the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

October 11, 2009

Thorny issues in the fat tyres of mountain biking.

Filed under: bike — danmilner @ 8:28 pm

Open trail access for mountain bikers has always been a controversial subject, not least because as riders, we have been the last of the user groups to take our place at the ‘great outdoors’ dining table. Right now I’m on my way back from a 2-week trip to Northern California, where I have been covering a number of commissions for What Mountain Bike magazine and during which I spent some time around Mt Tam area in Marin county just North of San Francisco, a place where “organic” is a household word and Toyota Prius hybrids rule the asphalt.

Now for those not yet in the know, Marin (and Mt Tamalpais in particular) is largely deemed as the birthplace of the mountain bike, when in the 70’s locals adorned Schwinn cruisers with cow-horn handlebars, fat tyres and gears to spawn an industry and a whole lifestyle built on riding bikes off road. (Ah, the free-spirited 70’s, when hair was long and frame angles sat at 67 degrees…  funny how things come round again). Ironically though there are probably fewer places on this great planet of ours that are as limited in terms of true trail options as Mt Tam. In the eyes of the conservative roadie scene (ah, something’s never change) the mountain bike baby was emerged as the bastard son of radical parents, an attitude that has changed little in 30 years among many hikers and authorities it seems. The irony of riding in Marin, spinning a fast lap on the 10-mile long Tamarancho trail -one of Marin’s only (legal) singletracks- while bigoted local residents sup on low fat mochas and pen letters to the local newspaper about how the evils of mountain biking should remain limited to fireroads, was not lost on me I can assure you.

But it made me consider our situation back home in Chamonix, France, a place that prides itself on its open-minded attitude when it comes to ‘doing whatever you like’ in the mountains that surround it. After all you can take a lift up and literally throw yourself off any peak around using any number of ‘crazy’ winged devices, ski off-piste through a maze of crevasses or attempt ridiculous life-threatening challenges in the world of climbing there without the authorities batting an eyelid. As I gave it some more thought though, I realised that both Marin and Chamonix (and countless other places once considered great mountain bike locations) are on converging paths, but in Chamonix/Marin’s case, paths that have started from opposite ends. While Marin with its powerful Sierra Club hiking lobby started with limited trail access and is still struggling to widen its riding horizons as the popularity of mountain biking grows, Chamonix started with open, free access to its trails but its growing number of riders are seeing their possibilities under threat.

While Chamonix boasts a new “bike park” program, it is openly admitting that once these new (predominantly downhill) trails have been constructed, access for riders to other shared use trails more suited to the “all mountain” rider (that’s the majority of us not wearing full face helmets then) will be increasingly limited.  Sure, I liked the blast of chasing my friend Patchen around the winding Tamarancho trail yesterday (ride this trail if you come to Marin!) but I’m responsible, courteous to hikers and try my damnest to avoid skidding on the trails, something that contributes massively to trail erosion. I also want more than one ten mile loop to ride.

Needless to say, Marin is also home to countless illegal trails, singletracks that wind their way down the hillsides of legendary Mt Tam and Pine Mountain; trails that have been constructed due to the bigoted limitations put on mountain biking by ignorant NIMBY locals. Only time will tell if riders in Chamonix will be taking up shovels too.


Not Marin county thats for sure: Chamonix' trail access - as threatened as its glaciers?

Not Marin county thats for sure: Chamonix' trail access - as threatened as its glaciers?


1 Comment »

  1. Hey Dan!

    I know exactly what you mean about… The People Who Always Want To Stop You From Doing Your Thing! Around 15 years ago (before I lost my battle with obesity and became confined to a wheelchair) I briefly got into mountain biking. One day, whilst was riding my Halfords Carrera carefully down a wide trail in sunny Sussex, I encountered a group of walkers/Ramblers making their way uphill.

    As I rode slowly and carefully past them, with plenty of room to spare, one of the walkers leapt out and deliberately blocked my way – spreading his arms out and grinning derisively at me. In trying to avoid crashing into him, I rode off the trail and almost into a new and extremely sharp barbed wire fence!

    The simple fact with the majority of these people is that they’re not ‘really’ concerned about erosion or the countryside… it’s just that they don’t like ‘YOU’ being on “THEIR” trail – in “THEIR” world. 😦

    Comment by Stephen Reel — October 14, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

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