Single Track Sticker Shock

Dave Packie weighs in with his seconed installment of $.02.


| Above: A Sustainable Trail Works builder works on Hardy Haul, Stowe, Vermont |

What do we want out of our professionally constructed trail networks these days? If you pay attention to the conversation, you hear words like sustainability, flow, accessibility, and it’s hard to argue that these things are not desired characteristics. In fact, they are the primary objectives of the professional crews that are working to expand our legal riding opportunities in and around Vermont. If you ride the improved trails, or newly constructed, machine-built stuff, it’s hard to argue that leaps and bounds have not been made in providing a riding experience that is accessible to many skill levels, with less impact once construction is complete, and all but gift wraps that fun, hooked up, pump-and-jump flow. At $3/5 a foot, and up, at a rate of up to 1000 feet per day or more once the prep work is done, STW and Sinuosity can both deliver the goods. So….that’s $15,000 to $30,000 per mile. Um. OK? So how do we make trail cheaper?

You could supplement paid labor, but volunteers haven’t produced in great enough numbers to greatly impact the bottom line of any building projects I’ve seen around here. It’s reasonable to expect that volunteers can handle up-keep, but it is the rare crew of volunteers that is willing to show up consistently to get thrashed on trail crew on their day off from their regular job, and turn out pro work. Those of you that do turn out professional level work as volunteers rock, and you know who you are.

| Below: Sinuosity owner Brooke Scatchard fine tunes one of Vermont’s newest trail networks in Northfield |




You could create more primitive trails but you sacrifice accessibility, and sustainability. Once a “Rake-and-Ride” trail sees a certain level of use, roots and ledge become exposed. Less skilled riders will find the challenging, rooty and rocky trail intimidating and will go to some extraordinary lengths to avoid these features. Charlie’s trail, for example is 20 feet wide in places where the original trail has been widened by poor line choice. While a primitive, narrow, technical single track may be the most enjoyable trail for some of us for reasons of aesthetics, challenge, and back country feel, they only endure when protected by secrecy, remoteness, or some death-march climbing and beginners will not have a fun time.

For the public trails that are only going to see increased traffic down the road, we are certainly not wasting any money on overbuilt trail, and the scale of some of the infrastructure and the degree to which the tread is armored could even still increase and not be considered excessive. Trail builders have been accused of taking the challenge out of mountain biking with the New School, excavated trail model. Yet, even small challenges left in the trail still cause people to deviate from the well prepared riding surface. I’m not sure when the expectation of trail riding changed from an experience of challenge, where it was expected a rider would encounter sections they found unridable, or difficult to ride, to one of 100 percent ride-ability for all skill levels with avoidance of any object in the trail the preferred line. Regardless of when it happened, that is the new expectation. Building to this new level of “skill” takes more time in finish work, and therefore costs more money. It’d be cool if beginner riders would accept the fact that they are going to have to walk sections, or go back a few times to make a climb or navigate technical trail section. It would be cool if people would make conscious line choices while riding mountain bikes to stay on trail, choose most challenging lines and help keep stuff tight, but that is not our new reality and so to retain the single track asthetic, pains must be taken to provide an extremely buff, manicured, easy rolling, manufactured trail with little to no potential for technical challenge for the least skilled bike handlers. I remember when getting over logs was a specific skill in Mountain biking, now, not so much.



| Above: More engineered flow in Northfield |

It is given that all legal trail will be built to the new standards of finish, accessibility, sustainability, and easy flow. As long as this is the desired direction for public trail development, the sticker price is what it is. Trail builders work extremely hard to provide this experience. It has been my experience that people who think trail costs too much have never done any of the work involved in producing these trails. After a week of rock work, or wheel barrowing gravel, or walking behind the excavator cutting roots, cleaning up back slope, and raking out the perfect tread, their perception of value would certainly be changed. Things you can do to affect the bill would be to volunteer. Help you local club raise money, or show up to help a trail crew and be prepared to work, doing what you are instructed to do, even if it isn’t glamorous, and continue to show up until you have a firm grasp of the process from start to finish. After many hours you will be able to identify and undertake small projects help maintain the finished product for years to come. Raising the funds to keep our dedicated trail builders gainfully employed is the real challenge. The more trained and motivated the volunteer workers become, the farther each dollar can go. Be aware of your impact with good line choices and be cognizant of conditions. When you shouldn’t be riding, go spend a bunch of hours cutting roots for Brooke or Hardy. You will gain new respect for the intensity of trail work, lessen your impact on sensitive trails, stretch the budget, and gain a sense of ownership over your trails, deepening your connection and enriching your riding experience.



  • Mad Raker says:

    It’s great to have some newer style machined trails that are beginner ready but also fun, fast, and flowy for intermediates to experts. However, variety is the spice of life and let’s not forget that it is possible to build true intermediate to expert trails on a lower budget (less machining) with some incorporation of the newer standards. For example given the right trail terrain choices, rake & ride plus armoring/root removal and purposeful constraints/features has proven to work, along with some periodic upkeep. No trail is free. It’s up to riders to offer a bit of money or sweat for new or improved trails. Thanks to all that pitch in!

  • Mad Hare says:

    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. For the most part, Dave nails it. But this statement grabbed me: “It is given that all legal trail will be built to the new standards of finish, accessibility, sustainability, and easy flow.” I hope this is not the case, because one thing we hear in our area is we need more expert-level trails. I agree with the Raker’s comment above – incorporation of filter elements leading to rock features and other technical terrain should be attainable; the Harrington trails at Millstone come to mind as good examples.

  • Mad Tger says:

    Oh boy so much to say on this issue! I agree with Mad Raker, personnally I find “mechanically” built trails often boring. Great for beginners and the crowd but once you have made some progress what do you do? Oh I know, you go ride to the next town, where trails are a xerox copy of your home town, smooth, flowy, 3 feet wide with a bridge wide enough for a Chariot TM stroller and a dog. This kind of trail is great but an insult to an intelligent and experienced rider. The only thing missing is now a trail meter. Insert a coin a buy another run.

  • Dwight Gies says:

    No matter what style of trail that is built, if it’s built to be sustainable, it requires a lot of effort. A lot more effort than most people realize. What’s also important, especially in a place like Vermont where the land we have to build on is usually public and limited in area, is to have a vision and a plan – and to have the biking community be involved in the process of what is to be the final product. Only when you start to think of networks of trails, and plan accordingly, will you be able to have everything from machine built to the more technical expert trails. This needs to be a collaborative effort, and not the – hey, we have this amount of money so let’s build this trail and worry about what happens next latter. Having a vision, working collaboratively, and getting people involved will also help a lot when it comes to raising funds.

  • Jeremy Krohn says:

    I’ve seen this editorial pop up a few times now. It should be pointed out that the sustainability of trails comes from the management of surface water and the management of trail users. This has more to do with the planning and design of trails than what tools we are using during construction. So if we don’t limit our tool selection to mini-excavators and SWECO trail dozers, the doors remain open to use hand tools to create fun, narrow ribbons of sustainable singletrack. That ribbon of singletrack is a trail-experience I, and arguably most other mountain bikers ranging from expert to beginner want to have.

    Staying with the limitless theme, if we can accept that volunteers are capable of, and actually can enjoy producing high-quality, sustainable singletrack, we all can end up with great places to ride like Pine Hill Park or the trails at Ascutney. For an example with less trail-density, I look at what the Athens Bike Club has done in Southeast Ohio. This rather small club has built 30+ miles of really fun singletrack spread out in the Appalachian Foothills–all with volunteer labor, all on public land. They reap the rewards of their work in both great riding and in the business it brings to the local economy.

    For the record, Vermonters are interested in working. Just ask Joe Miles and the folks of the Manchester and the Mountains Bike Club. I’ve enjoyed seeing their enthusiastic reports of progress in Dorset over the last couple years– probably not near as much as they’ve enjoyed creating their own trails though.

    I am really glad that we have talented, professional trail builders that are part of our community here. It is a huge asset to Vermont and all of us mountain bikers. I hope that they continue to find success in their business ventures. I just don’t want to see a 3ft wide trail and bermed turns everywhere I ride in the woods. I know they are capable of so much more than creating only this version of trail. And that’s a good thing because the best version of a Vermont trail network can and should include all shapes and sizes of sustainable, multi-use trails.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with Jeremy. In some places, volunteers are creating some of the most interesting riding in the region. Hand-built trail, the type of trail the Mad Raker describes, is probably the most ideal scenario to please the most people. Unless labor is free and the timeline for the project is basically open ended, hand-built trail per foot gets much more expensive very fast, particularly if the terrain is challenging. The end result is infinitely more enjoyable and interesting for me as well.

  • Andy says:

    Huzzah for Phase II @ NU! N’ U!??? Come on guys. Do it. Do it.

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