I like image and rhythm together — I remember being blasted out of my head once, jumping up and down on a bed while chanting Chapter 1 of Cannery Row over and over. For forty minutes. In a less sane moment, while writing this story I tried to mimic the rhythm of the opening of Gay Talese’s “The Bridge.” It’s sort of like a bar band doing a cover version of a great song. The sentences read okay to me until I match them against Talese. Then I start to hear all kinds of clashes, and clunks, and missed opportunities. I learn something — and appreciate Talese — every time I compare the openings.
They drive into town in a brand-new car they do not own, and live for one night in someone else’s bedroom, and survive on fast-food burgers and five-dollar buffets, and forever change trails they will soon have trouble remembering.
They are gypsies with roots in a hundred trails but rooted to none. They linger only a few hours, perhaps six, or sometimes — rarely — an entire day if a trail needs enough work and the riding it offers is sweet enough to justify rerouting a schedule laid months in advance. Then they drive off again, appleseeding their way across the country at a rate somewhere around 6,000 miles per month.
They possess none of the permanence they give the trails. They have no regular mail delivery. They never forget to turn the porch light off. They have escaped.
Instead of life they live the dream we dream, traveling and riding and getting paid for both; and unlike the pro racing carnival where in Australia you find yourself looking at the same booth that was across from you in Pittsburgh, Jan and Mike Riter have done it right, the way it should be, the way it is in the dream, a way as rangy as the entire U.S. and as intimate as the front seat of a Subaru Outback.
They have escaped. The Riters — their last name pronounced close enough to “rider” that that’s how people say it — are the IMBA/Subaru Trail Care Crew, a kind of living newsletter for both organizations. Since March they have driven across 40 states, finding broken trails and fixing them, romancing aloof land managers and talking up their sponsors.
The Crew can hit about 130 sites a year. In the first three months of the program, IMBA received more than 300 requests.
Although some of those stops seek to maximize exposure by coinciding with big-name festivals or races — including the launch at Arizona’s Cactus Cup — the Riters are more likely to find themselves in places like Kerrville, Texas; or Dahlonnega, Georgia; or Shelbyville, Indiana. And though they’ve found themselves digging dirt alongside Pro-Flex racer Beat Wabel and cross-country skiing with Trek’s Travis Brown, they’ve spent more time addressing five guys who took a day off work and brought two rakes and a hatchet to fix the local erosion problem.
By 8 p.m., not even the searing June sun can penetrate the hardwood canopy of French Creek State Park, a 7,339-acre forest in southeastern Pennsylvania, and biting bugs begin to celebrate the premature nightfall by dropping from the sky like rain. They splash unchecked on Mike Riter, who holds a shovel in one hand and has the other stuffed inside a sling that supports a broken collarbone.
French Creek contains 32 miles of trails, about half of which will be closed to mountain bikers unless the local advocates can repair an eroded and eternally wet section. It’s probably impossible, but so is remaining cheerful while doing a 90-minute walk-in at dusk to a bug-infested bog while countering the weight of a shovel against a busted clavicle.
Mike stops and says something to the park’s trail manager, who laughs. Half an hour ago Larry was not quite hostile but not quite friendly, either. Suspicious, perhaps.
“Right here,” says Mike, “is where that rolling-grade switchback we were talking about will clear water off the trail all the way down to —” He points the shovel down the hill to a distant point. “There.”
“I see it,” says Larry. “Yeah. I see it. How big do you think a switchback should be to drain all that?”
“You’ll like this,” says Mike. “It’s cool.” He stands at what will be the inside corner of the switchback, holds the shovel chest-high and points it out toward the woods then sweeps it in a wide half-circle. “The point of the shovel describes the switchback’s outer edge.”
Larry nods, nods again. He can’t wait to show off that trick to someone.
As if reading his mind, Jan Riter steps onto what will become the trail-saving switchback and says, “It’s a great party trick.”
As she does that, Mike steps away and crouches. The shoulder — cracked in late May after a rock grabbed his front tire on a Virginia downhill — seems to have finally worn him down. Jan continues with a friendly patter that keeps Larry smiling, and just as she simultaneously runs out of information and banter Mike stands, turns to face the pair and shows them a rock the size of a number plate he’s been busy unearthing. “This is the kind of flat rock that would be really good for armoring those muddy sections,” he says.
The Riters are disarmingly real in a way that makes them acceptable to the people who might resent them before meeting them, and approachable to the people who are intimidated by the specially outfitted Subaru and nationwide reputation. In appearance they resemble weekend riders more than sculpted pros — although Jan was an expert-class racer before they became nomads — and in mentality they are the kind of people who believe Ponderosa is a fine place to get a good steak.
Mike, 35, was born on a horse farm and worked as an irrigation engineer in Atlanta, also delivering pizzas for Domino’s to cover the bills. Jan, 30, worked for the power company — reading meters in Florida, then getting a promotion to the engineering department once they moved to Georgia. As active members of the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association, they split their time about equally between trail work and riding.
Mike became a consultant on the irrigation system for the Olympic Horse Park in Conyers, which also served as the mountain bike course. Because of that connection, he and Jan got special permission to be the first people to ride the finished course. (And Jan Riter, not Paola Pezzo, became the first person to crash on it when she endoed into a tree.)
When the Olympics were over, Atlanta planned to turn the site into an office park. The Riters proposed a pay-per-ride mountain bike course that could be started and operated at no cost to the city. Atlanta agreed, then the Riters had to make it happen, which meant eight hours of trail work after eight hours of work on weekdays, and weekends on the trail from sunup to sundown.
They were rescuing the first Olympic mountain bike course from bulldozers while creating one of the country’s most successful pay-to-ride parks, and it was this that caught IMBA executive director Tim Blumenthal’s attention. But to hear them tell it, they were only trying to preserve a local trail.
“The first day we had the Outback we were driving from Boulder, where we picked it up, to Scottsdale, where the Cactus Cup was,” says Jan. “We were like shaking because we were so nervous. We’re sitting at this red light and this Harley comes up beside us — bup, bup, bup — and this huge guy starts yelling at us. We’re really freaking out. Mike rolls down the window and the guy goes, ‘You’re the couple from Atlanta. Nice to meet you. I’m Al Farrell.’ And the light turned green and he just like brrreeeeeeee — goes flying off, weaving in and out of traffic while we sit there. I said, ‘Al Farrell just said hi to us,’ ” says Jan of that meeting with the famed, wealthy mountain-bike philanthropist. “Then suddenly we were shaking each other and screaming, ‘Al Farrell! Al Farrell!’ ”
The tool has a metal head about the size of a sheet of paper. Long, narrow teeth serrate one edge. It is painted the same shade of red as a Rock Shox Judy suspension fork. A Rock Shox sticker circles the wooden handle. It is a fire-fighting tool used mostly in the West.
Mike lifts it from the opened Yakima Rocket Box atop the Sube and a thin mountain biker with hair shaved close enough to show scalp drifts across the parking lot of New York’s Highland Forest.
“Wow,” says the twenty-something guy, a former competitive runner at Syracuse whose name is John. “Oh, wow. What a tool. What is that? Is that the official Rock Shox tool or something?”
Mike smiles and says, “You can move a lot of dirt with this. It’s called a McLeod. Here.” He hands it to the kid, who turns it over in his hands and stares at it with a reverence mountain bikers usually reserve for Rock Shox products that absorb the earth rather than rearrange it. Mike says, “This one’s ours, but IMBA donates some to clubs that do a lot of trail work.”
“Wow, it’s so cool,” says the kid. Then, snapping his head up, chagrined at such open admiration, he says, “I know it’s just a tool.” Then a little later, “But there’s something about it.”
This trail day begins like many others. The Riters give a short safety talk about carrying and using tools — the highlight being a secondhand story of a careless firefighter who cut his head off when he tripped — then the group walks the trail looking for trouble spots.
Mike and Jan have seen it all: rock waterbars, wooden waterbars, rubber waterbars they hold in special disdain, boardwalk 18-inches wide like singletrack snaking for miles through handlebar-width gaps between trees, deluxe wooden bridges that cantilever as riders pass, rock gardens too harsh to walk, short-radius turns that speed the rate of erosion three-hundred times over, waist-deep mud, slopes that should never be ridden on but must be maintained because that’s all there is, and a headful of other combinations.
And because they’ve seen it all, and maybe because they have so much time afterward to digest what they’ve seen while they drive from one spot to another, the Riters have developed a simple but powerful philosophy of trail maintenance, instead of a step-by-step series of site-specific lessons. This is what has transformed the Trail Care Crew from merely useful and informative to — literally — life changing.
Rather than learning only three solutions to three individual sections in five hours of trail work, mountain bikers learn principles that will let them later rehab the entire trail — and any trail they come upon for the rest of their lives. Roughly, the biggest of these ideas are to let water flow in sheets instead of trying to channel it, to use the natural grade and features of terrain whenever possible, and to rework not only problem areas but sections that will lead to trouble. When illustrated in dirt and rock these ideas have a profound impact.
“People expect us to come in offering techniques like a new way to hold a shovel,” says Mike. “You know, if you hold your mouth open on the downstroke you’ll get 20 percent more power. But something like that isn’t helpful beyond the moment — although there was a group whose idea of maintenance was to take shovels and bail water off the trail. We watched them for a while and then said, ‘Uh, guys, this ain’t trail work.’ ”
This New York group is not so raw. A mix of local racers, nature buffs and curious first-timers, they split into two teams of five or six each. Jan’s group begins constructing something the Riters call a “spoon.” Technically known as a “rolling grade dip,” the spoon is a more natural and durable replacement for water bars.
John, the kid who has been clutching the McLeod since leaving the parking lot, sets it aside to flop on his stomach and check the slope of the emerging spoon. As soon as the tool leaves his grasp, someone else grabs it.
“Hey,” says John, “I’m using the McLeod.”
“I want a chance,” says the guy, brushing dirt from the blade’s pretty red coat.
“I get it next,” says a guy who’s been unhappily paired with an old shovel.
In the next 90 minutes the McLeod changes partners eight times, finally reuniting with John as the two of them pose atop the spoon’s downslope, designed so that horses can’t kick the top off and mountain bikes won’t skid over it. “Beautiful,” says John, running his hand along the slender wood while the others eye him. “Absolutely beautiful.”
“Inspiring,” agrees Jan. “The spoon isn’t bad, either.”
Behind the dream is the reality. an empty house and a Chevy Suburban with expired plates, asleep but still eating money. Abandoned careers. an ever-fading connection to the daily news, the television shows and the other rituals Americans stitch their lives together with. Dogs left with parents. Lifelong friends left behind at home, and new friends left behind every day before they become true friends.
And people like Rollo left behind too soon. Rollo used to build logging roads. Now he’s the land manager for an eastern forest some people call Stone Valley. He celebrated National Trails Day by trucking 42 tons of gravel into a piney forest to crush into submission the wettest sections of a needle-carpeted singletrack with a drainage problem.
Rollo tips back his pith helmet, hitches up his brown Dickies and spits from behind a yellowing Fu Manchu mustache. “I don’t agree with re-routes at all.” His voice sounds remarkably like the gravel that crunches under the feet of Mike, Jan and a local mountain bike advocate who arranged this meeting. “Like I tell all my logging contractors, keep your death and destruction in one spot.”
The advocate had suggested, if you please Mr. Rollo, that perhaps the trail maybe could have been possible re-routed around the bogs instead of paved — if entertaining such a notion does not cause you to ban mountain biking outright, Your Most Powerful Excellence.
About two out of ten land managers the Riters meet are bristly, but Rollo is a hard case. A believer in bulldozers and five-foot-high waterbars. He’d stood stock still earlier as Mike had showed how one section could have been drained by de-berming the lower side of the trail, then, as if he’d been listening for nothing except the fading of Mike’s voice, had puffed out his chest and said, “Well, that all just depends on if you want to haul gravel or dig dirt.”
At the re-route, Rollo waves triumphantly at a low point in the area the advocate had suggested moving the trail to, then says, “Where do you want to go? Here? That goes through a wet spot, son.”
Mike walks to the entry point of what could be the re-route and begins walking it, saying nothing but showing how by following the contour a twisty trail could stay high — and dry.
Rollo doesn’t ridicule the unspoken idea, which is as close to a victory as the Riters have come all day. His lower jaw juts out and his lips purse. He seems to be chewing on his tongue, maybe chewing on the idea that trails don’t have to be straight like roads.
Jan and Mike Riter get in the Subaru Outback that announces their mission to the world. The day is muggy but they leave the air conditioner idle and roll down the windows to smell the exhalation of the trees. Mike starts the car. Tomorrow is another trail.
Originally published in Mountain Bike magazine, October, 1997