Wednesday, October 7, 2020


Finally some bike content again. I discuss why I'm a bit disillusioned about the mountain biking currently and how I've found the joy of riding again through gravel riding.

The summer has been fairly intense with sea kayak guiding for me, but now I have again had a some time to ride. During the summer I of course rode to work, but I didn't have time to ride regularly on the forest trails. Let's start with my thoughts about mountain biking.

I've been riding in the Turku area for a little over 15 years, mostly with a fatbike, but also with a regular full suspension mountain bike. During that time very few trails have disappeared through too little use, a number of trails have disappeared when areas have "developed", another word for getting rid of the forest for the sake of buildings and infrastructure, and a lot of new trails have appeared and many trails have widened and deepened a lot. In case someone from outside the Nordic countries reads this, trails in Finland are almost never built, they are born by use from hikers, dog walkers, bike riders etc, within the everyman's rights. This is an important point, since this means that the trails are not planned according to the terrain, nor are they maintained, except for some occasional bridges and board walks, mostly on official trails in national parks and similar places.

During the last ten years, the popularity of mountain biking in the area has increased a lot, at least as much as that of other outdoor activities, and during this corona year it has almost exploded. (In Finland the situation has been fairly good and there has been no lockdowns, though restrictions and recommendations has made people spend vacations within the country, and at least during the spring the forests saw lots of people who could no longer spend time in the shopping malls). Looking at the situation from a wider point of view, it is a good thing that more people find the nature and hopefully start appreciating it, even though currently some places sees more people than is sustainable.

In my opinion, mountain biking in its current form is not entirely sustainable in parts of the country, mainly around the big population centers as well as in more popular national parks and routes. On dry summer trails there are of course no problems, but in reality Finland is a wet country and in my hoods the situation really escalated during last winter, which consisted of over four months of November misery with very few cold and crisp days with snow. There really was very few days when riding the very wet trails was a smart thing to do. Too many people didn't realize or rather care about that, and the result was very visible on the trails. I'm fairly convinced that mountain biking currently is the biggest reason for trail deterioration where I live, see below for more about that. I've pointed this out and tried to start a reasonable discussion in Facebook groups several times, without a satisfactory result. The discussions haven't been particularly flattering for mountain bike riders, often I've just been called an idiot or worse, few people admit that there is a problem and some people admit it and says that it doesn't matter anyway because of bigger problems in the world like climate change, famine in some African country etc. Quite frustrating in fact, especially when you in other outdoor groups even can discuss tips around the Leave no trace-principle seriously. I've pretty much given up hope that sound principles can emerge from within the mountain biking community. Instead I fear that we will see restrictions in the future. 

This picture is from one of the few days with reasonable mountain biking weather last winter. No pictures from the problematic days, since I've refrained from riding in such conditions for a number of years now.

Why do I think that mountain biking is one of the main reasons for trail deterioration? The official "propaganda" (harsh word but in my opinion justified) says that a mountain bike does not affect the trails any more than a walker. I think that this is an area that really would benefit from some empirical research, since I haven't found anything really solid that would be applicable to Finnish conditions. The comparative studies I've found are less relevant since they talk about built trails. Some other studies find little or no difference between mountain biking and walking in sample points, which I think may or may not be true also for Finnish conditions, depending on whether you have a fatbike or ordinary mountain bike. What for me is incomprehensible is that no study I have found mentions that with a mountain bike you travel 2-4 times the distance of a walker, with an e-bike even more, which of course would mean that the sum of affected trail is multiplied accordingly. There are Nordic studies that have found that dry ground can take anything and wet ground is again very sensitive and quickly deteriorates. No comparisons, though.

In my opinion the key thing here is the wet season, since during the dry summer months there are no problems. During the wet season, though, too many people continue to ride, and thus affect the trails a lot more than walkers. Mountain bikers ride through the puddles, which doesn't widen the trails, but instead makes the the mud holes deeper and longer. After a few weeks of rain, walkers generally avoid the wet trails, since ordinary hiking boots no longer suffice and you need wellies, which most walkers avoid, instead walking with their hiking boots on less wet trails. Also, in many places a hiker can avoid the wet holes by taking a longer stride or jumping between stones and roots, while a mountain bikes just rides through, again making the hole deeper and bigger. This is according to my observations the mechanism through which mountain bikers cause the most trail damage. This is of course also easy to see on the trails. You see a lot more tire prints than footprints. Nowadays there are also a lot of walkers who complain about the mountain bikers damaging the trails, and they are not completely wrong. Anyway, this is how I see the situation. It is of course not the absolute truth, only my view. Nothing more, nothing less.

All the above currently has me disillusioned about mountain biking and I avoid riding on the trails during the wet season. Lately I have found joy in gravel riding. I know this is a trend that started some eight years ago or so, and I'm quite late to the party, even though I prefer to think of it as doing my own thing, regardless of trends. I have of course done gravel riding stuff for many years, without actually knowing it was called that.

Earlier my gravel riding has been mainly with overnight gear, but during this fall this has changed and I have started doing shorter rides of just a few hours as well, effectively replacing pure trail rides on the mountain bike. 

These rides have taken me further from my home on some tarmac, more gravel and the occasional trails. There is a pure joy in exploring. I generally look on the map in advance for a interesting place, ride there and often start exploring trails I've never been on before and see where the go. These are often less used trails and I'm not afraid to do some bikepushing if necessary.

Often, but not always, the trails actually lead somewhere and connects to another road, though sometimes they also end in the middle of the forest where no one can hear you scream.

Gearwise, my Salsa Fargo works well, though it is a bit heavy, having been built for more substantial terrain and also being equipped for commuting.  (I forgot to do the ten year review of the Fargo, but will do an 11 year review in January). Still, I think that a lighter and faster bike would be nice for this purpose and I actually have one coming, but more about that in a month or so. 

What about the fat bike? Well, I've been riding a fatbike for ten years now and will continue to do so, but it really would be more meaningful if we would have a real winter. For multi-day trips in more demanding terrain the fatbike is of course still the best option, but those trips are unfortunately a rare treat for me nowadays.

Gravel riding thus feels like the riding I now mainly want to do, and there is a lot to ride, almost 400000 km of gravel roads in Finland, and almost 23000 km in the landscape where I live (Finland Proper).

No comments:

Post a Comment