Critiquing Gene Hamilton’s critique of IMBA

 

better-ride-logo Gene Hamilton

I subscribe to mountain bike coach Gene Hamilton’s BetterRide.net email newsletter (excellent and free) and noticed last week that he had a blog post titled, Has IMBA Lost its Soul?

His criticisms seemed off-base to me and I thought about responding with comments to his post. But being relatively new to the sport (2.5 years), I thought I’d first try to engage some of my fellow mountain bikers in discussion about the issues he raises with a post to the MORC Forum. After several days of discussion (90+ comments thus far), and some email exchanges with IMBA staff and other mountain bikers I respect, here’s my take.

Hamilton on IMBA’s trail building style:

they … create predictable and boring trails! They have also dumbed down quite a few trails that I once greatly enjoyed. I realize some of this was done to make the trails more sustainable (which is good) but often it seemed like it was done to feed someone’s ego as the great “Trail Dictator”.

Having seen some of the expert/pro-level trails at Copper Harbor and Spirit Mountain that were designed and/or created by IMBA Trail Solutions, I don’t understand why Hamilton would make such a broad criticism. The thing that’s appealing at these parks is the range of trails: intermediate, advanced, expert, pro.  I see IMBA participating in and maybe even leading this ‘progression’ movement, both by its educational efforts and its trail building.

If there’s only one XC/single track trail in a large geographic area, I can see the rationale for making it safer/more rideable (“dumbed down”) for a wide range of abilities rather than just expert, because it could be argued that that’s better for the sport overall. That should be just a temporary fix, however. The beauty of what we have here in Minnesota is the increasing range of trails for all ability levels, often within a single park/trail system.

If a local club wants to keep a trail feature, and the land manager wants it tamed down but the club won’t do it, the land manager has every right to hire a trail builder/contractor to do it.   But then the trail builder should not be blamed. The land managers ultimately dictate/decide what happens to an existing trail or what type of new trails get created. IMBA doesn’t own the lands. The lands are in public hands.

I’m guessing in some of the instances that Hamilton is irritated about, the local clubs haven’t concentrated on developing close relationships with their local land managers like has been done here in Minnesota.

Hamilton on trail-building decision making:

“We know how to build great trails and what people like!”, seems to be their motto, but, I and thousands of other riders were not consulted and they obviously don’t know what I like! There are two things I really enjoy, flow and challenge and many IMBA created or fixed trails lack both of these (many SORBA and MORE trails do have both, props to the local chapters!).

Again, mountain bikers are most effective when they organize themselves into clubs and chapters and then try to work with/influence the land managers to get the kinds of trails that they think best. IMBA need not be part of that process but part of IMBA’s mission is to help clubs and chapters become more effective when dealing with land managers. And if thousands of riders were not consulted, that’s the fault of the clubs and/or land managers, not IMBA.

Hamilton on the importance of purpose-built trails and parks:

Development of trails and parks expressly for the purpose of mountain biking is cool, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that such development is crucial to mountain biking. Mountain biking can be done across the land with no trail, it can be done on animal tracks, and can be done on hiking trails as well as jeep roads. Much of the beauty of mountain biking is that one can traverse the land under their own power.

Sure, trails “can be done” on the types of terrain he cites but I’d argue that if that’s all the sport offered, its appeal would be extremely limited. I tried mountain biking many years ago when my three boys were teenagers. We quickly tired of riding on fire roads, hiking trails, and XC ski trails and quit riding. My world changed once I discovered Cuyuna Lakes and Lebanon Hills in the summer of 2011 and how different the trails were from what I had experienced. I’d argue strongly that purpose-built mountain bike trails are crucial to the growth of the sport.

I’d also argue that Hamilton wouldn’t likely have a successful coaching business if the only type of mountain biking available was on hiking trails and jeep roads. A large percentage of riders new to the sport want to ride the new purpose-built trails and as they progress in their skills, they’re more likely to want to upgrade their skills  even more with coaching services like his company offers.

Also, the regulatory landscape for trail building has changed in recent years. I stumbled on this BLM Powerpoint presentation on IMBA’s site titled Overcoming Regulations and Roadblocks in Trail Projects. The document’s intent:

Provide essential advice for solving the bureaucratic and permitting challenges nearly all trail projects encounter. Topics include: storm water and environmental permits, NEPA compliance, invasive species regulations, archeological issues, management reviews and more.

Many (most?) of those regulations didn’t exist (or if they did, they weren’t enforced) when some of old-style trails Hamilton laments were built. But they do/are now. IMBA didn’t create them, we citizens and our elected representatives and our government staffers did. And that’s probably both good and not-so-good. So IMBA’s job in part is to help clubs and land managers negotiate that thicket of regulations so that mountain bikers end up with a Sandy Ridge. That doesn’t mean IMBA has lost its soul. The world has changed.

Hamilton on IMBA’s MTB Project partnership:

Now IMBA has started a trails website with a database of mountain bike trails! There are already a few great for profit sites that do this and do it well. Also as friend pointed out many local shops get a lot of their business from selling maps…

I think IMBA’s partnership with MTB Project is designed to meet a need for mountain bikers that no one else is doing. It’s a map database, but it has crowdsourcing, i.e., everyone can contribute and their staff acts as editors to ensure quality. But the real advantage is that you can embed a map on your own website, just like embedding a YouTube video. But regardless, no one has to use the site. If competitors arise who do it better, that’s market forces at work. As for the argument that offering mountain bike trail maps via the web or phone apps will hurt the LBS that sells print maps, I don’t think that should be a concern. Both serve the needs of mountain bikers. More choice seems a good thing in this case.

Hamilton on IMBA’s Trail Solutions:

Slowly over the last 10 years they have been acting more like a for profit business by straying from trail advocacy and using their considerable clout to compete with private businesses. They started straying by marketing themselves as trail builders and competing with for profit trail builders.

I emailed IMBA’s Communication Director Mark Eller and asked him if IMBA Trail Solutions was a for-profit division of IMBA. Eller wrote:

Trail Solutions is a fee-for-service arm of IMBA, but just because they charge fees does not make them a for-profit entity. The IRS considers TS to be part of our 501 3 c organization.

It’s true that Trail Solutions often charges fees for their trail building services, which sometimes confuses people. In fact, many nonprofits collect fees and offer revenue-generating activities. So long as those activities fit with the nonprofit’s mission, there is no problem with collecting fees. IMBA’s mission is to create, enhance and protect great mountain bike experiences. If you read the Trail Solutions blog for even a few minutes you will find dozens of examples that show that their work fits perfectly with IMBA’s mission.

Hamilton:

Why not have a bid system for trail projects where all the trail building companies can bid on the project?… Why not let the trail builders build and IMBA be the advocacy group. There is a huge conflict of interest here, as a friend said, “It’s like the places out here in California that’ll smog check your car- there’s a reason they aren’t allowed to perform the repair.”

Not quite. Smog certification checks are required by law so a consumer doesn’t have a choice. They need some protection from unscrupulous service stations who are trying to make a quick buck.

If you go into a service station and ask them to check the wear on your tires, there is a financial incentive for them to say you need new tires regardless and to try to sell you some immediately. But they know you have a choice of when and where to buy your tires. So they also have a financial incentive to be truthful because they want you as a long term customer, not just for tires but for other future repairs.  And they want the benefits of word-of-mouth positive marketing if you’re a happy customer. Those incentives aren’t nearly as strong for the slam-bam world of smog certification.

Likewise, IMBA has a strong long-term incentive to give its best advice to land managers, regardless of whether or not IMBA Trail Solutions ultimately performs the trail work.  Land managers can hire whoever they want to build trails and if the land manager is a public body, they must to go out for bid if the job is over a certain amount.  If a local mountain bike club has raised money on their own, they can hire whoever they want or they can put it out for bid.

I checked with a midwest trail system that’s used the planning/consulting arm of IMBA Trail Solutions (TS)and was told that the TS staffer they hired was very careful to let them know that there were many trail builder companies available, that TS didn’t push their own trail-building capabilities at all.  That’s an anecdote, of course, just like Hamilton’s anecdotes, and as we all know, the plural of anecdotes is not data.  So it’s best to look at the incentives in place (see above) and the overall long term results. Given the growth of IMBA Solutions, it would appear that land managers are increasingly comfortable with their services.

According to COGGS (here), “IMBA Trail Solutions has helped create a Master Plan for mountain biking at Spirit Mountain.” And according to the employee in this video, Flowline Trail Design of Colorado was brought to Duluth as “one of IMBA’s preferred trail-building companies.”  The pump park in Steamboat Springs, CO is another example of a land manager (the city), a local mtb club (Routt County Riders), IMBA Trail Solutions, and a private trail builder (Flowline) all working on the project.  This project manager role for IMBA Trail Solutions seems to be what’s needed when the project gets big/complex and there doesn’t seem to be any other organization in North America qualified to provide this.

IMBA’s Communication Director Mark Eller also emailed me this:

Many of the detractors are not willing to acknowledge how much IMBA and Trail Solutions has done to enhance the trail building profession:

  • IMBA’s books, Trail Solutions and Managing Mountain Biking, have a huge influence of land managers, helping them see the value of bike-friendly trail designs and construction carried out by trained volunteers and professional builders.
  • Our in-development book about bike parks strongly emphasizes the value of hiring professional bike park designers and builders.
  • Trail Solutions has built excellent examples of shared-use and bike-specific singletrack trails all over the nation, and indeed the world, providing land managers and the public with real-world examples of trails that enhance public lands. This has encouraged land managers to hire professional trail builders instead of relying on their in-house resources.
  • IMBA has successfully lobbied for legislation that enhances the professional trail building community, most notably the federal Recreational Trails Program which provides millions of dollars of funding for trails in all 50 U.S. states. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Act is another example of a bill that IMBA lobbied for successfully and has had a positive impact on the trail building industry.

If IMBA didn’t do these things, who would? There are many more examples of IMBA’s work that benefits professional trail builders.

I would find it objectionable if IMBA’s publications never featured a trail that wasn’t built by IMBA Trail Solutions or if they were somehow using unfair tactics to compete. But as far as I can tell from here in the midwest, that hasn’t happened. And Hamilton doesn’t cite any examples of them using their “considerable clout” that were unethical.

Looking at the Trails Solutions-related comments to Hamilton’s blog post, there are some accusations that they’re too expensive and conversely, other accusations that as a nonprofit, they can afford to lowball their bids. There’s also an accusation that they encourage public land managers to keep their trail building projects under a certain dollar amount so that they’re not required by whatever law to go out for bid.

It’s certainly possible that lowballing and consulting to stay under threshold have happened but again, the incentives seem to be in place for this not to be a pattern, ie, 1) market forces (IMBA needs Trail Solutions to be a profitable program so the money can be used to help fund its other initiatives); and 2) IMBA’s long term reputation with land managers is crucial to their long term financial success. It doesn’t take long for a pattern of unethical behavior to become known.

My conflicts of interest

In case anyone’s wondering about my motives in this issue:

So I have several of conflicts of interest, some of them conflicting.

What’s next? More conversation

I’m new to the issue and I’m eager to learn more. Conversation is a good way to do it so feel free to attach a comment to this blog post with your reactions, pro and con.

Use your real first and last name when you submit a comment. Hamilton allows anonymous comments on his blog post and I don’t find it constructive when there’s controversy. Stand behind your comments.

Also, I have a high bar for civility, including: no sarcasm or other subtle put-downs. It’s okay to be angry, just be straight about it.

36 thoughts on “Critiquing Gene Hamilton’s critique of IMBA”

  1. Clay, that’s an interesting observation. It really could be that Gene Hamilton’s view of IMBA and the mountain biking world is colored by a narrow view where he spends most of his time and a small number of bad experiences.

    I guess I’d assumed since he teaches all over the continent, he’d have a broader perspective.

  2. We over here at the Iowa Trail Bombers just got done with our visit for our master trail plan from IMBA Trail Solutions and it could have not gone better. They were extremely knowledgeable and willing to work with us with any request we had. They even suggested trying to find a local mid-west contractor to actually build the trail because they would know the soil and terrain better. I completely agree with you Griff .

  3. Thanks for posting that, Stephen. I cited the phrase in my post, “the plural of anecdotes is not data” but stories do help paint a picture in a more compelling way, both positive and negative. I wonder if IMBA has ever done a formal survey of its members and the wider mtb community.

  4. I saw Hamilton’s piece after Hansi commented on it on FB. I won’t comment on whether or not IMBA Trail Solutions is competing with private trail builders, because I don’t really know. I would suggest that without a visible international organization to advocate for mountain biking in all its forms, there might not be opportunities for trail builders.

    The rest seemed to read like someone advocating for his own personal interests and perhaps even favorite recreation style. Its a free country; he can do that. In my opinion, his delivery style isn’t likely to win a large number of converts, and by this time next week I will have forgotten his Jeremiad, but IMBA will still be around.

    I’d suggest Hamilton take a more positive, proactive approach, offering solutions aimed at incremental improvements. Become the idea guy everyone wants to work with. JMO.

  5. I find Hamilton’s post to be overly harsh, and think he’s probably wrong about the financial motivations, but I also have not renewed my IMBA membership this year after about 20 years of increasing donations. Basically, I find IMBA represents a different perspective on riding than mine.

    I am bored to tears by their trailbuilding work. I don’t find buttery smooth trails to be what I call “mountain biking”. There is little to no sense of adventure or surprise. Flow trails are even more irritating to me. Flowline’s projects page drives me crazy; exactly the same trail in every location. I’m not that widely traveled, MTB-wise, but I’ve ridden in UT, NM, AZ, CO, CA and BC, and the reason is not so I can go ride the same trail with different vegetation next to it. The reason to travel is that the trail surface and features are unique to the location. If I wanted buttery riding with everything the same but the scenery, I’d take up road biking.

    I also am on the fence about continuing to donate to my local club, for many of the same reasons.

    Now, rant done, I think that IMBA is pursuing an agenda of widening the sport to more people. Trails help get people started, and trails that don’t challenge expectations. Numbers are important if bikers are to have any lobbying power.

    I think their strategy serves that goal, and not my *personal* desires and opinion of what’s fun about riding. Have they lost their soul? Nah, probably not. Am I splitting hairs and being unfair? Probably. I will be supporting the IMBA Access Fund, but not their general fund.

    (Apologies for the length of this comment.)

  6. Bruce, I’m glad you commented on tone/style that Gene used in that blog post, which like you, I didn’t find helpful.

    I see that in a follow-up comment, he wrote:

    Other than a one snide comment on their trails being boring (which seems to resonate with A Lot of riders) there was no IMBA bashing, simply a desire to start a discussion. In short, I wasn’t “bashing” IMBA nor do I hate IMBA.

    This seems a little disingenuous to me since he did make accusations using words like ‘dictator,’ ‘unethical,’ and ‘scary’ with sarcastic sentences like

    “We know how to build great trails and what people like!”, seems to be their motto…

  7. Charlie, good to have your input. (I’m typing this at the Goodbye Blue Monday Coffeehouse in Northfield where we met back in May. Stop by if you’re here!)

    I notice that you also attached a comment to another blog post here in which you wrote about trail builders: “But I do have sympathy for what it must be like to be them; in no-man’s-land between riders and land managers.” Does that sympathy extend to IMBA Trail Solutions?

    You objected to the over abundance of “buttery smooth trails” (and to your credit, you tempered that with your statement that you understand the role those trails play in “widening the sport to more people.”) It seems like land managers are mainly incentivized to serve a population of mountain bikers in their geographic area. So it’s not an issue for them to have a buttery smooth flow trail in their trail system, just like trail systems that are 25, 50 or 100 miles away. They’re not really thinking of your need for more variety/difficulty.

    Here in the upper midwest, I think we’re fortunate to increasingly have more of that variety, both within individual trail systems as well as across the region.

    For example, Cuyuna Lakes has lots of what you would call buttery smooth flow trails, but they also have a couple of segments that are pretty technically challenging (example, Timbershaft in the Yawkey Unit). COGGS in Duluth has been adding difficult technical segments to its Piedmont trail, and Spirit Mountain has been adding difficult downhill and enduro runs. Here in the metro area, the MORC dirt bosses at Lebanon Hills spent much of the summer adding difficulty to several of the rock gardens and log step ladders in the XX loops there.

    All these clubs are IMBA clubs who work closely with their land managers (state, city, county) and of course, they’re driven primarily by individual volunteer mountain bikers who are working to influence the decisions about what to build and showing up to implement them.

    Do you not have this experience in Colorado?

  8. Archer House, the Cow and GBM are the Northfield trifecta for us. Sat in your corner office at GBM last time we were in town (parent weekend); sorry, but it was crowded! (sideways winky face here)

    IMO, COPMOBA is doing work worth modeling, and perhaps that’s the norm, but it is not that of my local group, which is incredibly energetic and dedicated to advocacy/lobbying, but IMO inept at trail building. Since they are so close to IMBA geographically and rhetorically, I am treat them and IMBA as equivalent. I fully admit that I am being unfair, and my sympathy does extend. I am deeply ambivalent about this, since I approve of the advocacy, but not so much about the shovels to the ground.

    My favorite rides here in CO are old trails that have not received attention from IMBA or the local group. They are not “sustainable” in sense that every winter changes them some. But they are interesting and wild and I feel like I’m getting away from civilization. I am interested to see them after the massive flooding we recently had, but am unable as I broke my thumb riding (or failing to ride, as the case may be) the excellent trails in BC. But I am greatly fearful that they will get some “love” from our local builders.

    I hope one of these trips to Northfield will include my bike, and if you are willing, I’d love to have you show me around!

  9. Charlie, if those favorite getting-away-from-civilization-wild trails of yours are on public lands, then it probably will happen someday that the land manager engages a local club and/or IMBA to change them.

    It’s a conundrum, I suppose. Old-style trails that aren’t used much are left alone but as the sport becomes more popular and those trails get ridden more, the land managers feel the need to (have to?) be stewards to protect both the land and the riders. And so you lose some of what you love.

    I’m definitely willing to show you around the advanced trails in the Twin Cities area when you come back… healed, I hope!

  10. So many people think IMBA builds all the trails. Local clubs build the trails. Either with volunteers or professionals. The people that show up make the decisions. If some one is not consulted it is just proof they are not showing up at club meetings or volunteering on trail days. Kind of a pet peeve of mine. Out of all the mt bikers that blogger thinks IMBA/local clubs should know to consult with him? People who are not involved in trail building, but wish to be consulted on a local trail design sound narcissistic.

  11. Ouch! I don’t think of myself as angry so much. More whiny.

    To CJ’s point, on the day’s I’ve shown up (admittedly, not very many), decisions have already been made and there’s no room for input anymore. I simply don’t have time to dedicate to constant involvement.

    I know my desires and preferences are outside the mainstream, so I make my choice not to put my money in the mainstream. I think it’s OK for me to say why, but I have no particular expectation of being influential.

  12. I think so too, but it’s a fair point, that can apply to me as well. My counterpoint is that just because you show up, doesn’t mean you’ll have influence.

    But it’s OK! I think both sides of that one are correct, depending on the circumstances. I’m not trying to start a flame war, I swear!

  13. Well written piece! I think a lot of the criticisms stem from a “back in the day” mindset. Fond memories of great trails stick around forever but you don’t remember that really crappy trail you rode that one time ten years ago. Were trails more “gnarly” back in the day? Probably. But the number of trails available to us here in MN has exploded. I would gladly lose one ultra difficult tail if we gain 10 intermediate trails.

  14. Thanks, Sean.

    I’m guessing that what sometimes happens out west and maybe elsewhere is that a land manager (with IMBA TS’s help) makes the old gnarly trail easier while they work to construct the newer style purpose-built trails, primarily intermediate level since those are the most important for bringing new people into the sport.

    Hopefully, trails like Sandy Ridge in Oregon will become the norm out west. See this PinkBike article from July, which includes great photos and a video. Quote:

    The BLM immediately engaged IMBA to design a varied, bike-specific system of singletrack that could stand up to regular heavy use. The BLM also involved the public and responded to requests for challenging options by building rocky, rooty, scrappy, black and double-black diamond trails, as well as a long line of jumps, berms, gaps and tabletops built in an old road bed.

  15. Sorry but too many mid western comments. I currently live in Western Colorado but also ride all over UT and AZ. Im involved in one of the better trail building organizations, COPMOBA. Better to have advanced atypical unique trails to work on as an intermediate. Session the hard sections to “clean” them and keep progressing. Natural rocks, features and obstacles are a joy to encounter. IMBA is definitely overreaching and sanitizing is terrible. Keep the trails tough and keep the little guys in business.

  16. Randy, help me understand something. COPMOBA contracts with land managers like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to build trails. So does IMBA Trail Solutions. So they compete.

    If the BLM hires COPMOBA to build one type of trail and hires IMBA to build another type of trail, it seems like the resulting trails would be what BLM wants. If that’s a ‘sanitized’ trail, it seems that that would be the choice of the BLM. You may not like it and COPMOBA might have done it differently but why is it IMBA’s fault for doing what the BLM hired it to do?

  17. I just started getting Gene’s Newsletter and was taken aback by this rant. I am old school and like old trails too!. But all these different styles of trails, make for variety. I enjoy Cayuna, Copper Harbor as well as Douthat and the Shenandoah Southern Traverse. I really think that Pisgah in NC should be considered an epic area, but is mostly old school back country riding.

    I have given and heard input during trail maintenance In NJ, JORBA, is very grassroots and we try to make trails of all levels for all to enjoy as they progress. I have been traveling the country and riding many IMBA epics. Impart to see what is considered EPIC in different areas.

  18. Jeff, I think your point about making “trails of all levels for all to enjoy as they progress” is a good one. Land managers here in the upper Midwest seem to be increasingly embracing this.

    Maybe out west in areas where the population is more spread out and the trail lengths are much greater, it’s more difficult to accommodate all levels of riders. So if a land manager strategically opts to make an existing trail more accessible to lower skilled riders because that’s what they think is needed more in that area, then advanced riders like Hamilton object and see it as ‘dumbing down’ and mistakenly fault the trail builder for the change.

  19. I have not been west of Kansas Switch Grass or Maah Daah Hey. Switch Grass was so trail dense that I knew it was new school, but it had almost an old school feel. Maah Daah Hey was just raw Badlands, maybe the oldest of schools. For liking Old school so much MDH is on the bottom om my list and Copper Harbor is at the top, I have revisited Dupont and it is up there too with a nice mix. Cayuna had the funnest Easy trails that I have been on. Nice Intermediate trails too. I would like some more Advanced trails there though. I think they will com in time.

    I can see both sides of the dumbing down argument. If you Travel that far and know that you are doing a long route, you should have some level of experience and expect to have to hike a bike or walk sections above your pay grade. But if they can be improved for more riding/less walking, I generally would vote for it.

    Point to point trails can be tough logistically. Loop options are nice and multiple nested loops are better. Nice when you can do it. Some places are road up trail down at best and some need a shuttle.

    While I loved that Hitler video and laughed, I think Gene was a little more even spoken than some seem to think, even if it comes later in the response to comments. I have never met him but he seems to rub some folks the wrong way in written format. Lots of folks suffer from that.

  20. Jeff, you wrote:

    “For liking Old school so much MDH is on the bottom om my list and Copper Harbor is at the top”

    Have you been to Copper Harbor recently to ride their new trails? Seems like now they have the best of both old and new school.

    “I can see both sides of the dumbing down argument. If you Travel that far and know that you are doing a long route, you should have some level of experience and expect to have to hike a bike or walk sections above your pay grade. But if they can be improved for more riding/less walking, I generally would vote for it.”

    But isn’t this the perogative of the land manager? Their goal might be to attract advanced riders from around the country and keep the locals happy with the existing tough Old School trail.

    But their goal might instead be to make that Old School trail more accessible to beginning/intermediate riders, either local or from far away. You and some of the locals might not like this but it’s not the fault of the trail builder.

    See what I’m getting at?

  21. I Rode the newer flow trail named “Flow”, it had an offshoot with table tops called Daisy Duke. It was fun enough, but I prefer the other side of the road.

    Sometimes I am not sure that some land managers now what they want, until someone comes to them with an idea how to utilize it for mountain biking or anything else.

    Sometimes a small club, maybe a little ways away can build a relationship with the land manager and make a great MTBing destination. I submit Big South Fork in Tennessee as an example. Old school trails and newer old school trails built with sustainability. As you ride you can see the evolution of the trails as the sport and trail building progressed.

    http://www.mtbepicrides.com/2013/04/big-south-fork-kwik-stats.html

    Of course the land manager has the last say. Often getting any access at all is a win.

    I have read some other articles by Gene about riders making features easier or making go arounds, widening the trail and such.

    I must point out that Gene likes trails where slack angles and more suspension is faster and I like trails where steep angles and less or no suspension is faster.

    But both he and I think that you ride what you can and try to improve so you can ride what you have been walking.

    Back to your last question. I think it can depend greatly on who creates the relationship with the land managers as to which type of trails are built. Some are just happy for folks to take an interest in and help out on the trails.

    But if they reach out and end up paying they are probably going to go with an organization with clout…IMBA. It is a complicated issue, IMBA has become respected by land managers and probably can read each ones comfort zone. AND I am sure that what the locals that GET INVOLVED, wants to ride and build, gets a better shot than the wants from those that do not get involved.

  22. Jeff wrote:

    “Back to your last question. I think it can depend greatly on who creates the relationship with the land managers as to which type of trails are built.”

    Agreed.

    “But if they reach out and end up paying they are probably going to go with an organization with clout…IMBA. It is a complicated issue, IMBA has become respected by land managers and probably can read each ones comfort zone.”

    Excellent point, Jeff.

    I think there’s also an increasing interest in land managers hiring IMBA Trail Solutions to be the project manager, with other trail builders doing the construction. It’s hard for a land manager who’s inexperienced with mountain bike trails to know what to ask for and to know if it’s been delivered or not.

  23. Griff Wrote
    “I think there’s also an increasing interest in land managers hiring IMBA Trail Solutions to be the project manager, with other trail builders doing the construction. It’s hard for a land manager who’s inexperienced with mountain bike trails to know what to ask for and to know if it’s been delivered or not.”

    IMBA TS could play a role as project managers. I think in general they reach out to a local club for input, at least I hope they do.

    Do they have to put it in the paper or have the neighbors sign off on the variance :-)? Maybe a notification at the trailhead about getting involved in the decisions and building.

  24. Jeff, in Duluth MN at Spirit Mountain, IMBA TS has been a project manager. The subcontractor trail builder has been Flowline Trail Design. I don’t know how much the local club COGGS has been involved in the design of these trails. I’m guessing that because of the advanced nature of these DH trails, local club members wouldn’t have much input on the design.

    IMBA TS put on a DH flow trail school at Spirit Mtn, and it was attended not only by club members from around the region but also some trail builders who’ve mainly done XC work but not DH.

    At Cuyuna Lakes recently, the local club hired an IMBA TS staffer to help them plan the next phase of their trail system.

  25. Gene Hamilton has replied to a comment I posted to the discussion thread on his blog post. (I can’t link to the comment because his site doesn’t have its comments feature correctly configured.)  I wrote:

    Gene, How do you square your criticism of IMBA dumbing down trails and making new ones that are ‘predictable’ and ‘boring’ with the Sandy Ridge Trail in Oregon? See this PinkBike article from July (photos and video included). Quote: “The BLM immediately engaged IMBA to design a varied, bike-specific system of singletrack that could stand up to regular heavy use. The BLM also involved the public and responded to requests for challenging options by building rocky, rooty, scrappy, black and double-black diamond trails, as well as a long line of jumps, berms, gaps and tabletops built in an old road bed.”

    Gene replied in one long comment. I’ve pulled excerpts from it below and commented on each.  I’d consider commenting on his blog if he would fix the problems with it so that people can subscribe to the comment thread.

    Gene wrote:

    Hi Griff, As you stated I did criticize IMBA, an organization I have supported for 20 years and last year gave $3,000 to. I never said they haven’t ever done anything good, after all I did support them for 20 years and still think they do a LOT of good. I simply questioned some things they have been doing recently.

    When I asked the question, “has IMBA lost it’s soul” I never said they are terrible and only do bad, I stated that I have supported them for twenty years and like the advocacy work they do. I didn’t trash IMBA, I just explained why I have stopped supporting them and wanted to hear others opinion.

    Gene, no, you didn’t simply question some things. You made a big deal out of pulling your financial support.  You used a provocative headline. You painted them with a broad brush (“create predictable and boring trails”) and you were snide and sarcastic (“feed someone’s ego as the great Trail Dictator” and “‘We know how to build great trails and what people like!’, seems to be their motto”).

    If you genuinely wanted to start a conversation, you would have done none of that. You would have criticized and praised specific aspects of trails X Y and Z like you did in your comment to me about Sandy Ridge, but expressed your concerns about the negative trends you were seeing.

    Gene wrote:

    Griff, so far you asked IMBA questions and they denied any wrong doing. Imagine that, a company accused of doing wrong denying it! (no offense but that wasn’t exactly investigative reporting, of course companies are going to deny doing any wrong) You have also mentioned one example of them doing good (in your opinion) in Minnesota and one example in Oregon, a pretty limited and biased sample size. Please, interview some of the trail builders and riders who have commented on this post that mentioned specific examples of IMBA not doing good. So far you have done a great job of defending IMBA by only mentioning and interviewing one point of view.

    You’re right, my blog post wasn’t investigative reporting. It wasn’t meant to be. It was an opinion piece designed to counter your opinion piece. You only presented the negative. I argued that there was plenty of positive, not that it was all positive.

    Gene wrote:

    I enjoy hearing BOTH sides of the story so please since you have done two pro-IMBA posts please interview a few of the majority of riders that have feelings similar to mine (again you can find them here and I am sure they would be more than happy to speak with you). Looking forward to reading your interviews with riders and trail builders who disagree with your view point in your next post.

    I don’t doubt the complaints of trail builders and riders who’ve commented on your blog post.  I understand why the trail builders think the competition is unfair and I understand why those riders don’t like their trails changed. But neither they nor you address the bigger issue: the role of land managers and the ability of local mtb clubs to have influence with them early in the design process.

    [Correction: I’ve only done one blog post on this issue, on my Mountain Bike Geezer blog. I’ve submitted comments to your blog post.]

    I’m a mountain biker with a blog, not a reporter. So I won’t be conducting in-depth follow-up interviews and publishing a new blog post on it. I’ll keep commenting here on my original blog post and engaging others in the issue.

    Gene wrote:

    Having ridden the Sandy Ridge trail system this summer I feel fairly qualified to comment on those trails.

    They aren’t bad, a couple of them are really fun.Interesting comment about Black Diamond and Double Black Diamond trails though. In your opinion what percentage of mountain bikers should be able to ride a “double black diamond trail”? If a trail is a “double black diamond”, on a scale of 1-10 (1 being easy, 10 being only the top 1-2% of mountain bikers can ride it) what would a “double black diamond” trail rate? I ask these questions because I rode every trail there in the rain and none of them were that hard (compared to trails I have ridden and seen 100′s of other mountain bikers ride), are the trails I mention quad black diamond? Is the famous Oregon trail network called Black Rock eight black diamond? I ask these questions because I have ridden so many “expert” trails that would be called a beginner trail in BC it makes me think riders are labeling trails “expert” so they can tell there non-riding buddies that they wrote a bunch of “expert trails” over the weekend. Shouldn’t you have to be an “expert rider” to ride an expert trail?

    There are couple of original trails there that have some sweet table tops leading to some fun double jumps (pictured on the BR facebook page) that I rode but according to some of the locals I talked to they were built years ago without IMBA’s assistance. The table tops built on one of the upper trails were super scary and dangerous for table top jumps, they were small enough to invite riders that don’t know how to jump well to try them (I witnessed some scary riding on them) but not built in a such away that if you get backside on the first one you will have the right speed for the next one, Some were too short some too long. Great concept but poorly executed.

    There were also berms built on almost every corner! What a waste of manpower and such an unnatural concept! Don’t get me wrong, I love a well placed berm that helps a trail flow better (such as when no matter how good a rider is they can’t carry enough speed around a flat corner to clear a rise in the trail or jump) but leave some flat corners to challenge us and help us become better riders.

    I short, the trails were pretty good (a couple were super fun!) and certainly a step in the right direction but what about all the terrible trails?

    I’m not qualified to respond to your comments about double black diamond level trails. And I’m glad to read your specific comments about the pros and cons of Sandy Ridge.

    But you don’t mention the BLM nor the Northwest Trail Alliance (local IMBA Chapter), and the design process that brought the trails into being. Why not talk to those people to find out what happened and what they think of your criticism?

  26. No response yet from Gene, but here’s an article on the Sandy Ridge trail system that was just published in the Portland, Oregon newspaper:

    Sandy Ridge mountain biking trail becomes a draw for Oregon and international riders

    The trail, in its fourth year, routinely fills the parking lot all day, including weekdays, during the bikeable months. In August, 4,590 peopled were counted at the trailhead, the peak of a steadily increasing month-over-month count. For many Portlanders, Sandy Ridge is the go-to mountain bike trail, and is drawing bikers from across the country and internationally. That’s exactly what the Bureau of Land Management hoped when the agency bought the land where the park is built.

  27. Griff --

    Thanks for the thorough and well-written demolition of Gene’s nigh-incoherent rant (IMBA TS is simultaneously undercutting everyone else AND too expensive?!?)

    I think most of the angst in AZ stems from the recent closing of some pirate/illegal trails in Sedona. IMBA and the local club, as I understand it, had a bit of a falling out over tactics when the forest service decided to enforce closures on some popular but illegal trails and there is a lot of bad blood now. I don’t know enough about the situation to comment on the specifics but that was most likely the impetus for Gene’s withdrawal of support and blog post/rant.

    -Walt

  28. Walt, that’s helpful to hear. And if it was what fueled Gene’s post, even in part, then he missed a real opportunity to enlighten his audience on the importance of local clubs developing and maintaining good working relationships with land managers, in this case, the forest service in AZ. I’m sure it’s a complex situation and plenty of blame to go around but to pin it all on IMBA seems odd.

  29. Very interesting discussion Griff! Gene has accused IMBA of “losing its Soul.” Seems like the simplest way to view this debate is to look at IMBA’s mission (“to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences”) and decide whether they are staying true to it.

    Everyone is entitled to question whether IMBA is staying true to their mission through their own lense, so it calls into question what is a “great mountain biking experience”? To Gene Hamilton I can undersand his personal need (althought it seems his business thrives on bringing more into the sport as you point out) for gnarly trails equaling a great mountain bike experience, but I don’t think IMBA advocates for the top 1-2% of experienced riders nor should they ever.

    I guess my own personal lense might be similar to yours where I got back into the sport fairly recently and am absolutely amazed by what IMBA / MORC has done for the sport in MN. After purchasing my bike, I immedately went to Theordore Wirth based on a tip from the bike shop which “created” my first biking experience, then I “enhanced” my biking experience by working my way up from Green to Blue to X & XX at Lebanon Hills and believe my great experience will be “preserved” as I start to volunteer and become more active in the MORC community. While this is just one more anecdotal piece of evidence I can only imagine that there are thousands more like me coming into the sport and encouraged along the way via IMBA’s mission.

    I would go so far as to argue that criticism like that leveled by Gene is proof IMBA is staying true to its mission.

  30. David, I’d probably expand on your words “… but I don’t think IMBA advocates for the top 1-2% of experienced riders nor should they ever” by saying I think IMBA and its chapters like MORC can set the stage with local land managers so that there can be some trails for top 1-2% of experienced local riders — just not at the expense of the beginning/intermediate riders.

    The only reason that the MORC dirt bosses and trail volunteers can keep adding to the difficulty in the X and XX loops at Leb and other area trail systems is because MORC works hard at its relationship with the land managers at Dakota and Ramsey Counties, Three Rivers Park District, etc. So indirectly, the top experienced local riders do benefit from IMBA, even though there might be some occasional grumbling when a new chunk of property is designated for a mtb trail and some of the legacy renegade trails are changed/removed.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  31. Griff, that is a great point that I had not considered and think it is part of “enhancing” great biking experiences and keeps in line with the mission.

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