A suggested etiquette for Mountain Bikers

Can't we all just get along?

Trail access is important to everybody! Mountain Bikers are the new kid on the block, and we need to be especially careful about offending traditional (i.e. they were there first!) users of wilderness trails.

We love to ride, right? And we hate trail damage. Let's not damage relationships, either! Face it: You are dangerous. You are engaged in a risky sport where you are silently hurtling a lethal weapon at speeds often well above a fast run, in places that normally never experience anything faster than a slow walk. You have chosen to engage in this risky behavior. People have a right to fear you, and they do. So show lots of courtesy and consideration and hopefully we can all just get along. In particular, mountain bikers should try to be respectful of:

Hikers and joggers
Face it. These people were here first and these trails wouldn't exist without their support. Don't pass at excessive speed, and don't surprise them. Be sure to announce your coming with a kind greeting or a bell. I like the old style bells with the American Flag on them. Their ring is a familiar and unmistakable sound, but sometimes I like to use a subtle noise like a gear shift or foot scrape.

When they look up at you, they've seen you. Until they look at you, they haven't seen you. Sooner or later, you're going to have to get their attention before you can pass faster than a walk. Always thank anyone who yields their right-of-way to you, or holds pets or young children as you pass.

Dismount within about 50 feet of a horse, between your bike and the horse, downhill from the horse. Take off your helmet and try to look human. Really! Talk to the rider, and talk to the horse (ask it's name.) Get out of shadows so the horse can see you. One rider we met asked us if we would feed the horse for him, and he gave us some carrots. He said he was training the horse not to be afraid of bikers. We did. This is coexistence at its finest.

Most horse people will thank you for dismounting, and they all will appreciate it. Some will tell you you can come on. But some are riding new horses, or are new riders themselves, and are hanging on for dear life. Give 'em a break. If you possibly can, go out and ride a horse once in a while! You'll understand much better.

The Environment
Seems kind of obvious, but anyway: Don't leave energy bar wrappers (or anything else) on the trail! The wrappers are usually made of just about the least biodegradable stuff on earth and everyone knows exactly what kind of trail user dropped them! Don't leave bike parts, gel tube tops, patch kits or anything on the trail. It's the second easiest way to get banned, after crashing into people.
Other Mountain Bikers They Meet
Pass with care. Announce yourself. The rider heading uphill, even though they are going slower, always has the right of way (though they often yield it to a fast downhiller.) The group with children has right of way. Next, the larger group has right of way. Last, the group with the most rigid frames has right of way! (You might have to stop and count to achieve this level of etiquette!)
Other Mountain Bikers They Ride With
Never, ever tailgate. Don't even think of tailgating. Instead, think of NOT tailgating. Out on the trail, you should stay far enough behind so that if the rider in front crashes --or merely slows down-- for no apparent reason, you don't then crash into them. On technical sections, stay at least one section back from the rider in front of you. It is not a race. Yell "TRACK, PLEASE!" if you want to pass, or something. Tailgating makes the person ahead of you ride faster than they are comfortable with. If you ever run into the person in front of you, not only have you committed a dangerous mistake, but you have instilled in them a fear of you being behind them which will make them try to ride even faster than they should go.

There is great skill in being a good follower. One trick to "make it interesting" is to try and stay exactly the same distance behind the person you are following (3 bike lengths, for instance). On really steep or technical terrain it becomes nearly impossible but the rest of the time you'll see that doing it well is really quite difficult. When following closely, always keep a finger or two on your brake levers.

It is your responsibility, when riding behind someone, to make sure they feel that they will NEVER have to worry that you will run into them if they stop, no matter how suddenly and unexpectedly. Do not pass unexpectedly, and do not pass on the right (on the left in Britian, I presume). If you pull alongside, announce yourself by saying "On your right!" or "On your left!"

Mountain biking is an inherently dangerous sport. We all know that. But does that mean you shouldn't try to be as safe as you can? Of course not! Safety is cumulative. So if you are doing something inherently dangerous, the least you can do is not add to that danger yourself by acting irresponsibly!

It is your responsibility not to be the cause of an increase in that danger for your fellow riders. Do not go around blind turns with excessive speed. As one person put it, "Imagine a horse person with both guns drawn is around each corner." And don't ever, ever tailgate. Don't even come close. If you can ride faster, then go first if you want, or force yourself to hold back. Anything else is irresponsible.

Trains and Train Tracks
Trains go really, really fast. In Japan and Europe, where track and train engineers are evidently smarter than in America (or perhaps the public is smarter and supports public transportation more) trains reach speeds of around 200 miles an hour, more than twice the speed of most American trains. But a train zipping along at 78 miles an hour (the maximum speed on much of the "Northeast Corridor" in New England, last I heard) is no snail. And you may not realize it, but trains can be nearly silent, especially if the wind is right and/or there's a bend in the tracks and/or your hearing isn't that good.

All this factors can have deadening effects on the sound you might be expecting to warn you of a train's eminent approach. You might not hear it. So don't be a track-ass. Respect the tracks. Don't mingle on or near them. In most places it's illegal, and if train crews see mountain bikers putting themselves in danger, you can rest assured there will be crackdowns, and good trails and accesses to trails will close as a result. And people will die if they continue to "hang around" near the tracks.

Aside from the pain your family and friends might feel if you get killed by a train while mountain biking, it's also true that train engineers are real people too, and they don't deserve to have to suffer the emotional trauma of ruining your bike and killing your sorry ass. Statistics indicate that in bicycle versus train collisions, the bicycle generally gets the worst of it.

Dismount and cross tracks quickly at a 90 degree angle after stopping, looking both ways, and listening (both ways). Don't try to bunny-hop tracks even if you're good at it. Don't ride on or along tracks even if they look unused to you. Some side lines are only used once a month or even less. If you must ride alongside tracks, do so quickly and stay as far to the side as you possibly can, and ride in single file. Even if you think you have lots of experience with trains, don't forget that faster and faster trains are appearing all the time. (And you're probably going more and more deaf and blind as you age.) Stay off the tracks!

Don't ever sit on the tracks. And don't lick them, at least not in the dead of winter. Your tongue might get stuck to the tracks and then if a train comes, you'll have a very painful decision to make. Don't hold a stick up to the power lines, especially while standing on the rail. Don't touch the "third rail" if the tracks near you have one. And don't try to board a train while it's moving. You might get your arm ripped off, then you'll probably drop your bike, and it might go under the train and get damaged. This would ruin your day.

If you decide that you absolutely have to cross a railroad bridge, you better have an incredibly good reason! There is NOT enough room for you and a train, let alone your bike and you and a train. If you decide that you MUST cross a railroad bridge, then plan what you are going to do if a train comes. That usually means how you are going to throw your bike off and then jump off the bridge, or where you are going to wedge yourself into the structure if the moment comes. And if a train comes, put that plan into action immdiately! You probably cannot make it to the edge of the bridge, and your chance of missing the timing is great. If memory serves me correctly, I've heard that most people who are killed on railroad bridges were in the act of trying to run off the bridge when they were hit.

They thought they could make it. A better plan is to get out of the way using your pre-arranged plan. And don't forget about the suction that the train's wind creates. You need to be well away from the train when it blows by you at 80+ MPH (over 100 km/hr). Better yet, find another way around. This is worth a detour of many miles.

Stay off highways too. Cars and trucks come up awfully fast as well. Leave roads to the roadies.

Small Children
Toddlers do very strange, unexpected things. They walk in front of you, they reach for your spokes, they fall down. NEVER, EVER run into a child. You really have to slow down near them, so much that if the child suddenly turned and ran right in front of your wheels, you could stop first. Period. If you hit a kid, it's your fault. Period. So unless a parent or gaurdian has seen you approach and has grabbed the child's hand, there's nothing you can do but keep slowing down as you approach so that as you pass, you are going at a walking pace.
Large Animals
If you think toddlers do strange, unexpected things (which they do) I suggest you not spend time around mountain lions, bobcats, and other large wild animals. Who do even stranger, even more unexpected things. Here's a short story about a large wild cat, and directions to a ride in Carlsbad, in Southern California.

Mountain Biker's Staging Area

Table of Contents

The Animated Software Company

Mail to: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com
Last modified Spring, 2004.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman