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Wet trails take beating from mountain bikers

There are times when the trails need to be left alone. Horses need to stay off them. Dirt bikes need to stay off them. Mountain bikes need to stay off them.

By Claire Martin

True, mountain bikes are designed to cope with wet, muddy trails.

But those fat, knobby tires leave the trails a lot worse for wear, especially during the late spring freeze/thaw cycle. Spring runoff from winter snowstorms can be heavy and intense, leaving trails waterlogged and vulnerable to damage from trail users.

"If you've driven somewhere and the trail looks gunky, go for a dirt road over a trail," says mountain biker Laura Rossitter, author of The Mountain Bike Guide to Summit County, Colorado and Mountain Biking Colorado's Historic Mining Districts. "Dirt roads definitely can handle the impact more. Riding a wet trail wrecks it, and if a trail's wrecked, a couple of things happen," she says. "First, other groups look negatively on mountain bikers, which is the last thing we need in our quest as legitimate trail users. Second, it destroys the trail to the point where it's no longer ridable.

"Now the message is: If you can't ride through it or over it, then portage your bike and walk around and over it."

"Once a trail is damaged, it deteriorates even if nobody rides it anymore, with ruts acting like channels that send water down the trail, making it worse and worse." This is not, she knows, an easy message for a lot of mountain bikers to hear. After all, commercials and ads usually show dirt-freckled mountain bikers happily plowing through mud the way skiers cut through fresh powder, sending up a spray of mud as they hurtle along.

Spraying mud looks macho. Spraying mud looks fun. Spraying mud wrecks their shiny, expensive bikes.

"Mountain bikes are designed to handle muddy conditions, yes and no," Rossitter says.

"Mountain bikes can DEAL with mud. But dirt is abrasive. It causes moving parts to wear down faster. It's actually better for your bike to ride in dry conditions. A lot of people don't realize this. They just see the cool ads, buy the bike and ride through mud because they don't know any better." Educating mountain bikers isn't easy. A lot of them prefer to think of themselves as rebels. Talk of "responsible riding" makes them squirm the way class clowns do when teachers lecture them about being "good citizens." The task is even more difficult because the message keeps changing. When mountain biking was first growing, riders were told to ride around obstacles, like big puddles or logs. But then they left tracks that widened the trails. Single-track became double-track and sometimes triple-track.

"Now the message is: If you can't ride through it or over it, then portage your bike and walk around and over it," Rossitter says, but even this rule has its exception.

"If it's a puddle on a hard trail— some water sitting on a hard surface— then ride through it. But if you ride through bog that's saturated for several inches, you'll leave ruts. So when you're riding, you have to ask yourself: Do I ride through it or walk? That's where responsibility comes into play." Mountain bikers aren't the only trail users who leave trails worse for wear. Wet, saturated trails are just as vulnerable to dirt bikers, horseback riders and others who can mark trails merely with their weight and power.

"Every user group needs to think this way," Rossitter says.

"It's just that there are so many of us, and wheels can be hard on trails. And the most difficult thing for people to accept is that Colorado has a longer winter than summer. Mountain biking is not necessarily a year-round sport. There are times when the trails need to be left alone. Horses need to stay off them. Dirt bikes need to stay off them. Mountain bikes need to stay off them."

This doesn't mean that you have to hang up your mountain bike until Memorial Day. It only means that you'll have to think of alternatives to sodden, single-track trails. In the foothills along the Front Range and in the arid south-facing mountains of the Western Slope's banana belt between Grand Junction and Delta, plenty of dry trails await riders. Or ride on jeep roads. Dirt roads can handle more abuse than trails can, and they're already wide. If you don't think dirt roads offer enough challenge, try some of the old mining routes pocked with potholes, bulging with boulders, and breathtakingly steep.

Some of Rossitter's favorite early season riding areas include the jeep roads in the foothills around Buffalo Creek, Fairplay, Kremmling, Buena Vista, Gypsum, Grand Junction, Canon City and Fruita.

"Buena Vista is ready to roll," she says.

"Places like Buena Vista and Fruita dry out faster than Summit County does— parts of them. If you go to Buena before Memorial Day, don't go to the west side if that's where your favorite trail is, because it's probably still too wet to ride.

"If you've driven somewhere and the trail looks gunky, be ready to say that it's a mess, regardless of what the ads say your bike can do, and go for a dirt road. If more people would just do that, we wouldn't have trail problems."

"While trying to keep the structure light alition have been working to identify the trail route and historic sites along its route across western Colorado.

March 28, 1998

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