This Is Why Mountain Bikers Can’t Have Nice Things
Bad behavior might be jeopardizing access to Kingdom Trails, one of the premier networks on the East Coast. Here's what we can learn from it.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Some years back I visited Gothenburg, Sweden, and my host took me to ride some trails in a park just a short pedal from the city center. “Is this even legal?” I asked incredulously, imagining how much trouble I’d be in were I to steer my bicycle off the pavement in Central Park, even briefly. He then explained to me the Swedish concept of freedom to roam, or allemansrätten—literally “the everyman’s rights”—by which the constitution entitles people to walk, cycle, ski, and camp on most open land, regardless of whether it’s public or private.
It doesn’t work that way here in America, where mountain bike access to parkland is tightly regulated, and where public access of any kind to private land is entirely at the landowner’s discretion. One outstanding example of landowner largesse is Kingdom Trails in northeastern Vermont, which features over 100 miles of non-motorized trails “for all seasons and abilities,” and is spread across the properties of 97 private landowners, all of whom generously allow the public access to their land for a variety of uses, including mountain biking. Run by the non-profit Kingdom Trails Association (KTA), it’s become one of the premier recreational trail networks in the Northeast. A $15 one-day membership fee (or $75 annually) nets you access to a famously well-groomed and signed system that attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, 84 percent of whom come from out of state, and all of whom bring tourism dollars. Over the past 20 years, the trails have transformed the town of East Burke, which once attracted mostly skiers and leaf-peepers, and turned what was once the off-season into the peak season.
This past December, however, three landowners on Darling Hill informed KTA that they would no longer allow mountain bikers to use their property. “While the success of the trails has brought meaningful economic benefit to the area,” stated KTA on its website, “challenges and tension points exist around traffic, congestion and pedestrian safety of residents and visitors alike.” The landowners will continue to allow Nordic skiers, snowshoers, runners, hikers and horseback riders to access their property.
News of the closure hit the mountain biking community hard. Not only will the new restrictions affect a number of popular trails, but Darling Hill’s central location means they will also complicate bike access to other portions of the network. So why would the landowners do this after 25 years, given the success of the trails network and the tremendous windfall it has brought to the region? (Kingdom Trails estimates that visitors bring in $10 million a year, which isn’t exactly small change considering the four towns surrounding the network—East Haven, Burke, Lyndon, and Kirby—have a total population of under 10,000 people.)
While the landowners themselves remained silent in the local media, internet speculation as to their motivations ran rampant, and one Facebook poster who also happened to be part of a Darling Hill landowning family had this to say:
The owners who have locked out bikers have had a lot of problems with bikers while riding their horses. They are beyond frustrated at the lack of common courtesy they are extended on their own land. To be honest we are too. There’s a percentage of bikers who just don’t get it.
I reached out to the poster, Kurt Hansbury, whose family has owned property on Darling Hill for around 35 years. Hansbury runs the chapel at Pavilion in the Pines, which hosts weddings and other events. He’s also a mountain biker who loves what Kingdom Trails has done for the area. His family’s land is currently open to mountain bikers and his goal is to keep it that way; when we spoke he informed me that he’d soon be walking the property “to put in additional trails to create better flow and access” for riders in the wake of the closures.
While the increasing popularity of Kingdom Trails as a summer mountain biking destination presents numerous challenges to locals such as traffic and people camping in their cars, Hansbury says the reason these landowners ultimately decided to revoke bicycle access to their property was rider behavior. Hansbury himself has had problems with cyclists disregarding posted signs and disrupting his events. And while his sister benefits directly from the mountain biker economy as the owner of the Wildflower Inn; his brother, who keeps cows, has had similar problems. “It’s a small percentage of riders that do it,” Hansbury acknowledges. But he doesn’t think these riders understand that, despite the membership fee Kingdom Trails charges its users, there’s no “return” for property owners who make their land available to visitors; rather, they do it simply because they see it as a good use of the acreage and something that benefits the area. So when a mountain biker flying along a trail at 25mph tells someone on horseback to “get off the trails”—and that horseback rider just happens to be the landowner, as Hansbury recounts by way of example—it’s an egregious violation of that landowner’s good faith, and one that has an outsized impact.
“It’s their right, their property,” says the executive director of KTA, Abby Long, about of the landowners who have revoked access. “We all must respect their wish.” She also cites a USDA grant for a Network Feasibility and Infrastructure Study that will help Kingdom Trails address the burden that the increasing number of visitors is placing on the rural infrastructure. (According to Long, in 2016 the trails received 94,000 visits, a number that grew to 135,000 in 2019.) “If we can show Kingdom Trails is making amends and relieving pressures,” says Long, “we can use that report to go forth and solve” these issues. Overall, she is “extremely hopeful,” and emphasizes that many miles of trails remain open to mountain bikers.
And while that new bike may smooth out the terrain or help you rail that corner, no amount of suspension is going to help you with the most technical obstacle of all: human interaction.
There is also reason to be hopeful in the timing of the landowners’ decision, which came during the off-season. “Maybe it’s a trial,” allows Hansbury. However, the week after we spoke, Hansbury sent me photos of the “Trails Closed Beyond This Point” signs Kingdom Trails had put up—along with tire tracks in the snow clearly indicating that riders are either disregarding them or just missing them entirely.
It’s easy to mock the sorts of people who characterize cyclists as scofflaws who don’t follow the rules (especially since it’s largely not true), and if you’ve ever attended a public meeting about a new bike lane or similar proposal you’ve no doubt heard such people trot out their “naughty biker” anecdotes in order to argue against it. When it comes to framing public policy and building infrastructure, such arguments are not worthy of consideration. Municipalities have an obligation to make their roads safe and accessible to all users, even if some kid on a fixie ran a light once and gave someone the finger.
But mountain biking has less in common with cycling for transportation than it does with skiing or hunting or wingsuit flying or anything else we do mostly for recreation. As such, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect practitioners to meet a certain standard of deportment that goes beyond basic safety. In addition, consider that out on the roads you may be a “vulnerable user,” but on the singletrack you’re arguably the most dangerous user (likely to be traveling at the highest speeds), so there’s never an excuse for getting carried away on your $8,000 shred sled and acting like Kramer at the dojo. Follow basic trail etiquette.
Hansbury has simple advice for anybody who visits Kingdom Trails to ride: pretend anyone you encounter runs the property. This applies equally to any trail, including those on public land, where mountain bike access is just as tenuous and 180 miles of singletrack can go offline as quickly as you can actuate your dropper post. In fact, even when you don’t think you’re being watched, you are: in Los Altos Hills, California, after complaints about reckless riders, the city finally banned mountain bikes from one of its parks after reviewing rider speeds on Strava.
To the casual observer or the overenthusiastic novice, mountain biking may appear to be all about the shred, and there’s not a whole lot in the marketing materials to counteract that impression. What the more seasoned riders understand is that the real measure of a good rider isn’t how fast you go or how much air you get; rather, it’s how you carry yourself on the trail. The very best mountain bikers work hard to transform land for the better and create new places to ride, whereas the worst ones undermine all that with just a fraction of the effort. And while that new bike may smooth out the terrain or help you rail that corner, no amount of suspension is going to help you with the most technical obstacle of all: human interaction.
If riders don’t work on honing that skill set, there are going to be a lot more “No Bikes Beyond This Point” notices.