Something’s rotten in the woods, and it’s not a dead badger.
I’ve noticed recently that some of my local trails are looking extremely sorry for themselves, particularly some of the steeper, more challenging ones. When I started riding, we usually left these well alone for much of the year, but recently it seems like they’ve become fair game in all weathers. What were once narrow ribbons of dirt are becoming more like the aftermath of a very contained landslide, with proliferating lines, iffy attempts at building jumps, and massive ruts.
I’m not sure what the cause of this is – you probably have your own theories. It might be down to advances in bikes. Gone are the days where you’d spend winter bumbling around the same few flat trails on a bike with no gears or suspension, hoping that your rock-hard skinny mud tyres wouldn’t try and kill you on a root. It might also be down to changing cultures and expectations.
The US-style “don’t hurt the dirt” ethic, where you hang up your bike for a bit after heavy rain, has been largely forgotten, with video after video showing riders smashing through turns in damp forests, complete with the obligatory money shots of loam. It might be down to your local trail fairies (how I hate that term) being trapped in jars temporarily. Or they might just have reached the end of their natural lifespan. But it’s causing us some headaches.
This is a longer form article than 90% of the internet these days, so let’s try and get a bit more subtle than the usual I’m-right-you’re-wrong business. All human activity has an impact, and the impact of mountain biking is tiny compared to an open cast mine or a clear cut forest, so why do the folk in green sweaters who look after these places for a living get so irate about it?
First off, there are degrees of damage. Riding one bike through a woodland or over a common will not have much impact, as one might expect from an activity that is basically rolling over the landscape on a pair of soft rubber cushions. But add in some rain, repetition, and a big dose of back brake, and suddenly you can be looking at a 2.35-inch scar on the landscape that is obviously caused by bikes.
At this point, there’s no point directing someone to an academic study showing how little damage mountain bikes cause compared to other user groups, unless you have an enquiring mind and want to see what happens when a ranger gets really angry.
Stick a spade in the ground, and things get even worse.
Stick a spade in the ground, and things get even worse. Riding where you shouldn’t is a fleeting transgression; modifying the landscape to suit your riding is a statement of intent. From a land manager’s point of view, it’s the difference between finding a wasp in your house and finding a nest of the blighters in your attic, and those random humps made from mud and sticks are a sign that it’s time to stop dealing with a problem by tutting, and start flicking through the Yellow Pages for “Bulldozer Hire”.
Personally I find the Cult of the Crap Jump one of the most annoying forms of trail abuse. Man-made berms and jumps are not mandatory for mountain biking, and the chances are that your town has a plentiful supply of them at its BMX track, but some people still feel the urge to shoehorn them into the woods, like the Cargo Cults of Melanesia, erecting ceremonial structures to please the Gods of Rad.
At its worst, building can be a form of territorial pissing – “See that jump? We made this trail!” And the Gods of Rad help you if you start skimming off the undergrowth to build your new line, or cutting down trees. For all the effect it will have on your public reputation, you might as well build a trail by kicking a baby in the face.
Location is key, too. Woodland isn’t just woodland. Some of it is working forest which will be clear felled in a few years – the tree equivalent of a field of wheat. Some is just the product of ignoring a bit of land for a few years, letting the saplings march in and do what trees do. And some is much, much older, built up over hundreds or sometimes thousands of years.
Think of an idealised English woodland, carpeted with the bluebells that look so nice in your Instagram photos, and you’re probably thinking of the latter. If you are messing with the bluebell sort of woodland, or a scruffy-looking meadow with lots of weird flowers, expect people to mess with you. Not out of vindictiveness, but because land managers have a legal duty to preserve certain types of countryside, which can be enforced by fines, withdrawal of funding, and all sorts of heavy stuff. Your fun is not their priority.
Now as someone who has enjoyed dabbling on Welsh DH courses over the years, I think it’s fine for some trails to be chopped-up rooty death-fests, but demand for these is small within mountain biking, and minuscule in the world of outdoor recreation. Land managers have nothing to lose by shutting them down. Often they can point to mountain biking facilities nearby which already have way more people enjoying them than your shonky North Shore made from pallets and bailer twine.
Do your research first (Natural England’s website and the DEFRA magic map are handy for this, as are those large laminated boards saying NATURE RESERVE).
Remember that the way cycling is marketed can be very superficial, and no-one ever makes videos of sweet trails being chainsawed because building and riding got out of control.
Remember that we are not automatically unwelcome wherever we ride, and that often there are very good reasons for being told to sling your hook.
And if you’re one of those people who says “I don’t care, I’ll just find somewhere else”, please feel free to do this now, before you spoil everyone else’s fun.