Can the rugged, heart-pounding, mud-splashing rides of mountain bikers co-exist with the serene strolling of nature hikers who seek peace amid the green of Ridgefield’s open spaces? There’s some culture clash, but the two groups are trying to make it work.
The creation of “unauthorized trails” has been a source of friction between Ridgefield’s growing community of mountain biking enthusiasts and the Conservation Commission, overseer of town open spaces.
“People go into the woods for peace and quiet,” said Commissioner Dave Cronin. “Our trails are not meant for extreme biking. Hikers don’t want to come around the corner and have a bike come screaming at them.”
The mountain bikers say they understand, and try to respect the commission’s concerns.
“We realize the permission to ride our bikes on open space is a privilege, and improper or unauthorized trail usage could put that in jeopardy,” said Mike Ahearn, a mechanic at the Ridgefield Bicycle Company and an organizer of two weekly trail-riding groups.
“Our goal in working with the Ridgefield Conservation Commission is to open the lines of communication between open space land managers in our town and the mountain biking community.”
Unauthorized trails were discussed at the Conservation Commission’s most recent meeting, Aug. 26.
Mr. Cronin, who’s on a committee formed to work with the mountain bikers, had made a map of unauthorized trails created in the lower section of the Hemlock Hills open space — by mountain bikers, he thought, but perhaps equestrians, as well.
The problem is that they’re too close together.
“We can’t have all these trails. Some of them have to be closed,” Mr. Cronin said. “It’s too many trails in too small an area.”
“Are there standards the commission is using for trail density?” asked John Sweeney, a mountain biker.
Mr. Sweeney attends commission meetings as a Ridgefielder, he said, but he’s a member the Fairfield County branch of the New England Mountain Bike Association.
“The mountain bikers are largely users of existing trails that are not on these guys’ authorized maps, and the horse riders are doing the same thing,” Mr. Sweeney said after the meeting. “Some of the trails are too nasty for horses and bikes to use, so they make ride-arounds.”
Ridgefield’s mountain biking community is sizable.
“I’ve got 160 people an email list, and most of them are from town,” said Mr. Ahearn.
Mountain bikers might not describe their sport as an entirely safe activity, but it may compare favorably with biking on busy suburban roads.
“If you can get your exercise biking in the woods, being in nature — I look at it as all the risk is contingent on you,” Mr. Ahearn said. “You’re not putting your life in anyone else’s hands, riding off-road.”
“I started riding 12 years ago,” said Mr. Ahearn, who is 30. “I was a runner and kept getting hurt, and bought a mountain bike in the summer and just fell in love.
“It really changed the trajectory of my life.”
The commission has perhaps 25 or 30 miles of trails in 2,500 acres of open space, by Mr. Cronin’s estimate.
The problem wouldn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough room. But bikers use trails also used by hikers, or they “free lance” and create new trails close to hiking trails — which can change the experience of the woods.
“We don’t want trails everywhere,” he said. “We don’t want trails where people are walking and there’s an adjacent trail where they can see people bike riding.”
Mr. Ahearn said the bikers often go off in areas of open space where the hiking public isn’t bothered by them.
“A lot of trails in places where we ride are used only by bikers,” he said. “They’re three or four miles out into the woods. You don’t see a lot of the dog-walker, the bird-watcher. They’re too far off the beaten path.”
Mr. Sweeney said mountain bikers are regular users of four adjoining parcels that total about 1,600 acres. Two, Bennett’s Pond and Wooster Mountain, are state parks. And two, Hemlock Hills and Pine Mountain, are Ridgefield open spaces.
The bikers try to contribute, be good citizens. “Mountain bikers do a tremendous amount of trail maintenance and trail repair, and putting in new sustainable trails in the places where they’re active,” Mr. Sweeney said.
Mr. Ahearn backs this up.
“After Sandy, I took it upon myself to go out, clear trails,” he said. “Through the store, we have contacts with people who also like to be in the woods, on a bike. We cleared a lot of areas of open space that wouldn’t have been cleared for a while.”
Bikers put in 50 man-hours clearing trails after the big storm, he estimated.
“Nine to 3 on a Sunday, maybe, and there were five of us,” he said. “And two or three days with four hours and there were three people. And I know I put in 25 hours on my own, aside from those.”
Through the bike shop Mr. Ahearn and Adam Ray, another bike mechanic, have two groups that meet up and ride together regularly.
A group with a wide range of skill levels meets Tuesdays by the Lake Windwing ballfield to ride the “Windwing Meadow Singletrack,” a trail cut in May and June with the help of RHS student interns.
“Anyone is welcome to join,” Mr. Ahearn said, though participants must be either 16, or accompanied by an adult. It starts at 6:30.
“We ride a 4- to 6-mile loop of the mellowest trails in Hemlock Hills,” he said.
In August, they had a Youth Mountain Biking Camp at Lake Windwing that drew 16 kids, ages 8 to 14.
More advanced riders meet Fridays, most often in Bennett’s Pond State Park.
“There’s some trails back there that are a little more technical and take a little more of skilled riders,” Adam Ray said. “We try to get there around 6 and everyone gets geared up and leaves by 6:30. Lasts anywhere from an hour to two hours.”
The numbers vary. “We average around 15,” Mr. Ray said. “We’re going up to 30 on some of these rides. It’s getting pretty popular.”
Not with the Conservation Commission.
“Bikers come in in trucks and vans and in groups,” Mr. Cronin said. “They’re starting to bike in groups!
“We actually started finding trails in Hemlock Hills, Pine Mountain and the Florida Refuge in which the leaves and debris were blown off with leaf blowers, which is something bikers tend to so because they don’t like to have little twigs and sticks thrown up from the tires.
“Who’s making the unauthorized trails? I would hope it’s not the adults. But there are a lot of adults biking. There are also kids,” Mr. Cronin said. “We have problems with kids. They tend to like to build jumps.”
The commission says it wants to work with the bikers.
“We hope we can work out some compromise to reduce the number of trails to an acceptable limit. Close some, open some,” Mr. Cronin said.
Mr. Ahearn said the mountain bikers’ goal is to enjoy riding in the woods — not to upset the commission or diminish the enjoyment of nature lovers. They want to build trails that will benefit all open space users.
“Mountain bikers have put in trail-work days in places we don’t even ride, to help out the Conservation Commission,” Mr. Ahearn said.
“We’re not out to build a bunch of deficient trails. We want to build multi-use trails that are sustainable.”
“There’s a large part of this community that want to ride their bikes, off roads.” he said. “Open space is supposed to be used for recreation. That’s one of the objectives of their commission.”