Sue Roussel, co-owner of Ashland Mountain Adventures, rides her mountain bike down the Toothpick Trail last week near Ashland. - Julia Moore

Forging the path together

Mountain biking has become more extreme in the past two decades — with the trend fueled by better bikes, advanced protective gear, increasingly skilled cyclists and the growing popularity of downhill riding.

The growth of the sport also has increased the chance for trail conflicts among cyclists, hikers, runners, equestrians and others who use the maze of trails in the forested mountains above Ashland.

But behind the scenes, many mountain bikers are joining with other trail users to encourage courteous behavior and tackle on-the-ground projects to improve the trail system for everyone.

Sue and Bill Roussel, co-owners of Ashland Mountain Adventures, 700 Mistletoe Road, are on the front lines of those efforts.

The couple run a bike rental, guide and shuttle service, ferrying mountain bikers to the top of Mount Ashland and other spots so cyclists can work their way back to town.

As a board member of the nonprofit Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association, Bill Roussel helps mobilize a small army of volunteers to build and maintain trails. He and his wife join in the trail work.

In July 2012, Bill Roussel suffered a sprained wrist, bruises and scrapes when he crashed into debris dragged onto a mountain trail by former Jackson County psychiatrist Jackson Tyler Dempsey.

Southern Oregon University student and mountain biker Jordan Daniels also fell victim to Dempsey's trail sabotage, striking a nylon cord strung at neck level across a trail, likely avoiding serious injury because of a protective brace he was wearing.

Dempsey, a hiker who said he was angered by downhill mountain bikers, admitted to putting nails and debris on trails and stringing nylon cord across trails. In early May of this year, Dempsey was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Sue Roussel said Dempsey's actions showed how some trail users believe they are the rightful users of trails and that others — such as mountain bikers — are dangerous interlopers.

"He felt he had more right to those trails than anyone else. That's not fair or right," Sue Roussel said. "My husband and I work closely with the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association to bring hikers, runners and bikers together."

At the Roussels' shop, a sign advises bikers on trails to yield to people on foot and horseback, and a donation box is set up to accept money to help fund trail work.

The mountain bikes and safety gear at Ashland Mountain Adventures reveal how far mountain biking has come since gaining popularity in the 1990s.

"When you have better equipment, you can ride better and move more quickly. The main thing that changed riding is that the equipment is phenomenally better," said Sue Roussel, who has been mountain biking for about 20 years.

Bikes have advanced suspension and are stronger, with better wheels and brakes, she said.

Riders can use regular biking helmets or motorcycle racing-style helmets that have a front face shield.

Body armor, back and neck protectors, knee and elbow pads, shin guards and other protective equipment are available for today's mountain bikers.

With years of experience under their belts, many riders are fitter and more skilled, allowing them to ride harder and farther, Sue Roussel said.

Some mountain bikers wear helmet cameras and post videos of their fast-moving adventures online.

With its shuttle service, Ashland Mountain Adventures caters to mountain-biking tourists as well as locals.

On some trips, Sue Roussel said, about one-third of bikers — mostly tourists — are wearing helmet cameras.

"They want to film each other and have memories of the trip. I don't think it makes people go faster," she said. "I think they want to see themselves ride in beautiful terrain."

Sue Roussel said some mountain bikers use smartphone apps that record their ride speed and distance — a technology that may be encouraging faster riding.

"It compares you to your friends who have ridden that route before. Essentially, every time you go on a ride, you're racing yourself and other people. It makes people ride longer and faster," she said.

With the growing popularity of mountain biking, more people are out in the woods, increasing the chance of trail conflicts, said Mike Bronze, president of the nonprofit Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association.

Bronze said many mountain bikers favor trails that have good flow and allow for faster riding.

"Speed is always an issue, especially in Ashland," he said. "The downhill trails are pretty fast, and that can create conflict. Riders coming down at high rates of speed can startle hikers."

The Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association promotes trail etiquette by encouraging bikers to alert hikers of their approach and to slow down or stop if possible for hikers, Bronze said.

"There are a few bad apples who ruin it for others, but that's the case in any sport or activity," he said.

Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association members have contributed thousands of hours of labor toward trail-system improvement projects, Bronze said.

Kim Lewis, co-owner of Ashland's Main Street Adventure Tours, 1045 N. Main St., also runs a shuttle service that caters mainly to downhill mountain bikers.

However, Lewis said he believes that cross-country mountain bikers — who encounter a greater mix of flat, uphill and downhill terrain — still outnumber downhill cyclists.

Lewis said mountain biking in all its forms is an important part of Ashland's economy. He noted that he recently had a guided outing with a family from Ohio who came to the region to experience mountain biking, rafting, redwood forests and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

While some extreme mountain bikers create trail conflicts, Lewis said he believes most bikers and other trail users are courteous.

"For the most part, people are very respectful. They wave and stop and help each other out," he said.

In some areas, it does make sense to separate mountain bikers from other users, local trail enthusiasts said.

The U.S. Forest Service is working on an extensive trails plan for Forest Service land above Ashland.

The city of Ashland plans to spend $10,000 and two years crafting a trails master plan for city-owned forestland in the hills above town. Most of the city land is at lower elevation than Forest Service land.

The city plan will include shared trails, as well as trails specifically made for mountain bikers.

"The city has a key piece to the trails puzzle," said Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers. "A lot of trails funnel down through city forestland."

Ashland Fire & Rescue and the Ashland Forest Lands Commission have long been involved in trail issues, often teaming with Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association members and other volunteers on trail construction and maintenance projects.

Some separated trails already are complete.

In an area known as the Rabbit Hole on the White Rabbit Trail, hikers and equestrians take one leg of the trail while mountain bikers take another, Sue Roussel pointed out during a recent outing in the forest overlooking Ashland.

The area is congested because of a parking lot nearby, she said.

The Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association and the Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association helped work on the trail division, Sue Roussel said.

Lower down, dozens of volunteers also showed up to make a new trail that sends mountain bikers to a segment called the BTI trail, while hikers and other users go to Bandersnatch. (Correction: The trail names and directions have been updated in this story.)

Sue Roussel noted that 72 people showed up to help cut the new trail segment for mountain bikers.

"Hikers and runners and mountain bikers came. They thought it was a great idea to have this section separated," she said.

On some trails, including those above Lithia Park, wells have been carved out of dirt banks bordering steep segments, creating refuges where hikers can step out of the way of runners and mountain bikers.

Because it's not feasible to separate users on all trail sections, Sue Roussel advised users to listen for the approach of others and to avoid listening to music through earbuds.

She has a bell on her bike that she can use to alert trail users of her presence.

Ashland Mountain Adventures and the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association plan to team up to buy a batch of bike bells, then hand them out for free to every mountain biker they see, she said.

Lewis, Bronze and Sue Roussel said that extending friendly greetings and smiles on trails is one of the simplest and best ways to improve relationships among users.

"Say, 'Hello. Good morning.' A friendly gesture goes a long way. It really does," said Sue Roussel. "It's amazing the reaction you get. You get a happy, smiley face."

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