Sketch: Cascades Crusader
James Munly, a driving force behind legal trailbuilding in Leavenworth, Washington
This story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Bike magazine.Click here to subscribe to Bike’s digital edition.
Words by Heather Hansman
Photos by Garrett Grove
JAMES MUNLY, TRAILBUILDER, BIKE SHOP OWNER, COMMUNITY pillar, ex-vigilante, is in the grape-colored bathroom of his bike shop, Das Rad Haus, in Leavenworth, Washington. He points at a picture of his wife. In it, she’s pregnant with their first kid, just barely showing, hitting a huge gap jump on the Tres Hombres trail, east of town. An hour ago, he started telling a story about trailbuilding, but it’s spiraled into a personal history, a send-up of the local bike scene, and an explanation of the photo gallery splattered across the bathroom walls. And now he’s standing next to the toilet, excited, talking fast and loud. That’s sort of how Munly operates: His family life, his work and his community are all woven together by riding.
Leavenworth, where the granite spires of the North Cascades roll into the plains of Eastern Washington, has been the scene of a decades-long fight between mountain bikers and the US Forest Service. Locals would build illegal trails in the hills above town, ride them for a short time, then the land managers would block them off, citing public hazard. This cycle would repeat, over and over. It often resulted in non-sober yelling matches at public meetings. But now they’ve finally found common ground–the first legal, Forest Service-backed trail was finished this summer–and Munly was at the heart of it. He’s been the guy organizing rides and building trails, but he’s also the go-between for riders and the Forest Service. For a long time he played both sides, breaking rocks and building bridges on illegal trails, while also trying to speak the language of bureaucracy, but now he’s brought them together. “People had chips on their shoulders on both sides,” he says.
Munly talks fast, but he moves slow, which is probably why he hasn’t tired in the fight to build legal trails. He’s been to years of meetings, organized volunteer groups and found a way to explain to the doubters why mountain-bike trails are good. “I can bang my head against the wall for a long time,” he says. It helps that some of the old-school rangers who valued logging over mountain biking have retired or passed away.
Munly grew up on the west side of the mountains, in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, and came to Leavenworth to ski patrol at the nearby Stevens Pass Ski Area. Seventeen years ago, bored in the summer after injuring his knee skiing, he made the switch from riding a few days a month to being on his bike every day, ripping the trails around town. “You ride up to these ridgelines and you start to realize the potential here,” he says.
He opened Das Rad Haus–‘rad’ means ‘bicycle’ in German, reflecting Leavenworth’s faux Bavarian theme–in 2000. He and his wife, Kristine, initially lived upstairs. Rides started from their front door every day in the summer, and when someone needed a tube for an early-morning start, they’d throw pebbles at the upstairs bedroom window until someone came down and opened the shop. When the Munlys had their first kid, Ryder, nine years ago, they moved out of the shop, but Munly is still neck deep in the bike scene.
These days, his biggest project is getting more trails approved. The first one, 4 the Boys, has been popular with locals, tourists and the Forest Service alike, so there are a bunch of other projects in the works. The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, Washington’s trailbuilding advocacy group, just opened a chapter in Leavenworth, and Munly is the first paid employee. On top of that, he’s started a school bike league, organized events like the annual Bavarian Bikes and Brews race and was instrumental in the opening of the Stevens Pass Bike Park. And he still runs his shop. In the summer, he’s out on the trails breaking rocks, and this winter he raised $10,000 for the Evergreen Alliance by going door to door.
When asked how much time he has for riding, he laughs. “Why do you think I weigh 225 instead of 200?” But Munly lights up when he talks about building trails, finding the perfect climbing grade and how to angle berms just right.
Finding the balance can be a little overwhelming, but he’s finally able to build the trails he wants. And now that he’s working for the Alliance, he’s got some power on his side.
“I don’t have to work for the Forest Service, or a ski area with a crazy owner,” he says. “I have to work with them, but I can drive the agenda I want, and I want my kids and my grandkids to be able to ride trails here.”