Green-level sections alongside recreational bike trails: A better way to introduce mountain biking?

My thinking about this issue of attracting more beginners to mountain biking with special ride areas/sections continues to evolve. (For background, click here and then here.)

In a nutshell, the challenge is how to provide an initial off-road cycling experience for beginners that increases the likelihood that they’ll want to continue.  Beginner level cross-country trails (IMBA’s Green level) are often constructed in a way that’s too challenging for those who’ve never ridden anything but pavement and they quit.

It’s difficult to know which types of terrain these true beginners can handle and which they’re going to struggle with or freak out over. So trail builders make a guess, aiming for whatever they think the middle ground is (‘Goldilocks design’, ie, not too hard, not too easy) and hope that a majority enjoy it.

But then a pure beginner rides it, gets 100 yards in and they freak out over a slight downhill turn and end up being miserable the rest of the way because the trail has a lot of those. Or they’re tense every time the trail goes close to trees because they’ve never had to give much thought about the width of their handlebars. Or they’re anxious because they’re worried they won’t make it up a slight incline and fall over or backwards. Or they constantly worry that they’ll run into another rider because the trail is two-way.

And they decide that mountain biking is not for them. 

So I’m aiming at something completely different, not a super-easy Green-level trail but a series of discrete sections or riding ‘stations’ that more gently exposes beginners to the types of terrain they’re likely to encounter on a typical Green-level singletrack trail.

The idea is NOT to provide a self-guided introduction to learning mountain biking skills. That’s best done by a knowledgeable instructor in a course setting or through private coaching.

Rather, the goal is to provide an initial off-road experience so that the beginner A) has fun; B) is inspired to consider doing more, for example, riding some existing Green-level singletrack in the area, going on group rides for beginners, taking an introduction to mountain biking course, etc; and C) approaches these additional beginning mountain biking experiences with more confidence and excitement and less fear.

The Setting

I like the idea of locating these beginner sections or riding stations along an existing flat double-track trail, or an IMBA White-level trail, or a paved/crushed limestone bike trail, or a grass/dirt cross-country ski trail.

Crushed limestone bike trail Paved bike trail

Grass/dirt White-level trail flat grass/dirt cross-country ski trail

Advantages to leveraging one of these trails:

  • The terrain adjacent to these biking trails is often suitable for beginner-level mountain biking.
  • The terrain is frequently on the same parcel of property as the trail so in many cases, no additional acquisition costs or easements would be involved.
  • Recreational bicyclists on paved or crushed limestone bike trails would be visually exposed to mountain biking while they rode by the sections. They might even be tempted to ride them
  • The attraction of riding bikes side-by-side for social interaction could be maintained

Alternately, the setting could be a large bike park where the sections are far enough away from the pump tracks, jumps, and technical features so as not to be intimidating.

The Sections

A series of short sections (riding stations) along a recreational trails or the perimeter of a bike park. The instructions at the start could state:

If your goal is to eventually ride a beginner level singletrack, practice these Sections until you feel confident riding them to point of boredom. Then visit one of our mountain bike areas that have beginner singletracks and you’ll be more likely to feel confident and have a safe and fun experience.

A sign, printed map, QR code, or a smartphone app could provide people with additional information.

Some possible Sections, in a progression starting from the easiest (photos are from existing Green-level trails):

Section 1. Tiny dips and wide turns on a 3-4 foot width grass or well-packed dirt trail, in a flat loop of 100 yards or less that loops back to the main trail

Flat, wide MTB trail with a packed, smooth surface
Flat, wide MTB trail with a packed, smooth surface

Section 2: Similar to Section 1 but with one or more small rollers or small inclines and declines (no hills).

Section 3: Similar to Section 1 but with a dirt surface that’s slightly more unstable, eg, softer dirt or some gravel.

MTB trail with a wide turn, small dips, slightly irregular surface
MTB trail with a wide turn, small dips, slightly irregular surface

Section 4: Similar to Section 1 but narrower (a width of 2-3 feet)

Narrow flat MTB singletrack trail
Narrow flat MTB singletrack trail

Section 5: Similar to Section 1 but with tighter turns

Section 6: Similar to Section 1 but closer to trees

Beginnner MTB trail closer to trees
Beginnner MTB trail closer to trees

Section 7: Similar to Section 1 but with small off-camber or bermed turns

MTB trail with a wide berm / off-camber turn
MTB trail with a wide berm / off-camber turn

Section 8: Similar to Section 1 but with a few bumps to ride over, like small roots or small flat rocks.

MTB trail over small root, between trees
MTB trail over small root, between trees

Section 9: Similar to Section 1 but with a longer moderate hill to go up and down.

MTB trail with a wide moderate uphill / downhill
MTB trail with a wide moderate uphill / downhill

Section 10: Similar to Section 1 but with some wide uphill and downhill turns.

MTB trail with a wide uphill or downhill turn
MTB trail with a wide uphill or downhill turn

If a rider is able to ride all ten sections with confidence, then they will more likely be inspired to ride one of the  typical Green-level beginner trails in the area and hopefully, be hooked on mountain biking for the long term.

The entrance to a typical Green-level mtb trail
The entrance to a typical Green-level mtb trail

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