Ben Suliteanu revels in the burn of his lungs and legs. His gaze is to the misty sea and the clouds that signal an incoming rainstorm.
We are on top of the coastal mountains about 30 miles south of San Francisco, straddling mud-encased mountain bikes that carried us up through Coal Creek Open Space Preserve from the valley. Suliteanu is barely winded, his red and white bike suit matching his full-suspension hydraulic steed. My lungs are screaming, but I’ve managed to keep up on my borrowed ride.
We’re here to talk about a subject that Suliteanu knows intimately: the growing frustration of being a mountain biker in Marin County, the sport’s birthplace, about 45 miles north of us.
Suliteanu, 20, was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, but his family moved to Corte Madera in Marin County when he was 5. The summer after eighth grade, his pastor introduced him to mountain biking. Although the trails they rode were far too gnarly for a young rider, he was hooked.
“After that, it was just natural for me to join the Redwood High School team,” he says.
“It honestly changed my life and I don’t know what I would’ve done without it,” Suliteanu says. “It taught me the love of exploring and being outside, which are two of my core values to this day.”
Now a junior studying Science, Technology and Society at Stanford University, Suliteanu is on the university’s mountain biking team after taking a few years off of racing.
Earlier, we grunted up miles of pavement to our final off-road destination as Suliteanu waxed poetic about the sport.
“Initially,” he said, “it had a lot to do with the thrill of actually riding. It transitioned over time to be more about the process of exploration; finding new places, and experiencing the beauty of nature.”
“There’s a trail,” he says. And suddenly, he’s gone. I catch up to find him running his fingers through the flowers as he rides, white and yellow petals dancing.
Not everyone is as stoked on mountain biking as Suliteanu. In Marin County, mountain bikers clamor for trail openings and increased access, while hikers and other open-space users push back on environmental and safety grounds. Bikers can erode trails, damage habitats, scare animals and pose a threat to hikers.
Before a big descent, Suliteanu tries to get loose. “Let go of all your anxieties,” he says. “Just experience things as they come to you.” Suliteanu takes a long, last look out to the uncatchable horizon.
“Yeee!” he cries, and rocks up onto his pedals, muddy tires churning to life and spattering his shins. We turn our rear wheels to the sea. And at last we let loose.
***Cruiser bikes summon visions of laid-back rides along flat beach paths, but in the 1970s and ’80s cruisers were the vehicles of choice for the young Marin County bikers who started the mountain biking revolution. Selected for their wider tires, cruisers enabled riders to challenge the unpaved roads and trails of Mount Tamalpais. It was fun. It was rebellious. It transformed the riders into local legends and gave birth to an industry.
Today, Marin’s public open spaces include national monuments, federal lands, state parks and open space preserves. They contain an estimated 600 miles of roads and trails open for recreational use, about half of which are open to bikes. Of those, about 83 percent are fire roads. But fire roads don’t satisfy serious mountain bikers, who crave narrow, flowing single-track trails that are challenging and closer to nature. Such trails are harder to find in Marin.
“When mountain biking started in the 1970s, land agencies quickly clamped down on it because we didn’t have any organization at the time,” said Vernon Huffman, president of Access4Bikes, an organization that lobbies to expand bike access. “Mountain biking was so new that the land agencies didn’t have any precedent to work with. We’ve been crawling back ever since.”
Huffman, 49, argues that the land-management policies established in that initial clampdown are antiquated given the annual growth of more than 11 percent that mountain biking has seen in the region. “As the sport continues to grow and access doesn’t, it creates an unrealistic problem,” Huffman said. “Something will break.”
Something has indeed been broken: the law. Many bikers now regularly ride trails they aren’t allowed on, an activity known as trail “poaching.”
“It’s a very difficult county to get your single-track on,” said Huffman, who’s also the assistant coach for the San Domenico High School mountain biking team. “People just say, ‘Screw it.’ They decide to go out and do their own thing. I understand that frustration.”
Vernon Felton, a longtime mountain biking journalist, agrees with Huffman. “The Bay Area has been living in a desert of options,” Felton said. “There’s no sense that it’s ever really going to change. So what do people do? They poach. They don’t believe that they’ll be respected in the political system, and they honestly don’t feel that there is any value whatsoever in what Vernon Huffman is doing.”
Although some bikers may not value attempts to work within the system, Felton acknowledges that work like Huffman’s might be their only hope. “We have to advocate, we need to be part of those groups,” he said. “It feels hopeless now, but it’s actually hopeless if we don’t.”
Felton, 44, grew up in the Bay Area and started riding in 1989. He now lives in Bellingham, Washington, but returns to the Bay Area four to five times a year and rides in Marin County for work.
“I’m not holding my breath for Marin County,” he said. “It took everything that was beautiful about being outdoors and destroyed it for me. It’s the most hostile, horrible place to ride a bike. And it’s a shame. The birthplace of mountain biking is the worst place to ride a mountain bike.”
***As we ripped down the trail from the top of Coal Creek Open Space Preserve, Ben Suliteanu and I splattered through puddles and ducked low-hanging branches. While we weren’t poaching or plunging out of control, it had rained the day before and our knobby tires definitely churned ruts into the soil. Post-rainstorm erosion is just one of the environmental concerns that the FootPeople, a Marin-based organization, brings forward.
“We have been concerned with how this increasing mountain bike access to trails can lead to cumulative impacts on wildlife, resources, flora and fauna, sedimentation, and other slower user groups,” said FootPeople spokeswoman Linda Novy, who has worked in sustainable landscape management in the Bay Area since 1973.
Many FootPeople members are in their 80s, are environmental leaders in Marin and have been living in the area for decades, Matt Sagues, senior resource planner for the Marin County Parks, said. They are invested in it. “We want to see Legacy Zones — areas with intact and undisturbed ecosystems — remain undisturbed and with only minor, passive visitation such as hikers,” Novy said.
Matt Sagues sees illegal trail building as a crucial issue to resolve. Such trails scar the landscape, are unsustainable, and endanger species and fragile habitats. They’re also extremely difficult to keep closed.
The latest strategy for the Marin County Parks is to identify existing illegal trails and maintain them rather than developing new trails from scratch. “We are basically adopting them,” Sagues said. “It’s better for being able to serve the public, and gives us a better handle on the environmental impacts.”
He tends to agree with the mountain biking organizations though. “We need to open up more miles of trails for them to enjoy,” Sagues said. “It’s going to diffuse the bikers out among more trails.”
Novy has a less accommodating perspective.
“I don’t think that public lands can meet the appetite that mountain bikers have for narrow trails that flow and have jumps,” she said. “I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. There has to be an awareness that public lands are not thrill parks, and can’t meet the desires of the mountain biking recreational industry.”
The bikers’ appetite drives them to build illegal trails, poach trails that have been declared off-limits and ride recklessly. Novy sees that as a central cause of the conflict. “If everyone was following the rules, we would see more trust between user groups, and less problems in terms of safety and resource protection,” she said.
Novy pointed out that around seven miles of new biking trails are planned in Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve and argued that land managers should wait to see if the bikers’ behavior improves with increased access before agreeing to open more trails. It’s important not to take things too fast, she said.
“If we allow mechanized equipment everywhere in our public lands, I think it diminishes not just the resource, but one’s experience in nature,” Novy said. “You end up looking over your shoulder to see who might be riding their bike toward you, and usually at a speed many times faster than you are moving. The younger generation that starts out riding on mountain bikes in nature may not know anything different, but those of us who remember the times before mountain bikes arrived on the scene know the difference. Our group values a safe and serene experience in nature and wants to protect our natural resources. That is what we are advocating for.”
***Marin’s younger generation is taking to the trails. And, as Lindy Novy and many others have noticed, it’s rarely for a bird-watching hike.
“Back in the day, mountain bikers were a ragtag group of middle-aged men,” Huffman said. But today, Marin’s high school mountain bike teams are serious business. At St. Francis High School, the mountain bike team is more popular than the football team, Huffman said. High school students in the United States race under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). From 2009 to 2013, the number of registered NICA athletes increased sixfold.
“It’s been wildly successful,” Huffman said. “Kids are flocking to mountain biking.”
The land agencies aren’t blind. “There are teams and teams of teens and kids that want to get out there and mountain bike,” Sagues said, “and that’s the future constituency.”
Many fear that these voracious newcomers are to blame for a significant portion of the illegal trail building and poaching in the region. Huffman acknowledges that it can be a challenge for impatient young bikers to wait for political solutions. He tells his riders, “Keep it legal. If you care about your race season, keep it legal.”
His advice seems to be sinking in. Novy said she has met with high school teams and found the students to be thoughtful and polite. “I think for the most part they try to be good ambassadors,” she said.
Sagues is of the mind that it’s up to land managers and other folks in the region to collaborate and solve the problem. “I wouldn’t want to point fingers at high school kids or anything,” he said. “It would be incorrect to do that.”
Huffman agrees, and says that the kids have kept him from burning out. “I saw the sport developing and the movement of our youth and it made me excited and want to fight for these kids and keep doing what I was doing, but do it better.”
***Ben Suliteanu is a red and white-topped flash. There is nothing but the trail before me, barely enough time to process the rocks, branches and dirt-packed lumps. We are in the flow.
We’re curving to the right, now pumping, braking, running it out on the straight, leaning to the left before coming in low; weight back, roll the hips, pull the bars, bring it around and send it home, flowing long and fast and smooth.
Ahead, Suliteanu’s rear wheel skids in a tail slide, wagging like an excited puppy. I stop beside him, white-knuckled.
“Duuude,” he says. “That was sick!”
Suliteanu has only been fined once while mountain biking: about $330 for riding illegal trails at sunset. He considers it the price of his season pass.
“I think people need to respect the fact that some people get more of a spiritual experience out of riding a mountain bike,” he said. “We need to understand one another more before we can solve this issue. I understand the danger that’s associated with bikers going really fast and ripping around blind corners. That’s something we need to address.”
“It makes me really sad that we have this division in Marin between hikers and bikers because we are after a lot of the same things. I’m doing everything I can to try and break that animosity.”
Coal Creek Open Space Preserve’s dirt trails are now far behind, knobby tires again humming over pavement. Our descent is accompanied by drizzle from the clouds that are finally ready to cry. I think about how challenging it is to find a balance between those who want a meditative walk in the woods and those whose passion it is to fly.
As darkness approaches, something to the side catches Suliteanu’s eye — a small single track, barely offset from the road.
This time, there’s a sign: “No Bikes Allowed.”
Suliteanu gives me a lopsided grin, a slight nod of his head, and carves to the right. I follow and sigh with relief as my wheels hit the dirt — suddenly, it’s not complicated at all. White and yellow flowers dot the grasses between trees and for a few, blissful, illegal moments, we fly.