Thanks for the trails

By Sal Ruibal

I’ve been getting lots of emails and calls from my mountain-biking friends this week, looking to ride my neighborhood trails.

I’m lucky to live in an area that’s just outside the Washington DC Beltway, but also rich in singletrack. And not just any singletrack, but sweet-flowing, banked and bermed vintage IMBA Grand Cru that makes up in smiles what it lacks in miles.

When I first began riding here in 1994, there were two kinds of trails; sidewalks and bushwhacked ruts with shin-bashing rocks and ankle-deep mud bogs.

There were basically two directions one could ride: straight up and straight down. Fall-line trails zigged through the thick oak woods, loose and rocky when dry and mini-waterfalls when it rained. If you weren’t bleeding, you weren’t riding.

But over the years, development came to our neck of the woods and much of our two-wheeled playground was denuded and bulldozed into condos and assisted-living centers. A big, six-lane county parkway ripped through a wonderful, snaking country road that we used to access acres and acres of rough woods trails.

We hung on to our knobby-tired paradise, riding at night to avoid the Park PoPo. We recoiled when we saw a sign that said a local Boy Scout troop was going to do trail re-design in the heart of our network. We planned sabotage.

To our surprise, the new trails were fun to ride. They weren’t as challenging as the old ruts, but I wasn’t getting my shins ripped open by SPDs kicked back by nasty rocks. The muddy sections were made more challenging by the addition of buttocks-sized boulders and even a few technical stunts.

It was hard to admit that the new world order was not so bad. Then came the Big Dig at neighboring Wakefield Park.

Wakefield Park is a huge complex of ball fields, a major county recreation center and a new cross-county dirt and concrete trail that connects nearly every county park. Our special slice was a spooky (we were still poaching at night) hill that was next to a cleared section of powerlines.

The neighborhood’s toughest and gnarliest trails went straight up and down the big hill. Many an endo was executed here, including a dozen faceplants that I donated over the years, along with a pound of leg flesh.
Then it was discovered that the top of the hill was an ancient Native American gravesite. Our best playground was about to be declared off-limits.

But thanks to the efforts of IMBA and MORE, the county accepted a trail design that would wind around the hill without trespassing on hallowed ground. The result is a fast and flowing trail that is best when ridden “flahout,” as the Belgians say.

And flat-out is what we do. There are whoops and bridges and big rock gardens and drop-offs and a steep, almost vertical tribute to the old trail that bridges across a ridgeline to a big-bermed descent that works best when you have the guts to tilt your tires until the edge-knobs catch the dirt like a snowboard carves hardpack.

There are several MTB races there every week in the summer, as well as trail running races and dirt biathlons.

A mucky and nasty creek-side trail was transformed in a beautiful, flower-lined path that is a great place to teach newcomers how to ride. We call it the “Girlfriend Trail” because it’s a wonderful place for couples to ride together without one feeling intimidated and the other person bored.

The new trails are so cool, six years ago we moved from our place a mile or so away to a wonderful Charlestown-style townhouse no more than two pedal-strokes from a creekside trail.

I can see the trail and the creek from my third-floor office. Early in the morning, foxes patrol for mice and lazy birds. The sun streams through the trees, reddish-gold this time of year.

Now I am an official IMBA Trail Ambassador, working my way up to National Trail Patrol status. I’m not a trail cop, but a local friend who’ll give you a trail map and help with a mechanical or a flat. And I might gently inform you and your dog about the leash laws.

I still think fondly of our bandit nights in the woods, doing what we do best in the humid, sweaty summer nights. I’m also thankful for the transition that IMBA, the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts and the Park Authority brought to our nasty, gnarly little corner.

I never get tired of riding in my woods. Every ride I discover something new or re-discover something I had forgotten. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Rain, Snow, Ice and Sunshine. This is my home. Come and ride.