Editor’s note: This is the second installment of our four-part series, ‘Lines in the Dirt,’ chronicling mountain bike access around the U.S. You can read the first chapter here. Up next on April 4: the untold story of Montana’s de-facto Wilderness roots.
MOUNTAIN BIKING IS NOT A CRIME. So says the sticker on Davey Simon’s rear bumper, anyway.
It’s a postcard October afternoon on the Northern California coast. Simon emerges from the small cottage where he lives in Point Reyes Station and walks around to a shed in the backyard. He is building up a bike and a new fork has arrived. He doesn’t try to hide his glee, even if few of his neighbors can relate to it.
With 125 miles of world-class trails just down the street from his home, Simon’s options for a test ride might seem to be endless. Except most are off limits to Simon and anyone else riding a bike. That’s because they are located within Point Reyes National Seashore, one of the country’s most popular national parks and a crown jewel among Marin County’s natural splendors—as well as home to the Phillip Burton Wilderness. Simon has time for a quick happy-hour ride after spending the day with his 7-month-old son, Miles, and plans to pedal out and back on the Bear Valley Trail, a smooth, flat, 15-foot-wide thoroughfare posing as singletrack on maps.
Simon, 38, is well built and balding, with a thick brown beard that frames his frequent grins. He has lived in Marin almost all his life, first in Corte Madera, then in Novato, and now on the county’s western edge surrounded by rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean. Considering that Marin is widely regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking yet affords some of the worst mountain-bike access in the world, it is probably not an accident that Simon sits on the board of directors for the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), a hard-line mountain-bike advocacy group that is trying to overturn the nationwide ban on bikes in Wilderness.
Simon has identified himself on the popular mountain-biking forum MTBR.com as an “outspoken hothead,” but in person he comes across as rational, albeit impassioned. “One of the most frustrating things for me as a volunteer cycling advocate,” he says, “is hearing from people across the nation that there’s no reason to ride in the 2 percent of land mass that’s designated Wilderness. For me, that’s a third of the bike-legal trails in the county—125 miles of trails—so it’s significant.”
Simon pedals along in a hooded sweatshirt, pointing out what he deems irrational closures along the way. At one junction, two small signs indicating no bikes allowed are in danger of being consumed by bushes. At another, a sign declares, “No wheeled vehicles” alongside a highly trafficked road and the Rift Zone singletrack.
“It’s amazing,” Simon says, shaking his head as cows mill about at dusk. “It’s not Wilderness, because there’s a highway next to it and there’s ranching going on next to it, and yet there’s no bikes allowed.”
This is the Marin County that Simon and so many other avid riders maintain a love-hate relationship with. A tantalizing, bountiful resource that, legally at least, doesn’t have room for them. Lately, more and more riders have been leaving Marin—and California as a whole—and moving to “recreation-positive communities” like Ashland, Oregon, or Bellingham, Washington.
Simon, too, has pondered that prospect, reluctantly. “My son’s only seven months old, so I’m willing to see what happens in the coming years,” he says. “But as soon as he’s 10 years old, if things haven’t changed, I’m leaving too.” He lets the statement sink in for a moment. “But I love it here. This is my hometown.”
Why is it still so hard to mountain bike where the sport was invented? It’s a question that has vexed riders for decades, with no clear answer.
Marin is home to roughly 355 miles of singletrack on public land. About 30 of those miles, or eight percent, are open to bikes. (That figure does not include 10 miles of trail that local riders built on private land owned by the Boy Scouts, who receive usage fees from everyone who rides there.) By contrast, equestrians have access to more than 70 percent of Marin’s narrow trail, which is governed by five primary land managers. And hikers have access to all of it.
Locals will tell you it is precisely because the sport was invented in Marin that it remains such a tricky place to ride. Lest one forget, decades before Charlie Kelly staged the first Repack Downhill race on Mount Tamalpais in 1976, Marin and the surrounding area already comprised a hub for conservationists. The Sierra Club was founded across the bay in San Francisco in 1892; the Marin Conservation League (MCL), one of the most powerful local environmental groups in America, formed in 1934. Hikers have flocked to the county’s trails since the turn of the 20th century, says MCL board member Nona Dennis.
As recently as 1973, hikers, horsemen and cyclists actually united to preserve trail access at Point Reyes, according to a story in the inaugural edition of the Marin Horse News. But when Kelly, Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze, et al., began modifying their clunkers to ride fast on dirt, the other groups got scared. “And given that [mountain bikers] had no representation, these groups succeeded in gaining the ears of the land managers,” explains Vernon Huffman, president of Access4Bikes (A4B), a political advocacy nonprofit that was founded in 1999 to increase the bike-legal singletrack in Marin. As a result, many of Marin’s trails were closed to bikes in the early to mid ’80s and remain closed (this includes almost all Point Reyes trails and all trails on Marin Municipal Water District land, notably Mount Tamalpais).
At the time, Huffman estimates, mountain bikers comprised maybe five percent of trail users in Marin. Now, as population pressure from surrounding areas has surged—Marin is surrounded by some 7 million people, many of whom still treat it as their outdoor playground—mountain bikers make up between 25 and 50 percent of users, depending on the source. But their access has not seen a commensurate increase, which has led to rampant poaching and a simmering feud between cyclists and old-guard hikers and equestrians.
It also created a chicken-or-egg debate that exists, in some form, in communities throughout California: Are mountain bikers outlaws by nature or necessity? Longtime local Jim Jacobsen, who spent 20 years as president of Bicycle Trails of Marin and has the beleaguered-activist tone of voice to prove it, chalks up the conflicts to poor management. “Areas where they have restrictions on bicycles are where they have all the problems,” he says. “We’re deemed second-class citizens, and when you deem people second-class citizens, they act like it.”
Nona Dennis, one of the most vocal opponents to increased mountain-bike access, disagrees. “Our trails weren’t designed for multi-use,” she says. “They were designed for people who were walking at 2 to 3 mph, joggers going maybe 4 to 6 mph. They weren’t designed for bicycles going 15, 20 mph or more. The grade, the line of sight, they’re narrow.”
Dennis, 87, counts herself a member of the “Footpeople,” a small, informal group that opposes bike access in concert with MCL and the Marin Audubon Society—and overlaps with their memberships. She says she feels like she has to walk with a rearview mirror and that mountain bikers “whine” about singletrack instead of being grateful for the hundreds of miles of fire roads where they have legal access. “The bikers complain and say, ‘Oh, it’s turning into a police state,’ and I say, ‘BS,’” Dennis says. “You have to have enforcement because some people don’t like to obey the rules and they have to know there are consequences.”
Lately the enforcement has included surveillance cameras that text photos of poachers to officers’ cell phones. The county recently purchased two new LIDAR guns to clock riders’ speeds. A few locals have begun riding in facemasks.
Really, though, it’s not as bad as it sounds, advocates say. Hence the joke: “The only real user conflict happens in Room 330” of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, leaky-roofed county civic center, where a vocal few represent the masses at public meetings. As Simon admits in an unguarded moment: “I kind of admire the antis. Because they’re such a small group and yet they’re so successful. It’s Machiavellian almost.”
Rachel Lloyd, a recently retired pro cyclist and 20-year resident of Marin who grew up in Bellingham, uses a different word to explain why multi-use trails work elsewhere but not where she lives. “It just feels to me like there’s a lot of entitlement here,” she says. “I don’t know why some people feel like they’re entitled to the land over another person. I don’t know if it has to do with money? I’m like, I’m a person too! When I’m not on my bike, I like to hike and run and listen to birds. And I feel like I’m that same person when I’m on a bike.” Lloyd pauses to consider the future. She shrugs. “I know we can all get along, but I don’t know if the solution is to have us on the same trails.”
Marin is hardly the only place in Northern California that is still confronting mountain-bike access issues. Last year in Los Altos Hills near Silicon Valley, high speeds on Strava helped convince the city council to ban bikes from a trail in Byrne Preserve. The trail was a short, unessential connector, but it sent a ripple through the bike advocacy world about the dangers of Strava—and made riders realize they had to police themselves or risk losing more important trails than the half-mile casualty in Los Altos.
Two years earlier, in 2014, a rogue downhill trail called Pete’s Wicked was discovered in a remote area of the Soquel Demonstration State Forest in Santa Cruz, one of the most popular riding zones in Northern California. The trail crossed private land, and the landowner was incensed. Angela Bernheisel, who managed the forest for Cal Fire and had gone out of her way to provide access for mountain bikers, wrote a letter that threatened to shut down construction of a new flow trail if the local bike community didn’t help her address the problem.
Mark Davidson, then-president of the local IMBA chapter, Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, saw a host of well-known names, including some pros, on the Strava leaderboard for the trail in question. He emailed people in the local bike industry and asked them to stop riding it—and to spread the word to others. Strava complied with a request to remove the segment from its website. Within days, Bernheisel got an apology from the local who built the trail, industry influencers shared Davidson’s message far and wide, and a crew of inmates went out and demolished the trail.
“Angela mentioned afterward that she was really impressed with the speed of our response,” Davidson says.
The incident demonstrated the power of self-policing, something many feel is absent in Marin, but it also raised a question: Does it matter that Bernheisel had to threaten mountain bikers’ access before they policed themselves?
That question might be a moot point in the North Lake Tahoe adventure hub of Truckee, four hours east of San Francisco, where urban weekend warriors go to play. For years, Truckee’s high-elevation trails were inferior to those that existed closer to the lake. Lately, though, the town has seen a dramatic rise in the quality and quantity of singletrack, much of it accessible from downtown. As standout local rider Aaron Breitbard says, “When people move to the area, they’re like, ‘I got so lucky, there are so many trails I can get to from my house.’ The joke is you have to be unlucky not to have trails from your house.”
Still, many of the most popular trails are not system trails. They were built by mountain bikers specifically for mountain biking on Forest Service land—masterfully but without permission. The trails, including a revered route called Yogi Bear, are on Strava. Forest Service staff know about them. Locals wonder whether their go-to routes will eventually be adopted as system trails or decommissioned.
Bike requested an interview with Joe Flannery, who oversees trails and Wilderness for the Truckee Ranger District, last October. The Forest Service finally authorized Flannery to talk in February. “I would say that right now the conversation is leaning toward including an environmentally vetted version of Yogi’s,” Flannery said, though the route will likely be altered in places. Most believe the other rogue trails will be adopted, too, even if it means partnering with locals or a nonprofit like the Truckee Donner Land Trust—which committed $500,000 to trail construction and maintenance last year, more than ten times the Truckee Ranger District’s budget—to maintain them.
Not coincidentally, political will is abundant in Truckee. The town taxed itself in 2014 to fatten its trails budget, a measure that passed at 76 percent and provides $1 million per year. John Svahn, the stewardship director for the Truckee Donner Land Trust, can spend an hour rattling off major trail-construction projects that will soon connect Truckee to a host of satellite communities, some as far as 60 miles away.
“There’s more shit happening here next summer than has happened in the last 10 years,” says Greg Forsyth, longtime owner of Cycle Paths Bike Shop.
“I call it a trails renaissance,” adds Kevin Joell of the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association.
Still, despite the progress, many locals still confront what they perceive to be access inequalities on a daily basis. The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT (cheekily called the “Perfect Cycling Trail” in Tahoe), remains closed to bikes, as do a number of Wilderness trails in the area. Not that that stops people from riding them. Tickets are steep if you get caught—$500 for a first offense—but to many the risk is worth it.
“It’s a bit of civil disobedience,” says a Truckee local who goes by A-Train and agreed to be interviewed only if his identity would remain anonymous. “I look at it as, you know, Rosa Parks sat on a bus. They said, hey, you have to sit in the back of the bus. And she said, no, I’m sitting in the front of the bus. Mountain biking is not on the same level of segregation, but if we don’t ride the trails, we’re just giving in and saying, yes, discrimination against mountain bikers is OK. And the reality is, it’s not OK.”
A-Train, who rides illegal trails three to four days a week, calls himself “Wilderness Rider” on MTBR forums. He does it to “drive thought,” he says. When a hiker questions why he is riding the PCT in spite of the ban, he deadpans, “I’m trying to do the first through-ride to Canada.
He gave advocacy a shot, he says. Wrote letters to his senators and congressmen, attended meetings, made his case for opening up the PCT to bikes. Their response was always the same: Picking that fight would amount to political suicide. So A-Train, who says he is indifferent to conflict, simply goes about his business, rules and reactions be damned.
“One time a guy had this high-end carbon walking stick, and he started yelling at me about my bike on the trail and hitting my bike with his stick,” A-Train says. “So his stick ended up in a few pieces very quickly. I have no problem getting medieval on someone if they’re going to get in my face.” He cackles. “I try to avoid all that. I’m not that type of person.”
Then he continues. “Here’s the reality: I’m going to ride through. Like, you’re not going to stop me from riding through. I’ve got ultimate respect for law enforcement, but some random Joe hiker has no more authority to tell me to get off a trail than I do telling him to slow down on the interstate. I’m in my 40s and I probably only have another 15 years of riding these big, technical trails aggressively. So I might as well go do it.”
Burton Eubank can relate. A 50-year-old Rastafarian with long orange dreadlocks sprouting from his chin, Eubank works as a fire captain and EMT in Inverness, a small community in western Marin County that abuts Point Reyes National Seashore. He rides Marin’s singletrack, including the illegal sections, as a means of transportation between towns. Everyone knows him: He’s the only guy who rides 16 hours straight in jeans and a T-shirt at a race pace.
“I don’t own spandex or a skinny-tire bicycle,” Eubank says. “I’m a mountain biker, that’s what’s in my heart, and I refuse to have that taken away from me when it’s a victimless crime.”
In his 44 years riding in Marin, Eubank says he has never had a negative interaction with another trail user. During that same time, he has been ticketed twice for poaching. Roughly 10 years ago, in Point Reyes, he says a group of six rangers and a sheriff’s deputy formed a wall in the middle of a road and cited him and his wife, as well as their friend Gravy, for riding in Wilderness. “They said, ‘You’re not allowed to ride a bicycle here,’” Eubank recalls. “And I looked at their vehicles and I said, ‘But you’re allowed to drive your vehicles here?’ And they said, ‘Well, yes.’” The rangers confiscated their bikes. Only after Eubank and his wife appeared in federal court in San Francisco and paid a $550 fine did they get their bikes back.
The other time Eubank was ticketed, he says, he took a wrong turn and didn’t see another trail user for four hours until an open-space ranger surprised him in Novato. Eubank appeared in court for that citation, too. “After making the ranger read the law out of his little book,” Eubank recalls, “the judge laughed at him and said, ‘All right, well, I don’t understand why it’s illegal for people to ride mountain bikes in Marin County, and I think this is a ridiculous thing.’ And he threw the ticket out.”
Eubank’s citations did not make the news, but among the incidents that have, you could argue none was more polarizing than an alleged physical assault in February 2015 by a thirty-something male mountain biker on a 65-year-old hiker named Pamela Reaves. Reaves, a Marin Conservation League board member and well-known anti-bike activist, claimed the biker failed to yield to her while pedaling up a gravel fire road, near the junction with the 680 Trail. “He said, ‘Move over, bitch,’ as he began to ride into me,” Reaves told the Marin Independent Journal. When she grabbed his handlebars, Reaves said, the rider screamed obscenities and she tried to take his picture with her phone, angering him further. At that point, according to Reaves, the rider got off his bike and “charged on foot full-force down the hill at me and grabbed me by my shoulders and lifted me up off the ground and threw me off the road down the hillside.” She said she suffered a concussion and a broken rib. “I could’ve been killed,” she told the newspaper.
The altercation received widespread coverage in outlets including the San Francisco Chronicle and on Bay Area TV newscasts, casting local mountain bikers as bullies who had crossed the line yet again.
There was only one problem with all the coverage: According to the lone witness to the incident, an assault never happened.
Jim Vattuone, a 48-year-old mountain biker, called 911 shortly after the alleged altercation to report Reaves screaming at him so angrily that he feared for his safety. Vattuone’s name was misspelled in the sheriff’s department report, but the spelling was close enough that a Google search brought up his LinkedIn page and cell phone number. In an interview last November about the incident, Vattuone said he was riding with his head down 10 yards behind a man he’d seen many times before when he heard the man ring his bike bell. He looked up to see Reaves sprinting after the cyclist, then watched her dive in vain at the cyclist’s rear wheel “like an NFL player trying to stop a touchdown.” Then she rolled down an embankment while the cyclist rode away. Vattuone says the cyclist remained in his sight the entire time and never got off his bike or touched Reaves. Asked if Reaves had fabricated the assault, Vattuone said: “100 percent.”
Reaves declined to be interviewed for this story. However, in a Facebook post last July, a county open space ranger named Michael Warner wrote of the incident, “There was no merit to the complaint. One person’s story stayed the same, the other party changed it. Unfortunately the media never followed up to recap it.”
Despite the sticky history in parts of Northern California, there are reasons for optimism. In Downieville, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship waited 12 long years to build new trails, until finally an unpopular Forest Service staff member left and was replaced by a trails-friendly officer from Sedona, Arizona. A similar shift is happening in Marin, where County Parks and Open Space director Max Korten, a 36-year-old former skateboarder from Los Angeles, is overseeing a new road and trails management plan that added five miles of bike-legal singletrack this year, with more in store (it has also decommissioned many more miles of social trails that mountain bikers had ridden for decades—not the fairest trade, some say). Suddenly Marin’s land managers are approaching mountain-bike advocates and asking for their input.
“To have a land agency come to me and say they want to partner? They want to make us happy?” A4B’s Huffman grins. “That didn’t used to happen.”
“I think we’re seeing a big shift here,” says Tom Boss, off-road director at the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but basically every land manager—all four agencies [not including the water district]—is either planning or implementing trail projects that will be open to bikes. And that’s never occurred in tandem in my lifetime.”
In a place where increased bike access is more often measured in feet than miles, hard-line advocates still seek an equal share of Marin’s trails, even if that means adopting a pay-to-play structure similar to the Tamarancho trails on the Boy Scouts’ land. Longtime locals know progress happens at a glacial place, no one more so than Jim Jacobsen. Fifteen years ago, when Jacobsen started requesting access to Bills’ Trail, a ribbon-smooth, four-mile singletrack in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, he put away an Opus One Cabernet to enjoy if the trail ever opened to bikes. The state approved the multi-use conversion in 2009, only to have the Marin Conservation League sue on the grounds that allowing bikes would imperil steelhead and coho salmon in an adjacent creek. The state completed an environmental review and re-authorized the conversion in 2012, pending an additional $350,000 in pinch-point modifications to control riders’ speeds.
Five years later, the trail is finally scheduled to open to bikes in 2018. Jacobsen plans to uncork his bottle as soon as that happens, celebrating a simple if hard-won fact: mountain biking on one of Marin’s premier trails will no longer be a crime.