In olden days (the 1970s, say), hikers had only to contend with the occasional horseback rider for space on the region’s pathways and trail systems. The more ancient areas of the Blue Hills and the Middlesex Fells are laced with carriage paths, which 150 years ago served as the super-highways for horse-drawn carts and coaches.

Then along came the mountain bike

Fat-tired and tricked out with 21 gears and high-tech suspensions and shock absorbers, mountain bikes soon made their presence known in the woodlands. Rather, their riders did. Younger and more energized than tradtional trail users, off-road cyclists were soon noisily bombing down pristine pathways, raising a cloud of dust, a spray of mud – and a hue and cry from critics.

Today, backwoods diplomacy and downtown politicking (both the MDC and state Department of Environmental Management have had to confront mountain biking’s explosive growth) have resulted in more cooperation and less misunderstanding out in the woods.

New England Mountain Bike Association

MDC Middlesex Fells supervisor Rene Morin said cyclists, particularly those who belong to the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA), have made great strides in improving their sport’s image.

  • “I would hope everyone can get along together. NEMBA does a very good job. They do a lot of trail workshops, a lot of education. They’ve been very helpful in that,” the MDC official said.
  • Morin’s comments came in response to a controversy pitting riders against the Friends of the Middlesex Fells, a longstanding group of hikers who have acted as stewards for the 2,100-acre property just north of Boston and who consider mountain biking a suspect activity that runs counter to the enjoyment of nature.
  • The biggest problem,” he added, “is the number of people who want to use the Fells. When mountain biking started in the ’80s, it was not much of a problem, but now the Fells are being loved to death.”
  • Morin said a study from a decade ago estimated that a half-million people lived within a five-mile radius of the park. “And that was back in 1989,” he noted.

Erosion and other forms of trail degradation remain prime concerns. The recent wet weather hasn’t helped, turning favorite trails to muddy trenches. In fact, the MDC prohibits mountain biking through the winter and up until April 15, in order to protect its trail networks.

But waffle-soled boots and horse hooves also contribute to the problem, experts agree. “Peopple see a trail that’s been eroded and they think ‘mountain bikers,’ but that may not be the case at all,” Morin said.

Such an attitude is appreciated by riders, including Philip Keyes, NEMBA president.

  • “I think there’s been a lot of improvement all around,” said Keyes, of Acton. “Our open space is too precious to make a turf war out of it. I think there should be a common solution to our problems, because the issues facing trails are common problems to all users.”
  • To that end, he added, NEMBA now offers an array of trail maintenance and construction days, as well as cleanups, workshops and organized rides during which members seek to instill an education/conservation ethic in newcomers.
  • An organization like ours, we’ve grown so much,” said Keyes, 41, whose club is 12 years old. “I mean, we’re doing something like 600 rides a year, so we realize there’s a linkage between recreation and conservation. We want to pull people in and channel their energy as riders in a positive way.”

A lot of riders also explore the mountain bike-appropriate trails in the Blue Hills, at more than 7,000 acres the MDC’s largest reservation. Ranger Maggi Brown noted that thanks in part to NEMBA and the volunteer Trail Watch group, there have been much fewer problems in her neck of the woods.

There’s been a real focus on peer education and cooperation with other users, ” Brown said.

In fact, Trail Watch conducts a number of rides through the summer, culminating Oct. 1 in the fourth annual Blue Hills Mountain Bike Day.

“In fact,” she added, “our Trail Watch program has become so successful that both riders and hikers are now going out together.

Who would believe it?