Spoke Talk: Staying off muddy trails

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Paul Matheny

This time of year can be frustrating for trail users, including mountain bikers. The days are getting long and warm, and the ground is starting to dry out. Mud season is nearly over, except on our trails. Although they might be dry (and almost irresistible) at the trailhead, as they ascend the hillsides, most trails still are muddy and soft, and many still have partial or complete snow cover.

Although it is doable to ride up and down in the mud, that is about the worst thing that can happen to the tread surface of a trail. Any activity that leaves a track or impression in the wet surface does several types of damage. The most obvious is that it leaves a rut that is rough to walk or ride over after it dries. That damage can be repaired by our trail crews later in the summer, but why should we consume their valuable volunteer time repairing new damage when it is better directed at upgrading old, substandard trails or even expanding our trail network when new trail construction is approved? More importantly, traveling on a saturated trail surface compacts the soil and reduces its ability to absorb future precipitation, which then leads to increased sediment runoff and increased erosion. Correct trail design focuses on managing drainage to minimize erosion. Creating ruts in a soft trail surface alters the designed drainage, accelerates erosion and causes further trail damage and impact to the landscape.

Many of our trails are partially or totally on public land. Public land managers’ support for improvements to and expansion of the existing trail systems depends largely on our individual and collective track record as trail users as well as Routt County Riders’ ability to sustainably maintain trails. Our responsible use of trails is critical not only for maintaining the landscape but also for continuing to demonstrate that new and existing trails are a prudent use of public land and not a liability.

If you ever have ridden the trails in the Grand Valley (Fruita and Grand Junction area) or read any of the trail guides for these rides, you’ve probably seen the pleadings by the cycling community to “keep singletrack single.” The trails down there also are primarily on public land and are premised on being singletrack, minimizing the surface disturbance and avoiding the gradual widening because of missing turns, passing oncoming riders and exploring new routes. They actively try to educate riders so they don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “It’s just one track. What’s it gonna hurt?” The first new track sends the message to subsequent users that it’s a trail and it’s OK.

Those concerns apply to our trails, as well, so as a responsible cycling community, we must try to resist the temptation to use muddy trails or to create a new route around wet sections. They will be dry before long, and the wait will make summer riding that much sweeter for all of us. To check trail conditions before you head out, visit www.routtcountyriders.org.

Paul Matheny serves on the Routt County Riders board. He can be reached at jpmatheny@gmail.com.

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