In the late 1970s, a crew of off-road innovators from Marin County — Otis Guy, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, and others —started shuttling heavy Schwinn cruiser bikes up Mount Tamalpais, then rocketing down the fire roads that plunge through the golden hills. In these riders, mountain biking was born. The sport quickly became an international phenomenon, an Olympic discipline, and an economic boon to both recreation areas and urban communities.
But not long after the first knobby tires rolled across Marin County’s open spaces, the local government began restricting access for bikes, effectively watering down the joy of riding off-road. In most of Marin County’s thousands of acres of public parkland, mountain bikers must adhere to a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit, and (except for a couple pay-to-play parks) are banned from almost all singletrack.
Recently, the long-simmering frustration over trail access returned to the forefront when the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the forthcoming use of radar guns to enforce cyclist’s speed on an array of Marin County fire roads. Tickets for exceeding the 15-mph speed limit run upwards of $200.
Radar enforcement isn’t new. Longtime riders have seen speed-gun wielding park rangers since the 1990s. And in most cases, in conflict areas where safety is an issue, riders welcome enforcement. Mountain bikers must slow to 5 miles per hour when passing hikers and horseback riders. The area’s primary advocacy group, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), even promotes an official slogan, “Slow and Say Hello.”
To be clear: In any shared-use open space, there’s an appropriate time and place to test the upper limits of your cardiovascular system and adrenal threshold — and that place is certainly not in an area where you may endanger other trail users (for example, a young family ambling around a blind corner).
“It’s the 1 percent of intolerant trail users that cause problems for everyone,” says Otis Guy, a member of the Mountain Bike Hall Fame, also located in Marin County. But at the same time, says Guy, the recent enforcement ramp-up doesn’t seem to be in reaction “to any specific incidents or real issues.”
Guy, who coaches a local high school mountain biking team, adheres to the diplomatic stance of the MCBC, and believes access to Marin County trails will increase through continued partnerships with the local government. However, a large contingent of mountain bikers contends that no amount of radar-gun-toting park rangers can fix the real problem: The draconian trail access laws restricting cyclists.
One rider who shares this view is a Marin native and long-time trail user, who grew up riding Mt. Tam singletrack on his BMX bike in the 1980s. This rider, who works in the cycling industry and asked not to be named directly, said it’s an “open secret” that most experienced riders on Mt. Tam exceed the posted speed limits when it’s safe to do so — and further, they regularly ride the vast network of singletrack that’s legally off limits to mountain bikers. A look at the Strava Heat Map on Mt. Tam, which highlights the most ridden areas, confirms that mountain bikers frequently hit illegal trails. This mountain biker said local riders go as far as posting ranger sightings to an online forum, allowing other trail bandits to evade expensive tickets or an uncomfortable confrontation with a group of disgruntled hikers.
For these riders, ignoring the decades-old access laws on Mt. Tam is an act of civil disobedience. “I believe in rules, I believe in laws that govern society, and I adhere to those laws in every other aspect of my life,” the rider said. “But these mountain biking laws in Marin County are not fair. They disproportionately limit the rights of a highly prevalent and cooperative group, that has no worse impact on the environment or trail system than any other group. And in this case, because I don’t agree with the laws, I refuse to follow them. And so do many others.”
In many other parts of the country — California’s Henry Coe State Park, for example — progressive policies that dictate when and where certain trail uses are appropriate have helped mountain bikers, hikers, and other trail users to recreate in harmony. It’s a wonder that the sport’s birthplace, Marin County, can’t do the same.