By Sal Ruibal
Seeing (on video and still photos) the tremendous leaps and bounds of freeriding at RedBull Rampage this week was very exciting. The boundaries of what can be done on a bike are expanding every day.
The athletes who perform those mountain bike gymnastics risk their lives in the pursuit of perfection. I take my helmet off in salute to their courage. But then I put my helmet back on because I have my own riding to do. I'm a volunteer trail liaison for the two county parks in my neck of the Virginia woods.
In Fairfax County, all of the parks are tied together by the County Connector Trail (CCT). I'm new at the job, which is letting the county know what cyclists who use the parks need from the local government (more trails, better trails, etc.) and communicating to cyclists through the local IMBA/MORE chapter what the county is doing in our parks that might affect cyclists, such as the police-observed killing of deer by rifle or arrows at night.
Yes, in a park system that abuts the infamous grid-locked Washington Beltway and is about 16 miles as the crow flies from the White House, there are so many wild deer that the county has to arrange "management" periods to cull the herds with snipers and archers.
This is also a dense suburban area where night riding in the parks has been severely curtailed due to neighborhood complaints of rowdiness, rampant tomfoolery and the use of illegal substances by said riders.
Because of the easy access by foot and rail to the parks and thick foliage, the woods are also the temporary home of an unknown number of homeless folk who sleep in the woods and all that entails: staying warm by building fires, urinating and defecating, dumping trash and scaring the citizens.
I ride or walk around the parks nearly every day and lately I have been seeing more toilet paper on the ground near trails. My guess is that wet, cold weather is now sending more homeless people into crowded shelters and the overflow is moving into the woods. It is only going to get colder as winter nears and the warm-weather jobs disappear.
Looking over my handlebars, these woods are still lovely, dark and deep. I've been riding mountain bikes here since 1996 and the hard work by MORE and the county has created a wonderful playground for us. The cross-country race course, flowing creek trails and dirt jumping areas are vital parts of our community and are well used.
The CCT is a valuable commuter route that funnels riders to all parts of the county and, most importantly, to the paved W&OD bike trail that leads to and from Washington, D.C., keeping thousands of cars off the roads.
The real world is encroaching on what used to be our wonderland of tight, rocky, rooty trails that were crisscrossed with huge spider webs and multiple creek crossings. Our secret garden of night riding is no longer a spontaneous expression shared by just a few hardcore buddies, but an appointment that must be scheduled. "Siri, let the boys know we have a reservation at Wakefield trails from 5 p.m. to 6:30."
Mountain biking can't become just another made-for-TV Olympic sport with dumbed-down UCI courses. And it can't just be CrankWorx and Rampage because so few of us have the mad skills and big balls to fly through the air without snapping our ankles. I'm lucky to have health insurance.
Mountain biking needs to be accessible by all kinds of bikes, not just Red Bull helicopters or ski lifts. IMBA is working on building more entry-level trail systems in suburban and urban areas. Skills courses are magnets for new riders and a welcome change of pace for seasoned vets. Night riding should be expanded where and when suitable.
But we are also citizens of the world and have to look out for those folks who live and sleep in the woods. At night, they see the lights in the nearby warm and comfortable homes, with kids at the supper table with mom and dad, canned laughter from TV screens and a bathroom with a private flush toilet for every bedroom.
When I see those crumpled, nasty wads of toilet paper in the woods on my daily patrol, I think about my own charmed life but also about how many of our friends and neighbors are just one bad break away from having to wipe their butts in the cold, dark woods.
As bike riders and human beings, we still have some big gaps to cross.