By Vernon Felton
"Good bye, buddy." I leaned over and gave Duane—or what remained of him—a final, fond pat.
He was chewed up. Someone had taken an axe and hacked Duane to death. I'm sure they had the best of intentions in mind, but, damn, I was struggling to see the logic in it.
I met Duane about six years ago. I was riding along this rolling stretch of rocky singletrack when a mass of roots loomed up in front of me. It was a slimy nest of cedar that suddenly rose up about three feet high. On the other side of the slippery root ball was a steep little roll-in that led to another tangle of roots, followed by a hairy switchback and a steep gully … You get the idea—this was the point at which the singletrack went from being all lollipops and unicorns and became something more like a broken nose. And it all started with that one intimidating tangle of cedar roots.
I opted to walk that section of trail during that first roll through, but first I stopped at that root ball and gave it a name. Freddy Krueger notwithstanding, I've always believed that things become less frightening once you've given them a name. So I looked at that twisted mass of wood and decided to call it "Duane." It seemed as good a name as any.
On my second time through, I crushed Duane. Sailed right over him. It was exhilarating. In the years since, I must have ridden over Duane a couple hundred times. He became a regular, welcome fixture in my life. I'd hump up a couple steep miles of fireroad, hang a left on that singletrack, get into my flow and then catch some speed so that I could hurtle past Duane. Though I only crashed a couple times on that slimy mess of roots, the approach always gave me the butterflies and cleaning it always left me with a big, shit-eating grin on my face. I came to love my run-ins with Duane.
So I was saddened this afternoon to see that someone had decided to "improve" the trail by pulling a Texas Chainsaw Massacre on poor, old Duane. I'm guessing the goal here was to make things easier or "safer" and while that might sound laudable, I think that kind of trail maintenance is almost always a complete crock of shit.
Don't dumb down the trails
I realize there are sections of trail that are so dangerous, so poorly planned, that a reroute is necessary. Most of the reroutes made in the name of "safety" that I have seen, however, don't actually warrant that kind of dumbing down. Duane was a great example. If you couldn't surf over Duane, you had plenty of time to hit the brakes and walk over it. And if that was what you needed to do, Duane was actually doing you a favor, because the trail only got harder from that point on.
Duane was like a good friend who was always willing to tell you where things stood—no bullshit or well-intentioned lies. Duane rose up out of the rock and cedar duff and loudly proclaimed, "Put on your big girl pants because shit is about to get scary, right here, right now." If you couldn't handle Duane, you sure as hell couldn't handle the next couple miles of rock and roots. Duane was actually performing a public service by preventing people from getting in over their heads and that was a very good thing.
It's not a matter of being an elitist
I'm not writing this out of a sense of elitism. I'm not trying to sound like The King of Rad. Plenty of riders can put me to shame on my favorite trails and plenty of trails humble me regularly. But here's the deal, mountain biking isn't Tee-ball where everyone is equal and everyone wins. No matter how bitchin' you may be, there are always some trails that are going to be over your head. This, it's worth noting, is actually what makes riding interesting.
When faced with a section of trail that scares you, you have three options. First, you can take a deep breath, scout the best line and give it a go. You might make it, learn something and become a better rider. Congratulations. Second, you can turn around and find a trail that's better suited to your abilities. There's no shame in that at all. There will be a day when you're up to the challenge and you can give it a go. And finally, you can be a complete ass and decide to pave over the trail for "the greater good," even though the rest of us don't actually want you to do that on our behalf.
Is it really that simple?
I can hear someone out there arguing that some sections of trail need to be improved. I agree completely. If the trail is eroding or is poorly designed and consequently creates conflict between user groups, be my guest—go through the proper channels and help your local trailbuilding crew improve the trail. That's a good thing and I'm not railing against it.
I also realize that nailing a rickety, 12-foot tall ladder bridge to the nearest tree in the middle of a well-traveled multi-use trail is generally a bad idea. You can't funnel a woman pushing a baby stroller onto a death trap. Stunts and technical trail features should be well-planned affairs. But again, that's not usually the kind of situation that sparks these kinds of trail improvements.
Most of us have readied ourselves to plunge into a well-loved rock garden and found that some jackass who couldn't ride it had spent his Saturday morning being "helpful" by removing all the rocks. We've seen jumps leveled because they seem scary. We've had our trails straight-jacked, neutered and lobotomized.
“Hey, jackass, just because you can't ride the trail, doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be able to.”
Something for everyone… Seriously!
Every trail has its own character. Some days you want to cruise something smooth. Some days you want to plunge into a trail that's a bit more demanding. Variety, as the old saw goes, is the spice of life. When some wannabe Boy Scout decides to help the rest of us by making every trail mundane, he robs us of choice and degrades the mountain biking experience for everyone.
A well-designed trail system is supposed to contain a mix of trails of varying difficulty levels: this gives people options, reduces congestion and helps cut down on illicit trail building. Forcing everyone to ride trails that fail to challenge is the equivalent of trapping the general public in an elevator and forcing them to listen to Barry Manilow. It's cruel and unusual punishment. It's also, to put it plainly, dickish behavior.
So, for the sake of the greater good, please, don't be a dick.
Don't dumb down our trails.