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Stop F*$^ing Up Our Trails

Either learn to ride difficult passages of singletrack or simply walk them. But please stop ruining the challenges for everyone with cheater stones and shortcuts.

Ben Duke mountain biking the Slickrock Trail in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, Moab, Utah. (Louis Arevalo/Tandem)
ben duke

Either learn to ride difficult passages of singletrack or simply walk them. But please stop ruining the challenges for everyone with cheater stones and shortcuts.

Mike Curiak, a friend of mine who lives in Grand Junction, recently wrote a blog about a Fruita, Colorado-area trail called Moore Fun. Because of the line the trail takes, up and over a high ridge between two low spots, Moore Fun is technical and physical, with slow-speed turns, balancey squeezes, and legitimately scary step-ups and step-downs. Every move is rideable, but the riding is so precise and precarious that you’re as likely to walk any given spot on any given day. That has earned Moore Fun the reputation as one of the most challenging trails in the area, which some love (“Best trail in Loma,” one rider commented on and others do not (“More hassle than fun,” wrote another, who described walking long stretches and breaking a pedal).

But Moore Fun’s fearsome reputation is in jeopardy. According to Curiak and other locals, some riders have begun to shortcut corners, stack rocks to diminish drops and steps, and generally find ways to avoid obstacles. “Moore fun is being dumbed down, sanitized,” Curiak explains. “Several of the marquee moves now have go-arounds, or ramps, or have been butchered such that a unique, well-designed, engaging move is now a straight line with zero challenge.” 

Though this might seem like an esoteric conflict between crusty locals in some far-off corner, the debate over Moore Fun typifies a trend I’ve seen in riding centers around the country toward flow trails, shortcuts, and easier lines. The city of Sedona, for instance, has struggled in certain places to keep riders from shortcutting switchbacks and narrowing corners. “I think it’s partly the Strava effect,” Mike Raney, owner of the bike shop Over the Edge Sedona, told me last year when we came upon some cut corners on a drop trail called Brewer. “Some people are chasing KOMs on descents, and the fastest lines will always be the straightest one between two points. But if you do that, you’re not even riding the trail.”

I’ve seen some of that on trails in my hometown of Santa Fe. A couple of years ago, the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) helped with the construction of a flow trail called Hustle and Flow at the La Tierra Trails, our local after-work system. At first, it was a super playful ride, with bermed corners, lots of rollers for pumping, and some small tabletops and doubles. But as more people have ridden it, a side trail pretty much cuts out every feature on Hustle and Flow, meaning you can burn through it without negotiating a single obstacle. Recently, out of curiosity, I rode the new ride-around line and discovered that I could cover the Hustle and Flow in almost 10 percent less time than I ever had. I discarded that track—to me, times on Hustle and Flow should only count if you ride the actual line—but the experience was insightful.

However, it’s not only about speed and Strava. In Santa Fe, we have very few technical trails, and I have long cherished the ones that are here because they allow me to challenge myself. But over the years, even some of the few hard moves we have are diminishing. The one legitimately challenging rock step-up at the base of the Winsor Trail now has a smooth ride-around on the right and a rut behind the rock from side traffic that basically excludes, and in some ways diminishes, the original challenge. A climb up a horrendously steep pitch on the Chamisa trail that once required a combination of power and finesse to negotiate a rock rib right at the crux, is now nothing but an easy pedal up courtesy of all the riders that decided to bypass the rocks. And almost every time I descend Bear Wallow these days, I find that the tricky little series of rock ribs that constitutes the only obstacle in miles of riding is filled with cheater stones to smooth it out. Yes, I stop every time and remove them. But the upshot here, as on Moore Fun, is that riders who maybe don’t have the ability for these technical bits are simply steamrolling them down to their level.

It must stop. Sure, you can ride around, but that ruins it for everyone. This is no different than the climbing debate over chipping back in the early ‘90s, when some rock climbers were creating holds on routes that they deemed otherwise unclimbable. It’s a good thing the practice was shunned because if we’d mowed down all the challenges to the level of that time, when the hardest routes were in the 5.13s, we would have ruined the future for today’s climbers, who are now on the cusp of 5.16. Similarly, when someone stacks cheater stones and creates ride-arounds, they are destroying a resource.

Richard Edwards, an IMBA Trail Solutions Director of Construction and Operations, says a host of variables from terrain and local ethics to the improvements of modern bikes contribute to trails morphing, but the biggest factor is mountain biking’s changing culture. “The very soul of the sport has changed in the last decade. We have made mountain biking appeal to everybody, almost akin to baseball or soccer. That has driven a huge demand for trails that are easy entry and accessible,” Edwards explains. “The challenge becomes how we can build and maintain trails that both serve newcomers but still offer challenges.” On new constructions, IMBA often accomplishes this by building a ride-around line well away from technical obstacles so that both novices and experts alike can enjoy the experience without affecting one another. Edwards stresses that no one should make changes to a trail unless they are the land manager. “Our official position has always been to keep singletrack single,” says Edwards. “The other part of it is, you have to remember not to let your own skill level dictate other peoples’ opportunities.” If you make a line easier, he says, you’re taking away from someone else’s ability to learn and grow and improve as a rider.

That brings us back to Moore Fun, which, truth be told, is a ride for experts and has never had ride-arounds or options—nor should it. “When it was built, we set out to create something that, in terms of sustained technical, was in a class of its own,” says Chris Muhr, the vice president of Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA) who helped to build Moore Fun two decades ago. “It’s a hard, brutal ride, and it was intended as such. For really good riders and those who don’t mind some punishment, it’s fun. But you have to be good and you have to be in the zone. If you’re not riding well, it’s punishing.” There are many trails in the Fruita network that cater to riders after more flowing, less technical rides, he points out. “We totally understand the need to build for the full range of riders. We approach trail systems like ski resorts, with 10-20 percent green runs, 10-20 percent black runs, and the majority of runs in the blue, intermediate zone,” he says. “But a ski resort doesn’t groom its chutes and cliffs so everyone can ski them. If the chutes are above your skill level, you just go ski elsewhere.”

I rode Moore Fun for the first time shortly after it was built, and though I was on a fully rigid steel bike, and though I wasn’t good enough for half the moves up there, I still loved the challenge and didn’t mind getting off my bike to walk through sections that I couldn’t ride. I’ve ridden Moore Fun a few more times in the years since, and as my ability has improved and my bikes have become more forgiving, I’ve cleared more and more of the obstacles. But I’m nowhere near able to clean the whole thing, a fact that makes me happy. Like the consolation of preserved wilderness, it’s comforting to know that the next time I go to Fruita, there will be a ride waiting to challenge me.

Or at least I hope it will be. Tech trails are vanishing fast, and if we value the challenge we as a community must stand up for it. “It comes to this,” says Mike Curiak, “Elevate yourself to the level of the trail. Don't bring the trail down to your level. Can't ride it? No biggie: walk it this time. Next time, give a few of the moves a try. The time after that, try 'em twice. Eventually, you might put it together.”

And even if you don’t, there’s gratification in the simple act of trying.

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