Riding sweet singletrack is one of the best experiences you can have. Yet, inexperienced and careless riders put these magic trails at risk, widening them and creating detours around obstacles that better cyclists ride right over. These practices ruin the ecology next to the original trail and encourage others to ride wrong. Ironically, it may also mean that you never master basic technical skills, which limits your progress as a cyclist.
The worst thing about careless singletrack riding, though, is that it often results in confrontations with land-management groups, which may lead to rules banning off-road cycling.
Most of us would rather ride singletrack than doubletrack and fireroad. And we don't want trail restrictions. Here are seven ideas to keep singletrack in pristine condition.
1. Only ride marked singletrack
There are many inviting paths that diverge from singletrack but, unless marked, these trails are often deer paths and abandoned trails that usually lead into impassable brush and undergrowth. Taking these paths widens and damages the singletrack at the intersection. Plus, it riles mountain-bike opponents.
2. Ride the middle of the trail
Over time many singletrack corners begin to resemble fireroads. To prevent this, take the middle line in corners. If you take an extreme outside line, you force the corner outward. Worse, some sloppy cyclists create detours by cutting corners! Skilled riders stick to the middle of the trail knowing that anything else wrecks the trail for everyone.
3. Pedal, don't swim
Riding on a rainy, mud-soaked trail may be great for Mountain Dew commercials but it tears up the trails, especially singletrack. With extremely wet conditions, you may actually be running (and swimming) more than riding, and helping to quickly ruin a good trail by giving water a channel to run in with the ruts left behind by your tires. If running, swimming and biking is what you really want, find your nearest triathlon! Plus, riding in gritty and sloppy conditions wreaks havoc on your brakes and drivetrain. Is an hour of grinding in the goo really worth the price of a new cassette, chain, brake pads, bottom bracket and headset?
4. Water Hazards are good
Riding on waterlogged trails is bad, yet riding through puddles is good. Many times puddles remain long after most of your favorite singletrack has dried. Learn to accept these puddles as challenges to enjoy because avoiding them results in doubling or tripling the trail width just to avoid a little mud and water. You can't avoid all the puddles so you might as well enjoy them. Shifting your weight backward will insure that you ride over the puddle instead of diving into it face-first.
5. Do your best Hans Rey impersonation
Ride over logs whenever possible. These obstacles sometimes create problems for beginning riders but the answer is not a path around them. Either dismount (hey, practicing dismounts comes in handy for cyclocross season) or hone your technique until you can ride it. The obstacles are what make singletrack fun. Enjoy them. Even bicycle acrobat Hans Rey had to start somewhere!
6. Learn from others
If you're not sure how to ride a particular challenge, get advice from more experienced riders. Do not ride off the trail or make a new trail around the challenge, aspire to ride it because it is just that, "a challenge." Additionally following better riders will teach you to find and ride a better, more central line. No one to ride with? Consider riding the singletrack later in the day. This will give more experienced riders the opportunity to make a path through snow or autumn leaves, which you can follow.
7. Try to stay on the trail when passing
When you meet oncoming riders in an area of delicate soil or flora, be sure to only put one foot down. Leave your inside foot clipped in while leaning the bike to the outside. Unclip your outside foot and and place it in as unobtrusive a location as possible. Putting just one foot down not only helps the singletrack but it just might prevent you from getting poison ivy or oak.
For experienced riders singletrack abuse is a major worry. Others may have never considered the issue. We hope that these suggestions make you aware of your impact on the trail. Whether you are an experienced rider or a first-timer, your attention to this issue will help the image of mountain biking and preserve your favorite singletrack. Plus, it will reduce the amount of trail work (photo) required of volunteers (photo courtesy of the International Mountain Bicycling Association).