"Freedom Riders" shows the wisdom and the way

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“Freedom Riders,” a new film from KGB Productions and Gravnetic unveiled Saturday evening at Sea Otter courtesy of IMBA, represents a real step forward in mountain biking’s effort to gain the legitimacy it richly deserves. The film looks at compromise efforts in the Bridger Teton National Forest near Jackson WY to open hugely popular but unauthorized downhill trails constructed by a renegade gang of five mountain bikers.

What’s striking about the film is its wisdom (which appropriately reflects the wisdom of the effort itself). It doesn’t get defensive about our sport. It doesn’t point fingers at anyone, including the trail builders. Instead, it explores and explicates the many subtle and thorny aspects of trail-making. You come away with a good feeling about mountain biking and high hopes that ignorant and confrontational attitudes are a thing of the past.

In a nutshell, three trails — Ritalin, Lithium and Skullfuck — were constructed over a period of years by a local surgeon (hence their names) and his recruits. They were kept fairly secret at first, but word eventually got out and their popularity grew. They were challenging, steep, gnarly and jump-laden, but were not built to strict standards, and people began getting hurt. When people get seriously injured on unmarked trails, things start to unravel fast.

The Forest Service at first took the usual path, felling aspens across the trails at numerous points. The blockages were soon cleared. Then more felling, and more clearing. The tit-for-tat wasn’t working.

Finally an enlightened Forest Service manager, Linda Merigliano, issued a call: We need to resolve this impasse for the safety of the community. “But we’ll need the help of mountain bikers to do so,” she said.

As a result, negotiations ensued and mountain bikers agreed to give up access to Ritalin and Skullfuck in favor of preserving Lithium. Then work began to rebuild and maintain Lithium according to proper specifications from IMBA and others. Now the trail is still challenging, the fun factor is still high, but when someone needs help the Search & Rescue folks wind up doing far more of the latter than the former.

Partly because of the success of the Teton project, there is movement in this direction throughout the country. For the first time, officialdom is looking at increasing mountain biking access rather than shutting down unsanctioned trails. We have IMBA to thank for much of this, of course, but it can only succeed with grassroots support from the likes of local clubs and groups, including our own Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.

It would be foolish to think that Forest Service accommodations will deter or end rogue trail-building. Life is too short, and bureaucracies move too slowly. But in sensitive and highly populated areas, the Teton model provides a great example of how to move mountain biking forward.

Beyond its lessons, “Freedom Riders” is great entertainment, with plenty of action shots from everyday riders like you ‘n me and lots of humor and goodwill. Five stars, five flamin’ red chilis, five bars — by whatever measure, this is a must-see. It’ll make you want to get out and ride as soon as the closing credits are over.

Video trailer from PinkBike here.


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