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View From The Overlook: Mountain-Biker-In-Chief


Is single-track mountain biking in national parks a good idea? Photo courtesy of

Editor's note: Mountain biking in national parks has come up from time to time in recent years, specifically concerning desires to either cut new trails with bikes in mind or to allow mountain bikes to ride off into wilderness areas, or both. The recent dust-up at Big Bend National Park over a "multi-use" trail has Contributing Writer PJ Ryan recalling a certain "Mountain-Biker-in-Chief." We at the Traveler would like to offer IMBA officials a chance to present their position on biking in the parks. For more of PJ's thoughts, be sure to read Thunderbear on a regular basis.

There has been considerable debate about the wisdom of allowing mountain biking in the National Parks in general and Big Bend National Park in particular; that park becoming the poster child and cause celebre of mountain biking.

Mountain bikes are sturdy tools with hardy frames and parts that can stand the incessant pounding of off road use. They can go almost anywhere: That’s why their admirers love them and their detractors hate them.

Now, like most tools, mountain bikes are not inherently good or evil; everything depends upon use, such as the use of an axe depends on whether you are Abe Lincoln or Lizzie Borden.

The “Developing World” variant of the mountain bike is a prime tool for progress, even survival, in the more desperate parts of what used to be called “The Third World.” Mountain bikes provide goods transport as well as communication, carrying crops, chickens, pigs and other livestock to market.

It is truly amazing how much stuff you can pile on these stalwart mechanical mules. The U.S. military did not believe the Viet Cong could support their logistics using mountain bikes. The U.S. military was mistaken.

In the “Developed” or “First” World, the mountain bike carries only one thing; a very determined person devoted to expanding the “opportunities” for mountain biking. They are represented by the International Mountain Bike Association, (IMBA) an organization not too far behind the Viet Cong in enthusiasm and dedication to its cause.

Now I exaggerate, but not by much. It is true that many members of NPS, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management as well as the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations are avid mountain bikers. However, they generally place limitations on themselves as mountain bikers.

The mountain bike is an excellent solution for park or other public lands that have many miles of jeep roads such as Death Valley National Park, Canyonlands National Park, or Mohave National Preserve. Thus the taxpayer who is not wealthy enough to afford a four wheel drive as a second vehicle (or who doesn’t want the additional pollution) can explore these primitive roads with a mountain bike.

However, there is an element of IMBA with more expansive dreams and demands. (I would suspect that their Nirvana would be a rim to rim mountain bike race across Grand Canyon; they have not requested it and it is not likely to happen anytime soon.)

They have however, made some requests for a “Multi-Use” Trail at Big Bend National Park.

The Park Superintendent, who is shortly to be retiring, said that he and his staff would investigate “Mountain biking opportunities in Big Bend”, a rather unfortunate choice of phrasing, implying that such use would be a favorable outcome, if not a done deal: Unfortunate in that this evokes the environmental memory of a Yellowstone superintendent of long ago, who believed he could “open” winter Yellowstone by allowing snowmobiles. The superintendent was unfortunately correct.

Now the problem with a multi-use mountain biker-hiker trail at Big Bend, aside from the legal and aesthetic (The park “forgot” to do the environmental paper work) is one of safety. The advantages of the double track (jeep road) are that the hiker can proceed on one of the tracks or jump to safety if he/she encounters a biker. Danger is increased if bikers and hikers share a single track.

Make no mistake, collisions between mountain biker and pedestrian can result in serious injury.

Consider the case of The Mountain Biker in Chief, George W. Bush, President of the United States and member of the IMBA.

President Bush was in Scotland attending the 2005 conference of the G-8 Economic Summit. He had brought along his beloved mountain bike.

The following police report was “obtained” by THE SCOTSMAN, a left wing Scottish newspaper:

“About 1800 hours on Wednesday, July 6, a detachment of Strathclyde constables in anti-riot gear formed a protective line at the rear entrance of the hotel where George Bush was staying.

The Unit was covering the road junction at Braco Road where the President was cycling through. As the President passed the junction at speed. He raised his left arm from the handle bar of his mountain bike to wave to the police while shouting “Thank you guys for coming! “

The President lost control and fell to the ground.”

According to the report, one of the constables was struck by a “Moving and Falling Object” (That would be the 43rd President of the United States, which, when you think about it, is not a bad description of George W. Bush)

The police report goes on to say “The officer fell to the ground, striking his head. After striking the constable, President Bush continued to bounce along the pavement for an additional five meters before coming to a stop”.

Like most mountain bikers, President Bush is tough as titanium and was not injured in the incident; not so in the case of the constable. According to THE SCOTSMAN, the constable was taken to hospital and was off duty for some 14 weeks due to injuries to ankle ligaments.

The President, a good-hearted soul, was most contrite and visited the constable in hospital.

Now neighbors, lets consider the implications of this incident and hiking on a “multi-use” trail in Big Bend National Park. Recall that the constable was in full riot gear, including helmet, face shield, and flak jacket and that STILL didn’t save him from a flying mountain biker! (Though the helmet may have prevented a concussion.)

It is unlikely that you will be wearing a helmet and flak jacket while hiking in Big Bend, but as “Dubya” has retired to his ranch in West Texas, you might consider it as a safety option.

He just might be comin’ around the next bend in the trail!!

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PJ - why the cheap shots? Were they necessary for this story?

Truly disappointing to read this ill-informed ramble. Not only is it overflowing with hyperbole (Viet Cong -- really?) and strawmen (look out -- an ex-president might mow you down on a trail!), it's just plain wrong about IMBA's positions on mountain biking in national parks. If you want to know how wrong -- though it's pretty clear that National Parks Traveler does not -- you can read this news release:

Well written by someone that clearly has either never mountain biked or hiked with mountain bikers. I am an avid mountain biker and hiker. Before I started biking, I was also ignorant as to what my safety really was with those "crazy bikers" lurking around somewhere… then I started biking (thanks to a bad knee). What I realized was that experienced trail bikers and hikers typically live in harmony. The problems that people 'fear' stems from hikers that do not have any experience with bikers or of the environment. I am not sure why W was used as an example with this topic - the highlight of that story was that Bush was fine with the same impact (insert sarcastic political comment here). My view of public parks is that they are meant to be enjoyed by everyone with out damage to the environment. Too bad John Muir did not have access to a full suspension 29r - then this topic would never have started.

Very uninformed and low blowing rant. Dissapointing...

I am very dissapointed in the tone and the content of this article. Comparing mountain bikers with Viet Cong and W. are nothing but cheap shots. I am a frequent visitor and volunteer at national parks and I mountain bike. How about you lay off the cheap shots?

Of course mountain bikes in National Parks are a good idea. They do not pollute, they open up many more opportunity to see more of the parks, and they have minimal impact along said trail, as opposed to the horse which churns the surface with their hooves and leaves behind droppings to the dismay of the hiker and would be biker. The Earth friendly aspect alone is enough to quallify the bikes for use is what is the ultimate of natural settings in our United States. Not to mention that the experienced mountain biker is a good steward of the land, always picking up things dropped or deposited by hikers/campers, as a long time mountain biker I can assure the reader that we never manage to bring on our backs twelves packs of beer in cardboard boxes in order to leaves the packing behind when done with said libation.

Working as a bike patroller in the summer, i have seen many hikers with ankle injuries (as the [size= 14px; line-height: 18px]constable[/size] sustained) who where NOT hit by bikers. Seems PJ may want to reconsider the dangers of hiking before his next outing.

But really, this article is a joke. Just fear mongering by someone without a good knowledge of mountain biking.

I agree this article is a ramble. Have you been to Dead Horse State Park in Moab? They have a new multi-use trail that opened in 2009. Before that my guess is most people drove in, looked around the visitor center and left. The week the trail first opened that is what we saw. Fast forward three years. The parking lot is packed every weekend with families on bikes. These are not crazy 'mountain bikers' these are families with bikes they pulled out of the back of the garage so they could experience the wilderness with their family. Last week I saw three generations get out for a bike ride there. If your kids love hiking... great! But in todays society most kids would rather sit in the car on their iPad than hike a national or state park. It's sad. A few (not all) multi-use trails that are family friendly would benefit the parks greatly. Why is it ok to build more road and concrete structures that cater to RVs in parks but when we talk about one or two multi-use trails it compared to Viet-Cong? Just sad.

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