The Importance of Singletrack

An excerpt from "Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack"

Some officials and citizens object to singletrack bicycling. Seeing narrow trails as inherently dangerous, they advocate that bicyclists should be restricted to riding on roads or very wide trails. This perspective doesn't recognize the nature of mountain biking.

Cycling on narrow, natural-surface trails is as old as the bicycle. In its beginning, all bicycling was essentially mountain biking, because bicycles predate paved roads. In many historic photographs from the late 19th century, people are shown riding bicycles on dirt paths.

During World War II the Swiss Army outfitted companies of soldiers with bicycles to more quickly travel on narrow trails through mountainous terrain. In the 1970s, when the first mountain bikes were fashioned from existing "clunkers," riders often took their bikes on natural-surface routes. When the mass production of mountain bikes started in the early 1980s, more and more bicyclists found their way into the backcountry, and the geometry of mountain bikes was changed to improve handling on narrow trails. At first cyclists used existing hiking, motorcycle, game, and livestock trails. In recent years many new trails have been designed with mountain bike use in mind.

What is Singletrack?

A singletrack trail is one where users must generally travel in single file. The term "hiking trail" is an improper synonym for singletrack, because it defines a type of user, not the physical structure of the trail.

The tread of a singletrack trail is typically 18- to 24-inches wide, though it can be as narrow as 6 or as wide as 36 inches. Singletrack trails tend to wind around obstacles such as trees, large rocks, and bushes. As compared to roads, singletrack trails blend into the surrounding environment, disturb much less ground, and are easier to maintain. The tread of singletrack is almost always natural surface, in contrast to the gravel or pavement of roads.

Why is Singletrack So Important?

Most trail enthusiasts prefer narrower trails. Whether they are riding a mountain bike, running or hiking the trail, or exploring on horseback, these users want to experience a close connection to nature. Singletrack provides this better than roads and separates recreationists from the world of the automobile. Trees and shrubs may create a tunnel of green, tall flowers may reach eye level, wildlife may cross the path, immersing visitors in the natural world. The experience just isn't the same on an open, wide road.

Many singletrack enthusiasts also seek a higher degree of challenge than can be found on most jeep trails or forest roads. The narrow nature of singletrack makes these trails exciting for a variety of users and provides an invigorating backcountry experience.

Singletrack Fosters Slow Speeds

Those who object to mountain biking on singletrack envision riders bombing along a 12-inch-wide trail at supersonic speeds. They imagine bicyclists launching headlong into startled hikers and equestrians who have no place to escape on the narrow trail. This scenario, while alarming, is generally unfounded.

Singletrack trails tend to slow mountain bikers‹particularly on shared-use trails where they anticipate encountering other visitors. The narrow and frequently rough nature of singletrack demands constant focus and a slow to moderate speed, and its tight and twisty nature is exhilarating on its own. While there are always a few renegades who push the limits, most mountain bikers are responsible, conscientious trail users who seek an enjoyable experience, not excessive speed.

It's almost counter-intuitive, but speed and danger tend to increase when mountain bikers are confined to wide roads. Bored and unchallenged, bicyclists quickly attain speeds that can bring them into direct conflict with other visitors.

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