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MTB Skills
Five Rules of the Trail

Pro rider Sonya Looney offers her best advice for dealing with tricky trail situations.
BySonya Looney
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The United States is home to an abundance of purpose-built singletrack—fast, flowy ribbons of dirt designed for riding. In the six years that I’ve been a pro racer, I’ve been lucky to ride all over the country. Most riders I’ve met use our trails responsibly, but I’ve also seen plenty of abuse. In those cases, mountain bikers often don’t even know they are doing anything wrong.

 

In fact, most of us could use a little brushing up on our trailside etiquette. Being responsible, courteous trail users minimizes danger to ourselves, other riders and the environment, but it also helps ensure that we’ll maintain access to our favorite trails. That means sharing our singletrack with hikers, equestrians and others, as well as riding responsibly, even when no one is looking. To clear up any confusion, I spoke with IMBA’s Mark Eller and officials at local trail groups, and asked them how to handle some tricky trail situations. From riding through puddles to passing grazing cows, here is some of their best advice.

 

It’s raining. Can I ride?

Riding on wet trails can cause serious damage, but not all trails are off limits in the rain. Mark Eller, IMBA’s communications director, says, “It depends on the region and the trail you’re on. Trail design in some areas accounts for the constant moisture and trail builders armor it with rock.” But if you’re not sure, check to see if your tires are leaving ruts. If so, it’s best to stay off. “If you’re in doubt, don’t ride,” Eller says.

 

Oncoming mud puddle! Go through it or around it?

Even days after a rainstorm, puddles can still exist. Should you go around, or dive in? Blaze through it, Eller says. Getting muddy is one of the joys of riding (and makes you look like a badass)! There’s also a more important reason: Riding around puddles can widen singletrack, cause erosion and harm nearby vegetation. Remember to follow the popular slogan: Keep singletrack single.

 

Can I build my own trail?

Sure, but only after getting the proper approval from land managers—building unauthorized trails is illegal and could lead to closures of entire singletrack networks. It’s often best to work with existing mountain bike groups, who can help lobby for approval and have years of trail building experience. They know how to cut through the red tape and create exciting singletrack that enhances, not destroys, the environment.

 

There’s a cow on the trail. What should I do?

Dave Wiens, my Topeak Ergon teammate and executive director at Gunnison Trails suggests giving cows (and elk, horses, llamas and other animals) plenty of space. “Try not to startle or scare animals and definitely don’t chase them. Give them the time they need to move off the trail.”

 

What’s the best way to pass another trail user?

There are many options, but stay on the trail whenever possible. Riding off to the side can kill fragile vegetation and widen the trail. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” says IMBA’s Eller. “It’s about learning what will work and erring on the side of being kind.” So yes, love thy neighbor. But here’s some more practical advice. If the trail is wide, slow down, alert your presence and pass each other when it’s convenient. This works no matter which way traffic is flowing. Just be prepared to stop if necessary. Be extra careful when passing equestrians—mountain bikes can spook horses. If the trail is narrow, you can dismount and step off the trail, paying attention not to harm any vegetation or wildlife. No matter what you do, be safe and forget about your Strava time.



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