Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the mountain bike trails or the bikes?
Did the need to ride different trails drive the development of bikes to handle them or did bike designers drive the need to build new trails to handle the bikes? Who knows — it’s all academic. But, certainly, over more than 40 years of mountain biking development, there has been a steady evolution of bikes, trails and riding styles.
Today, the sport of mountain biking covers a wide array of choices of equipment, riding venues and rider categories. Some mountain bikers go for the downhill or gravity bikes and trails experience. Others prefer cross-country riding, using different types of equipment and trails and terrain.
Trail riders buy equipment and build or find trails that suit their riding style. The newest group, the Enduro/All Mountain riders, have developed unique bikes, trails and riding skills for their version of the sport.
Freeriding and dirt jumpers round out the “mountain biking” group with their own special steeds and courses.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be examining this evolution of mountain biking by looking at three categories: terrain, riding styles and bicycle designs. First, I’ll tackle terrain and trail development by revising an old article from 2016, “Do trail gnomes build mountain bike trails?”
Much of what I said then still rings true today. People are out building trails to meet the needs and abilities of riders.
Mountain bike trails today are drastically different than they were when the sport first began in the 1980s. Then, we rode hardtail mountain bikes in the hills of the Monadnock Region. The trails we used were logging and Class 6 town roads. Occasionally, we used hiking and snowmobile trails. None of them were “built” for mountain bikes.
Sometimes we rode, sometimes, we carried our bikes on our shoulders over obstacles, through swamps and up rough trails. Our goals weren’t speed and flow — they were an adventure and finding a way through.
When we moved to Mount Washington Valley in 1989, there was no designated “mountain bike” trails. In 1990, Peter Minnich started Mountain Cycle Guide Services and hand-drew the first MCGS map to where to ride.
His map was a patchwork of old roads, powerline, hiking, snowmobile and motorcycle trails. It was all about making connections between what already existed on the ground.
The next phase of mountain bike trail development in the mid ’90s was the “let’s improve or maintain existing trails” movement. Mountain bikers went and cleared trails of downed trees and branches. Plank bridges were added to go over wet spots, and trails were raked, clipped and filled in to make them more rideable and sustainable.
NEMBA (New England Mountain Bike Association) volunteers put in numerous hours of sweaty effort on the Mineral Site Trail. Out on the Nanamocomuck Ski trail, volunteers spent hours hauling in planks and tools to make bridges over the muddy sections on the Wenonah Trail to protect the trail and make riding more enjoyable.
The next phase of trail building was “let’s build some single track” trails for the benefit of mountain bikers. People who had ridden other places like Vermont’s Kingdom Trails and out west wanted to create the same type of trails. Singletrack trails appeared overnight between forest roads in Cedar Creek and in the Experimental Forest.
The problem was, the trail gnomes had not asked permission! This led to issues with the Experimental Forest and White Mountain National Forest people.
Meetings with both groups led to trail building agreements. NEMBA and others worked out a process with the Forest Service for getting permission to legitimize existing single track and build new trails. Later, trails signs appeared for the first time.
In this new era of trail building, hand tools like rakes, mattocks, folding saws, shovels, McLeod’s (hoe/rakes) and Pulaski’s (axes) came into play. Weed whackers were hauled in and those with chainsaw certification put their skills to work.
NEMBA coordinated much of the effort by holding “trail building” weekends and workdays. Some of the members even went to trail building school to learn how to build a trail correctly so as to do as little damage as possible to the environment while making trails that were fun to ride and sustainable. Erosion control and fall line planning were important skills learned. New trails like Redtail Trail and Sticks and Stones and Pillar to Pond came out of that era of trail building.
Trail builders are now in the “purpose-built mountain bike trail” era with trails designed to “maximize and maintain flow.” Permissions and layout are all planned ahead of building. Machines like mini-excavators make the work easier and the trails more uniform and durable. Humans with hand tools finish the work and add in benching, berms and rock features to make the riding more fun and trails more sustainable.
In Mount Washington Valley, local trail building on the Marshall Conservation Area off West Side Road created trails like Shumway and Lucille’s with small and large excavators and volunteers with hand tools. Old trails like Lemon Squeezer, Lager’s Lane, T-Bone Connector were restored and improved. This year, the Quarry trail was finished.
Other trail building or improving projects are also happening at East Bear Paw near Stateline where bridges will be rebuilt. In Albany Town Forest, a new trail has been roughed out on the Kanc’s south side. From Black Cap down to Cranmore, there are now several new downhill trails to ride — Parking Lot Smoothie, Charlie Don’t Surf and Sendero. There are probably more trails in the works. That’s the nature of mountain biking — it’s always changing and new trails are always being built to meet the needs of the riders and the capabilities of their steeds.
Bikes and riders are much different now than they were in the 80s and 90s. In the early days, bikes had no suspension, no disc brakes and 26-inch wheels. Riders usually rode flat pedals with toe clips, used three chainrings and outfitted their bike with top tube packs for carrying bikes long distances. Finding the way in the woods was the game.
Today, most bikes are full suspension, have disc brakes, seat posts that go up and down with a push of a button. Wheels are bigger — 29 or 27 1/2 inch, tires fatter and gear set up ranges from single speed to multiple. Many riders who moved from clip pedals to clipless are now riding flat pedals. The focus of the riding now is not exploration.
No need for paper maps — GPS tells you where you are. It’s smooth and flowy riding with lots of rollers and berms, switchbacks, and long elevated plank bridges over the rough stuff. Ride fast, catch air, swoop around the corners — it’s all part of the ride.
Whatever your riding style, get out and ride the new and old trails. Become a legitimate “trail gnome” by joining the trail building effort. Come out on NEMBA’s Tuesday Night Trail Work. Check White Mountain NEMBA’s Facebook page for places and times.
2019 summer events
July 9-Aug. 27 (Tuesdays) — Great Glen Trails Mason and Mason Insurance Mountain Bike Race Series, 3:30-7 p.m., for all ages. Choose a distance, course and time that suits you and have some fun riding the Great Glen Trails.
July 13 (Saturday) — Tour de Borderlands-Stop No. 4 — Mahoosuc Pathways, Bethel, Maine, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Ride free or ride with barbecue for $20. For details, go to tinyurl.com/y22q4u9g.
July 20 (Saturday) — MWV Bicycling Club Mid-Summer Ride and Social. Choice of four rides of 13/30/40/50 miles. Meet at Twin Mountain Gazebo at 9 a.m. Following rides, at 4 p.m., barbecue at Steve Blum’s house in Bartlett. For information, go to tinyurl.com/yy52leex
July 20 (Saturday) — Bike-Walk Alliance of NH (BWA-NH) “Bikes and Brews” celebration of cycling and craft beer, starting at Smuttynose Brewery in Hampton with ride loops of 15 and 30 miles. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/y3v7qp5o.
July 27 (Saturday) —Tin Mountain’s Mount Washington Century, rides of 40, 80, 100-plus miles. Rides start from 6-8 a.m. at Tin Mountain Conservation Center on Bald Hill in Albany. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/yygpjndo.
Aug. 10 (Saturday) — Tour de Borderlands — Stop 3 percent — Kingdom Trails, East Burke, Vt. For more details, go to tinyurl.com/yyxw8hfg.
August 17 (Saturday)/(Aug. 18 rain date) — 47th Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb benefitting Tin Mountain Conservation Center. The race starts at 8:30 a.m. For details, go to mwarbh.org.
Sally McMurdo is a bike safety instructor and cyclist who lives in Conway.