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Soil Searching: The Los Padres Traverse Project

Through Specialized's Soil Searching program, trailbuilder Dillon Osleger is rehabbing an historic section of trail near California's Central Coast.

“You’re traversing through 35 million years of history,” Dillon Osleger tells me, his otherwise calm voice breaking into excitement as he describes an 8-mile, 4,200-vertical-foot section of historic trail he’s rehabilitating near Santa Barbara, California. Following the spine of the San Rafael Mountains, Osleger’s refurbished singletrack completes the Los Padres Traverse—an 84-mile overland bikepacking route supplanting an old fire road the Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930s. It connects all the way to Carrizo Plain National Monument, through the Los Padres National Forest, bisecting the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas.

“You’re moving up an ancient sea bed, so that’s what dictates the different parts of the trail,” he continues, adding that the tacky and porous nature of the soil makes it into a natural flow trail. “There aren’t very many places in the world I know with such a drastic change of scenery. You can see Channel Islands National Park from the top, but you’re descending into yucca and desert.”

Dillon Osleger overlooks his current trailbuilding canvas in the Los Padres National Forest.

For Osleger, bringing this route back to life after years of repeated damage from wildfires is a multi-dimensional ambition. Not only will this last piece of singletrack bypass an otherwise-boring section of old fire road, but it’ll be a showpiece for a mode of trailbuilding he’s now ardently championing. As an environmental scientist, an enduro racer, and the executive director of the Sage Trail Alliance—which has been advocating for fat tires since 1988—he believes the best work we can do now is to not build new trails in far-flung locations, but to rehabilitate historic trails already on the map, lost to climate change.

“If you look at a Forest Service map from the 1920s, it’ll have way more trails on it than what we have today,” he explains. “If it’s an inventoried historic trail, you literally just tell your Forest Service, ‘Hey I’m going to go trim this during non-fire season.’ You walk in there with a hedger and go fix it. You don’t need a new flow trail. People are clamoring for access when there’s probably a historic trail riding distance from your yard.”

Soon-to-be sweet singletrack.

It’s Osleger’s conviction that we should leave untouched areas alone to serve as guard rails against fires, noting that Wilderness areas don’t burn because they’re largely intact from invasive species and other intrusions and alterations by humans. They also make a spectacular backdrop.

“On the Los Padres Traverse, you can go 84 miles from Santa Barbara to New Cuyama and see Wilderness areas—and see a whole mountain range—but you can’t touch them. I think as a route that’s really, really cool. It’s a perspective that not a lot of people get because Wilderness is so abstract to most folks.”

Tent and mountain bike
Camp, dig, ride. Repeat.

His effort, and ethos, has some clout behind it. As an ambassador for Specialized Bicycles’ Soil Searching program, which sponsors and elevates trailbuilding leaders with the same zeal as World Cup racers, Osleger’s been able to bring a fair bit of attention to his rebuild, and put proof of concept on display.

As the final step in reopening the route, he’s teamed up with filmmaker Keenan Desplanques, along with Specialized XC athlete Christopher Blevins, to document Blevins’s Fastest Known Time of the traverse, which he completed upon his return from the Tokyo Olympics.

“Most people take two to three days,” Osleger says. “But Christopher can somehow do it in six-and-a-half hours.”

Osleger notes that both Blevins and Specialized have poured many of their own volunteer hours and resources into the trail’s rehab. Still for Osleger, it’s bittersweet; he knows it will burn again. But he believes giving people the opportunity to move through these places slowly, and take them in while they can, will make them understand what’s at stake. He’s in fact even insisted Blevins does so before he tries to flash it.

“I said, ‘That’s cool you want to do an FKT, but come help me out with this trail first. And also, mandatory: you have to come bikepack this with me at a slower pace and understand where you are. See the forest for the trees, and understand climate, and how our individual choices day to day impact our sport.’”

Looking at a paper map
Osleger’s philosophy is to find and rehab old Forest Service trails instead of lobbying to build new ones.

Osleger calls the endeavor of being a trailbuilder in Southern California these days “Sisyphean— literally moving the same boulders back up hill every time a trail burns (as was Sisyphus’s eternal punishment in Greek mythology). But from this writer’s perspective, his work feels more Buddhist: surrendering to the fact that all things are temporary, while not letting that dampen your dedication to flow and beauty.