Bicycling: Straighten Up and Ride Right

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Bicycling: Straighten Up and Ride Right

The National Mountain Bike Patrol aims to help fat-tire riders buff a tarnished image
By Florence Williams

Ross Blasman hates to admit it, but he looks like a cop, and when the balding, 200-pound Californian tells a kid to get his StumpJumper off a trail, the kid usually listens.

"It's less about law enforcement than talking to people reasonably," says Blasman, 44, who heads a local mountain-bike-patrol unit in the Santa Monica Mountains. "I start out with the universal, 'Hi, cool bike!' And then I tell them to go slow or whatever." When that fails, Blasman admits, a good set of leather lungs comes in handy, too.

For the past year, Blasman has taken his Gentle Ben act on the road, training volunteers for the new National Mountain Bike Patrol. Sponsored jointly by the National Off-Road Bicycle Association--an industry group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that has fronted most of the patrol's $5,000 start-up--and the National Ski Patrol, the official rock-shocking cavalry debuts this spring on the jammed trails of Moab, Utah. By next year, the 22-person units will hit six other hot spots, including Durango, Colorado, and Mount Snow, Vermont. Patrollers, wielding nothing more than a walkie-talkie, an official jersey, and a fanny pack emblazoned with a first-aid cross, won't be able to make arrests, but like Blasman, they can strongly advise, rumble, and simply loom.

Bike-advocacy groups admit that the goal of it all is part good neighbor, part survival. As mountain biking has boomed, so has the sport's bad rep for damaging trails, causing accidents, and spawning what Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the Boulder, Colorado-based International Mountain Bicycling Association, calls "testosterone-poisoned, hormonally enraged teenagers who give us a bad name." In Moab, where more than 100,000 riders annually hit the famous Slick Rock Trail, visiting bikers have made themselves about as welcome as a flesh-eating virus. During Easter weekend in 1993, 500 bikers and hikers camping in an overcrowded area called the Pit started a riot, lighting bonfires, uprooting trees, and hurling beer bottles and rocks.

As the episode suggests, bikers aren't the only troublemakers, but for now the onus is on them. Blumenthal estimates that more than 10,000 miles of trails have been shut down to mountain bikes nationwide. "Closing trails is a knee-jerk reaction," he says, "when a little peer pressure and cajoling might change behavior."

Jim Tolley, past-president of the Berkeley-based Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay, concurs, noting that since a local band of uniformed patrollers recently began cycling through Anthony Chabot Regional Park in Oakland, complaints against bikers have dropped 50 percent. In Moab, officials hope the medically trained patrollers will also help lower the tab for aiding stranded or injured riders, which has run as high as $90,000 a year. "If patrollers did nothing more than tell them to wear helmets and sunscreen, that would help," says Kent Green, head of Moab's search-and-rescue team.

Not everyone is optimistic. Bill Hedden, a Moab city councilman, wonders whether the patrollers have sufficient clout. "Some of these mountain bikers won't listen to the sheriff," he says. "Why would they listen to a guy with a first-aid kit?" Consistent with his worries, a few off-roaders are muttering about the thought of speed traps behind every juniper. "This is an adrenaline sport," says 23-year-old Rob Merton, a rider from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. "I like to go fast, and I'm good at it. What do they want, to turn us all into mosey-along tourists?"

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