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"The whole reason the law says you can't go out and just do this is there's supposed to be a planning process," Hammer says. "It just totally short-circuits the whole public planning process."
Hammer does believe the freeride mountain bike community deserves a place to recreate. "It's called Winter Sports Inc. on Big Mountain," he says. "It's already established there."
To see your work undone
Missoula Bike Source is slow on a recent Thursday morning. Owner Chris Larson sits behind the counter, chatting with the occasional customer that drifts in through the bike shop's Russell Street storefront, near Mount Avenue. The place has been open for just a few weeks, but Larson is no stranger to fellow bikers in the community. He worked as a manager at Big Sky Bikes for years. He's also ridden his fair share of technical terrain, both legal and illegal.
"The amount of people that are recreating at all these different trailheads and the different riding styles show that there is a pretty good percent of people these days that want to ride a certain way," Larson says. "The only way to do it and make it work right is have an area that's designated for us—not try to do the pirated trails, because that's not helping anyone."
After half an hour, we've come around to the subject of a solution. Larson is getting increasingly frustrated with every question. "God, this is just getting me so angry, talking about this," he says.
Over the past two decades, Larson has watched as attempts to establish legalized freeride trails fell apart. The bikers had the Lolo National Forest's ear once, about eight years back, he says, but the dialogue never seemed to go anywhere. "I think business owners of the bike shops need to get together, and all riders, whether it's the cross-country guys, the freeriders, the downhillers," he says. "We need to all sit down and explain all our points of view and have a clear understanding of everybody's wants. And listen to what people are saying."
I ask if Larson feels he's one of the guys to lead the charge. He shrugs, mentions he's got a family now, a business. He bought 20 acres in the Bitterroot and built dirt jumps for himself. He and a friend ride on private property, keeping the trail pretty much to themselves. "I just keep hidden these days," he says.
Part of Larson's attitude is born from a stockpile of frustration dating back to his years building and biking rogue trails. The amount of time it takes to build even a single feature is tough, he says. One jump could take an entire day, and coming back to see it torn down is a bummer. He feels that the freeride community, in its quest to find some sort of home, just gets vilified.
"We had this trail up in Pattee Canyon years ago," he recalls, "and we had a guy run out after us, taking pictures, trying to hit us, trying to knock us off our bikes. And that's okay? It's okay to have somebody freak out and get violent with us all over some trail we were building? How did that harm him?
"We didn't call any cops or anything," he adds, "because we felt like, 'Shit, we're to blame here.'"
It's a familiar habit among freeriders, always looking over their shoulders. Cris Winner started mountain biking around age 10. By 13, he was an outlaw, building trails and features on public land without authorization. He kept his activities mostly confined to a patch of city land near his house in the Rattlesnake Canyon, though as he got older he'd bike over to Meow Mix or hitch rides to outlying trails with folks who had driver's licenses. What Winner remembers most is the sense of being hunted.
"From the beginning you felt you were being bad when you were building or riding on areas that were public," he says. "At times, it was exciting to build and break the rules, when you're 13 and 14, but you have to dodge around this idea of 'Oh, we could get in trouble for building this jump.'"
Nowadays, Winner steers clear of illegal trails. He lives in Bozeman but returns to Missoula every summer to coach the Missoula Freeride Camp, the group he founded about five years ago. The camp, which caters to mountain bikers ages 10 to 17, avoids unauthorized areas, he says. Winner started the camp largely to keep the sport of freeriding alive among Missoula's youth. He says he only wishes those kids had more legal opportunities to hone their skills.
"We were always paranoid, the whole time, doing these activities. And I think forcing young people, adolescents, into states of paranoia about trying to pursue their passion yet not offering any opportunities to pursue it, that's a feeling I wish I'd never had."