The Mountain Bike Ride

McKenzie River views

By Dillon Caldwell (Cog Wild Guide and Marketing Director)

As a lifelong mountain biking enthusiast, I have developed a very particular (if unusual) definition of the term “mountain biking”.  And as a seasoned mountain bike tour guide, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of other concepts of what exactly it is that the two-wheeled knobby has come to represent for us.

But I’ve become more and more concerned with where mainstream mountain bike culture is headed today.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to see greater numbers of friends and neighbors who can appreciate and join in the fun out on the open trail. In fact, a good chunk of my income and livelihood is directly tied to the tourism this industry brings to the table. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s a great thing for our world to get more people excited about getting outdoors and enjoying nature on bikes. But I’d like to take a moment to reflect on this nascent industry and offer a slightly different perspective on what the mountain bike ride truly represents — at least to this native of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.


This sport of ours has finally reached a notable level of acceptance in America.  Gone are the days where the blue jean and leather jacket were seen as normal attire for the fringe activity we call mountain biking.  The Klunker is a not-too-distant part of our history, but it is little more than obscure history at this point.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that mountain biking has become a part of mainstream American culture at this point — even here in the West.  But the balance between mountain biking’s perceived status as being something “different” and the reality that it is now a mainstream sport, one that even rivals more traditional American sports for scales of economy (e.g., golf*) in our region of the country, is precisely why it has become so hip.  And it’s becoming hipper with each turn of the calendar.  Now a significant part of Western culture, this sport has taken on an entirely new persona and meaning for most of us who call ourselves mountain bikers today.

With contemporary advances in mountain bike technology turning the original steel and rubber rigid “Klunker” into something that more closely resembles a piece of aerospace equipment, it’s not hard to imagine that our experience of what that tool represents for each of us has changed as well.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this change. The 2016 Santa Cruz 5010 that I reviewed last fall absolutely blew my mind. There’s no way I would trade the opportunity to ride that amazing bicycle for a hardtail or a rigid bike from the past. Technological advancements in sport, in and of themselves, are nothing to frown upon.  They’ve simply made our sport faster, more technically advanced, and (arguably) more fun in the process.


That said, precisely because of these technological advancements, this sport appears to be turning into more and more of an elitist’s hobby today.  A top-of-the-line, brand-new mountain bike cost little more than an equivalent set of golf clubs just 15 years ago.  Today, a bike of that stature would cost you at least five times that of an equivalent set of golf clubs.  Yet many owners of these new “superbikes” are of modest means, and really stretching their budgets to keep up with the sport they love. It’s hard for most people to imagine putting a “toy”, one which we learned to pedal down to the ice cream shop before we could legally drive our car there instead, on top of that very car when it’s resale value is actually worth more than the car itself.  I think about the ridiculousness of this situation as I do it myself all summer long.  But such is the nature of this sport today.  And I love it.

Still, this is an important contradiction to recognize, specifically as it relates to our sport on the whole and to how it is being represented as a result.  For many of us who value the best equipment for this sport that we love with all our hearts, that equipment must take precedence over the more traditionally valued western material bases for everyday life (e.g., the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, etc.). This may seem backwards at face value, but we do exist and we’re not going anywhere. Because the feeling we get when we ride that mountain bike never fails to excite our souls, to balance out the hectic workweek, or simply to remind us of that kid on his way to the ice cream shop.


Despite how far the mountain bike industry has come, they’ve done a standout job of keeping this core group of evangelists in mind and in spirit all along the way.  However, there is still an important and growing disparity in this sport between who rides this equipment and who can afford this equipment.  That disparity may appear to be pushing out the everyday rider with a non-traditional job (or seven or eight) that is often chosen simply by virtue of its amenability to riding more bicycles.  This disparity seems to be favoring the rider who makes upwards of $100,000 per year and can afford to take a weeklong break from work in order to take a destination “mountain bike” vacation on their new $10,000 bicycle.

But then again, maybe that’s not the case.  What is mountain biking anyways?  Is it the chase for faster and faster Strava times on your favorite local trail?  Is it the value of the “quiver” of bikes in our garages? Or is it something else entirely?

Mountain biking is so great precisely because it’s available to the masses, across all lines of class and income.  When it comes down to it, we’re all just kids pedaling our bicycles.  Whether that be to the corner ice cream shop with our families, or through the lush forests of the Cascade Mountains, this is the beautifully simple essence of our sport.  And we need to appreciate that essence in order to preserve it.

Weeping Wall

To start, we need to reconnect with the basis for exactly what it is we are saying when we tell our friends that we are going for a mountain bike ride.  The brief history and development of this nascent sport points to one very simple understanding for life on the mountain bike.  It points to an understanding that I think is critical in mountain biking’s ability to continue to grow in scale and economy, yet remember its roots and preserve its appeal to everyone.  That understanding is the foundation for what mountain biking really is, on a purely philosophical level.  Mountain biking cannot be materially defined, but can be defined only from an experiential standpoint.

To assist with this definition, let’s consider what mountain biking is not.  Mountain biking is not trail biking.  Mountain biking is not a mountain bike.  Mountain biking exists beyond the scope of the equipment we choose to pursue it on.  You can ride that knobby tired “mountain bike” on the trails your whole life, and never appreciate the true nature of the mountain bike ride.  I see these people, I ride with these people, all the time.  And it very much excites me to reframe their understandings of what this sport could be.

Conversely, you can be a pure roadie, only ever donning lycra and slick 23mm tires, and still experience the nature of a mountain bike ride every time you head out on the road.  I’ve seen both of these worlds many times.  I’ve been on some of the most incredible, eye-opening backcountry experiences on my road bike.  Yet there is and will always be far more to explore on the more and more versatile piece of equipment we call a “mountain bike”, simply because of the lack of well-maintained roads that connect our world.  Certainly, the piece of equipment you choose for your mountain bike ride is not the essential piece of what makes an two-wheeled adventure a mountain bike ride.

3 Creeks

So what is a mountain bike ride then? Have you ever found yourself out in the woods, perhaps exploring a new route, perhaps getting separated from your partner(s) and/or your bearings on the world? Have you ever misjudged a map reading so badly that you were forced to ride the majority of the route with your bike on your back, your water pack all dried up, your stomach rumbling with hunger? Have your lights ever run out, forcing you to spend the night on the trail and continue the journey when the sun rose the next morning? Have you ever wondered why the hell you get yourself into these situations over and over, especially when you’re effectively bankrupting yourself with state-of-the-art gear and supplies only to continue to revert to basic survival skills?  If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions (and, to be clear, this list is certainly not exhaustive or exclusive), chances are you know what a mountain bike ride is.


What’s more, I’d bet that many of us know the answer to that last question well.  It’s why we keep coming back for more.  It’s the beer at the end of the trail that only took 45 minutes to ride, even though we spent seven hours trying to find it.  It’s the smiles and the memories that we share with our partners, either on those rides or in the recounting.  It’s the shared meaning and value we all get when these real-world, real-life experiences remind us of the easily forgotten fact that (despite the automated and mind-numbing realities of modern life) we’re still just animals — truly amazing ones at that.  And it’s the reminder that our place as animals in this vast world might seem pretty insignificant at times in daily life.  But when we find ourselves out there amongst the rushing rivers and the alpenglow on the high peaks, with muddy paws and unibrows of dust, our insignificance in this awe-inspiring place is actually quite significant.

That feeling is the one we’re after.  And that feeling can be appreciated whether we have drop-bars or knobby tires.  It can be appreciated in jeans or in lycra, or in anything in between.  That feeling can be appreciated from atop a mountain, or in the river valley below.  That feeling can be accessed whether we find ourselves behind the desk at a multi-million dollar international insurance company on Monday, or behind the steering wheel of a garbage truck.  That feeling is universal in both accessibility and in mutual understanding.  That feeling is the essence of mountain biking.  And whenever it’s accessed by two wheels and nothing more than our body’s own power, that is a mountain bike ride.


*Golf economy in Oregon (2008 study):

^Mountain biking economy in Oregon (2012 study):

Lev’s Log: The Renegade Trail Code

I was on a road trip through the North West with a couple buddies. Our goal was to find prime singletrack wherever we went. At one such destination, I went into the local bike shop, bought a map, and asked the salesman about the trails.

levs-log1He pointed out the standard loops, but as we continued talking, I described what we were looking for: Steep, dh style, jumps, drops, freeride features. With a quick glance around the room to see that no one else was watching, he drew a squiggly line down a corner of the map and said “you should check this out, a couple buddies and I have been building this for a few years now, you know, under the radar”.
Hmm, what do you think we did? What would you have done?

Of course we went a rode it, who wouldn’t? Very few mountain bikers can stand on that high horse and claim they haven’t ridden illegal trail. It is part of our culture, and everyone, from IMBA top brass, to local staunch trail advocate, to a BadAss Mom (BAM) who innocently cuts through some private property to complete her after work loop, is guilty.

Without renegade trail building, the best trails out there would not exist. Many riding areas and trails across the country were created without permission, by mountain bikers. Think of your local trail system, or favorite riding destination, in a lot of cases those trails were built illegally, then over time adopted and recognized by the land management.
Shoot, even the banal trails West of Bend in the Phil’s network, were scratched in with no permission back in the day.

Since we all know it’s going on, almost all of us participate and illegally built trails aren’t going away, there needs to be a set of rules that we abide by. Here is the code based on my observances over the years, it is probably incomplete, or some don’t apply to certain areas.

The riders code:
In most cases the trail builder, or core local group, sets the rules for their trail. If you are privileged enough to be shown a renegade trail, you must follow the rules laid out to you.

Don’t tell anyone Of course this isn’t practical, so choose wisely who you show it to. Usually just your closest riding buddy who you trust to stick to the code. Whatever rules were imparted to you, you must pass on the code as it was explained to you.

No STRAVA or GPS This is a funny one, many renegade trails and trails illegal to bikes have cycling STRAVA segments with sometime thousands of posted times. If that is the acceptable on the trail, so be it. However if you are told to turn it off, you must do it.

Do not post pictures or reports reports to social media. I know you need to show the world how connected you are and how rad you can get. But don’t expose a buddies trail in the process.

If someone does post pics, video or trail report, do not comment. I have seen this too many times: A bike company comes out with a hot new video showing off their new product ridden by their pro rider, and they used renegade trail.
No one would know except the small group of folks who ride that trail, until some jackass comments: “The trail they filmed on is illegal, who do they think they are, it was built by locals who don’t want anyone to know about it”… dumbass, now we all are going to try and find that trail because it looked so rad in the video.

No asking about renegade trails on forums. If you are trying to find info, getting to know the local crew and riding with folks is your best bet. If someone asks on a public forum, there is no good response accept to say “I don’t know”. Even giving a hint that you might know something but can’t tell is bad form.

Walk in/walk out. Often times, to hide the entrance and exits of a trail, walking and carrying your bike is practiced. Usually this is done if the trail splits from a popular route onto private property to prevent curious passer from seeing tire tracks.

Builders code:
So, you have a rake and shovel, a vision in your head of your dream track, but don’t have permission to use the land you want to build on. Some suggestions below.

#1: Don’t do it!
First of all, you are not qualified! 99% of the renegade trails out there are poorly built. The absolute shit I have seen over the years is embarrassing, I am 4647928017_9cbf53b118-300x183
ashamed for whoever built it and annoyed because it is associated with our beloved sport of mountain biking. Ladder bridges made out of twigs, jumps to no landing, fall line ruts three feet deep, Pungy sticks or sharp rocks in the fall zone and many more terrible offenses are common on most renegade built trails.

Second of all, you don’t have the time. Building a good trail takes more time than most of you have patience for. Way to many times I have seen or heard of someone start their dream track, only to have them realize how hard building trail is and quit after a day or two of half-assed shoveling.

Lastly: Going rouge on public land flies in the face of the efforts by all the advocacy groups working with land managers over the years. Mountain biking has a very tenuous place in the user group battle, and a ranger who finds illegal trails built by mountain bikers isn’t going to be very sympathetic to the th1association advocating for mountain bikers.

My suggestion: join you local trail association, spend some time along side the master builders in your area, an apprenticeship of sorts. Learn good, sustainable trail building technique. Contribute your newfound shovel skills to working on legal trails. Go to some meetings about land use, and learn why land managers have such a hard time with user built, renegade trails. Learn who gets the responsibility of policing and tearing out user built trails. Hint, it’s usually your local trail advocacy group, and they’ll be pissed at you for giving them extra work.

So after all this, if you still feel the need to go rogue and build trail without permission, a couple suggestions:

Build it right!!! Put some time and effort into your project. make it sustainable, with drainage and some flow. If building wood features is your thing, build them to last.

Keep it consistent. If your trail has three drops that are rollable, don’t make the fourth one a mandatory gap, or at least give some warning. This leads to unnecessary accidents, which shuts down trails.

Choose your location wisely. Low traffic areas, away from the normal riding loops are best. I have seen renegade trails persist right off the main local loop, but usually they get discovered, overrun and shut down.

You, as the builder, are at the top of the “riders code”. You set the rules, choose who to tell and are ultimately responsible if some loud mouth exposes your trail.

If your trail gets exposed and shutdown, it is your fault, don’t be surprised or indignant. You were doing something illegal, tuck your tail between your legs and slink off to a dark
corner to think about what IMG_52681-300x225you’ve done.

Are there renegade trails built in your area? Do mountain bikers ride trails closed to bikes often? Do you have a code or rules when riding illegal trails? Do you think renegade builders have impacted our sport in a positive or negative way?

Lev’s Log: Confessions of a trail dumb downer.

levs-logThat rock that you would always pedal-strike, I made it smoother. That ditch you could almost wheelie across, I filled it in so now you can roll it.
That tight switchback that you could hop around like Ryan Leach and all your friends were impressed, I made it so you can pedal around it.


I have a confession: I am the guy who dumbs down your trails.

Over many years and miles of trail work, I have smoothed, buffed, filled in gap jumps, opened up corners, bench-cut narrow trails, dismantled wooden features, made mandatory drops rollable, armored stutter bumpy corners, cut out roots, rerouted trail, and I apologize for none of it.

Let’s back up a bit and get some perspective on this issue. I grew up in a northern California town with a burgeoning mountain bike community; above town there is a university with a campus with expansive meadows and acres of dark redwood forest, and a budding renegade trail system. I began mountain biking in high school with two buddies. As our skills progressed and we searched farther and farther for cool trails, we added to the growing underground build scene, and built a steep downhill trail close to town on the university property. Though completely illegal and equipped with little more than our bikes and a rake between us, we “built” our first trail. The result was steep, rocky, surfy and unsustainable. Don’t worry, no campers died during the process (If you have ridden this campus you know what trail I’m talking about)

I continued building trails without permission over the years in California and in Central Oregon, when I moved here. trailbanditThe theme was always steep and technical, usually as much fall line as possible. Eventually, I joined my local trail association because I decided I could put my efforts to better use by cooperating with the authorities to develop legal, land owner approved trails. Now, I am a trail crew leader, designer and head builder with Central Oregon Trail Alliance in Bend. My main focus is the more technical trails we build and maintain. I have also adopted two trails and have added a lot of my personal flair to both. Ever ridden South Fork or Whoops? Those are my babies.

Who else is a trail dumb downer? Folks who have been working on trails for a long, long time. jumpbuildGuys like me who do trail work all the time don’t want to come back to the same problem on a trail over and over. We have learned to approach trail sections with a five or even ten-year plan to make our efforts sustainable. A trail dumb downer may be working with local land management to develop better trail systems in your area, and the scratched in track out your back door is becoming the “Blue Square” route. Trails close to town should be the easier trails, with the more technical advanced trail further out and harder to find.

I am calling out anyone who whines publicly about losing the one technical feature on their favorite local loop for being shortsighted. Before getting all indignant, consider the history of the trail, why it’s there, who built it, was it built to be mountain bike specific or is it an old hiking trail that we now ride? However the trail started, degradation happens over time; and needs upkeep. Often times the big rut or erosion problem ends up being the most technical part of the trail.

Case in point: There is an MTBR thread questioning some work I did on a trail that is many locals favorite downhill. It has fast rooty sections, hard loose corners and rough straights that require advanced mountain bike skill to ride well. SouthforkarmorHowever, this trail did not start out rowdy or chundery. When built in the 1980s it started out as smooth, loamy hiking trail. After being rolled over by thousands of knobby tires and 30 years of rainstorms and snow melt, the roots became more and more exposed and yes, more technical and more fun. To make it more sustainable, the most eroded sections need fixing and armoring. Yes, adding flat rock and covering the roots dumbed down the trail, but what it accomplished is a piece of trail that will hopefully last 10 more years. Here is the Forum post,


I still want to ride steep, techy trails like the ones that scared me on that unnamed campus as a kid, and I know where to find them. They are not the after-work ripper loop that you bust out of from your house or the two-mile loop out of your local trail center. You must make an effort to ride these trails, go beyond guidebook or online reviews to find these trails. The trails that are on the maps and in guidebooks, have an established trail head and have a trail rating, and need a bit of homogenizing to serve the masses.

There is no preserving a trail. What you experience today, this week or even this year is just a snapshot in time. The trail will change; plants encroach on it, rocks and trees fall and the trail shifts in response, heavy rains erode the surface exposing roots, rocks and forming ruts. The maintenance done usually makes the trail easier, by default. But don’t worry; soon enough, the trail will change again.

Is this an issue in your area? What do you think of the work done to your local trails?
Are you a trail dumb downer too?
What are your reasons to make a difficult section more rideable?
Have your trails been dumbed? What do you think of the changes?

My Bio: Lev brings a long history of cycling to Cog Wild. He started mountain…Read the rest here

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