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When Did Mountain Bikers Start Preferring Roads?

Here I was, thinking roads were our common enemy.

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Mountain biking has always been a bit of an interpretive sport. It is what you make it. Ever since people started modifying beach cruisers, they’ve been using them in different ways. Some would pile their rigs in pickups, seeking the next adrenaline rush, while others used bikes as a tool for exploration. Some tested their mettle on the toughest terrain, others wanted to cover as much distance as possible.

The sport is still segmented today, especially considering how many different types of mountain bikes there are these days, but there’s always been a common thread among us mountain riders: We ride on trails. We ride on lots of different types of trails, but if given the choice between a road and a trail, we’ll take the trail every time. That, we can all agree on.

Every mountain biker inherently knows that fire roads suck. It’s a given. They’re an unfortunate reality, a stupid, boring, necessary evil. Something we all have to suffer through on the way to the next piece of singletrack. Something that definitely would not exist in our dreams of the perfect mountain biking utopia. Right?

(Photo: Anthony Smith)

Wrong. Apparently, modern mountain bikers prefer roads now. I don’t get it. I like to think I’ve embraced many of the changes that mountain biking has gone through over the years. I dig the progress. Flow trails? Sure, do it. Turn the trail into a skinny, manicured BMX track. BMX bikes have tiny wheels and are fully rigid, but sure, go ahead and use that model to make trails for increasingly capable full-suspension bikes. Seems backwards, but it turns out flow trails are super fun.

But this trend, I don’t get.

Bellingham, Washington, has a magical place called Galbraith. It’s about as close to a mountain bike utopia as you can get. The roughly-2,000-acre plot has plenty of fire roads, but riders barely need to use them because of the incredible density of singletrack on the property. It’s not a huge area, but it’s absolutely packed with trails—65 miles worth, in the core zone that makes up Galbraith. It’s the kind of place where there will be 100 cars parked at the lot and you’ll somehow only see a few people out on the trails.

You will however, see 13 million people on the road. Mountain bikers, pedaling all the way to the top of the place, nearly 2,000 vertical feet, on the stupid fire road. On a nice weekend day, it’s a constant stream of mountain bikers on mountain bikes, cruising up a road. Literally surrounded by trails. Like 100 of them. The climb trails, meanwhile? Empty. What the fuck?

I get it when there’s no other option. Like I said, necessary evil. Many of the most infamous trails in the world require long road climbs. Alpine trail in Oakridge, Oregon, Doctor Park in Crested Butte—actually, most rides in Crested Butte.

And I understand that in places with steep topography, descending trails get built first. They’re way more fun to ride and easier to put in. Building climb trails with pedalable grades requires a ton of bench-cutting, meandering, and switchback building. They take a long time. Plus, every legal trail needs approval. If given the choice between putting in another ripping descent or a climb trail, most folks would choose the descending trail.

I just moved to a place where I have access to land to build on, and of course the first trail I’m putting in is obviously a descent. I’ll be riding up the road until I can figure out how to make a skinny-trail way up.

(Photo: Anthony Smith)

But all these hundreds of people riding the road at Galbraith are choosing to do so. The singletrack option is right there, and they’re opting for the enemy of fun.

I thought this was a new-generation mountain biker phenomenon, but a friend of mine who is only a few years younger, has been riding for a couple decades, and who is otherwise a very smart and rational human, hates singletrack climbs. He says it’s because he’s from Marin County where his only option was to ride fire road climbs, but I still don’t get it. It’s like opening a dog’s kennel but the dog stays in there anyway.

I don’t understand it, but who am I to judge people just trying to save all their energy for the fun bits? Who am I to complain when I had all the mountain biking to myself?