling message boards to see that the Forest Park issue remains alive and well. Archer and others remain committed. “We will continue to engage the City of Portland, other local land managers, and stakeholders in a positive fashion, but with the expectation that they commit resources to providing recreational cycling opportunities in and around the urban core. It may take time, but it’s a worthy cause.”

His advice for locals wanting to do more: “Become part of the movement. Join Northwest Trail Alliance, come to a work party, and make your opinions known. Tell your local policymakers that we need recreational cycling opportunities closer to where you live.”

Five Fantastic Rides outside Portland

While Portlanders may not have miles of singletrack in their backyards just yet, there’s some incredible riding outside the city. So group up to save gas, and check out these local treasures.

Gales Creek/Browns Camp, Oregon

Lush fir forest, ferns and moss abound as the scenery layers green on top of green. Trails here can get muddy but drain well, making them rideable year-round. Barring occasional coastal range snow, several singletrack loops can be ridden from the Gales Campground parking lot. Be prepared to climb from the start: 3-5 miles depending on which way you choose. Look for the Sickter Lars sign when you get to the top of Story Burn. It’s a 2-mile roller coaster ride full of bermed log-overs and bridges. All trails are well-marked and easy to follow. The longer Gales Creek trail will re-open in Spring 2012. Browns/Rogers camp is the more technical singletrack within this trail system, and can also be the muddier trail. Combining Story Burn, Sickter Lars and Browns Camp loop will net you more than 20 miles of challenging, blissful Northwest singletrack. On the way home, stop at the Rogue Pub in North Plains for a tasty burger and beers.

Wilson River Trail, Oregon

This is the same section of Tillamook Forest as Gales Creek, and has a similar feel. Don’t be fooled by the shuttle option of this ride: this is not a strictly downhill trail. As soon as you exit the Elk Creek campground, the trail goes straight up a leg-searing initial climb. The first climb isn’t long, but makes up for that by being steep. Not to worry— longer climbs await. You’ll ride roughly 4,000 ft of vertical in all. The trail treats you to a series of rocky stream crossings throughout the length of the ride. If you do the ride from Elk Creek to Keenig Creek, you’ll have 20.6 miles of pain and pleasure in the saddle. Bring plenty of food and water. This can be a long day if you have a big group or any mechanical difficulties. On the way home, try McMenamins Roadhouse on Cornelius Pass Rd in Hillsboro to refuel.

Three Corner Rock, Washington

This is a challenging, but extremely fun 27 miles of out-and-back trail. From the parking lot you can go up the gravel road for 9.5 miles to the trailhead. Or, head down the road you drove in on for 100 yards, and take the trail up. We recommend the trail. Roughly sixty switchbacks await on the way out alone. This trail is very difficult from a fitness perspective, and the tight rocky switchbacks near the top will push any rider to his limit. When you get to the top, you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, and you’re only halfway through the ride! One word of caution: don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a free ride back to the car. The way back is not all downhill. Initially you descend to a creek crossing, but then it’s a gut-busting switchback climb back up and over the ridge you started on. Thankfully it’s a downhill finish to the lot, giving you a little time to revel in the pleasure, and forget the pain. Kind of… Bring a cooler and grill, as there aren’t many options for post-ride grub. If you go in the heat of the summer, take a bathing suit, as there are some amazing swimming holes right next to the trailhead.

Sandy Ridge Trail, Oregon

This new trail system adjacent to Mt. Hood National Forest is a partnership between the BLM and IMBA. It’s a biker/hiker-only trail system, and definitely has the feel of a trail built by and for mountain bikers. Bermed transitions and rollers are a highlight of the Hide and Seek section. The trails here have amazing flow. As soon as you’re done, you’ll want to ride it again. And since it’s fairly short—7 miles of singletrack when we went to press—you can do it a few times. Due to traffic and the nature of the trail, it’s best to be ridden one way downhill, riding up the private road to the top of the trail. The long-term plan for this area is to have approximately 18 miles of singletrack. This season will see the completion of an additional 7 miles of trail, as well as the development of a trailhead facility consisting of restrooms, parking spaces, pump track, warm-up trail options and visitor information. The last stage of trail development is scheduled for completion by the Spring of 2013. Stop at Joe’s Donuts in Sandy for caffeine and some pre- or post-ride carb-loading.

Post Canyon, Oregon

There’s something for everyone here. The home of the first stop of the Oregon Super D series, Post Canyon has some of the most difficult technical riding in the area. There are many large bridges and built features sure to satisfy even the most skilled riders. No matter your skill level, make sure to take a couple laps on Family Man. This section of trail consists of a series of bridges and skinnies 12”-18” off the ground to hone your skills. If you feel good on Family Man, you can head for Middle School or tackle Frankenstein. Or combine buff, twisting singletrack loops into endless miles of fun. Many trails can be tied together into one nice loop without having to do the stunts. These trails usually escape the winter snow, but can be very wet in the winter months. Post-ride, hit 6th Street Bistro in Hood River for great, fresh food and frosty beverages.

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