A Trail of Rage
MORE works with land managers at 24 trail sites covering more than 300 miles of single-track trails. Only one of those trail systems -- Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax Station -- is bike-only; the rest are multi-use, although some of those reserve a few individual trails for pedestrians only. The group estimates that roughly 10,000 mountain bikers are active in the Washington area.
The best shared-use trails, Scudamore said, "have good sightlines and no blind corners or really steep fall lines," two features that facilitate surprise encounters between bikers, hikers, joggers and equestrians -- a recipe for conflict.
Scudamore cited the Schaefer Farms trail system as an example of a well-designed network.
"There are hills but not a lot of screaming downhills, and there are great sightlines," he observed. Schaefer Farms is popular with local bikers because it serves a variety of skill levels, with many log piles that more-advanced bikers can ride over, tight single-track trails and nice stretches of fairly flat dirt routes. The trails wend through scenic forest and open fields and across streams.
Patapsco State Park, south of Baltimore, is also fairly well designed, he said, although it has longer hills than Schaefer Farms and thus encourages more downhill speed.
Even in poorly designed multi-use parks, most conflict is avoidable, Scudamore asserted. "You see very few problems when everybody acts like they were taught to in kindergarten -- share the space."
Pete Webber, communications director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), said physical confrontations on trails almost never happen.
"The perception of conflict is far greater than the reality. A study in New Zealand found that people who don't use the trails -- like a lot of government regulators -- believe it is happening, but when you ask trail users they say, 'No, I don't really ever have conflicts on the trails.' "
To minimize potential for clashes, Webber advises focusing on the moment at which two trail users pass each other.
"That is the key interaction. People are not having problems when they are in there alone, and they're not having problems at the trailhead." At the moment of truth, Webber said, cyclists should "say 'Hi,' don't startle people, move to the side and pass at a reasonable rate of speed."
By his formula, I did everything right, though he declined to say whether calling an attacking jogger by the name of a government official violated protocol.
To Each, Etc.
From a trail management standpoint, IMBA advocates diverse trail networks where, for example, an expert mountain biker would not be on the same path as a parent walking a child in a stroller.
"You get seven miles into the woods on a technical, single-track trail and anybody back there will be an experienced trail user. So even if you have a hiker and a mountain biker on that trail, they both should know how to treat each other," he said. Standard trail etiquette: Bikers yield to hikers; hikers yield to equestrians.
Manders said trail users need to be especially considerate around horses, which might not recognize a cyclist or even a backpacker as a human being and thus might get spooked.
"When a horse gets unsettled it starts pumping hormones. Once that happens, you're in trouble because the animal could bolt and throw the rider," Manders said. She recalled an encounter on the C&O Canal towpath where her horse started to freak out upon seeing two people wearing big backpacks. "Luckily they were smart and quickly took off their packs. Then the horse let a big sigh -- like, 'Oh, it's just people' -- and we went along. But for a moment it was pretty scary."
Manders cites loose dogs in local parks as the biggest conflict issue facing trail users. "Even a nice big friendly Labrador can be a problem if it runs up to someone who is afraid of dogs," she said. "We have had a number of issues with horses and dogs where we were sure the dogs were going to attack. Dog owners need to show some etiquette."
That's probably true for all of us trail users. For me, it means sticking to bike-approved trails, which I have done since my memorable encounter with the jogger. And now I realize this will lead to better political footing for mountain bike advocates who say we deserve dedicated bike trails.
Either that or I'll start carrying a Tex-Mex picnic lunch -- you know, something that calls for a lot of cayenne pepper.
John Briley is author of the Health section's Moving Crew column and anchor of the Crew's bi-weekly chats on washingtonpost.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company