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Counterpoint: Fire-Road Climbing is Actually Pretty Great

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We recently published a piece entitled “When did Mountain Bikers Start Preferring Roads?” Or more accurately, my colleague, Ryan Palmer, published it. Using his signature brand of tongue-in-cheek absolutism, Palmer casts judgment on those of us who would choose a fire road to reach the top of a hill, even if there’s singletrack nearby that could get us to the same place. 

On behalf of the countless riders indicted in that story, consider this my rebuttal.

To be clear, Palmer offers several caveats in his tirade. He acknowledges that sometimes there just isn’t a choice, and he has no problem looping fire roads if it’s the only way to reach the top of a singletrack downhill. And he grants that the especially labor-intensive task of building climbable singletrack shouldn’t take priority over building new descents. But the theme of his piece is that the experience of climbing a fire road is, by nature, worse than the experience of climbing singletrack, and I beg to differ.

No complaining here. (Photo: Anthony Smith)

As Palmer explained, much of his riding history has been in Bellingham, Washington, where directional, professionally built, mountain-bike-specific trails are the rule, not the exception. My riding history, as a 19-year resident of southern California, could not be more different. The trails I ride in the San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains were nearly all built before mountain bikes even existed. They were made for feet, not wheels. And although that’s partly why I love riding them downhill, it usually means they’re less than practical to ride uphill. So, when I’m not hike-a-biking to connect a remote canyon to a remote ridge, the vast majority of my elevation is gained on fire roads. And I couldn’t be happier.

The most obvious reason is probably the one shared by those who Palmer sees climbing the fire roads on Bellingham’s Galbraith Mountain: It’s easier. There are no obstacles and no sudden gut-punch grade increases. I see his issue, though, because that also makes these climbs less interesting. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most riders (especially those who live in Bellingham) are in this for the downhill. That’s evidenced not just by the routes they choose, but the bikes they choose to ride on them. Singletrack climbing would be quicker, easier, and probably more fun with steeper head angles, higher bottom brackets and thinner, smoother tires. But for the most part, bikes are trending in the opposite direction, and I don’t think anyone would see that sort of downhill-prioritization as troubling. There’s no reason to belabor this part more than I already have, but fire roads are just a more efficient way to get to what most of us agree is the best part of a ride.

There’s another reason you’ll see so many groups of riders opting for fire roads: They’re groups of riders. It’s far easier to carry a conversation with someone on a fire road than on singletrack. Not only because you can usually ride side-by-side, but because you can choose a pace that actually leaves you enough breath to finish a full sentence. Singletrack climbs often require the type of concentration and sudden effort will demand the full attention of both your brain and your lungs. Cruising up a fire road is just a more neighborly way to climb.

Talking while climbing? A fire road abides. (Photo: Anthony Smith)

But even if you ride alone, the mindlessness of a fire road climb can be a feature, not a bug. I’m a big fan of podcasts and audio books, and there’s no better time to take one in than while auto-piloting my way to the top of one of my favorite peaks. It gives my mind something to focus on while my body does all the hard work. 

Speaking of hard work, Palmer acknowledged that fire roads lighten the load for trailbuilders, but that’s a gift that keeps on giving. In most settings, trail maintenance is done by volunteers, and I know from experience that there are always too many miles and not enough hands. The fire roads I ride are pretty regularly maintained by people who are actually paid to maintain them. Sure, that means I’ll occasionally see dozer tracks disrupting a year’s worth of smooth blue grooves, but it’s the price you pay for countless miles of rideable terrain that didn’t require a single pancake breakfast to help fund.

Of course, I don’t wanna yuck your yum. If you look forward to the challenge and variety of singletrack climbing, I’m actually a little jealous. You’re building skills on your climbs while I’m just checking out. But that’s exactly why I’ve embraced my fire road climbs. They help distill a large part of my ride to something essential. Something primal. It’s body versus gravity. I’m not thinking about my line choice, my momentum, my suspension, or my tires. Maybe that’s not mountain biking, but as Palmer himself said, mountain biking is what you make it.