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If local mountain biker Matt Barnes can spur the conversation forward, there's a chance Winner's young freeriders won't have to be paranoid. Barnes is on Missoula's Open Space Advisory Committee and is working to re-incorporate the nonprofit Mountain Bike Missoula (MTB Missoula) to push for legalized freeride trails in the Missoula area. That group was successful in the past, spearheading projects like the Mo Z Trail on Mount Sentinel. But MTB Missoula fizzled over time, Barnes says, and they were never closely involved with the more extreme side of the sport. "Obviously," he says, "there's a need if people are going to that length to break the law to create those opportunities for themselves."
Barnes hopes to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of mountain biking to not only meet the demands of freeriders but to better diversify Missoula's trail system, "from kids on training wheels to downhillers with full-face helmets and full-suspension bikes." Now is the time, Barnes says. There's momentum thanks to the fame of local pro riders like Sam Schultz and the establishment of the Missoula XC mountain bike course at Marshall Mountain last year. The next six months, he says, will be "pretty critical in seeing what sort of public interest we can generate."
MTB Missoula may just be the uniting force freeriders need to have their voices heard. If the group can foster patience among the more extreme members of the mountain bike community, Barnes feels the effort could be a boon for the whole town.
The real challenge comes in changing the prevailing mantra among freeriders that drives them to avoid red tape and build rogue trails in the first place: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."
'Let us do it right'
Back at Missoula Bike Source, Larson's friend Nick walks in. The two get to talking about local freeriding. They've both traveled frequently to Washington, Utah and Canada, where agencies have embraced the mountain biking craze and set aside networks of trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Montana is just five to eight years behind that curve, Larson says. Nick equates it with the way snowboarding was 20 years ago, a sport with growing popularity but a slower pick-up in Montana than in more populous states.
"It's like being into sailboats and sailing but living a long ways from the ocean, or being into skiing and living in St. Louis," Nick says of freeriding in Montana in 2012.
"But here we're at the bases of five mountain ranges," Larson counters. "And we have great shops in this town, access to pretty awesome bikes. [And yet,] we gotta build our own shit or throw our bikes on our backs and hike up the side of something to get what we need."
The outlaw bikers, the rogue trails, the whole cat-and-mouse game, I say—is it possible all this has poisoned the well? Any future dialogue with the Forest Service about setting aside public land for freeriders could be colored by the fact that many within that community have taken matters into their own hands. I'd posed the same question to Winner, who said that, since the Forest Service has never really given freeriders a chance, there's blood on both parties' hands.
Larson admits he's seen some trashy trails around Missoula, though he says he himself has been careful in the past when selecting where he builds. "When I go up to some of these trails, all the wood is still left there, the tools are left out, the beer cans are laying there. Yeah, that just makes it harder for us."
Larson's frustration isn't limited to his own mountain biking pursuits. Opening Missoula Bike Source has underscored another problem he's noted for years: Without authorized freeride trails, there's no market in Missoula for some of the latest and greatest bike technology.
"A lot of the companies that I sell have a huge market of freeride and downhill bikes," Larson says. "I can't even sell them here. I can't floor them. I can special order them for people, and I do. But I can't dare have three or four downhill bikes on the floor, because they won't sell. That bugs me. It's a market I'd love to push, and it's growing."
Boyd Hartwig, of the Lolo National Forest, hears all these complaints loud and clear. He and Rusty Wilder encourage anyone with questions on the process to call their offices, to open up that dialogue once more. It's not that they wouldn't like to accommodate a user group with a strong voice, he says. It's that they and the user groups alike have to be aware of how that accommodation might fundamentally alter the landscape and change the forest experience for other users.
"Historically, the Forest Service has allowed sort of conventional uses: walking down the trail, taking your horse, driving your ATV on a road," Hartwig explains. "The mountain bikers who want a more challenging experience, they've taken it to the next step and said, 'That's not enough for us. We want to construct things. We want to build jumps and bridges,' or whatever. That takes us outside the bounds of what we're allowed to do."
As far as Larson, his buddy Nick and other bikers around Missoula are concerned, that model of conventional use on the Forest Service is hindering balanced recreation. It's public land, after all. "Don't we help pay taxes?" Larson says. "Isn't the Forest Service our land, too? They're supposed to be there to manage it for us. So why not let us have what we want and help them do it right?"