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Lindsay DeFrates | 08.29.2019

Snowmass Village, Colorado, has some of the world’s best high-alpine mountain bike trails, and I was thrilled to be slowly climbing Cozyline Trail, looking back through the scrub oak and late-summer grasses at the expansive Roaring Fork Valley below me. I’d been up there with a strong group of riders for about 2 hours, and we were feeling pretty good. Covered in dirt, sweaty, looking back at what we’d accomplished, we all agreed that we couldn’t wait to get our bikes back up here. Instead of handle bars, we had hand tools, and instead of shredding gnar we’d been trimming brush and cleaning a drainage.


A trail crew works the system of trails in Sky Mountain Park. Lindsay DeFrates.

Outside of resort boundaries, America’s beautiful network of badass mountain bike trails, both dirt and gravel, are only rideable because of the dedication of individuals who volunteer their time and effort to maintain them. In fact, without organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association, affiliated local chapters, and other local grassroots organizations, none of the exponential growth of this sport would be possible.

And make no mistake that growth is happening. In Colorado alone, over twenty different chapters of the International Mountain Bike Association organize rides and races, teach skills clinics, and, of course, build new trails. And it’s not just the Rockies that crave singletrack thrills. Up and down the East Coast and across the Midwest, people are getting off the pavement on two wheels. Hundreds of miles of singletrack trail have been built in the last 5 years to meet the growing demand. Near our work party, Snowmass Mountain boasted a new system of lift-serviced singletrack downhill thrills. In the Pacific Northwest and the Sierras, the trend is similar.

New trails mean that new riders need to step up to maintain them. “One thing I wish all riders knew about trail maintenance is how accessible and fun it is!” said Ian Terry, Director of Community Engagement for Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance in Washington. “You don't need to be an experienced trail builder to have a great time at one of Evergreen's trail work parties. It's an inclusive environment, and we have an awesome trail crew that provides guidance and tips while we're out on the trail.”

Our crew worked on the impressive system of trails in Sky Mountain Park, trails that were built with the support of community organizations like Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, the Town of Snowmass Village, and many other nonprofit and volunteers. Growth of the sport is a boon for local cities and towns like Snowmass Village, and municipalities are more and more interested in collaborating with local mountain biking chapters as the tourism dollars flow in. Today, it was the employees of locally based who were taking a day to give back to the sport they love, and we were maintaining a 2-mile section of the uphill access to this extremely popular area.

While most of the riders who were actually on their bikes that day would slow down and shout a thank you or stop and chat with us, there were also more than a few disgruntled looks and frustrated sighs as we obstructed this extremely popular trail. It made me start to wonder whether some mountain bikers believe in a magical trail fairy who builds their flow for them while they sleep.

As with growth in any outdoor industry, there are those who frown to see so many new faces on their favorite trails, but that only highlights the need for inclusive education and involvement. The stress in a growing sport only comes when new and passionate riders lack a working knowledge of etiquette and impact. “Taking care of trails will make you a better rider,” Terry said. “When you're digging and maintaining a trail, you learn how it functions, drains, and just flows overall. You can use that knowledge to inform your decision making and line choice the next time you're riding.”

If every biker took care of the trails they ride and learned how much work that takes, much of that sense of entitlement and resulting frustration would be eliminated. Trail work should become synonymous with mountain biking, and besides that, it’s fun!

Mountain bikers form a welcoming community that relies on the support of its members. We need to strengthen the narrative that volunteerism should no longer be considered optional if we want to see new trails continue to grow. If you’re feeling nervous about signing up for a public trail work day, here are a few insider tips to enjoy giving back and getting dirty.

1. Footwear is key

Trailwork goes beyond requiring just closed-toe shoes. Pick a sturdy hiking shoe or boot with good traction to make sure your toes aren’t personally identifying every rock in the trail or suffering from a misplaced Pulaski.

2. Gloves, too

Heavy-duty work gloves are not optional on a trail work day. With sharp-edged tools, heavy rocks, and lots of pokey plants and branches, you need to protect your hands. Many brands now offer excellent synthetic options as well as the traditional leather, but at the very least bring along some heavy-duty canvas gardening gloves. Most groups will also have a bucket of gloves for volunteers if you can’t bring your own.

3. Basic hand-tool identification

With names like adze, Pulaski, rock bar, Austin, and all kinds of saws and loppers, you will feel like a badass just picking up a hand tool. Each one serves a unique purpose in the mountain biking trail work world. You will quickly learn these uses and most likely end up with a few favorites. I will personally pull out a Pulaski for any dirt-related work and have been known to prefer a smaller Austin for hauling even the biggest boulders.

4. Grunt work for all

Odds are that, for the first few years at least, you won’t be working on the more glamorous features of the trail like berms and jumps. Those features may look like a pile of dirt, but they are actually the product of years of training in physics, hydrology, soils, and highly skilled construction techniques. Get ready to trim back brush, dig out water bars, and maybe haul around a few big friggin' rocks. Then, as you work with the group longer, ask questions and get ready to learn from people who live, eat, and breathe trail building.

5. It’s all about community

The people you meet on the trails, when you aren’t ripping down at Mach 4, are truly the best kind of bikers. A love of the land, the dirt, and the work it takes to make good riding happen brings out the people who make your volunteer hours worth it. Chatting together can pass a few mundane hours, and together, the sense of accomplishment is incredible. Make friends, network, and get back out that weekend to ride your hard work together.

6. Self-care is not optional

On a long, hot trail day, the physical work takes a toll on even the toughest riders. Make sure that you take care of your own needs, drinking water, eating snacks, cooling off in the shade, etc. If you have physical restrictions, speak to the crew leader or organizer early on to make sure that the tasks you are being asked to do don’t compromise your well-being. There is always plenty to do, and they will be glad you are there no matter what.

7. Work with established organizations

While a very few areas allow for individual work to be done on an as-needed basis, keep in mind that land management agencies and local mountain biking chapters (check out the International Mountain Biking Association/IMBA and ask at your local bike shop to find out who the local groups are) often have a complicated relationship based on clear expectations and communications. If you feel the need to dive in and maintain a trail on your own, it is imperative to talk with these groups first. Overzealous trail builders who act independently are responsible for more conflicts between mountain bikers and the public than any other group. 

8. Just show up

The reality is that once a new trail is cut, the work is only just beginning. Ongoing wear and tear from riders and natural occurrences like rain, avalanches, and erosion means that every beloved mile of trail takes work to keep in rideable shape. Trail work is often unsung, unglamorous, but always worth it. So pick a day, sign up with the local mountain biking chapter, show up, and do your best to work and learn.


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