A New Perspective on Mountain Bikers

This fall, millions are taking to the trails on their mountain bikes. Just a few years ago mountain bikers were considered a menace by hikers and environmentalists. But the view is changing.

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This fall, millions of Americans will enjoy the simple thrill of riding a bike down a dirt trail. Only a few years ago, these two-wheel trail riders were considered a menace by many who favored walking sticks or riding stirrups. But as Douglas Meyer reports, that view is changing.

DOUGLAS MEYER: Chris Pitts guides his mountain bike down a narrow trail that winds through 500 acres of timberlands, a mere mile from the edge of his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. Pitts zips over and around the rocks that lie like half-hidden landmines and passes within inches of tall trees. He is the founder of the Saratoga Mountain Bike Association, or SMBA, the club that stepped in five years ago to lease access to this land and keep the trails open.

Mr. CHRIS PITTS (Founder, Saratoga Mountain Bike Association): I signed the lease. I paid for the property for the lease, and then decided, okay, let's start the club.

MEYER: Seeking a lease with a landowner seemed out of character for a mountain biker at that time. They had a reputation for riding whenever and wherever they wanted. This led landowners and park managers to start banning bikes. Pitts wanted to find another way: collaborating with other trail users.

Mr. PITTS: As we were coming in, you saw a woman walking her dog back here; people use the trail run. We just ask if they're going to use this property that they chip in and help out with the lease by paying their membership.

MEYER: But he draws a clear distinction between those using muscles, who are welcome, and those using motors, who are not.

(Soundbite of motor)

Mr. PITTS: Not exactly a nice, quiet sound in the woods compared to the mountain bikes we heard riding by, is it?

MEYER: No, absolutely not.

Mountain bikers used to be lumped in with people riding motorcycles and ATVs, but now are breaking away to join with hikers and kayakers. Organizations such as the American Hiking Society and the International Mountain Biking Association, although still somewhat suspicious of each other, have formed an outdoor alliance which looks to lobby lawmakers on behalf of what they call the Human-Powered Community of Outdoor Enthusiasts.

Even environmentalists, once among the staunchest critics of mountain bikers, are being won over. For one thing, studies are showing that mountain bikes are not nearly as damaging as once assumed, and that mountain bikers can be good allies in efforts to protect natural areas.

Mark Bettinger is the Sierra Club's regional director for the Northeast.

Mr. MARK BETTINGER (Sierra Club): The pressures of development, the pressures of urban growth make it so that you can longer do it alone as just an environmental group. The person that's on that trail next to you, whether they're on foot, on horse, on a bicycle, are going to be your best allies in protecting those places.

MEYER: Bettinger himself is an avid and accomplished mountain biker. So is Jeff Olsen(ph) of Alpa Planning(ph). Olsen works where the rubber meets asphalt and dirt, helping communities design trail systems. He speaks of a trail's movement that is getting older and wiser.

Mr. JEFF OLSEN (Alpa Planning): Our whole movement is maturing and so are we. The people who helped start mountain biking 20, 25 years ago have now reached a certain point in life where you've been through these kinds of experiences. You've found these great places to ride, and then watched as a lot of those places quickly disappeared. The real mature response to that is to say, okay, that happened once, but we're going to come up with a way to prevent that from happening again.

MEYER: Collaborations are now opening more trails for mountain bikers than confrontations are closing. The largest collaboration so far was announced last year, between the National Park Service and the International Mountain Biking Association, or IMBA. It will help mountain bikers gain access to some of the thousands of miles of roads and maintenance trails that are currently closed to the public. The Park Service's David Barna hopes that opening trails will entice people to explore the parks.

Mr. DAVID BARNA (National Park Service): Right now we see people come and they're days visitors. They hit all the overlooks and they certainly go to the bookstore and the gift shop and they take a few pictures and leave. And we're hoping that this is a way to get some people out of their cars, get off the road and down the trail, and to get a little more exercise.

MEYER: More than two dozen parks applied to be one of the project's pilot sites. Those most interested are not necessarily the best known. Yellowstone and Yosemite are not on the list, but Fort Dupont National Park, in the heart of Washington, D.C., and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California are. These two parks alone offer more than 70 miles of trails.

The size of this agreement concerns some hikers and environmentalists. They say mountain bikers are starting to expect too much. Nonetheless, IMBA's Pete Webber remains hopeful about what a little trail diplomacy can do.

Mr. PETE WEBBER (International Mountain Biking Association): The most important piece of advice I have for mountain bikers is very simple: be nice to the people you meet on the trail.

MEYER: Because playing nice, he says, is paying off in open trails and open spaces.

For NPR News, I'm Douglas Meyer.

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