What Do Mountain Bikers Owe Hikers?
Our ethics columnist on the right and wrong way to share the trail this summer
Dear Sundog: I mountain-bike solo a lot, and when encountering hikers, they almost always ask, “How many?” Do I always need to blurt out “Just me” every time I see one? If I just passed a group of bikers, should I add them to my count so I’m not haunted by saying “Just me” when the hikers encounter the next biker and curse me under their breath for misstating the actual number? What if I’m in a group of bikers—but out front by ten minutes—and say “Three more,” and they end up standing on the side of the trail for ten minutes waiting for the next biker, which delays them getting over the ridge, and they become trapped in a thunderstorm, where they curse me for not giving them the other bikers’ distances and times? —Just Me
Dear Just Me: Now and then, when old Sundog wrestles with the nagging questions of midlife—Don’t I deserve a new truck? Why do I always have to do the dishes?—he sits on the couch before the Guru (or, in the age of pandemic, gets on a Zoom call with the Guru) and asks direction. The Guru asks: “What are your deeper needs, Sundog?”
In your case, Just Me, I sense deeper needs bubbling beneath the anxiety produced by recreating on mixed-use trails. But first let’s address the surface needs of this situation. Sundog has been on both sides of such an encounter, and according to the venerable who-yields-to-whom trail signs, it’s the biker that should be yielding to the hiker. In other words, Just Me, instead of shouting a courtesy to incoming humans, we should be dismounting and stepping off the trail till they pass. But this rule makes no sense! It must have been invented by someone who has never actually hiked or biked on singletrack. Walkers can get off the trail in a single step, while bikers have to dismount and rut into nearby shrubs and cacti. Groups of cyclists doing this all day are not only unwieldy but will erode the trail.
It seems to Sundog that this new habit of bikers announcing, “Three of us!” is a shorthand acknowledgement that, No, we’re not going to follow official etiquette and get off our goddamn bikes, but we want to appear helpful even as we flaunt the rules. And it does make it marginally easier on the pedestrian to simply step off the trail once instead of three times for each hazard who pedals past.
Some hikers may indeed consider this a courtesy, but an equal number—Sundog included—find it irritating, or as kids today might say, an act of performative etiquette. What’s more, if my hike is already impinged by sprockets, I don’t really need them to quantify their annoyance as if doing me a grand favor. What I really want is silence.
So, no, Just Me, you don’t have to volunteer your numbers to anyone. If they ask, then of course tell them. It’s not your job to announce the presence of another pod behind you. But also be aware that when a hiker asks you, “How many?” what they mean is, “You know you’re supposed to get off that ridiculous contraption and let me pass, and I know that you know it, and by asking you this question I’m simultaneously establishing myself as the ethically superior rule-abiding person, as well as forcing you to do a little math in your head as a small punishment. Oh, and by the way, ten years ago there were no bikers on this trail at all, asshole.” If said hiker becomes so attached to their position of righteousness that they stand paralyzed for ten minutes as the storm clouds gather, that’s on them, not you.
Now let’s address your deeper needs. It sounds like what you really want, Just Me, is a bike trail with no hikers, to not have to navigate their passive-aggressive shaming nor plumb the acute neuroses that it triggers in you. Similarly, the hiker’s deeper needs include a trail devoid of bikers and to grieve the loss of their once secluded nook that’s now overrun by panting jocks blurting, “Six of us!” at every switchback. In effect, the How Many? Just Me! dance is a miniature Cold War, an escalation of veiled hostilities toward a fight nobody wants. What we really crave, Sundog proposes, is an inkling of humanity, a moment of shared wonder at our good fortune to both be on this trail, on this planet, at this moment.
What to do? Number one: you might consider a dedicated bike trail, where this conundrum can be avoided. Failing that, Sundog suggests number two: avoid the breathless, flyby, military-style grunting of logistical information. Instead, hit the brakes till you reach molasses speed, establish eye contact, then pick a phrase from the catalog of normal English, perhaps, “Have a nice walk” or “Did you see that hawk?” or “Thank you,” which does double duty as it acknowledges that the hiker has already shown kindness by stepping aside. If your level of radness plus the sheer number of hiker obstacles means losing your flow and not having any fun, please refer back to number one.