I was driving down to Thousand Oaks recently to share a corned beef sandwich lunch with my cousin, and I forgot my iPod. There was absolutely no choice; I had to listen to the car radio. The first song, just as I zoomed my little black Honda Civic SI through the Milpas construction zone traffic, was Little Feat’s On Your Way Down (which you should listen to while you’re reading this column). I’d been thinking about writing a Pedal On column about mountain biking, and all at once, I knew exactly what I was going to write about this month.
I didn’t think I was a mountain biker until I sat down with Chris Orr, president of the Santa Barbara Mountain Trail Volunteers (SBMTV), over a cup of coffee at the French Press. I asked him to tell me about some of the easy trails in the area where a new rider could gain confidence and skills in off-road riding. The first three places he named — Ellwood Bluffs, the Douglas Family Preserve, and Elings Park — were all places I’ve ridden on my road bike. Each of these areas offers wide dirt paths, flat terrain, and gorgeous ocean views. Sand, ruts, and mud in the winter and early spring are the main trail obstacles. If you’re not ready to invest in a mountain bike, your road bike is up to the task. Put on a helmet and join 50 million other Americans over the age of 16 who bike off-road.
If you want to step it up a notch but aren’t ready for the tough front and back range trails like Jesusita, Camuesa Connector, or Tequepis, you can head out to the San Antonio Creek Trail or the Romero Fire Road. The Fire Road is a well-traveled, highly popular bicycle route. The trail is just over 13 miles long and has a 2,250-foot climb. It provides a good route into the Santa Barbara backcountry. The trail starts out steep and rocky but mellows to a constant climb. It offers connections to other major roads and trails. Since most of this trail is within three miles of the beach, the view south over the coast to the ocean and the Channel Islands is spectacular. You won’t find a lot of shade on the south-facing slopes, but ocean breezes will moderate the summer heat. If you don’t have a mountain bike, it’s navigable (with some walking over rocky parts) on a road or cross bike. Again, don’t forget your helmet and a bell (more on that later).
If you’ve ridden some of the easy or moderate trails and are beginning to get excited about off-road riding and are window-shopping for a new bike, let’s talk some about trail etiquette. Trails, just like roads, are multi-use paths. As a mountain biker, you’ll share the trail with hikers, joggers, and equestrians. Thought you could leave sharing behind by riding off-road? No way! The SBMTV has expanded on the well-known International Mountain Biking Associations rules of etiquette and developed 12 ways to help riders share the trail:
Stay Alert: Santa Barbara front-country trails can be extremely crowded. Stay alert!
Yield: : Bicycles yield to all other trail users. Uphill travel has priority.
Use a Bike Bell: Use a bike bell to let others know of your approach.
Maintain Control: Maintain controllable speed, slow around blind corners, and ride within your limits.
Ride Smart: Use riding techniques that minimize impacts to the trail.
Leave No Trace: Be sure to pack out at least as much as you pack in.
Avoid Wet Trails: Wet and muddy trails are more vulnerable to damage than dry ones; consider other options.
Ride Open Trails: Respect trail and road closures.
Speak: Take the time to say “Hello” and “Passing on your left/right” to other trail users.
Small Groups: Keep riding group sizes small; less than 10 is recommended.
Be Prepared for the Ride: Know your equipment and needs for the trail.
Participate: Volunteer for trail-maintenance events, and you will have more trail to ride
Following these guidelines builds camaraderie and good relationships not only among bikers but also with other people who are hiking or exploring on local trails. There are other ways to encourage sharing and safety. For example, the Santa Barbara Mountain Trail Volunteers started a bike bell program. They hand out bells at trailheads to mountain bikers which help to alert hikers or equestrians that bikers are approaching. SBMTV members also talk with users to educate them on the trail network, different user groups, MTB etiquette, and local trail improvement projects. Bell boxes are also located at the top and bottom of trails so that riders can simply pick one up and use it during their ride. After they are done they can return it for other riders or they are encouraged to keep a bell and use it on all their rides.
As you become a more advanced mountain biker, you’ll learn that riding is about the tactile feel of the trail, technique, and flow. A great ride is not necessarily the shortest and fastest distance between two points, but the one where you skillfully navigate a path that is both elegant and efficient. Imagine the path water might take down a trail. Flow! At this point you will have moved from grinding your way up and over logs and rocks to working skillfully with the environment to get to the top and bottom. Good riders share the road and trails. Great riders also move respectfully through the landscape whether on trails or road. I learned a long time ago that it’s hard to change your personality. What you can change is your stance with respect to your experiences. Try it while biking.
Little Feat’s lyrics are blasting from my car radio: “It’s high time / that you find / The same people you walk on/ On your way up/ You might meet up/ On your way down.” Yes, they are singing about trail etiquette! In biking, work, family, or relationships, we can choose to bash over obstacles or ride with the flow. Amazing, in both life and biking, “The path up is the path down.”