Illegal trails are a part of mountain biking. But with millions being spent on new trails each year, why does it still happen?
Words and photos: Unconfirmed
Mountain biking is growing faster than the industry conjures up new standards, and everyone from small towns to large cities have worked hard to build new trail networks and bike parks across the globe. Volunteer groups, clubs, bike companies, governments and private enterprise are working at all levels to plan and build these incredible places we may call our local trails, yet pirate trails (illegal trails) continue to be built. Some of them are reclaimed, utilitarian trails that have seen new life, fresh cut in a local forest or reserve or even within the boundaries of an existing bike park's network. Many pirate trails have a finite lifespan, and builders often know that what they toil over will be torn apart by a dozer, obliterating hours of labour and high levels of stoke.
So what motivates these trail fairies to work in the shadows, without pay, with risk of prosecution in some countries by landowners or governments and sometimes at the risk of damaging relationships with stakeholders?
We reached out to three locals from our favourite riding destinations across the globe, these people were harder to find than a mythical creature of the night.
It’s all about putting smiles on faces
“First I started trail building for myself, to have nice trails around my backyard, to improve skills, to have fun. This proved to be a learning curve, so that the first trails were easier and now, on my 10th trail, it is getting a little bigger and harder.”
“Then people started to come and tried them out and in return, I got a lot of 'thanks', smiles and new friends. Very good times, crashes, lots of heat and sweat, beers, laughs and some Medronho (fire water schnapps).”
“I realised that by starting this small network of trails, many people got to know my small village (Marmelete) and our local delicacies like wild pig on the oven, the black chorizo, the medronho. It helped local businesses to grow. It put my village on the map. Companies like Cube, Canyon, YT and others, journalists and bike magazines, started to show up. Having bike idols like Danny MacAskill, almost at my doorstep, showing up on a car, opening the window and saying: 'are we going to ride today', it is unreal. Then again, every time I drove my car in to work, on each curve I did, I was always stopping and thinking: 'Oh, look at that rock garden, oh what a line it would be here, oh what a scenic view it would be to ride this down'. So the excitement of scouting for a trail, imagining the line, putting hands on it, finding time to do it, getting so involved, doing it with respect of nature and the landowners, and in the end: sharing it with everyone.”
“Right now, with 4 boys at my house (me and my 3 kids), it’s even more addictive, because they are already hooked and everyday are challenging me to go out and build more: to them, to me, to all the bike lovers. So the garage is accumulating bikes and building tools, which drives us to ride, build and enjoy every day. It is priceless, because I feel I’m not only building trails, I’m building better people. It became a passion… Sometimes, I don’t know which I love more: to ride or to build?!”
Digging for progress
“We dig for many reasons. The process of crafting something from where there was nothing with only a few rudimentary tools is overwhelmingly satisfying. Immersed in nature, not bound by rules, politics, pre-approved designs and schedules, creativity is able to flow.”
"Using the principal of only doing what is necessary to make something interesting and challenging, these trails require little to no maintenance and are built in a more environmentally respectful manner. These type of trails represent the landscape for what it is; janky rocks, tight trees, loose corners and steep chutes - they are part of the mountain and we ride mountain bikes.”
“Funding is only as good as the people who control it. Unfortunately agendas often get in the way of delivering a diverse offering which leaves many riders wanting. Formal adoption takes time as the unsanctioned trails are often initiated by under represented groups who are unsatisfied with sanctioned trails.”
Creating diversity and harmony
“As our bike parks have grown, trails have become sanitised and have all become quite similar for many reasons. These networks, while a bunch of fun to ride, often do not extend rider's abilities and allow for them to progress. These trails are often wide, have a consistent gradient and are full of man-made features that are quite uniform, predictable and don’t necessarily work with nature.”
“Lots of planning goes into our illegal trails, they are not hacked in willy nilly. We are organised, we have a plan, we spend hours walking alignments looking for features and working out creative ways to link them without disturbing things. We consider the safety of the trail users, and the wildlife that we share the area with. We ride the trail, we adjust, we come back to repair, we improve and alter it if something doesn’t feel right. We listen to riders riding the trails from the shadows and plan new things.”
“We wish the gap wasn’t so big, that we could work together and co-exist, but for now we are forced to work like this. When we sit in the shade after a long day in the sun, sinking cold beers to the sounds of riders laughing and fist bumping on a nearby pirate trail, we forget the politics and remember why we do it.”
Can I go and build my own trail now?
So should we all go and start building pirate trials? The short answer is no and here is why, from everyone we approached the more we spoke the more we learnt of their vision or “grand plan” for the area they worked in. This was not a fleeting one off, feel good fix but a highly motivated, dedicated and planned endeavour that had a unique quality and continuity within the pirate network. This is not by chance and regardless of the minimal, natural, raw, janky feel there was is underlying flow and rhythm to this style of trail that requires a keen eye and experience to scratch it into the dirt.
AMB does not endorse digging your own illegal trails - but we acknowledge it still happens, and the above input explains why.
If you want to let your inner creativity loose in the woods, here is a few things to consider before you do.
Consider the landowner. Are mountain bikers or local clubs already trying to build a relationship with them, if you start hacking away, will you burn bridges? You don't want to set the process back.
Consider other riders. Sure, less is more but if you don’t build it properly, prune it properly or build something that doesn’t work and is dangerous it could seriously hurt someone.
Join a club. There are so many clubs that host working bees and trail building projects to get involved with and learn the ins and outs of trail building the right way.