Words and Photos by Danielle Baker
Secret trails are something of a currency in the bike world and about the only thing that makes our sport remotely punk rock. We trade them for cool points or hold on to them, dropping subtle hints in conversations to elevate our perceived social status. “If you don’t know about it, you shouldn’t ride it.” Mountain biking is not sexy, so secret trails cascading down our mountains like the phantom octopi tentacles is about all we’ve got. People go hunting for them like treasure. And develop feelings of ownership, much like Gollum and his precious. Joeys shouldn’t ride them, but they always do. So who tells them where they are and why shouldn’t they? Who actually owns a secret trail? With hands raised, there is the trail builder who doesn’t own the land, the landowner who didn’t build the trail, the inner circle of the first riders to know about it (who didn’t build the trail nor do they own the land) and the community as a whole.
Much like street art, many see the building of secret trails as ego-driven illegal actions that are detrimental to the environments they are created in. However in recent years both have been described as ‘a global tourism force,’ making street artists and recluse trail builders more Warhol than rebel. Recently a ‘Banksy’ sold for $1.1 million through a private auction house. The auctioneers claimed that the sale was legal as the anonymous seller of the work owned the building on which it had been painted and subsequently removed from. The community of the North London area in which the image, depicting a boy laboring over a sewing machine to make United Kingdom flags, was originally stenciled launched an international campaign to halt the sale. Raising the issue of who morally owns public art. Is it the creation or the land that takes priority for ownership or does the combination create an automatic default to the greater community?
At some point in every emerging mountain bike community, illegal trails are necessary to grow the sport. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and it is impossible to prove to a political body that mountain biking is a viable community sport if you don’t already have somewhere to ride. The secrecy is necessitated by the use of land we don’t own. And at some point that secrecy creates a divide between those who know and those who don’t. Location knowledge of these trails gives you the popularity advantage of the first girl to develop in high school.
Much like the gossip of any small community, ‘secret’ does not actually mean something to be kept unknown or unseen by others; it is actually a medium of exchange. It is new knowledge that we tuck away and will use to our gain when necessary. A secret will never actually be kept and a secret trail has a life expectancy, a short one. For every new rider who rides it, the knowledge of it decreases in value. For every friend who replies to your offering with ‘Yeah, I rode that trail last week’ you lose an edge. Like everything else in our lives, the more people who know about it, and the more it has been used, the less value it holds for us, the less our inner hipsters want it.
At what point in the process from conception to value to just another trail does it become community property, if ever? Has a trail ever been built with the expectation that no one would ever know about it, that no one but the builder would ride it? While some would happily live on the side of a mountain and raise goats alone, not many want to ride in solitude every single day. Even Banksy has friends. And he has a passion to share his creations with others, what value would his work have if it was all just hanging over the fireplace in his apartment? Human nature says every builder will tell a friend and, burdened with the weight of knowing something that no one else knows, they will tell two friends, and those two friends will tell four friends and so on and so on. In strong riding communities the life expectancy of a secret trail is only a few months at best.
Now the trail knowledge has cascaded to the masses and the community has claimed it. The loam has gone, the Joeys are sliding through the soft dirt corners with locked up brakes like vultures picking the remains off a carcass. The trails become worthless as a currency, but like public art available to the masses it becomes protected, the owner becomes the community, and it has support to be legalized and maintained, or at the very least to have the public eye look the other way. Banksy’s ‘Slave Labor’ stencil, sadly, took the opposite route and went from public to private; sold to an owner who couldn’t see the irony of paying $1.1 million dollars for a public art piece stolen off the side of a thrift store depicting child labor. The privatization of public art is why the life span of our trails gives them value.
Much like we fight aging, we try to fight the natural life of a secret trail. We want to keep it pristine and untouched, we want to keep the loam and keep it exclusive. But it won’t last and it shouldn’t last. While these trails will always have a place for developing riding scenes, filming and recluses, if our world ran solely on secrecy and the cliques it creates we would never have connected a solid community that has legalized trails and pushes daily to develop more resources for all of us. Even the Joeys. And for every secret trail you have just discovered there is another being scoped, planned, dreamed and conceived….