In general, mountain biking doesn’t shy away from a bit of attention. Brands spend big promoting their products, and apparel manufacturers emblazon their logos all over their clothes. Pro riders these days try to outdo each other on social media just as much as between the racecourse tape, and even us average schmos often feel weirdly compelled to shout about where we’ve ridden on Instagram and Strava. But there’s one branch of mountain biking that still has a very clear interest in keeping a low profile. You might only be aware of their presence from a fresh line in the dirt, skidded earth on a trail exit, or a concealed stash of rusting tools. 

This is the world of the illegal trail builder, where fame and recognition are more likely to be shunned than sought. Constructing tracks without permission is a hugely controversial subject, even though it’s been part of mountain biking for decades. In the UK, it’s often at odds with the conservation aims of landowners, and tends to be portrayed by non-riders as vandalism: simply someone wrecking an environment for their own personal satisfaction. 

But for many riders, it’s not as clear cut. Not just because it generally takes months or years to bring new official mountain bike trails to life, but because in the absence of things like risk assessments and third party liability insurance, unofficial trails can provide the extra challenge that some riders crave. And unofficial trails aren’t a fad that will fizzle out: anecdotally at least, it seems this year has been the most prolific one yet for sneaky trail building.

We were recently contacted by one such shadowy figure, who had some insights into his world, as well as some things he wanted to get off his chest. 

illegal trails
Would you hit it?

Get to know your builder

While a lot of trail building is definitely down to younger riders looking to make their own local spots, some of it is the work of people who are more likely to have kids of their own. Our builder fits into the latter category, having started to dabble in trail building well into his 40s. Another misconception is that an unauthorised mountain bike trail involves building the largest jumps you can get away with. Here our man is keen to correct the record:

“My own style of building is mostly using pre-existing shapes and features as subtly as I can. Round here most of the woodlands are old stone quarries so there’s material in abundance.”

The different seasons often reveal the lines – the way the leaves settle or the outline that the frost presents. I feel very strongly that a trail or feature should sit as naturally as possible in the woodland, so that means as narrow as possible with as little unsightly borrow pit digging as possible. Lines of sight and crossings over existing paths are things I consider very carefully before I begin.”

This isn’t to say that his trails are beginner-friendly. It’s clear when talking to him that one big reason he builds to push his limits as a rider. 

“My first couple of attempts made things easier to ride, till it clicked, I wouldn’t get any better as a rider by making things easier. With jumps, especially gap jumps, it’s really obvious when something is out of your league at the moment. Sometimes trails are too. It would be a dull world if every trail was rideable by everybody, wouldn’t it?”

building illegal trails trail building
Spaniel spotting

Drama in spades

Although our builder seems to have put in a substantial amount of work into his trails, the threat of them being discovered and destroyed doesn’t seem to deter him:

“I am careful when and where I dig. It’s another reason I build like I do. That way, even if it is discovered it can’t easily be destroyed. I’ve found that one decent sized piece of stone, half-buried with another piece on either side can form a great lip that can’t be changed with a pick and shovel. Bringing a big bag of rubbish back out of the woods with you is great cover too, if anyone were to stop me.”

However, riders modifying his trails to make them less intimidating are a pet hate:

”I’d like you to think before you alter a trail feature or cut a corner. If that drop is too big at the moment go practice on a smaller one and get that skill dialled. By the same token, not every corner needs a berm, because where’s the skill in that? If you can’t make that corner go away again and practice till you can.”

Aside from the trail sanitisers, the other unwelcome intruders into his domain are the amateur vloggers who feature his trails in their social media posts. 

“I accept that this is a new and unstoppable force, and often done in a well meaning way, but I implore them to think about a few things very carefully before posting. Unofficial trails aren’t surfaced and therefore can’t take the beating a trail centre trail can, so sometimes it’s better to avoid them in the worst of the weather. If you post the location in your video, not only will the trail see more traffic than it can handle but often the location can’t handle those numbers either. If that peaceful corner of the wood ends up packed with dayglo-helmeted enduro dudes every weekend, the landowners may have no choice but to remove said trail.”

Some YouTube posters have even used other social networking sites to pinpoint his trails exactly, which meets with predictable dismay:

“Including the name of the Strava section makes it too easy to find trails. In the future it will be another stick that is used to beat us with. In some parts of the States it already is. Searching for lines or being shown a trail by a friend is part of the rites of passage of becoming a rider, surely?”

Nor is he a fan of the tendency for social media users to over-hype unsanctioned trails by using terms like “bike park”:

“The definition of a bike park is somewhere where they have permission, and where you pay to play. So please refrain for calling everywhere by that name. In most locations our presence is only tolerated at best and it doesn’t take a lot to spoil the status quo. We have no right, even on trails built by riders, to expect walkers to not be there and to jump out of our way.”

spaniel on an illegal trail building
Snow and shovels

Stealth singletrack solitude

If the idea of sculpting lines in the woods sounds like something you want to help out with, we’ve got some bad news: our man likes to work alone.

“A question I get asked a lot is ‘can I help?’. My answer is thank you but no. For me it’s a therapeutic moment of peace, fitted in where I can, in between all the family duties and our proper jobs.You could consider volunteering at your nearest trail centre or one of the many local official developments that are cropping up. Even rights of way maintenance can be very satisfying. Definitely learn the concept of ‘kicking a drain’ and carry a folding saw to keep the branches out of our faces.”

Apart from time to himself, our trail builder’s ultimate goal seems to be increasing his skill and getting outside his comfort zone.

“Most riders want to see or feel some progression. My own building is inextricably linked to this desire. There’s another local builder who creates trails so sketchy that only a handful of people can ride them but I hope one day to progress enough to try!”

The debate over mountain biking’s relationship with illegal trail building isn’t going away. We’ve recently seen controversy over the appropriateness of building extremely challenging features near the peak of a pandemic, as well as examples of builders crossing the fence and trying to work more closely with other user groups. Some riders view it as actively harmful to the sport, damaging our image as responsible users, but it seems unlikely that this will deter the builders from doing their thing. For our builder, and others like him, official permission isn’t important as long as you follow your own rules.