When you think of mountain biking, do you envision escaping from the hustle and bustle of our hectic daily lives? Do you use riding as a way to avoid civilization to be alone or perhaps spend time with a few close friends sharing a weekend ride together? I think many mountain bikers have this idea of how a ride should be, but when it comes to our beautiful sport, there is growing trend in the mountain bike scene that is turning our local mountain bike trails into a clogged freeway: large group rides.
It’s not about pack riding
Mountain biking is an organic sport, born out of an idea a few guys in Northern California had to take cruiser bikes, tinker with them and adapt them to the rigors of off-road riding. The sport took off from there, becoming “mainstream” in the 1990s but has always been viewed as the rebellious cousin of road riding and a counter-culture to the road scene. A sport that is not about pack riding or large group rides like road riding but more about being a lone warrior or riding with two or three other lone warriors.
Mountain bikers are generally robust, adventurous thrill seekers that love the challenges that the outdoors has to offer. We are independent, and like the solitude and freedom, mountain biking has to offer. Mountain biking has always been labeled as a sport that is leaning towards the opposite of road riding, providing an independent and a peaceful solo counterpart to a sometimes overcrowded and chaotic road scene. After a long day of sitting in meetings, talking on phones, and meeting deadlines, it is nice to be able to disconnect, be alone, and regain a sense of solitude and decompress. So when I show up to one of my favorite riding areas for a relaxing afternoon on my bike, the last thing I want is to battle large, unsanctioned, group rides in parks that explicitly cannot support these massive rides.
You might miss out on seeing this little guy on an overcrowded trail.
Easier to get the right of way in a large group
Unfortunately, in many urban areas, large group rides are becoming a big issue at various riding spots. One local park I ride in particular can see three or four large groups, each composed of fifteen plus riders on any summer weeknight. This park is located within close proximity to the city near significant commute routes. Therefore it is a favorite place to stop on the way home in the spring and summer as well as weekends. Several local organized mountain bike groups have chosen this site as an unofficial place to gather for large group bike rides. Compounding the issue is that this park consists of only 535 acres of trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, it is quick to become congested and in no way can support large group rides. To me, the definition of a large group of riders is seven or more, which I feel is the threshold for when a group becomes a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against group riding at all, but I do think that packs larger than seven are just too big and they should be broken up into smaller, more manageable categories. When local parks and preserves opened their trails to mountain bikers, I don’t think they envisioned having the park overtaken by large group outings.
Not always respectful of other trail users
The popularity of this particular park for horses makes it a poor choice for these large groups of riders that frequent the preserve. We all know that horses can sometimes be spooked thus a large group of riders can make a horse uneasy. Furthermore, it is unfair for a horseback rider, hiker or other trail users to have to stop at the top of a trail for an extended period of time to wait for long trains of mountain bikers to file by slowly.
Think about it: you’re standing on the edge of a trail with a downslope on one side and trees on the other holding onto a horse which is rapidly getting impatient and nervous as riders file by for minutes on end. This type of scenario is just adding to that never-ending perception that mountain bikers are taking over the trails and not respecting other trail users. This is not what we need, period. Sometimes these large groups of riders do not yield to the individual or small group riders, so one or two pedalers are forced to wait – occasionally several minutes – for everyone to finish the trail section.
Many of the large groups I run into act as if they are a sanctioned event and have filed permits to have the trails to themselves for a certain amount of time. Sometimes human nature can trend towards the “there is strength in numbers” behavior, so perhaps it’s easier to get the right away or take control of the trails when you’re in a large group. I have also noticed that these groups consist of extremely varied levels of riders, which adds to the frustration of dealing with them. The stronger riders will reach the trailhead first, with less fit mountain bikers at the rear of the group. This variation of skill levels helps exaggerate the long train of riders. Moreover, many of these groups contain a fair number of beginners or newbies so teaching these new riders that they can push their way through the trails with no regards to the established “right of way rules” is not proper trail etiquette.
One of the main reasons large mountain bike groups are so popular on our trails is the use of online social networking. Massive group lists or online communities can be easily created to organize and broadcast rides, and someone can post or twitter about a ride thus 40 people will show up. Before social media, mountain bike group rides were spread by word of mouth. Therefore it was harder to broadcast about a ride so as a result, fewer riders would show up. Now the announcement of a mountain bike ride can be heard and seen globally.
The pains of yielding to a large group
Many other parks I frequent are suffering a similar fate. My friend and I were riding one bright sunny morning making our way to the top of a singletrack when we happened upon a large group of mountain bikers filing up the downhill we wanted to blast down. The first two riders informed us that there were several riders picking their way to the top Well, a two to three-minute wait turned into a fifteen-minute wait as rider after rider slowly made their way toward us. My friend and I were beginning to get irritated by the whole situation, and we started to wonder who the heck they were. I asked the rider who appeared to be the leader of the group about who they were, and he replied “we are the so and so mountain biking group” which I recognized as one of the local meetup groups online.
I started to become more and more frustrated when I realized that this was a huge group of riders in an open space preserve full of other users, and they were treating the trails as if they were running a private trail event. It was assumed that we should have to wait for each and every rider. Furthermore, the riders within this group acted like it was entirely reasonable for us to yield to forty riders snaking up a singletrack! Even if we had decided to go for it and not wait, the tedious aspect of trying to weave through this many mountain bikers on such a narrow and winding singletrack would have been a feat within itself! A veritable traffic jam in the middle of a beautiful open space preserve is not what I envision when I set out on a ride.
Sanctioned verses non sanctioned
If you are participating in a race, an off-road grand fondo, a charity ride, or another organized event then there are obviously going to be significant groups of riders, perhaps hundreds of riders showing up to take part in the event. There are several differences between these sanctioned events and a local bike group doing a massive group ride: the trails and park have been secured through a permit, and park management, rangers, and other park goers are informed of such an event. They are aware that for a specific time period parts of the park may be closed off or are going to be challenging to navigate due to a large number of mountain bikers. Also, sanctioned events do not appear randomly on any given day without warning and promoters, and event organizers do not plan sanctioned events in smaller crowded parks during the busiest times of the week when trail issues may arise.
Recreational mountain biking in large groups goes against the original idea of mountain biking- getting away from crowds, exploring nature and being self-reliant. Large group rides are not appropriate for most parks and are neither beneficial to our trail systems nor our relationships with other trail users. As mountain bikers, we must act responsibly, respect all trail users, and realize that our local parks and preserves are not a free for all playground for us to overrun the trails en masse. This shows little regard for other trail users and ourselves. Local mountain bike groups need to reinvent their mass rides into scheduled sanctioned mountain bike events or races and not clog up the park trails with their traffic jams