We’re about to hit one of the busiest weekends of the year, with more people riding than we can ever remember. That vast number of riders also includes a lot of newbies to mountain biking and some of them are totally new to being on a bike and being outside anywhere apart from a beer garden. There is also a whole load of returning riders who dusted off their ancient bikes just to escape lockdown and have found the love again. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got more skilled riders than ever, riding more capable bikes faster than ever, sometimes with a Strava habit to satisfy by turning every trail into a race track.
And that’s just the riders. On top of that, you’ve got the usual experienced trail users who have some awareness of how we can all get along fine, whether we’re on wheels, foot or hooves. However there’s also a faction of users who want bikes banned from everywhere, are having their fires fanned by the massive increase in ‘cheeky’ trail building - or vandalism as they see it - and will vary in their response from muttering and refusing to move, waving walking sticks or in the extreme cases leaving logs and barbed wire traps across trails.
And while they're thankfully the minority, there’s a huge mass of completely clueless folk now wandering about outdoors. The ones who don’t even realize that they’re walking up a double black DH track however obvious the signs are to us, let dogs and urchins run loose behind blind corners or happily set up a family picnic at the bottom of a rock drop.
So what the hell do we do? The answer - if we want mountain biking to be welcomed and continue to grow in the outdoor user landscape from ground level to governmental - is to be as nice as possible. Not least because if you’re reading this and prepared to take trail diplomacy on board you’re a crucial part of re-balancing the damage being done by riders ripping rut trails through sensitive areas, leaving rubbish, charging through family groups on shared-use trails or leaving gates open and creating a flocking nightmare for farmers.
Leading by example
I’m not trying to be all holier than thou here though. I ride local footpaths and dog walking/deer paths that aren’t legal for anyone regularly and have done for decades. I’ve been railing immaculate berms on recently carved lockdown trails in the woods. I’ve gone faster than sensible round blind corners because that was my usual pace before I realized that new outdoor users have no concept why they shouldn’t walk up a designated MTB trail. Especially if those trails didn’t have any signs at the bottom telling them not to.
So let’s look at where you can start making a difference to how mountain bikers are looked at by others and initially that’s at the most local, personal level possible. Whether you’re on a designated MTB trail, a bridleway you’re totally entitled to ride or something more ‘cheeky’, ride responsibly. First up - as frustrating as it might be - you should only go as fast as you can see it’s clear to do so, because now more than ever there might be someone hidden behind that corner or tree. And I don’t just mean dawdling families or loose dogs. It might be a newbie rider stopped trying to work out what to do next, or someone who’s already wiped out at the bottom of a drop where you can’t see them until seconds before you commit to it yourself. You might be on the run of your life, but at worst you could be on a run that significantly changes your life or someone else’s through serious injury. Think about where and how you ride too. Wherever possible avoid areas that are wet and muddy because even if the mess was created by 100 pairs of feet, it’s that one tire track gouged through the middle that stands out. If you have to ride muddy trails, don’t go round the puddles and spread the issue, just splash through the center as it’ll probably be faster anyway. Better still, if there’s an easy way to create some drainage and dry the area out, take five minutes to stop and dig a drain with a stick and leave the trail better than when you found it.
Leave whoever you meet on the trail with a better impression than when they started too. When you’re riding on shared-use trails, “Be Nice, Say Hi” and if there’s any doubt give others the right of way and - especially in these times of social distancing - give them plenty of space. Don’t be that dick who shouts, swears or squeezes past. Knocking Grandma into a gorse bush, scaring kids and getting parents pissed off. Stop, pull over, smile and say Hi. Get in there early too. It’s really hard for even the angriest and most righteous ramblers to let loose if you’re already politely saying hello, petting their dog and talking about what a lovely day it is. If you’re following in the wake of some other inconsiderate idiots on bikes, apologize, engage and try and calm the situation down. You might get a roasting that you personally don’t deserve but if you can diffuse situations on the spot, it’s much less likely to escalate into rants on Facebook or letters to the local press about how all mountain bikers are a menace.
Off the bike advocacy
Be an advocate of best behavior in other ways too. Trash Free Trails is doing a big push over Easter to clean as much single-use plastic off trails as possible so bring a bin bag on your ride and get involved. Who cares who left those cans, bottles and wrappers there. Being seen to be cleaning them up gives a really positive impression of bikers. Get your mates to join you and if you’ve got the balls then educate other riders either by example or just by calling them out for dropping stuff or behaving in a way that’ll get us all banned from areas. If you see people building dangerous, damaging trails then have a word about how they can avoid conflict or build smarter so that trail can stay a tolerated local hot spot for years to come. If you’re involved in the local scene on social media then try and do some educating and guiding on there too. You’re not being a jerk, you’re being a steward and taking responsibility.
Recognize that a lot of the new users are already scared and nervous once they’re out of sight or their cars or a tarmac path. I’ve regularly had to help lost wanderers on my local trails. Generally, that’s just explaining where the trail goes next or what their options are for the rest of their walk and why that track might not be sensible in court shoes. Sometimes though it’s been putting old dears back on the right track at dusk who would have definitely been heading for a cold, dark night or maybe even triggered a hunt for emergency services if Mabel, Doris and Betty the Bichon Frise hadn’t got home in time for Coronation Street.
Get involved with the official groups who are making a difference too. I’ve already mentioned Trash Free Trails but find out who your local trail building or MTB advocacy groups are. Yes making trails legitimate or trying to work alongside other users can take forever and ‘waste’ precious hours when you could be riding. Official engagement with landowners or local councils will often end in more short-term complications or even a dead halt, compared to just grabbing a shovel and heading into the woods for instant roost gratification. And sitting around a table with the Ramblers Association, British Horse Society and English Nature will never get the likes on Insta that a sick schralping video will.
While it’s a lot easier just to carry on, ignorance is not bliss either. Right now illegal trails are causing serious issues that are threatening to get whole forests that have been tolerant of mountain bikers for thirty years completely shut to riders. Places like Macclesfield where there are so many people turning up at weekends, locals can’t drive down the lanes and if emergency services have to get in their blue lights won’t get further than an awkwardly parked Transit with Fox stickers that’s driven 100 miles because they saw it on YouTube or a Strava heat map. Add in trash, trashed orchids or people just being idiots or aggressive to other forest users and it’s a ticking time bomb. Instead, get around that table like groups such as Ilkley MTB or Ride Sheffield and start meeting the people who can help create a place for mountain biking where it’s safe, sustainable and welcomed. Follow the example of riders like Josh Bryceland who recently posted about taking responsibility for a local riding area so issues can be ironed out and all users can get along fine and mountain biking becomes sustainable and welcome. And realize that if ‘Rat Boy’ is doing it, then it’s officially a seriously cool thing to consider yourself.
So if you’re looking forward to riding this coming weekend, then think about not only how you can have the most fun possible. Think how you can make sure everyone else you meet comes away with a good impression of mountain bikers too and how you can help create sustainable growth for our support. It really does start as simply as picking up a bit of litter or ‘being nice and saying Hi,’ but if we all start doing our bit the effect will be massive.