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Crafting a progressive new trail in the Santa Cruz mountains
Words by Matt De Young • Photos by Bogdan Marian
In a redwood forest high in the mountains above Santa Cruz the hum of heavy equipment and the clanking of hand tools are punctuated by the occasional shhhhralp of knobby tires pushed to the limits of traction. These sounds are the manifestation of an unprecedented partnership between mountain bikers and a land manager in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, a historic hotbed of conflict surrounding mountain bike access.
Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBoSC), a non-profit advocacy group, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) have partnered to build a new “flow trail,” a progressive trail designed specifically for mountain bike use, in Soquel Demonstration State Forest, colloquially known as Demo, one of five forests in the state managed by CAL FIRE. In addition to being a venue for the development of sustainable timber harvest practices, and a self-sustaining working forest (the forest’s operating budget is directly funded by its timber sales), the forest’s governing legislation states that in addition to protecting coast redwoods, it must be a community resource for education and public enjoyment of forestry, demonstrating the feasibility of public access in a working forest.
Bay Area mountain bikers have long been taking advantage of the public trail access in Demo as it is one of the only legal venues in the area for steep technical trails. This new flow trail will mark a departure from the advanced trails that characterize Demo, and instead will offer a trail that is designed to be equally enjoyable for riders of all skill levels.
The International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) describes flow trails as having four characteristics: First, synergy with the landscape, taking advantage of terrain features. Second, opposition to user forces, the correct utilization of berms and cambered trail surfaces. Third, conservation of momentum, which helps you keep speed as you navigate the features. And lastly, leading the user forward, the creation of an intuitive feel by avoiding awkward features or intimidating moves. Drew Perkins, MBoSC’s Trail Construction Manager, sums it up handily, “the goal is to maximize return on your potential energy rather than converting it to heat with your brakes.”
With an average grade of six percent the flow trail is designed to be ridden with minimal pedaling and braking. Unlike the other trails in the forest and many of the popular options around Santa Cruz, letting go of the brakes, dropping the hammer and lettin ‘er buck is not the key to going fast here. The flow trail is designed with features that slow you down and provide acceleration where necessary. Riding this trail is about precision. Railing berms, pumping rollers, and sneaking a pedal stroke here and there are what it takes to haul the mail. Despite the lack of pedaling required, it is super physical, and it feels relentless. While there is ample opportunity to get airborne on this trail, all of the jumps and drops are optional and/or designed to be rollable, providing a great basis for rider progression.
While Demo has offered up some of the best legal mountain biking in the area, mountain bikers have long struggled to gain recognition as legitimate trail users with other land managers in the region. MBoSC hopes that the flow trail project can demonstrate responsible mountain bike oriented trail construction and usher in a new era of stewardship for mountain bikers, closing the book on rogue trail building and our outlaw image.
To take on this project MBoSC had been nurturing its volunteer base in an effort to increase its trail building capacity. Building upon the success of the Emma McCrary Trail which was created in partnership with the City of Santa Cruz largely by volunteers, MBoSC has instituted a volunteer crew leader training program to give its volunteers the knowledge and leadership skills to lead crews successfully during trail construction. The program includes five classes and field days that cover trail construction and leadership. The class highlights the progressive trail design philosophies that will be incorporated into the construction of the flow trail, which will be a departure from the more traditional trail design philosophies that many volunteers are more familiar with. So far over forty volunteers have gone through the class and are actively leading crews on public work days.
While this trail will be the first of its kind to incorporate progressive trail design features on public land in the region, it is also unique in that it is the first trail project that has been designed, staffed, funded and implemented by a non-profit advocacy organization on a State Forest. MBoSC has hired two trail builders and a project manager to work on this project. Funding thus far has come from fundraisers, private donors, and industry sponsors including trail segment adoptions by locally-based Bontrager, Epicenter Cycling, FOX, Ibis, Specialized and Trail Head Cyclery. At press time, MBoSC was thrilled to learn that the flow trail project was selected as a finalist in the Bell Built trail building grant program (read more on page 8).
All of these resources have provided MBoSC with the ability to take on this large project in conjunction with CAL FIRE. The two organizations have worked hand-in-hand every step of the way, from design and extensive environmental review, to trail construction. Angela Bernheisel, Forest Manager of Soquel Demonstration State Forest commented on the partnership between MBoSC and CAL FIRE. “This unique collaboration demonstrates modern trail building techniques that provide for environmental protection and a new recreational experience on the forest. We can show other land managers how we are doing this and how the process works.”
The president of MBoSC Mark Davidson added, “This partnership is a great example of how a non-profit interest group can work with a state land manager to provide public services in these times of budgetary challenges.”
MBoSC is hopeful that other land managers will adopt this model and work with the mountain bike community to develop more opportunities for mountain bike public access.
For more information on this project and how you can get involved, check out Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBoSC) at www.mbosc.org or on Facebook (mtbsantacruz). The trail will be opened up segment by segment as construction proceeds.
The parlance of building and riding mountain bike trails
Berm – a banked turn that allows riders to carry more speed through corners.
Duff – organic matter, made up of leaves and down wood in various states of decomposition. Must be cleared away before trail construction. Mixing duff with clean dirt results in a suboptimal trail building medium due to the fact that as the duff decomposes it shrinks, leaving potholes in the trail.
Grade reversal – a temporary change in the prevailing trail pitch from downhill to uphill over a short distance with the intent of shedding water off of the trail. Grade reversals give trails a roller coaster feel and can be combined with rollers for extra fun.
Pump – to maximize return on potential energy by pushing bike down into grade reversals and the back sides of rollers.
Renaturalization – process of mitigating impact of trail construction and giving trail a pleasing, been-there-since-time-immemorial look. Accomplished by transplanting native plants along the trail, redistributing duff and arranging logs to mimic the surrounding landscape.
Roller – trail feature that can be jumped, pumped, or manualed. Think of a nice rounded hump. Mo beta when used in sequence for extra fun. Also acts as a barrier to water flowing down the trail and minimized erosion.
Shred – to ride to the highest degree of excellence.
Skid steer – small tractor with a bucket or blade on the front, used for moving dirt with the quickness.
Tamp (also compact, pack) – to compress dirt as densely as possible. This makes for a more durable riding surface that will leave riders smiling for years to come. Can be accomplished using hand tools, a hand tamper (a large metal square with a handle), trail machines, plate compactors, demolition hammers, and your feet.
Get involved with your local mountain bike advocacy organization and start engaging your local land managers, or contact the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) at www.imba.com
• Auburn – Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition (FATRAC) www.fatrac.org
• Downieville – Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS) www.sierratrails.org
• East Bay Area – Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay (BTCEB) www.btceb.org
• Forest City – Forest Trails Alliance (FTA) www.foresttrailsalliance.org
• Humboldt County – Bigfoot Bicycle Club – www.bigfootbicycle.org
• Kern County – Southern Sierra Fat Tire Association (SSFTA) www.ssfta.com
• Lake Tahoe – Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association (TAMBA) www.mountainbiketahoe.org
• Los Angeles – Concerned Off-road Bicyclist Association (CORBA) www.corbamtb.com
• Marin County – Access4Bikes – www.access4bikes.com
• Marin County – Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) www.marinbike.org
• Mendocino County – Ukiah Valley Trail Group (UVTG) www.mendotrails.org
• Monterey – Monterey Off Road Cycling Association (MORCA) www.morcamtb.org
• Nevada City – Bicyclists Of Nevada County (BONC) www.bonc.org
• Orange County – Share Mountain Bike Club – www.sharemtb.com
• Pasadena – Mount Wilson Bicycling Association (MWBA) www.mwba.org
• Reno – Poedunks – www.poedunks.org
• San Diego – San Diego Mountain Bike Association (SDMBA) www.sdmba.com
• San Luis Obispo – Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCCMB) www.cccmb.org
• San Mateo/Santa Clara County – Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers (SVMTB) www.romp.org
• Santa Barbara – Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers (SBMTV) www.sbmtv.org
• Santa Cruz – Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBoSC) www.mbosc.org
• Sonoma County – Sonoma County Trails Council (SCTC) www.sonomatrails.org
• Tehachapi – Tehachapi Mountain Trails Association (TMTA) www.tehachapitrails.org