I had an old Pearl Izumi t-shirt with the slogan ‘Save the Trails.’ Some of you may remember it. There was a big blue whale riding a mountain bike. It had a goofy smile on its face. It was obvious that the whale knew something about having a good time. Did he know something I didn’t?
Years have passed and so has many a mile under my tires. I spent those early days in a town without trails. Sure, I could drive to some great trails, but ride from home? Well, I could, and I did. But those were rides of legend. I used to renegade from one old road bed to the next, through countless miles of private property. Hopping fences, tangling in greenbriar, and running from dogs were all part of the game. In retrospect, it was fun, but I know now that there is a more satisfying mountain biking experience to be had. This leads us to the topics of the day -- trail advocacy and that damn blue whale.
Arkansas can be a backwater sometimes. It happens with music, trends, and in this case, mountain bike culture. When a lot of us started riding off road, we just gravitated to existing trail systems. There was no such thing as a ‘mountain bike’ trail, at least not in Arkansas. So at that point and with regard to the whale, ‘Save the Trails?’ Why are we saving them, and from what or whom? When the rest of the country, or maybe just Marin County, was experiencing trail congestion, user conflict, and trail closures, we were just getting a good start here. So the t-shirt slogan didn’t mean much to us.
Fast forward a few years and Arkansas had developed a wonderful cycling community which included a new club. That club, the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists, was and still may be the most influential advocacy group in our region. Before the OORC, our state championship race series was held on traditional courses with little high quality singletrack. The OORC changed all that. They embraced IMBA standards. Members took time to work with IMBA trail care crews in order to learn sustainable trailbuilding practices. We got a state IMBA representative. They attended conferences and workshops. From an outsider standpoint, we had new trails almost overnight. The hard, dirty reality of it was far different. The OORC built miles upon miles of new trail by hand. They invested hundreds, if not thousands of man-hours toiling in the woods. They worked with municipalities and land managers to build sweet trails in city parks and in our national forests. Our race series was fresh with new courses. It was exciting!
The trailbuilding revelation came for me when I was invited to be on a trail advisory panel for an area of public land near my hometown, the land with no trails. This area, governed by three state agencies, was long viewed to have fantastic potential for mountain biking. The only problem was that we couldn’t ride there, despite the efforts of a few individuals to try and break the barrier. The OORC, coupled with changing views at the state level about mountain bikes, gave legitimacy to the idea of mountain bike access to this area now known as Hobbs State Park. Before, I watched from outside the OORC circle while they chipped away on arduous benchcuts and built bridges over sensitive glades and creeks. With the Hobbs deal on the table, advocacy was suddenly real to me. This was my backyard! I threw myself into the project.
Once the trail corridor was laid out and cleared, we hit the ground. I had the special privilege to work alongside these champions of trails. I learned a lot from various members of the OORC. They talked of outslope, rolling grade reversals, nicks, etc. We put our sweat equity into these new trails and I suddenly realized why. The trails, once done, were awesome! WOW! I could ride from my house to a stacked loop trail system and hammer 20 miles of beautiful singletrack. I felt extra-specially fond of the parts where I had worked. They were more perfect than anyone else’s sections, at least in my mind. I had made the transformation. I had become a trail advocate. I spoke differently about trails. I thought about trail design whenever and wherever I rode. I looked with disdain at poorly designed trails with stormwater drainage issues.
I’ve spent the last couple of years in Little Rock, working for Competitive Cyclist. We’re lucky to have a nice bike path that runs the length of the city, along both sides of the river. It takes you past two great areas to ride off-road as well. The trails in these areas can use some work. It’s not that they are bad, but they’ve been on the ground for a long time. Here in Arkansas, that means that these trails pre-date our consciousness of sustainable building practices. Typical maintenance from city powers doesn’t do much more than whacking down overgrowths of invasive species of shrubbery growing up voluntarily from discarded lawn trimmings. Most of the limb removal and cutting of downed trees is done by concerned citizens. Some of us here have done quite a lot of that, as well as trash removal. Here’s Kudos to everyone out there who kicks limbs off of the trail or picks up someone else’s trash!
My journey from ignorant (ab)user to concerned user/trailbuilder has brought me to the bottom of the mountain. At the top laid a pipe dream, or was it? A new job always brings new friends, and the move to Competitive Cyclist was no different. I met folks who thought like I did. I met someone who showed me how to ride differently than I had been. He re-introduced me to things that I had enjoyed as a kid. We were on bikes of course, but we wanted to get off of the ground, to catch some air. It was refreshing to go on rides in my jeans and t-shirt and to confront technical challenges. There was one major problem. For all of the hard work I had done out in the woods, the trailbuilding I had been involved with was for cross-country type trails. They lacked any significant technical challenge. Shit! It was like I went back to square one -- a hot new bike and nowhere to ride it. The lack of any dirt jumps, technical freeride, or downhill trails led us backwards. We found ourselves renegading from parking lots to stair gaps and loading docks. That pipe dream was a well rounded Freeride Park.
We formed a non-profit, the Arkansas Freeride Society. We found others that were interested in our style of riding. We quickly decided that it would be better to build than bitch and whine. It’s a long story, the one about creating a design, complete site plan, and budget for a freeride park. Even longer and more painful is the part about scheduling meetings with city officials, presenting before planning commissions, and waiting for decisions to be made between different city factions. The ending is happy however. We have created the Argenta Freeride Area in Burns Park across the river in North Little Rock. When complete, we will have technical freeride trails with north shore style drops and wooden features, downhill racer trails with flowing jumps and berms, and a huge 4X course. We just got a dirt jump/slopestyle area on the ground. We have plans and the terrain for Rampage-style hucker lines and another skills area.
Just like any other project like this, there have been major hurdles. First, it’s a ton of work. The city government has a lot of things to worry about. The least of which is a bunch of crazies who want to build monstrous jumps for their bicycles. Imagine the hilarity of it all to middle-aged or elderly city officials. Once again, IMBA has provided some legitimacy to our efforts. In April, they sent their director of field operations to scope out Little Rock since it was to be the site for the National Trail Symposium this year. He found Burns Park to be a diamond in the rough. It had the potential to be a model for cities nationwide. As I’ve said, the old trails pre-date our knowledge about sustainable building practices. Our IMBA visitor drew up a new comprehensive trail plan that recommended some abandonment of old sections of trails, some simple reroutes, and creation of whole new sections of trails to create a well balanced, easy to navigate, and fun trail system that could provide a great experience for all types of trail users since Burns Park has equestrian, foot, and bike traffic on a regular basis.
Luckily for the Arkansas Freeride Society, our freeride park fit perfectly into the scheme for a complete cycling experience. Our new stunts and trails would compliment the existing road, mountain, and BMX infrastructure nearby. A family could come and visit North Little Rock and get their two wheeled fix, no matter what kind of bikes they preferred to ride. While all this may sound like selfless philanthropism, we just wanted a cool place to ride. It’s just that along the way, we realized that what we wanted for ourselves was actually going to be a boon for the community. IMBA decided to fund our dirt jump park as a demonstration project that they could use as a model during the symposium. They hired a professional park builder, B4 Consultation and Construction, to hammer it out in two weeks, just before the event.
Due to the frenetic pace of the build, many of us in the Arkansas Freeride Society had to make some serious sacrifices with our time to be available for duties as assigned by our builder. Being the most experienced in trailbuilding among the AFS group, I was ready for the work. We all learned a lot about dirt jump park construction. We hurriedly put out the word for a volunteer work party weekend. It worked out great! We got done what we expected to do. People came that we didn’t even know. People helped us dig who didn’t even ride bikes, or hadn’t ridden in years. It was surprising. Also surprising was the lack of a turnout by the mountain bike community.
Trailbuilding can be fun, but it is also lots of work. Too few people have experienced the buy-in that we have. The members of the OORC and the AFS all know what it takes to build nice trails and jumps. It takes a tremendous amount of time and hard, back-breaking labor. But we all see through different eyes now, those of a trail advocate. We respect the trails and the sweat of those who’ve done the work. We ride and wear that grin that the whale had.
I’m lucky to work for a company that embraces our efforts. They let us have days off to work on the park. Our management has decided to adopt a section of a fantastic trail system, the Syllamo Trails, in northern Arkansas. They plan to encourage all of our employees to come help out during regularly scheduled work weekends up there. We all ride, so we all should share the same concern for building, and maintaining our trails so that we may keep on riding and enjoying our bikes. I’ve been to the top of the mountain and have seen the other side. The effort getting there rewards us with what could be -- beautiful trails. Competitive Cyclist certainly isn’t alone. There are plenty of bike companies that give back to the cycling community by investing in our trails around the country. Industry Nine has an on-site pumptrack. Transition has built a dirt jump area in Bellingham, Washington. A good acquaintance of ours in the industry recently took a job at Mongoose, where he has the challenge of reinvigorating their brand image and showing the industry that they do indeed build high quality bikes for serious cyclists. They are another company that gives back to the sport. Not only do they inject cash into racing teams and sponsorship for events nationwide, many of its employees are involved at their local level digging on trails alongside members of WORBA, Wisconsin’s state version of IMBA.
If you ever have a desire to do some very hard work for no thanks at all, try building some trail. Actually, everyone appreciates it, but few realize how much energy must be put into the effort from the planning stages, to layout and construction. Those of us that have, know. We want to pat the back of everyone who’s ever picked up a spade or rake and touched it to a trail. Thank you! We hope that with continued efforts by IMBA, OORC, AFS, WORBA, and all the companies and individuals who adopt and maintain trail sections will unlock the minds of bureaucrats, land managers, and regular folks who ride regular bikes. There are bike rides and there are great bike rides. Great trails create great rides. Let’s build some!