The gray light of the afternoon set the mood as we walked among the remains. I was trekking with Seth, a 29-year old mountain biker of unabashed free-riding tendencies, on Jackass Ridge, previous home to some of the most challenging riding in Truckee. Late last summer, the Forest Service (F.S.) dismantled the ‘terrain features’ and the trail, leaving just traces – neat piles of wood and faint marks on granite where wooden ramps had been.

Seth was one of the first to ride the trail and helped build some of its features. (Trail builders’ names have been changed to protect them.) As Jackass was built, he said, the few riders in the know tried to keep it a secret, showing it only to riders who would appreciate and respect it. For five years, the secret spread until it was no longer one.

In the end, Seth didn’t mind that more people were riding the trail. Building and riding trails is creative and cooperative and it gets people in the great outdoors, a welcome anomaly in the digital age, Seth said, and there is deep value in both of those factors.

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This is depressing,’ he said as we walked. ‘This used to be an amazing, popular trail, and now not a soul is around.’ The trail had let people navigate the woods, by foot or pedal, but now it’s just big field of fallen trees beneath the forest canopy, he said.

Jackass Ridge, located just south of Truckee, along the west side of Highway 89, is a mix of private and public lands. After the Truckee River meets Highway 89, about a mile south of Donner Pass Road, most of the land along the highway is Tahoe National Forest Land. Mountain bikers used to don body armor befitting motorcycle escapades on the roadside. They were taking the long route to the rugged riding of Jackass Ridge. Some riders drive further up the dirt roads, to maximize downhill time in the saddle.

The trail navigated steadily down a southern aspect. Over the last three years, riders added to its challenge, building log crossings, teeter-totters to rock ramps, and an impressive series of twisting wooden ladders where a tire could stay above dirt for at least 300 feet.

When I first rode Jackass, my heart rate was dangerously out of normal range. I navigated intimidating features, interspersed with sweeping single-track turns. I spent as much time in the saddle as out, carrying my bike over 20-foot ladders, rock drops, and hair-pin turns. Even as I walked, I appreciated the challenge. The first time I summoned enough courage to ride over a log pyramid, I was elated for hours.

In our outdoor playground, athletes are always pushing the limits and the sport of mountain biking has experienced an extreme revolution in the last decade. Full-suspension bikes, increasing inches of travel, fatter tires, stronger frames, and better body armor let people ride previously unthinkable terrain. On the extreme end, riders are dropping 80-foot cliffs, jumping huge gaps, and riding ladders suspended high in the air. Even the less extreme – ladders closer to the ground, teeter-totters, and log crossings – would make my mother suspend my bike riding privileges. Though Tahoe is well known for its single-track riding, until recently, terrain features have been the territory of our kooky northern neighbors, the Canadians. But U.S. riders are catching up and riders secretly have been building increasingly elaborate features in National Forests.

Josh, 34, is an Incline Village resident and business owner. An avid mountain biker since 1991, when he gave up dirt biking because it was ‘too expensive,’ he rides a variety of trails – mixing up long distance cross-country trail riding with intensive sessions on terrain features. Josh has says he has been finding, riding, and sometimes building these more aggressive trails for years. ‘It’s good for bike handling skills, learning your brakes and developing your balance,’ he said. Josh estimates the number of aggressive mountain bikers in the area has exploded a hundred-fold since 1991.

It’s not easy build to these bootleg trails, says Josh. First you have to lug the wood – mostly from construction waste – in by car or foot. A lot of the wood is recycled construction waste – a win-win situation, he says, because the contractors don’t have to dispose of it and the riders get free wood. Then trail builders spend months developing the trail, while ‘watching their back’ so they don’t get caught.

While most builders are experienced and make good trails, he said, some trails are ‘messy’ because riders are forced to build on the sly. ‘The F.S. has said pretty much ‘no’ to log rides and stunts. It’s unfortunate that we’re fighting with them instead of working with them,’ he said. ‘I can see the F.S.’s problem with some of the trails. But if it were legal, they would be built safer in a more environmentally friendly way. Nobody likes riding a crappy trail.’

Bootleg trails with fancy features go by many names. They tempt with the allure of the ‘underground.’ Riders call them ‘freeride’ or ‘downhill’ trails. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) uses the terms ‘unauthorized’ or ‘illicit technical’ while the F.S. uses words like ‘visitor-created’ and ‘social.’

But they’re illegal and destructive
Regardless of what you call them, the local F.S. district says they are not okay. Not only is it illegal to build on F.S. land, in many places it destroys the environment and archaeological sites, said Rick Maddalena, Lands Officer for Tahoe National Forest Eastzone. ‘It’s a matter of policy, a matter of law, a matter of the environment and less clear, matters of liabilities,’ said Maddalena, who grew up in Sierraville and has been with the Forest Service for 34 years.

The basic mission of the F.S. is to provide natural recreational opportunities, he said. When the F.S. develops recreational facilities, such as campgrounds or boat ramps, it is to let people enjoy the natural setting, not the recreational facility itself, Maddalena said. In addition, facilities are built to protect the natural setting and the F.S. cannot build facilities for urban sports. ‘All policies steers us from ever building terrain features,’ he said.

A slew of policies explicitly also make trail building illegal. According to Policy 261.9, it is illegal to ‘damage natural features’ and Policy 261.10 prohibits constructing ‘any kind of road, trail, structure, fence… or other improvement’ without permission. It is the ‘public’s responsibility to know these policies before embarking’ on any project on public lands, he said. ‘Before building, you might want to know where you are.’ (Find the policies online at fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/, click ‘Rules and Regulations,’ then the Title 36 link.)

Bike trails are not the only offenders. In recent years, the local F.S. has removed an ice-skating rink, paint-ball game area, archery range, BMX-style course, and other roads and trails.

Though Maddalena says the visitor-created bike trails in Coldstream Canyon and on Boca Hill were built relatively well, this is not the trend with bootleg trails. ‘They are generally poorly located and not well-built,’ he said. A lot of the trails go straight through wetlands, springs, archaeological sites, or natural habitats, demonstrating an unawareness of the land they are on, he said. For example, the local F.S. found two trails in Truckee this summer that went through historical Chinese camps, one of which Maddalena believes ‘has a lot of physical evidence that could fill a ‘knowledge gap’ in history’ – the period after the railroad was built and the Chinese were forced out of the area. Compared to the penalties for simply building a trail (maximum fine of $500 and 6 months in jail), destroying archaeological evidence is not a petty offense; offenders can be charged with the cost of recovering the site. On a recent project, with an archaeological site minor compared to the aforementioned, the archaeological study cost alone was $25,000, Maddalena said.

Liability, which many may think is the primary reason the F.S. is wary of these trails, is in fact the least clear. Maddalena wasn’t sure if the F.S. would be held responsible for user-built terrain features, but there is a ‘beautiful piece of legislation’ in California that says landowners are not responsible for activities on their land if that activity has not been expressly invited. But ‘if someone else builds [an unauthorized trail], are they responsible? I would think so,’ he said.

‘There are no standards for terrain features, no manuals for a safe ladder, or a safe teeter-totter. Until then, how do you know it is safe? And how does the next person on the trail know?’ Maddalena asked.

‘The process to approve a trail on public lands is cumbersome, for good reason,’ Maddalena said. ‘It takes a lot of thought to build trails on Forest Service lands, but we are doing it.’

Dean Lutz, Trails and Wilderness specialist for Tahoe National Forest Eastzone said a sustainable grade, less than 10 percent, is most important in building a bike trail. Anything over that ‘doesn’t hold’ and causes erosion. A real life contrast can be seen in two parallel trails that connect the Western States trail to the Tahoe Rim trail. The Forest Service trail contains a bunch of switchbacks, keeping a sustainable grade. Then there is a ‘social trail that goes straight down, with a grade over 30 percent in some portions,’ giving the trail the dubious title of ‘OTB’ or Over the Bars, Lutz said.

Local sustainable mountain bike trails on public land include the Sawtooth, Emigrant, Hole in the Ground, and in process, the Donner Rim trail, Lutz said. But the F.S. is starting to get ‘gun-shy’ on building new trails because of the ‘spine’ effect. With every new trail built, industrious riders start building off-shoot trails, and the new well-built trail becomes a ‘spine’ for other unauthorized trails. ‘The more spines that are built, the more our specialists will say ‘no’ to new trails,’ Maddalena said.

The job of trail designers is to balance excitement with sustainability. Keeping trails exciting discourages spine trails, Lutz said.

Last summer, the F.S. also removed another well-known freeride trail on Boca Hill, which locals call Lloyd’s. (‘I don’t want to use the name Lloyd’s trail. If Lloyd built the trail, he broke the law,’ Maddalena said.)

With these two trails gone, options for freeriders are dwindling (though there are other closely guarded secrets in the woods). And asking freeriders to ride the Emigrant trail is like asking Shane McConkey to stick to the blue runs at Northstar. It just ain’t happening.

But you might find the McConkeys of mountain biking at Northstar.

Outstripping demand
When Dan Warren became Northstar’s Mountain Bike Park Manager in the late 1990s, Northstar’s bike trails focused on cross-country riding and saw an estimated 8,000 riders in a summer season. But Warren saw freeriding coming with full-suspension bikes and realized that lift-facilitated mountain biking would fit the downhill crowd. Cross-country riders are ‘pedalers,’ bringing their bikes up the hill through people-power, but lifts are ‘the only way to lug a 40-pound downhill bike up the hill,’ he said.

Warren began adding more downhill trails to Northstar and in the process, ridership increased to 14,000 riders a season. With Northstar’s facelift in process this summer, however, the resort didn’t open the bike park. Warren thinks this pushed more riders to build bootleg trails. Warren says he understands.

‘By far, demand outstrips the supply of trails in the area,’ he said. ‘I wish the F.S. would make it easier to build new trails. They are slow to respond to need. Sawtooth was a five-year process.’ But Warren doesn’t condone bootleg trails. ‘About 95 percent of the people out there building [bootleg] trails don’t know what they’re doing,’ he said. Erosion, soil types and watershed issues are often not well understood and lead to a trail that doesn’t last. ‘You can build a trail that rides great for the first 20 people, but then turns into a trench,’ he said. ‘The environment is something to protect and many people don’t know how to do so.’

Since 1991 when the resort first offered lift-access bike riding, Northstar’s staff has been building trails, learning what only experience can teach. One veteran trail builder starting building Northstar trails at age 18 and has persevered for 8 years. A licensed building contractor reviews plans for every trail and feature before it is built, then examines the trails after construction, making suggestions for improvements throughout the process.

‘A lot of thought goes into building a sustainable trail, some of it is scientific, some experience, some seat of the pants…The key is keeping your eye on the trails, it’s a long-term process. There is no magic formula that works in all locations,’ Warren said. For example, after we had so much rain last winter, Northstar quickly realized which trails would hold up and which wouldn’t.

If you’re building features, you need to use properly treated lumber in footings or any part within 18 inches of the ground – this is a statewide construction policy, Warren said. Unless you use pressure treated wood or a concrete footing, the wood will rot and the feature will fail at some point.

Warren suggests that anybody interested in trail building should look to IMBA and use their resources; he has all their books.

Can IMBA save us?
The industry advocate, IMBA, is a good group to turn to because ‘we’re pretty sympathetic to any bike riders who want to ride,’ said Mark Eller, IMBA’s Communications Manager. They are familiar with the bootleg trail issue. ‘From coast to coast, it’s an issue we deal with everyday and it extends beyond the North American borders,’ he said.

IMBA has succeeded in helping develop well-built, community supported cross-country mountain bike trails around the world. IMBA’s successful formula involves bringing both mountain bikers and land managers into the fold, providing education on trail building and how to work together. By facilitating a cooperative relationship, IMBA works to overcome the fear of the unknown. ‘From the very beginning, the sport has been a challenge to land mangers,’ Eller said. ‘Mountain biking is only 30 to 40 years old and compared to other activities, it’s the ‘new kid on the block.’ Freeriding is the even ‘newer kid.’ Since IMBA’s success has historically been in the realm of cross-country trails, the advent of downhill riding caused the organization to reassess fears even among their own ranks.

‘Some cross-country riders do think freeriding is a travesty, but these riders used to be the young punks themselves,’ Eller said. A few decades ago, cross-country riders were going through the same struggles as freeriders are today, he said, and IMBA is trying to get everyone to understand that the same successes that brought well done cross-country trails are also possible in the freeriding world. It’s important to give people the opportunity to express different styles of riding, ‘we know freeriders are there, we can’t whisk them away, so we have to work to see how to work with them,’ he said.

When requested, there have been very few regions where IMBA hasn’t been able to find a way to incorporate technical trails – there is almost always a creative solution available, Eller said. In Seattle for example, a two-acre urban park – the first of its kind – was created underneath a section of Interstate 5, which offers riders a wide range of technical trail features while being under cover from incessant rain. As with this park, the nice thing about technical trails is that they don’t necessary need a lot of acreage, he said.

But successes do not include building unauthorized trails, Eller said. Building unauthorized trails is a ‘bad idea because land managers will eventually find and remove them and it sets up an antagonistic relationship.’ IMBA encourages local biking clubs to engage with land managers to set up a working cooperative relationship. ‘It’s better to apply for permission, because even though it may be a long daunting process, it will be a better built trail in the end.’

Success in Tahoe
Garrett Villanueva, an engineer with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) of the F.S., has been working on trails in the Tahoe area for more than eight years. He has seen and removed many user-created trails around South Lake Tahoe. But recognizing that riders only get better with opportunity for challenge, he is also working to create more freeriding trails in the area, with demonstrable success.

In 2006, LTBMU hired IMBA to redesign the Corral Loop trail, just outside South Lake Tahoe city limits, to appeal to more advanced riders and make it more sustainable. The process started in 2001 and solicited input from local riders, the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and multiple user groups. Then the long process of designing, evaluating, and approving the trail ensued.

It was already an advanced trail, but it had issues like severe erosion/drainage problems and ‘baby heads’ – scattered smaller rocks. The trail’s design let people ride too fast, which was tearing it up. The revamping included rerouting, extensive rock armoring, bermed turns, and natural technical features like log rides and rock drops.

The trail was linked to two others, offering at least eight loop options. Trail usage has doubled since and riders don’t feel the need to build unauthorized trails, Villanueva said. Though the technical features push the ‘upper limit’ of what’s allowable on F.S. lands, it stays within them by using natural features instead of ‘bringing two-by-fours and nails into the forest,’ Villanueva said. In the end, he said, it’s up to local rangers to decide what is sustainable on their land.

Villanueva echoes the sentiment that the process to build trails on Forest Service is long and involved but it is for good reason. ‘I’m kind of an expert in soil, drainage, and trail building, but I have to go to other experts on other matters of trail building, like natural and archaeological resources protection,’ he said. With more than 30 different regulatory acts, such as the Clean Water Act, to take into account, ‘it takes a team to do the job.’

Villanueva believes the ‘most universal thing that needs to happen’ in the Truckee area is intense public involvement to form a collaborative relationship with the Forest Service. He suggests that riders say ‘yes, we know we made some mistakes, what can we do now?’

Heeding the Call
A group of riders in the Truckee area recently started meeting to talk and plan ways they can promote and build trails legally. The group, comprised primarily of employees and friends of local bike shops, wants trails ‘that people want to ride,’ while designing the trails to shed water properly, minimize erosion, and are sustainable, said Greg Forsyth, owner of Cyclepaths in Truckee and Tahoe City.

‘Illegal trails aren’t being built because people have nothing else to do with their time,’ Forsyth said. ‘It’s because there’s a need for them.’

The group decided they wanted to form an organization to further their mission and instead of ‘reinventing the wheel,’ has decided to ‘revive’ the North Lake Tahoe chapter of the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association (TAMBA). TAMBA has been around for years, primarily focused on trail maintenance and mountain biking access to existing trails, but as of late has been largely inactive, Forsyth said. But TAMBA representatives, based in South Lake Tahoe, said they are going through the same things down south – options for challenging riding are slim, and illegal trails are being built and taken down.

The Truckee group is ‘moving forward under the banner of TAMBA, and should have a good group going by spring,’ Forsyth said. They also have been researching other communities, such as Hood River in Oregon where bikers have obtained land for trails and even received sponsorships from the local lumber company. The trails are supported by the community at large and ridden by lots of riders – including kids.

‘Mountain biking gets kids off couches and video games,’ Forsyth said. ‘I’d like to see more kids get into the sport.’

Forsyth said the group isn’t focusing solely on freeriding; they want to build trails for all riding at all levels. ‘Freeriding is simply mountain biking with stunts,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t want to build just for hot-shots.’ He described a trail built with options – a sweeping dirt track wrapping around three stunts, ranging from easy to expert. A Whistler, B.C., mountain biking group is sending the new Truckee group a book that serves as a ‘manual’ on building trails.

In addition to working with public lands, the Truckee group has their eyes set on the private sector. ‘That’s where I think it’s at to get more challenging trails,’ Forsyth said. They have a couple of leads with local landowners, but since talks are in the infancy stages, Forsyth declined to give details.

The group has met four times so far and will continue to meet throughout winter. If you’d like information, contact Forsyth at Cyclepaths, 582-1890.

Immaculate Timing
Over the next few weeks, there will be key opportunities for riders to voice their opinions and concerns to the F.S.

The OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) Route Designation process is ongoing statewide. Citing increasing numbers of OHV trails on public lands, the F.S. is developing an official trail system to create ‘a route system that offers a fun and challenging experience, while protecting sensitive areas.’ What does this have to do with mountain biking? The F.S. considers mountain bikes OHVs.

The first two steps of the five-step process, the inventory of existing trails and a temporary order prohibiting wheeled vehicle use on these trails, have concluded. In step three, the F.S. will evaluate the inventoried trails, collaborate with the public, and determine which trails should be included. A series of questions proposed by UC Davis and the F.S. will determine which characteristics make a trail ‘challenging, popular, or totally uninteresting.’

The Jackass and Boca Hill trails are included on the list. To see a map of trails under consideration, visit fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/projects_plans/ohv_inv/index.shtml#map.

There will be a public meeting regarding step three on December 5 at 6:30 p.m., at the Truckee Sanitary District Office Field Services Building on Joerger Drive.

For information about the process, contact Jeff Wiley, Trail Coordinator for the Truckee and Sierraville Ranger Districts, at 530-994-3401, extension 6667. To receive updates on the OHV process, contact Ann Westling, Public Affairs Officer, atawestling@fs.fed.us.

Though the F.S. currently considers mountain bikes OHVs, not everyone agrees with that designation. Thus the F.S. and IMBA will conduct public listening sessions throughout California to solicit public input. The sessions are being held in major urban areas (the closest one to Tahoe is in Folsom on Nov. 30). If you can’t attend and would like to comment on what should be incorporated into a statewide plan, email mtbplan@fs.fed.us by December 15.

IMBA Resources
The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has a comprehensive resource section on their website all about Freeriding (www.imba.com/resources/freeriding/), including places to freeride, guides to building freeriding trails and a bank of success stories.

Author

  • Mayumi Peacock

    Hailing from a U.S. military family and a graduate of the University of Florida, Mayumi Peacock has lived in several corners of the country and globe, yet Tahoe/Truckee has been her home since 1999. She is founder and publisher of Moonshine Ink, the region’s award-winning independent newspaper, which continues to be created by, for, and of the community. Other passions include family, animals, books, healthy living, and humane food.

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