The Trial of Mike Vandeman

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Guest blogger Peter Frick Wright is a writer and mountain biker who has been blogging about a unique case involving Mike Vandeman, a man accused of attacking mountain bikers with a saw on trails near the UC Berkeley campus.

There's always been a subtle tension between hikers and bikers when passing each other on forest trails, but this week, in Oakland, that tension gets a whole lot less subtle.

Anti mountain bike advocate Mike Vandeman is on trial for assault, battery and vandalism. There are six counts stemming from altercations with four victims over nearly a year. In the most recent incident, which lead to his arrest, he's accused of hitting a rider in the chest with a pruning saw as the biker went by.

Vandeman has long been a scourge on mountain biking forums—he has a Ph.D. in psychology and is particularly good at eliciting responses—but in the past he engaged only through comments and academic papers that he posted on his website.

Now it seems, his crusade is no longer strictly virtual.

Following his arrest, Vandeman and I corresponded over email, but I didn't make much progress figuring who he is and what makes him tick. Instead of insight into why he became obsessed with mountain bikes, he gave me what I've come to learn are the same stock lines and tired arguments that he trots out each time someone asks. So I'm in Oakland this week, attending his trial.

In watching the proceedings so far, it's become clear that the case is not as cut-and-dry as it first seemed. The alleged victims were all riding on restricted trails, which may hold some sway with the jury, and the defense is trying to portray the bikers as having colluded and conspired to charge Vandeman with a crime—almost as sexy and captivating a storyline as the idea of a violent offensive against knobby tires.

Two weeks ago, the first time this case went to trial, overly prejudicial testimony by a mountain biker compromised the jury and caused a mistrial after two witnesses.

Now, court is back in session and everyone is back trying to untangle the web of accusations and conspiracies and piece together what really happened.

How this will affect larger trail-use debates in the Bay area remains to be seen. Vandeman doesn't hold any official positions or seem to have much influence outside of his ability to inspire online backlash, but right now he is the most visible symbol of a very active contingent of hikers in Berkeley and Oakland who are defending their trails and trying to keep bikes off their turf.

A guilty verdict erodes the argument that bikes are the source of all evil on trails, not guilty makes the bikers look like young thugs picking on an old man. The verdict in this trial, whatever it is, will not provide an answer to this hiker/biker trail use debate, but it will be a statement. And it will not be subtle. 

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