It’s funny how events coincide. I had just read the draft trails system plan for Middlesex Fells (a conservation area just north of us where we often hike, run, or walk Cardigan), which recommends, among other things, an expansion in the number of trails available for mountain biking, and then I had two bad encounters with mountain bikers in the same week!
I’m not opposed to mountain biking at the Fells. I used to mountain bike myself (and will do so again — likely at the Fells — when I get around to buying a new bike!), and most of the bikers I’ve encountered there have been quite courteous (even though I’ve seen many of them on trails where mountain bikes are actually not allowed, which I assume is due to poor signage and/or lack of awareness). But I’m not convinced that single-track mountain biking and hiking/walking can ever be compatible, even with good awareness, courtesy and management practices. Here’s why:
- The difference in speed between mountain bikers and walkers (or even runners) is significant (at least on flat ground or downhill; uphill is different!). That’s the fun of mountain biking: going rapidly over uneven and changing terrain, taking on roots, rocks and dirt. So when a biker comes down a single-track trail, a walker needs to get out of the way quickly. Not a big deal with ample warning but 1) it’s not fun for the mountain biker to have to slow down, and 2) it’s not always fun for the walker/runner to step out of the way (and it can be difficult to do so quickly if you’re walking a dog as it’s not always easy to rapidly reel in the leash).
- Needless to say, this system doesn’t work at all if the mountain biker doesn’t let you know that he/she is coming (as happened with one of the bikers I met last week: he almost hit my dog, who was on her leash and fortunately stood still). It’s also a bit of a pain when a large group of cyclists go through, as has happened twice in weeknight evenings when I’ve been there. When a new bike is coming every 30 sec.-1 min., and there are over 20 cyclists, you’re going to be stuck waiting for awhile as a walker.
So while I agree that there needs to be a more careful approach to trail access for mountain biking at the Fells, I would rather see them set aside the existing mountain bike loop, and a couple of other trails as mountain-bike-only trails. I’m also not opposed to allowing mountain biking (as I believe is the case now) on all former roads in the Fells (as these are wide enough for bikers to pass walkers without either being inconvenienced). However, multi-use trails just won’t work. And I’m completely opposed to turning the Reservoir Trail (one of my favorites) into a multi-use trail (it was on this trail that I ran into the large group that slowed me to a crawl) as it will, in practice, make this a mountain bike only trail (and may very likely cause more walkers to stray into the forbidden paths along the reservoir).
There’s no question that the Middlesex Fells’ trail systems needs some help: while some trails are well marked and make sense, there are many “bootleg” trails that people have created over the years, not to mention official or formerly official trails that dead end or duplicate other official trails. (The DCR counts 122 miles of trails, and 1,949 intersections, which is a crazy amount for an area of less than 3,000 acres.) So there’s plenty of room to allow walking-only AND biking-only trails (which will, of course, need to be supported through education, awareness, and enforcement), cutting down on conflict and hopefully making everyone happy.