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The Art of Riding Softly
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The Toughest Off-Road Techniques to Master Are Awareness and Respect

By Hank Barlow

Moving softly across the land means leaving no more than an echo. Whether you're afoot, astride a horse, on skis, or riding a mountain bike, the approach is the same. The medium changes but not the rules.

The foundation for all backcountry ethics is respect -- for land, for life, for one another, for yourself. It's that simple

But while the concept is straightforward, consistently abiding by it is not. For example, I love finding new lines on the slickrock in Moab, Utah. The objective is to stay on the rock as much as possible, leave no skid marks, and never ride through delicate cryptogamic soil or vegetation. But in reality, leaving no trace is impossible. Lichen is crushed, sandstone crumbled, moss torn, and the rock scarred whenever a tire slips. Hiking has the same effect, even in running shoes.

The only way to leave no trace is to stay away. Consequently, the best I can do is minimize my impact. I choose routes precisely, always looking for aesthetically pleasing lines and paths that are defined by the contours of the land. When confronted with an especially steep face of rock with a slim chance of cleaning it, I look for another route rather than risk scarring it.

Sometimes these choices are blurred by the moment's action. For instance, if a 10-inch-wide band of cryptogamic soil lies between me and the fin of sandstone I want to reach—and there's no other route—do I continue riding or do I stop and walk? The latter means breaking my rhythm and losing momentum while the former involves scarring less than a square foot of soil, a pittance when measured against the desert's scale.

At first, the decision is obvious— keep riding. Except the cryptogam may be 30 years old and restoring it may take another 20. Are five decades of damage worth the fraction of a second it takes to ride across? Or, more bluntly, does my personal convenience override the cryptogam's need to survive? For if I ride, chances are good others will follow. Human tracks are like cancer cells; they multiply quickly.

To ride softly means to stop and step across. And mostly I do. But occasionally I'm so caught up in my riding that I lose sight of the turbulence I create. I hammer ahead, doing my best to ride cleanly, while rationalizing that I'll impact the land no matter how careful I am. I imagine this is true of most of us—hiker, biker, climber, horseman, etc.

More examples: Rain or melting snow turns a section of trail to mud. The easiest course is to ride through, churning it into a bog, instead of lifting the bike and walking past. Or a tree falls across a trail and rather than take the time to clear it or carry the bike over, we ride around and create a new path.

Or on a mountain pass, we spot an appealing viewpoint and casually ride across the tundra instead of leaving the bike and walking. Our tracks remain, soon someone else follows, and another trail begins.

Alone, these actions seem minor. But when multiplied by all of us in the backcountry, the effects can be major. More important, they're indicative of society's prevailing attitude that man's wants prevail. Consequently, the first step in moving softly over the land is recognizing that options exist — that we can choose to minimize and mitigate our impact.

Then there's the social dimension of soft cycling — the part that in terms of regulation and access is having tremendous influence on mountain bikers. Near Crested Butte, Colorado, is one of the finest singletracks I've ridden. I know it well and can trace its entirety in my mind. I know how fast its turns can be taken, where to shift and brake, and when to accelerate through blind corners. To blast over its length is a joy, except that should a hiker suddenly appear, one of us might get hurt.

Finding a hiker on this path is so rare that discounting the possibility is easy. And on an especially sparkling day, the trail almost begs to be toasted at maximum velocity. But soft cycling dictates that I do otherwise. Instead of blasting ahead, I hold back just enough to avoid such a collision. Just as I don't want to tear up the trail, I don't want to destroy another's enjoyment.

If one word defines soft cycling, it's responsibility. Under its rules, we are totally accountable for our actions. If we're injured or come across someone who is, we're equipped to deal with it. If a tire flats or a bike breaks, we have the necessary tools to fix it. What we carry in, we take out. What trash we find, we pick up. If a wind has blown deadfall across a trail, we clear what we can. Always, we have in mind that we're only visitors in the backcountry and so treat it accordingly. We respect our fellow visitors and their dreams, too, and treat each other with honor.

Ultimately soft cycling is a way of life, a way of thinking that stretches well beyond mountain biking. It's an awareness that the world and ourselves are constantly evolving, and that what we may arrogantly call "right" in our youth may be seen as humorous or destructive in our maturity. Who knows what mountain bikes will look like and be capable of in the future? Maybe those who fear our fat tires will be proven right, or maybe a new age of environmentalism will cite the mountain bike as our salvation.

Passing softly through the backcountry creates a fascinating tension. On one hand is the environment, generating powerful swells of energy that course through our psyches There's something about mountains, deserts, and woods that excites us, and when we're in their midst we want to run and jump and shout. Yet on the other hand, the awesomeness of it all diminishes our importance in the Earth's affairs. Surrounded by wildness, I feel as if I'm in the greatest cathedral ever built — one so immense and powerful that I'm speechless.

My schizophrenic riding reflects this tension. One moment I'm flying, the next I'm sitting and staring into the distance, my bike and the beckoning trail momentarily forgotten. These pauses are reminders of why I'm riding this trail in the first place. It's not the speed or the challenge, and certainly not to harass hikers and horsemen. I'm there because of the land and the feelings it generates within me. By stopping and watching, the concept of soft cycling is kept foremost in my thinking. Otherwise, it's too easy to get caught in the race, to become blind to the world and the people around me, to forget how to ride softly.


Copyright International Mountain Bicycling Association. Permission to reprint granted, provided credit is given to IMBA and article author (if noted).


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