Mountain Biking at UC Santa Cruz: No more “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

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The mountain–biking boom in Santa Cruz has created a delicate PR situation for the mtb community:

Do we come out of the shadows and lobby for more trails, more access to existing trails, and more recognition of our sport?

Or is it better to stay obscured in the twilight zone between authorization and illegitimacy? In other words — don’t ask, don’t tell?
For years the University of California at Santa Cruz campus has served as the dilemma’s classic case history. A world-class network of unauthorized but increasingly popular trails has provided ample opportunity for everything from cross-country to big-hit riding. On any given day you can find families, XC racers in team colors, club rides, groms in full-face helmets riding coil shocks and triple-crown forks, and weekend warriors all enjoying the multiple varied singletrack loops on campus.

Occasionally you even run into Big Heat — pros like Steve Peat, the British World Cup champion and arguably the best downhill racer of all time, visiting Santa Cruz Bicycles headquarters nearby. Peaty and pals were ripping it up just a month or so ago on a trail called Mailboxes.

The thing is, they’re all “illegal” — a word, incidentally, we don’t care for. Because there’s little case law on trail use, and in fact unmarked or “gray” trails are for the most part not even posted, “illegal” is in most cases an overstatement. “Unauthorized” or “closed” are typically more accurate, and less inflammatory as well. (There are exceptions, e.g. the New Paradigm and Split Rock trails in Marin.)

Anyway, a dad and mom with two toddlers enjoying flowy campus singletrack on a sunny weekend morning are hardly what you would call scofflaws. In many cases they don’t even know they’re doing something wrong.

This was a point underscored by a recent survey conducted by Hilltromper, a Santa Cruz outdoors Web site. The survey of more than 300 respondents found that fully a third of riders did not realize the trails are closed to bikes. (An estimated 1,000 riders use the trails each week, a number we consider on the conservative side.)

So you have a situation of trails that shouldn’t be there and riders that shouldn’t be on them, but with no one particularly complaining. Why not let sleeping dogs lie, as often happens in these situations?

Hilltromper convened a panel discussion at Stevenson Events Center on Wednesday evening with hopes of answering that question. The two-hour event drew a polite crowd of 200 that included officers of Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBOSC), a leading advocacy group, and Save Upper Campus, a coalition of local groups concerned about university plans to add 3,500 students, new roads, dorms, classrooms, faculty and staff by 2020 at a time when water supplies are reaching red-zone depletion.

Several points were raised at the gathering: Rider safety, trail stewardship, environmental concern, preservation of the Ohlone tiger beetle.

But for us, the most compelling was simply: Mountain biking has really come into its own as a mainstream activity. The tenor of the meeting was that mountain bikers want to ride responsibly while helping land stewards take care of the environment.

All-day riding on campus
UC Santa Cruz trail network

We’ve been to scores of meetings like this in the past and have come to expect heated opposition from hikers and other trail users. That was notably absent in Wednesday’s session. Instead there was a feeling of solidarity from all contingents. Mountain biking is just too popular to dismiss with the outdated canards about erosion, trail conflict and ecological sanctity — at least, in Santa Cruz.

And why not? It turns out that mountain bikers are a trail’s best friend. We’re the user group most actively building new trails. The trails we do build are expertly crafted toward maintaining ecological sustainability and minimizing erosion while still providing the best possible riding experience. And then we come back season after season to repair, improve and otherwise keep the trails in good condition.

Panelists and audience members agreed that if everyone cooperates in good faith, trail conflicts can be diminished and ecological balance maintained. Regarding the tiger beetle, Alex Jones, campus reserve steward, pointed out that slowing down to 5 mph gives beetles a chance to elude bikes. Five mph is not much faster than walking, but then again, only limited portions of trails are used by the beetle for migration. When riders are informed about the beetles, both panelists and audience commenters noted, compliance is high.

Some other takeaways:

No one complained about user conflict. We ride up on campus all the time and seldom encounter hikers. When we do, we find they’re cheerful and accommodating (they often step aside or wave us through even though we signal a willingness to yield). It was surprising not to hear a dissenting word against mtbers. (Note: Especially since news blurbs on the meeting drew some nasty comments on Facebook and newspaper Web sites.)

Support for mountain biking is community-wide in Santa Cruz.
Although held on campus, the event drew as much from the public at large as from student communities.

The university “tolerance policy” is likely to continue. Although university officials declined Hilltromper invitations to attend, Chris Wilmers, a UCSC biology professor, said “there’s no budget” to fund enforcement. (Given the university’s grandiose plans for expansion, we wonder how well finger-pointing at mountain bikers would go over anyway.)

What’s next? Hilltromper’s aim with the session was to start a conversation. The terms of discussion are now clear. If anyone wants to raise the issue at UC Santa Cruz, what’s obvious is that rather than being part of the problem, mountain bikers want to be part of the solution.

Further reading:

Mountain biking survey
UC Santa Cruz expansion
Ohlone beetle preservation
Hilltromper report on meeting
Santa Cruz Sentinel report (note crowd size is incorrect; 200 people attended)
Film “Pedal-Driven”
Film “Freedom Riders”


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