The Death of the Technical Trail

Q: Is it better to build an intermediate trail that appeals to a large range of riders, or an advanced trail that appeals to the most dedicated riders? You’re not allowed to say “both.”

Noah: I’m torn on this one. On one hand, I spend a ton of time trying to get approval to build more trail. And if there’s one thing that makes that process easier, it’s money – the more riders there are in the community, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to raise funds to build trail. Building intermediate trails appeals to more of those riders, which in turn helps generate more funding, which eventually leads to more trail.

But on the other hand, I’m selfish, and ultimately I’m not interested in spending a ton of time trying to get trails built if I’m not going to want to ride them. We have a ton of intermediate trail in my area, and there’s more going in every day. And I almost never ride those trails simply because pedaling along a smooth dirt ribbon alongside every other person out for an evening spin just isn’t that fun for me. I like super technical trail, so that’s what I go ride. But there isn’t much of it, and no one’s building more of it (but I’m trying!). So, like I said, I’m torn.

Tom: Intermediate or easy trails are key to bringing riders into the sport, so I’m going to say that is mostly a good thing. On the other hand, I love technical trails. They provide challenges to strive for and build riding skills. When I’ve built trails, I’ve tended to build relatively intermediate trails with hard option lines—the terrain in New Hampshire is very conducive to that with large rock features immediately adjacent to smoother areas, and steep slopes not presenting much of a challenge.

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

Marshal: It is bad form for expert skiers to buzz beginners on green ski runs, and ski areas don’t groom expert terrain on purpose, in part to discourage skiers from getting in over their head, and in part to segregate the expert skiers away from the novices.

Land use managers should understand that user conflict boils down to speed differentials between users on the same trail. If there isn’t enough trail for the numbers of advanced riders, then accomplished riders get on beginner-oriented trails with much more speed than the trails were designed for, and are viewed as reckless, even if they are intentionally riding conservatively and adequately yielding to everyone.

The answer to this problem is NOT more beginner trails, it is putting in some interesting trail to get the accomplished riders elsewhere and segregating the riders that cause the speed differentials.

The other solution is to define up / down directionality on as many trails as possible, and try to limit multi-direction use to trails that go across a mountain.

If there are a lot of smooth, flat trails in an area and user conflict is real, get the users to build something for a higher skill set that will get the fast riders off beginner terrain. That is how you capture new riders, by making it more fun for everyone. And if there is already a lot of expert-level riding in a given area, there’s nothing wrong with increasing the mileage of less demanding trails.

Noah: I agree with everything Marshal said, but it’s funny – the guys that are going fast and creating conflict on the local, smooth trails tend to be the Stravassholes. But those guys are on super lightweight XC rigs, and they tend to avoid technical trails like the plague. But, like Marshal said, the answer is really to have a diversity of trails so everyone can ride what they like.

But in lots of areas, the diversity is diminishing, not increasing. Far more intermediate trails are being built than advanced ones, and while that’s great for a lot of riders, it also seems to lack long-term foresight, for the reasons Marshal has pointed out.

Tom: I like what Noah and Marshal are saying, but I’d generalize a bit more. Conflicts are more the result of trail layout and trail use. If there is a common entrance / exit to a trail network, the number and variety of users on that bit of trail is going to be very high, and it will drive up the potential for conflict. By increasing the number of trails available and laying them out in such a way as to maximize loop options, conflict can be reduced. I see layout as much more critical than the distribution of hard and easy trails.

Q: What about “flow” trails? Are they more desirable if they appeal to a broader demographic?

Marshal: First off, “Flow Trails” mean very different things to many different people. The most brake bumped and rough trails around here (Salt Lake City, Utah) are machine built and classified as “flow trails”. Normal singletrack trails seem to hold up to use better.

Not to be a negative nancy, but berms and jumps are fun when you can hit the berms brakeless, and when the jumps include well designed landers with appropriate distance to match trail speed off-the-brakes. That is not how most “flow trails” I have seen are built.

Noah: I like jumps and berms as much as the next guy, but I’ll take a legitimate tech trail any day of the week. And like Marshal said, flow trails are a maintenance nightmare; they get brake jacked and torn up, and they’re really hard to fix up unless you’ve got good dirt and a decent amount of moisture.

Tom: Flow trails make riding fun for more people. Having tried to interest beginners in the sport in New Hampshire, where easy trails are hard to find, versus Park City, where almost anyone can ride the fun, flowy trails, I can attest that it is much easier to get beginners to enjoy the sport on flow or flowy trails.

I think the key component of flow trails is that they are built to a standard. I’d love to see more of that standard applied to technical trails, as it could make them a bit more accessible, but not necessarily less challenging.

Flow trails feature constant radius turns that are sized appropriately for speeds, predictable slope changes, and constantly undulate. They are fun because they keep a rider accelerating either by turning or picking up speed constantly. I believe that standards could be applied to technical trails to make them more appealing to a broader demographic without dumbing them down.

Noah: The idea of standards scares me. It’s one thing to say that an intermediate trail shouldn’t have jumps bigger than X, or that a “single black diamond” trail shouldn’t have drops bigger than Y, but the actual construction of a trail is so dependent on the terrain, climate, soil type, etc., that standards end up unnecessarily complicating the process.

And for tech trails, this is even more true – the best tech trails make great use of the natural environment; no amount of standards can replace that.

What we really need are good trail builders who are given the opportunity to build good trails. There are quite a few people that can get out there with a mini-excavator and build a decent intermediate trail. There are far fewer people that can build a legitimately interesting, technical trail that’ll also keep the land managers happy. And for the record, by “legitimately interesting, technical trail,” I don’t mean a machine built trail that has some rocks strategically placed on it, nor do I mean a trail that has a couple of medium sized wood drops or jumps built into it.

Tom: I understand Noah’s concern, but I think I’m referring to different sorts of standards. I’m not thinking of mandating a universal set of standards, rather guidelines that push builders toward good design: constant and consistent radius corners, consistent jump lip shape on a given trail, natural speed checks (small uphills) before slower sections of trails. Standards could definitely run awry, but I think everyone has ridden a sketchy hard trail or an out-of-place feature, and “standards” — or perhaps the better word is “guidelines” — could help prevent that.

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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