Considerate Mountain Biking

13th Jun 2012

I wrote this article a little while ago but given recent debates on mountain bike access it seemed relevant at the moment. It's important to note that the information relates to England and Wales - in Scotland things are different and it's worth having a look at this document if you are heading north of the border.....

Last weekend, while I was walking on Kinder, I met up with Tony and Barry who were cycling along the footpath that links Jacobs Ladder and a bridleway.  I’d seen them approaching for some time and by the time they got to me you could clearly see the deep furrows they had left in the 7000 year old blanket bog.
 
I’ve been in this situation quite a few times and always feel duty bound to explain that cycling on footpaths is illegal.  Sometimes intervening has led to conflict and two fingers gestures, sometimes it has lead to understanding and once it even led to a rather large American footballer size biker squareing up to me and threatening to rip my head off – so be aware of the dangers if you decide to do it yourself!

Fortunately, on this occasion, it turned out that Tony and Barry were simply new to biking and didn’t have a clear understanding of where they could legally ride.  We chatted through the issues for a few minutes and I finished my walk resolved to put together some information that could be given to riders on our courses and would also be useful to anyone fairly new to the sport or any old hands who fancied a bit of revision!

Why do mountain bikers need to ride responsibly?

Make no mistake; mountain biking is popular with a capital P!  10% of the population now own a mountain bike and the CTC (Cyclists Touring Club) alone has over 46,000 members.  Although 40% of the mountain bikes owned are never used off road and 50% of the remainder only cycle off road 2-4 times a year, that’s still a lot of bikers!

This popularity causes conflicts with other outdoor enthusiasts and landowners and no one can deny there are significant visible signs of erosion on many tracks across our upland moorland areas.   There are also an increasing number of accidents, and the popularity of the sport has knock on effects like parking problems and traffic congestion, littering and the potential impact on wildlife.   Although the statistics suggest that the growth trends in mountain biking are now levelling out, there’s still a lot of bikers new to the sport who aren’t necessarily aware of these issues (and some experienced ones who choose to ignore them!).

Where can we ride?

Since the introduction of the 1968 Countryside Act, the riding of pedal cycles has been permitted on bridleways.  It’s important to note that this right may be restricted by orders or byelaws and local authorities are only obliged to maintain bridleways to a standard suitable for horses and those on foot.  One other vital thing to remember about this act is that it requires cyclists to give priority to pedestrians and horse riders.

The 1835 Highways Act made it an offence to cycle on a footpath although the Cycle Tracks Act of 1984 does authorise county councils to designate particular footpaths as ‘cycle tracks’, thus giving rights to cyclists that otherwise wouldn’t exist.  There are several of these around but the trouble is that irresponsible riders can cause the councils or other organisations to simply remove the designation and that cycle track is probably lost forever.  For example, the National Trust offers the following information in it’s own ‘guiding principles’ document……………

‘In cases of extreme conflicts with horse riders and walkers, apply for Traffic Regulation Orders to prohibit cycles on bridleways (monitor numbers and ‘incidents’ first to establish a firm case).’ ……..Worrying stuff!

Partnerships have also been established between groups like the National Trust and Sustrans (a sustainable transport lobby group) to develop sections of National Trust land as National Cycle Networks.  There have also been lots of designated cycle paths established on Forestry Commission land and disused railway lines.  The awesome purpose made forestry tracks provide some of the UK’s best off road biking.

Where else?  Well there’s not too much left.  Pavements are out of bounds, cycling on canal towpaths requires a British Waterways cycling permit and of course you can ride on roads if you are brave enough.

How do we do the right thing?

If you trawl the net you’ll find lots of  ‘Codes of Conducts’ for mountain biking but in my opinion the best of these, although they are all very similar, is the one written by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).  This organisation, the daddy of MTB associations, has the mission of ‘promoting mountain biking that is environmentally sound and socially responsible’ – sounds perfect!

So here it is (although I have added the odd extra bit of info here and there)…………

The IMBA code of conduct

RIDE ON OPEN TRAILS ONLY – Respect trail and road closures (ask if not sure), avoid possible trespass on private land.


This is pretty obvious considering what I discussed above.  There are loads of great mountain biking guidebooks which will keep you pointed in the right direction.  However, as I mentioned before, trails do change so it’s important to check the guidebook information is up to date by using an up to date Ordnance Survey map.  Also, when you are out on the trails and get to a track you aren’t sure about, don’t use it unless you can verify its legality.

LEAVE NO TRACE – Respect the dirt beneath you and practice low  impact cycling. 

Even on open trails, you should not ride under conditions where you will leave evidence of your passing.  Wet and muddy trails are more vulnerable to damage.  When the trail bed is soft, consider other riding options.  This also means staying on existing trails and not creating new ones.  There a lot of signs of erosion damage out there.  Of course it’s not all MTBer’s – walkers, horses and motorbikes do their share.  Having said that, bikes are very damaging when conditions are wet and muddy or very dry.  In wet conditions bikers often make new tracks to avoid the puddles or chew up the trails as they spin their tyres trying to gain traction.  In very dry conditions its easy to rip off the fine surface layer exposing the dirt underneath`.  A lot of it comes down to planning a route to suit the conditions.  If you are in any doubt of the likely condition of a trail, use one of the purpose built forest trails or old railway lines that have a harder surface layer.

CONTROL YOUR BICYCLE! – Inattention for even a second can cause disaster. 

Excessive speed can maim and threaten people; there is no excuse for it.  Know your limitations!  Of all outdoor activities mountain biking causes the most injuries.  Hone your skills somewhere safe and don’t underestimate the damage you can do to yourself when you fall off at speed!  Always wear a helmet and gloves and consider body armour when you are really pushing the boat out (or should that be bike out!).

ALWAYS GIVE WAY TO OTHER USERS – Make known your approach well in advance. 

This is a key cause of antagonism between bikers and other trail users.  You may know you are in control as you scream down the track at a gazillion miles an hour, but the walkers you scream past and scare out of their wits are hardly likely to share your elation that you’ve just shaved 2 seconds off your previous best time for that descent!  And of course, they will then always be wary (and probably critical) of other biking using ‘their’ trails.  Take the time to slow down as you approach and let them know you’re coming.  Most MTBers wouldn’t consider having a bell on their prized machine but if you have gear cables that run along your top tube you can give a lovely friendly bell sound by pulling up your cable slightly and letting it ‘ping’ against the top tube as you approach and a friendly greetig works wonders.  Many walkers will happily move to one side to let you pass – if they do please take the trouble to say thank you.  Remember that the future of good trail relations is in ALL our hands.

NEVER SCARE ANIMALS – All animals are startled by an unannounced approach, a sudden movement or a loud noise. 

When passing horses use special care and follow directions from the riders (ask if uncertain).  A bit like the last point but it’s also worth remembering that animals are very unpredictable.  For the safety of all concerned its vital to slow right down, let them know you are coming and give them a wide berth.  If they make the effort to let you pass don’t forget to again say thanks.

PLAN AHEAD – Know your equipment, your ability and the area in which you are riding and prepare accordingly. 

A well-executed trip is a satisfaction to you and not a burden or offence to others.  More common sense you might say, but it’s amazing how often I see people who are completely ill equipped or ill prepared for the conditions or the ride they have undertaken.  Know your route and leave plenty of time to allow for unexpected delays like mechanical problems, fatigue or that 3-hour lunch stop!  Don’t tackle rides that are beyond your ability or skill level.  Plan alternatives into your route plan to cut the ride short if needed.  Carry enough tools, food and drink, a mobile phone and first aid kit, some cash for emergency calls (or an emergency taxi!) a map and compass, spare clothes and emergency contact details for all riders.  In addition I carry a fluorescent jacket and a compact set of lights if there is any danger we could end up cycling in the dark.  Finally, I also carry a spare warm synthetic jacket and a ‘bothy bag’ shelter if the ride is going to take me across exposed mountainous areas or open moorland – it’s not much to carry and could save a life.

So that’s it.  Responsible riding is the responsibility of every rider, and considering its only doing the obvious anyway, it shouldn’t need any additional effort from most of us.  Please enjoy the trails but protect their future for us all.