By Sal Ruibal
After a long, hot summer on the East Coast that began in April and appears to be finally turning into autumn, we are getting rain. Lots of rain. I can’t complain because the dry streak gave me many more days to ride in the woods.
When I first started riding on Flintstone bikes with stone wheels and log frames, we pushed our bikes with bare feet over dinosaur dung and mud left after Noah’s flood.
Mud all over your face, jersey, shorts and bike was considered a badge of honor. The 24 Hours of Canaan was usually knee-deep in shoe-sucking mud. My first lap ever at Canaan was a climb up a ski run made entirely of peanut-butter muck.
And then we would put our bikes on stands and blast them with a high-pressure hose.
Boy, were we ever dumb.
Here’s what the trail experts at IMBA have to say about mud: “Be sensitive to the dirt beneath you. Wet and muddy trails are more vulnerable to damage than dry ones. When the trail is soft, consider other riding options. This also means staying on existing trails and not creating new ones. Don’t cut switchbacks.”
It has been my experience that the riders who grind through mud and cut corners are also riders who never show up on trail maintenance day and don’t teach less experienced riders about how to properly ride a trail.
I didn’t say “legally” ride a trail because we don’t need laws to tell us how to use toilet paper or ride a trail. Mountain biking and its customs were passed down from our elders, the original giants who still walk the Earth.
Proper riding doesn’t mean prissy riding, it means respect for the opportunity to have loads of fun with your buds on what is almost always public land that was turned into your playground by men and women who busted their butts to bench-cut flowing trails that aren’t erosion-prone and rutted.
And those rock gardens that are armoring erosion-prone climbs are fun to ride while also eliminating big ruts caused by wheel-spinning nabobs who don’t have rock-climbing skills but lack enough sense to get off their bike and walk a little bit. Instead they ride a new rut next to the rock-covered old ruts.
There are going to be times when you’re doing everything right and a mud hole appears on the trail. If the hole is almost as wide as the trail, feel free to ride gently through it. I often see well-meaning riders squeak past the edges of the hole, but that just ends up weakening the edges of the hole, thus making it bigger. Ride slow and avoid splashing. [Confession: I once was a serial rear-wheel splasher who loved to stain my buddies riding behind me.]
Sometimes race organizers have to face tough choices about cancelling or postponing events because the trails are too muddy. I once raced a course in Maryland that had watery mud up to the top tube on my bike. The race went on and I raced it but I should have just gone home. My bike was trashed for no good reason.
God bless race organizers. We need them. Putting on races is an expensive gamble. Coming up with trail alternatives at the last minute is just one more crisis to handle. The only answer I can think of is holding a trail repair day as soon as possible, which ethical race organizers do anyway.
There are a lot fewer mud problems these days because of the trail standards established by IMBA and the efforts by bike park managers to build sustainable and exciting courses. IMBA’s Flow Country program is a big step forward for both riders and land managers. Well-armored skills parks at trailheads provide an alternative to skipping a ride because of muddy conditions. Country dirt roads, at least here in the nearby Shenandoahs, are fun to ride and don’t suffer much from fat bike tires.
If you really want a mudfest, try some cyclocross. I’m still waiting for the “beer hand-up” to come to MTB racing.