Friday, April 3, 2015
This winter has been historic. Record snows, record cold. This means that not only did the ground freeze up solid, it was then insulated by feet of the white stuff that is now melting. This means that the trails are going to take a LONG time to dry out and be useable.
With rising temps and melting snow, we're tempted to leap on in with both feet and both pedals. Please -- think before you hop on the bike, lace up those hiking shoes or mount your trusty steed.
Stay off the trails if they're soft and muddy!
It all comes down to this: frozen is good, hardpack is good ... but mud is bad.
This is the month when warm days and freezing nights wreak havoc on the trail. It's the time when mother nature is in its most delicate state. Please use your head and stay off the trails until the thaw is out of the ground and the trails have dried and hardened. One of the worse things you can do is ride --or walk-- on trails before they ripen.
Trails are dynamic and change with the seasons and weather conditions. While during most of the season, the mineral soils that make up a good, hardened trails are fairly stable, spring is the most sensitive time, making the trails vulnerable to erosion and long term damage.
Frost (those pesky ice crystals that form in the upper soil cap) cause the soil to move and shift. Even the most hardened of trails loses density as frozen water molecules push and prod the mineral soils. Trails are very susceptible to damage during the freeze/thaw process. As the frost thaws and releases water, the dirt resettles and realigns in a nice muddy mix and the organic matter for last fall's leaf litter blends in with the mineral soil to begin to create a a new generation of trail dirt. This muddy mix eventually re-hardens and makes for a primo path through the woods, but it's critical to let this process happen on its own.
If we ride, hike or horse around on the trails before this process is complete, the damage to the trail could be permanent. The mineral soils will be churned up, and rain and gravity will wash these soils away, leaving a mess of exposed roots and rocks. If the trail is really soft, our wheels leave sunken tracks which could channel into ruts and carry the soils away. If we hike, our heels and boots will dig deep into the trails and help push the soils downhill. Either way, it's the trail that loses, so please show some respect and patience.
Just because you "can" ride, doesn't mean that you "should." Sometimes, if you really love riding, you should stay off the trail and seek other ways to make the new season the best it can be.
Here are some suggestions:
- Use your lawn as a trail barometer. Before you think of hitting the trails, take a ride on your lawn. If you can see your tracks sinking in, stay off the trails. They're not yet ripe.
- Use mud season to build fitness by putting in some serious "base miles" on the road. If you don't have a road bike, put some slicks on your mountain bike and you'll feel super-charged. Most serious racers train on the road for good reason, and the fitness you'll develop will make your trail riding that much more pleasureable.
- Do some urban or suburban assault rides. This is a great time if you're into technical riding to explore the neighborhood for ramps, steps and other challenges that can hone your technical skills.
- Ride on rail trails or other hardened bike paths. You'll be away from traffic, get some needed fitness, and feel good about yourself since you're doing the right thing by staying off the trails.
- Use local knowledge to find areas that are free from mud and frost. Internet Forums are a great resource to find great riding. Check the "Trail Conditions" section of NEMBA's Forum for your state to see where the good riding is… and where it isn't.
As the ground begins to thaw, think about the trails you ride and help to preserve them. A trail is a terrible thing to waste!
......... Philip Keyes