Access: Flood becomes catalyst for a beautiful partnership

Words by Ben Davis, photos by Eddie Clark

Being told “no” and “that’ll never happen” and “you’re wasting your time” several times a day is a uniquely deflating experience. You’re sharing an idea—a great idea, an innovative whopper of an idea—with friends and decision makers and community leaders. You’ve got energy and passion in your voice and, somewhere around the third or fourth minute of your pitch, they start to fidget. They look away in an effort to let you finish. They’re trying to be patient while deciding how they’re going to say some version of this crappy phrase: “I think it’s a great idea but, no offense, it’s never going to happen.”

And, if it weren’t for a flood, that phrase would be the end of this particular story.

Golden, Colorado, is a mountain biker’s town. With more than a hundred miles of trails accessible from our main street and five solid local breweries to return to, this town loves its two-wheeled fun. Local trails with steep, technical descents like Apex, Enchanted Forest, Chimney Gulch and Mustang require devotion and skill from locals notching four to five rides a week.

And yet, riders and land managers have had a rough run over the years. Mountain bikers carry the same reputation and baggage that skateboarders have dragged around behind them for the past 30 years. We’re a problem meant to be contained. We’re disrespectful jerks who don’t care how badly we impact other trail users during our rides.

Up until a few years ago, our local land managers could’ve written that last bit. Our trails are managed by Jefferson County Open Space (JCOS), a 40-plus-year-old organization that was built on the back of a never-ending sales tax. Without a sunset on their funding, JCOS is able to consistently fund 236 miles of trails without any real need for volunteer support or fundraising. On the plus side, they’ve always been a team that believes—for the most part—their trails are for everyone. Riders, equestrians and hikers are all welcome. On the downside, they maintain their trails that way: long straight run-outs that create confrontations between bikes rolling in at 25 mph on top of hikers and horses. And, unfortunately, efforts to update their trail designs weren’t well-received.

And then the skies opened up and washed away the status quo, literally.

In 2013 a slow-moving cold front stalled out along the Front Range and poured 17 inches of water—nearly the equivalent of our average annual rainfall—on Front Range towns. Lyons and Boulder took the brunt of it, with wrecked houses and damaged roads. In Golden, our trails were blown out and many were closed indefinitely.

Losing a backyard trail is brutal. It’s a relationship between rider and root that is just shy of a personal friendship. Each rock, each turn, is a touchstone in our lives around which we grow and train and think through life’s questions and daily challenges. Needless to say, the closures really sucked.

After impatiently waiting a few months for JCOS to tackle the damage, a few locals set out to fix it ourselves. Al Head, my neighbor and bike guru—a former bike mechanic and college professor—and I started asking how we could help, offering our time and muscle at the very least.

Working with JCOS staff, we built relationships with their team and requested a few fundamental changes to their volunteer management. First, we asked for some basic training and the freedom to work on the trail in our spare time instead of on their schedule. Most of us are parents of young kids, and a full Saturday away is a big ask we tend to reserve for weekends in Moab or Fruita. But a few hours each week, well, that was easy.

Then we asked for the freedom to rebuild the trail with a bit more flow and chunk, making for a more interesting ride and a way to slow riders down to reduce conflicts with other users. It didn’t happen overnight, but with many meetings and conversations over weeks and months. And with each hour spent on the trail, demonstrating our commitment to a healthy park system, our relationships with JCOS staff grew deeper and more trusting. Tom Hoby, director of JCOS, began to openly discuss ways to improve the trails and incorporate riders into their planning sessions.

That fall, our trails were reopened with a hundred new dirt-worshipping volunteers devoting a thousand hours in the process.

Right around then, the fun really began.

Primed by our recent successes, we approached Hoby and offered to make the same effort next year if they closed their trails for a mountain bike race. Keep in mind that in the history of JCOS, it had never closed trails for any user group, much less for a bunch of mountain bikers. This was a far-out request, and one that every single person in our community said would simply never happen. By this time, we’d heard “no” 100 percent more than we’d heard “yes.”

The only “yes” that mattered was the one Hoby gave us a few weeks later, telling us that he was willing to take this risk because of the hard work and relationships that we’d built throughout the previous year.

Since the lift was too heavy for the two of us, Jen Barbour, executive director of Team Evergreen, and Mike Melanson joined Head and me to build a trail stewardship program and bike race called the Golden Giddyup, an annual event that celebrates our unique community of trail builders and riders.

Our first event, on September 2016, saw 450 riders tackling our unique “endurondo” format: three timed climbs and three timed descents over 27 miles and 3,500 feet. This year REI has joined our small group of sponsors with founding sponsor Yeti Cycles and Laws Whiskey rounding out our top three supporters. Earth Treks, Skratch Labs, Feedback Sports and Jeffco Outdoors Foundation are also on the team, helping the Giddyup raise more than $60,000 for trail stewardship efforts this year. It doesn’t hurt that Laws Whiskey donates a barrel of their pricey, perfect whiskey to riders for a finish-line treat.

And our friends at JCOS—much to our mutual surprise—couldn’t be greater partners. Their investment in our success by taking a risk on a historically troublesome trail user group has led to an influx of new volunteers and community support. With their expertise as land managers at the core of our training, the Giddyup now employs a professional trail builder managing weekly stewardship efforts with benefits that are seen throughout Golden trails.

So, back to that opening statement about hearing “no” over and over again. The status quo isn’t permanent. Obstacles in the path can be overcome with the right effort and approach and, in my opinion, it all starts with relationships. We began building trust with our land managers once they saw us digging into the problem with our shovels. They saw us care enough to work for a solution. And that trust has grown deeper and more vibrant each year. They’re fans of ours, and the feeling is mutual.

Succeeding where others have repeatedly failed, well, that is a uniquely inflating experience as worthwhile as a sunrise summit on your backyard trail. Mountain biking is challenging both mentally and physically, but through that effort we learn how to succeed tomorrow where we failed yesterday.