ASHLAND, Ore. — Mountain biking has become more extreme in the past two decades — with the trend fueled by better bikes, advanced protective gear, increasingly skilled cyclists and the growing popularity of downhill riding.
The growth of the sport also has increased the chance for trail conflicts among cyclists, hikers, runners, equestrians and others.
But behind the scenes, many mountain bikers are joining with other trail users to encourage courteous behavior and improve the trail system for everyone.
Sue and Bill Roussel, co-owners of Ashland Mountain Adventures, are on the front lines of those efforts.
The couple run a bike rental, guide and shuttle service, ferrying mountain bikers to the top of Mount Ashland and other spots so cyclists can work their way back to town.
As a board member of the nonprofit Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association, Bill Roussel helps mobilize a small army of volunteers to build and maintain trails. He and his wife both join in the trail work.
In July 2012, Bill Roussel suffered a sprained wrist, bruises and scrapes when he crashed into debris dragged onto a mountain trail by a hiker who said he was angered by mountain bikers. The man was sentenced to 30 days in jail in May.
Southern Oregon University student and mountain biker Jordan Daniels also fell victim to trail sabotage, striking a nylon cord strung at neck level across a trail, likely avoiding serious injury only because of a protective brace he was wearing.
Sue Roussel said some trail users believe they are the rightful users of trails and that bikers are dangerous interlopers. “My husband and I work closely with the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association to bring hikers, runners and bikers together,” she said.
At the Roussels’ shop, a sign advises bikers on trails to yield to people on foot and horseback, and a donation box is set up to accept money to help fund trail work.
The mountain bikes and safety gear at Ashland Mountain Adventures show how far mountain biking has come since it became widely popular in the 1990s.
“When you have better equipment, you can ride better and move more quickly,” said Sue Roussel, a mountain biker for about 20 years.
Bikes have advanced suspension and are stronger, with better wheels and brakes. Riders can use regular biking helmets or motorcycle racing-style helmets that have a front face shield. Body armor, back and neck protectors, knee and elbow pads, shin guards and other protective equipment are available for today’s mountain bikers.
With years of experience under their belts, many riders are fitter and more skilled, allowing them to ride harder and farther, Sue Roussel said.
Some mountain bikers wear helmet cameras and post videos of their fast-moving adventures on YouTube and other social-media sites.
With its shuttle service, Ashland Mountain Adventures caters to mountain-biking tourists as well as locals.
On some trips, Sue Roussel said, about one-third of bikers — mostly tourists — wear helmet cameras.
“They want to film each other and have memories of the trip. I don’t think it makes people go faster,” she said. “I think they want to see themselves ride in beautiful terrain.”
Some mountain bikers use smartphone apps that record their ride speed and distance — a technology that may encourage faster riding.
“It compares you to your friends who have ridden that route before. Essentially, every time you go on a ride, you’re racing yourself and other people. It makes people ride longer and faster,” she said.
More people are out in the woods, increasing the chance of trail conflicts, said Mike Bronze, president of the nonprofit Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association.
Bronze said many mountain bikers favor trails that have good flow and allow for faster riding.
“Riders coming down at high rates of speed can startle hikers,” he said.
The Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association encourages bikers to alert hikers to their approach and to slow down — or stop, if possible — for hikers.
“There are a few bad apples who ruin it for others, but that’s the case in any sport or activity,” he said.
Kim Lewis, co-owner of Ashland’s Main Street Adventure Tours also runs a shuttle service that caters mainly to downhill mountain bikers.
Lewis said mountain biking in all its forms is an important part of Ashland’s economy. He recently had a guided outing with a family from Ohio who came to the region to experience mountain biking, rafting, redwood forests and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
While some extreme mountain bikers create trail conflicts, Lewis said he believes most bikers and other trail users are courteous.
The U.S. Forest Service is working on an extensive trails plan for Forest Service land above Ashland.
The city of Ashland plans to spend $10,000 and two years crafting a trails master plan for city-owned forest land in the hills above town. Most of the city land is at lower elevation than Forest Service land.
The city plan will include shared trails, as well as trails specifically made for mountain bikers.Ashland Fire & Rescue and the Ashland Forest Lands Commission have long been involved in trail issues, often teaming with Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association members and other volunteers on trail construction and maintenance projects.
Some separated trails are already complete.
In an area known as the Rabbit Hole on the White Rabbit Trail, hikers and equestrians take one leg of the trail while mountain bikers take another.
On some trails, including those above Lithia Park, wells have been carved out of dirt banks bordering steep segments, creating refuges where hikers can step out of the way of runners and mountain bikers.
Because it’s not feasible to separate users on all trail sections, Sue Roussel advised users to listen for the approach of others and to avoid listening to music through earbuds.
She has a bell on her bike that she can use to alert trail users to her presence. Ashland Mountain Adventures and the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association plan to team up to buy a batch of bike bells, then hand them out free to every mountain biker they see, she said.
Friendliness on trails is one of the simplest and best ways to improve relationships among users.
“Say, ‘Hello. Good morning.’ A friendly gesture goes a long way. It really does,” said Sue Roussel.