The Death of the Technical Trail

A lot of talk and handwringing has gone on in the bike community about the shape of trail riding—and more specifically, the shape of the actual trails that are being built these days.

Machine built “Flow” trails are springing up all over the place, and steeper, technical trails seem to be increasingly a rarity.

But is that perception actually true? Why is it happening? And must it be an Either / Or?

More importantly, is it a good thing or a bad thing for the sport of mountain biking?

Three of our reviewers, Marshal Olson, Noah Bodman, and Tom Collier, took on this topic.

Q: There are plenty of people complaining about a lack of technical trails, but is it really true? Are technical trails an endangered species?

Marshal: My experience is that technical trails are being widened and sanitized significantly, primarily from people either removing obstacles or riding around them off the intended trail.

Noah: This seems to depend a bit on where you live and how the local land managers look at trails. There are definitely places where real technical trails still survive, but increasingly, like Marshal said, trails are getting dumbed down. A big part of this seems to be that user-built trails that once flew under the radar aren’t really secrets anymore. And it’s tougher to keep new trails secret for very long. Land managers are much more efficient at shutting down trails that they don’t like, so more communities have tried to appease them, which often times means sanitizing the trails.

Tom: I’ve lived in two very different riding environments. The first was New Hampshire and the second is Park City, UT. I am back in New Hampshire visiting (and riding) as I write this, and I can assure you technical trails are alive and well. Many of my local trails are being dumbed down, but the terrain is so naturally rocky and rooty that the trails will always retain technical features.

The dumbing down is just enough to start to bring flow to the trails. Some hard technical moves do become easier as rocks are added or removed, and that can frustrate riders who were working on that particular move. But the trails become faster, and faster riding presents new technical options.

Tom Collier, The Death of the Technical Trail, Blister Gear Review
Tom Collier

In Park City, the majority of the trails are very, very smooth and flowy because the terrain is smoother and mostly comprised of dirt. Rocks and roots are rare. This enables trails to be built easily and rapidly using machinery. That approach doesn’t allow much utilization of natural features, and yields trails that are smooth from the start, with no room for dumbing down. There are still natural, hand-built, technical trails in the area, but they are somewhat rare.

In New Hampshire, hand building trails is more convenient because the rocky terrain makes it challenging and expensive to get heavy equipment in. In Utah, the abundance of dirt and Aspen trees makes it very easy to cut a trail in quickly with a chainsaw and an excavator. Trail building takes the path of least resistance.

Q: How does the equipment we’re riding play into this? Are trails that were once deemed technical now considered easy because bikes are more capable?

Noah: To some extent, yes, but really this should lead to more technical trails. The bikes can handle super rocky, rooty trails better than ever, but more and more of the trails that are getting built are buttery smooth superhighways.

Tom: Bikes have become much more capable. This has allowed riders to ride trails more quickly and perhaps crash less, but I don’t think that it has fundamentally shifted what a hard trail is. The exception would be in the upper echelons of downhill racing and freeriding.

Marshal: My interest in riding mountain bikes stems from a desire to get lost in the woods. A bike is simply a tool to enable that. There is something innately awesome about following a raw trail you have never ridden before. That has nothing to do with the bike, and I would actually complain about the amount technical riding if I was on a fully rigid bike. Don’t consider sharing my opinion an actual complaint. I love riding bikes, and am stoked to do it no matter what. But blasting down a trail with a rigid fork through brake bumps is a nightmare compared to riding the same rig on raw singletrack with rocks and roots.

Noah Bodman, The Death of the Technical Trail, Blister Gear Review
Noah Bodman

Noah: All in all, trails have gotten better. I spend far less time riding old hiking trails that were essentially a push up to a heavily switchbacked, not particularly interesting descent. Trails are faster, and bikes have evolved to accommodate those speeds – slow-speed picking your way through rocks is less common now, so slacker, lower bikes are the norm. But this all means that finding legitimately challenging trails can be difficult; the trails that were challenging on a bike from the late 90’s aren’t all that difficult on a modern bike.

Marshal: I have a bit different perspective. The trails I learned to ride mtb on were primarily moto up-trails. That means they were steep, frequently too much in the fall line for any sort of long term use, and had corners intended for a large wheelbase vehicle. They were pretty sweet then, and would be just as fun now—but they certainly had / will have erosion issues.

1 comment on “The Death of the Technical Trail”

  1. I see what you are saying about the actual soil/terrain type. For us here in Duluth, MN we are fortunate to have a range of different soil types across town. Much of our land is clay soil, and any steep and rocky or rooty features tends to create erosion or are the result of previous erosion, especially as riders go around them and widen the trail.
    Most of our new trail construction has been easy flow trail. The main reason for that is that we have a city-wide master plan, calling for the construction of a continuous, ~45 mile long singletrack from one end of town to the other, linking all the trail networks. This trail is supposed to be an easy trail, so it is being constructed to that level.
    It does mean that there is little advanced and technical trail being built, and in one 1.5 mile section the new, smooth flow trail, replaced an old handbuilt, rooty trail.
    We have responded by rebuilding a parallel trail in the same area as the new machine built trail, and that trail can now be much more technical since there is an easy through-trail for beginners to travel through the park.
    We have also created a steep, handbuilt technical trail in an area with lots of bedrock.

    So in short, my answer is:
    Make sure there are easy options to get connect the different areas, then add technical trails as terrain allows.

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