Big Fat Tire: Trail etiquette or lack thereof
September 14, 2017
I would much rather write about trails through tunnels of golden leaves and getting in those last few rides above tree line. This week though, I'm compelled to write about something that I've written about before. Trail etiquette or more precisely, the lack of trail etiquette.
I've written about my wonderful fiancée's journey back to mountain biking, despite her last experience with the sport that ended in crash and injury and her trail experiences with mountain bikers when she's on foot haven't always been positive.
A few days ago while walking the dog (on a leash) she was basically brushed off the trail by a group of mountain bikers. If this was an isolated occurrence by a handful of ignoramuses it wouldn't be a big deal, but it isn't. Anyone who enjoys our great trails on foot will most likely agree, that this sort of thing is not uncommon. My own foot travel experience on trails with significant mountain bike travel pretty much confirms that way, way too many mountain bikers act like they expect everyone else, including other mountain bikers to get out of their way.
Now I get how much fun mountain biking can be. I get that the last thing you want to do is stop and yield. I get that sometimes people can be hidden in the shadows or around a blind corner. I get that sometimes people have their earbuds in and are oblivious to anything that's going on around them.
I get all that, but way too many people (not just MTBers, but since this column is about mountain biking I'm limiting my focus on MTBers) act as though they're the only people on the trail. Yes, mountain biking is fun, challenging, has many health benefits and so on, but that doesn't mean that the rules and guidelines don't apply to us.
Yes, there are rules written and unwritten. First off, always ride in enough control and restraint that you can come to a smooth stop if necessary. Lots of MTBers will say something along the line of," l didn't mean to brush them off the trail and I would have yielded but I came on them at a blind corner." On a public, multi-use, multi-directional trail you shouldn't be riding in a way that you come close to hitting someone at a blind corner.
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On multi-use, multi-directional public trails it is pretty much universal that mountain bikers yield to foot traffic and equestrians. What does yield mean? It means that on singletrack when approaching an oncoming person on foot, you should slow down, make contact with the person and come to a STOP, (yes stop) put a foot down off the trail and make as much room as possible to allow them to pass. Often the person on foot will wave you through which is fine but it should be their choice, not yours. If they do wave you though you should pass slowly (like walking pace), smile and thank the person. When approaching someone from the rear, again, SLOW DOWN, make contact with the person (bells can be helpful) and call out something along the lines of "Hi, can I get by?" and pass slowly. (Saying something like "coming through" or "on your left" implies "get out of my way." Yield DOES NOT mean ride off the trail at all, much less at full speed.
Downhill mountain bikers should also yield to uphill mountain bikers. Many trails have this posted at the top but even if it's not posted, it's generally a well accepted practice. Once again, yield doesn't mean ride off the trail without slowing down. It means unless the climber waves you by, you need to STOP and give the climber room to pedal by you.
On all kinds of internet forums, mountain bikers complain about unfriendly hikers. If we are being honest (we being mountain bikers), and if we have some sense of empathy, we shouldn't have to think too hard why that might be. While my favorite mode of trail transportation is a mountain bike, I've spent enough time on foot on our trails to understand where some of that 'tude comes from. When I'm on foot I'd say that about 20 percent of mountain bikers do what they are supposed to do as far as yielding goes. 50 percent make some sort of effort, either slow down or grudgingly come to a stop only when it's apparent that I haven't jumped out of the way. Something like 30 percent are just jerks and will brush me off the trail or ride off the trail without slowing at all. This is not a good track record.
None of this shines favorably on mountain biking. One of the reason I don't support the effort by some groups to allow mountain bikes in wilderness is of how too many mountain bikers interact with folks on foot. One refrain you often hear from mountain bikers when the subject of disgruntled hikers arises is "well if they don't like it they can just go to wilderness." As long as we have this dynamic with a significant portion of mountain bikers acting like everyone else better get out of their way, I'd find it hard to argue to the hiking community that allowing mountain biking in wilderness is a good idea.
The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. I've been yielding to foot travelers for many, many years and it hasn't lessened my love or enjoyment of the sport. Coming to a brief stop and being friendly and courteous just isn't a big deal. It's also the best way to keep non-motorized. multi-use trails multi-use.
So as the season winds down, before you swing your leg over your top tube, just remember, be nice, yield, talk to folks, don't be a jerk. It's not that difficult. Everyone will be less stressed and tribal.