Issue Thirty Five

Trails Not Walls

Building MTB Communities In Mexico

WORDS & PHOTOS x Betsy Welch

6 June 2018
Part One

La Historia

This story begins on the beach.

Troy is blond haired and blue eyed and from Colorado, USA where he owns and operates a promotional product and graphic design firm. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool advocate for trail access and trail building in the hills around Boulder. Not only does he volunteer his own time to put new trail on the ground, he also manages other volunteers on the local mountain bike club’s trail build days. During the shoulder season, he gets a hankering for the beach; for years he and his wife have been scuttling down to the Pacific coast of Mexico to surf around Sayulita. On one such a trip about four years ago, they gave up the boards for a few days to visit the burgeoning ride scene around Mascota, a few hours inland. They needed bikes. They visited Javier.

Javier lives in Sayulita where he owns and operates WildMex, a rental and guide service he founded on an alley just off the beach 13 years ago. Coincidentally, as a kid Javier traveled to Colorado on ski vacations with his family and eventually landed a seasonal summer job at a bike shop. As he grew up and grew more enamored with mountain bikes, he began to make trips to the States to race. Sometimes, buddies from Mexico would accompany him. After a trip to Crested Butte one summer, Javier realized something about riding the storied high country trails: he was going fast but he wasn’t braking that much. At home, he said – on the old donkey paths and mining trails – he’d expend the energy he needed to ascend when trying to stay in control on the unkempt descents. Not to mention that heavy summer rains wreaked their own havoc on the trails. Javier knew the riding in Mexico could be better –  he’d seen glimpses of it around Mascota where he and his friends had been guerilla trail building, and where, in 2014, the Big Mountain Enduro Series staged a race. Then, the stars (and stripes) aligned, when Troy needed bikes and Javier was ready for an education.

They say that great minds think alike; what’s more likely is that they arrive at the same conclusion. Troy and Javier and a handful of other guys had some time to talk trails during their time in Mascota, and hearing Javier’s struggles ignited the flicker of an idea Troy had been stoking for a while. “I saw an opportunity,” he said. “A new scene was happening, people were stoked to be building trails, but they were making the same mistakes that we did. There’s more momentum in Mexico with MTB right now than in the US. I don’t want them to have to learn the brutal way that we did.” So he pitched his idea: a voluntourism cum trail building workshop where a group of folks with various professional backgrounds and expertise would come to Mexico to share experiences and offer advice. There would be classroom sessions in the morning and trail work (followed by surfing and cervezas) in the afternoon. The exchange rate? Paid with lodging, surfboards, and a tour of the trails around Mascota at the end of the week.

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Part Two

La Educacion

That whole “manana time” thing? It doesn’t apply to mountain biking.

When the stoke is high, people show up on time. On Day 1 of the trail building workshop – El Curso, as the guys called it –  it’s the gringos that show up late, but we make up for it by passing around sweating cardboard boxes of Pacifico and crinkly bags of potato chips. A few of the guys recognize each other from the race scene, but it’s impressive the lengths they’ve traveled to spend a week of work learning how to build better trails. Michoacan, Guanajuato, Colima, Guadalajara – apparently these places all have a dearth of rideable trail and an abundance of demand for it. Javier met most of the guys he invited to the workshop at races throughout the country, and hearing their stories makes me feel spoiled: I’ve never had to build a trail in order to ride. It’s not to say that people aren’t always out there throwing around McCloud’s and pick mattocks, but let’s just say that where I live, rider isn’t synonymous with builder. These guys are trail builders by default. The only problem – and the reason why they’ve put us up for 5 days and hooked us up with boards and bikes – is that their trails aren’t holding up. They’re like well-intentioned amateur chefs: they’ve got fresh ingredients, and they know what they like, but they’re missing the dog-eared, oil-stained recipe.

Joining Troy as the trail boss is our friend Scott, whose planning and design firm Contour Logic has helped imagine and execute over 1000k of trails across the USA. Scott gives trail building talks all the time, and he does so with the winning combination of passion and professionalism. But on the day before the guys arrive, he looks a little preoccupied. We poke around the jungle where Javier and some volunteers have been building trail and attach neon pink flagging to errant branches. Scott keeps pushing deeper into the jungle, and I think – we’ve got to save some work for the guys this week. “Let’s ride to San Pancho and get beers,” I say. So, we follow the rutted thoroughfare that connects the two seaside towns, and when we get to the beach we sink our winter white feet into the sand and clink brown bottles of Pacifico. This is exactly the part that we’re all mildly uneasy about: we’re in Mexico. What if something gets lost in translation?

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Part Three

El trabajo

On the first day of class when Scott breaks out his digital clinometer to demonstrate measuring angles of slope, Yorch sheepishly pulls out the analog Mexican version. We all have a good laugh about it – it’s like the ‘Mexican time’ joke; political correctness in this group is about as useful as a border wall. Plus, there’s a teachable moment here: rung what ya brung.

Scott’s fears promptly dissipate. Simply by reading the room (beers and the occasional bikini-clad passerby help, too), he’s able to make universal concepts meaningful. Sure, we don’t typically use machetes to clear corridor in Colorado, but we’re not here to say that they’re not the right tool for the job. “It’s not that it’s the only way to do something,” Scott explains, “it’s about understanding why things happen. Any technique we teach, you can come up with on your own if you understand erosion and visitors and the canopy and the soils.”

So we talk about erosion and visitors and the canopy and soil. Erosion is high on everyone’s list of problem children; the rutted, off-camber trail we rode from Sayulita to San Pancho demonstrates it clearly. Javier hopes to have more options for riding from home to San Pancho, both for himself and for visitors to the area. The other guys’ attraction to learning how to build more sustainable trail systems stems from similar self-interest, yet they all recognize the other lengths that good trails will take them. Edgar, one of the university students who’s come to the course, tells me about the riding around the Volcan Nevado de Colima, a 14,000 foot peak near the border of Jalisco and Colima states. As those of us who live near 14,000 foot peaks know – that’s a lot of mountain for trail building. Edgar’s major is sustainable tourism, and he’s studying how beekeeping (hugely relevant due to the concentration of avocado producers in the region) could be a boon to rural tourism. I ask him why he’s not studying the impacts of mountain biking on tourism, and he grins sheepishly. “I could,” he says, “but I don’t want to mix passion and work.” Another one of the guys, Sotirios (‘Sot,’ for short), has already married the two. He’s heading up a huge restoration and recreation project in La Primavera, an urban park of 30,500 hectares just west of Guadalajara, Mexico’s fourth largest municipality.  La Primavera’s location, coupled with the growing trend in outdoor recreation, means that it’s under an immense amount of pressure, and the trails bear the scars. They’re ancient routes, says Sot, that are now being used increasingly for biking. With the increase in cyclists and frequent forest fires, the environmental degradation has reached alarming levels. With very few resources, Sot has been tasked with restoring trails and creating a better experience for cyclists. Javier’s invite to come to Sayulita and spend the week with Scott and Troy means more to Sot (and the riders of Guadalajara) that we can fully grasp.

Each of the 12 guys in the course has a story to tell, and we get to know each other while swinging tools, anchoring rocks, and creating grade reversals. More than talking about themselves, though, they’re asking questions and nodding in agreement. Troy is blown away. “I thought it was gonna be 4 or 5 people from the Puerto Vallarta area. I didn’t expect the level of enthusiasm and engagement, it was way beyond what I could have imagined going into it. There was no negativity, none of that.”

We’re all sad to part ways when the week is over, so we prolong the inevitable adios with beers and bumps at the Villa Sayulita pump track. David, one of our classmates and the proprietor of Villa Sayulita, built the pump track on the hotel’s property and leaves the gate open for anyone to use. A few local kids and a dad with two little ones show up while we take turns taking laps. When we’re not riding, we’re talking about riding. Apparently, a healthy obsession with bikes proves that we’re more similar than different.

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Part Four

El Futuro

As our shuttle brigade makes its way up the windy cobbled road, Javier interrupts his own conversation. “You have two minutes?” he asks us. We pull over and file out of the trucks. He and Peter walk over to where a steep, shaggy hillside ends abruptly at the road. Without really speaking, they start moving dinner plate-sized rocks to shore up the landing. Then, they grab their bikes, pedal up the road, and send. When we get back in the truck, Javier resumes the conversation. “So when we say we’re ‘building,’ I consider that building trails,” he says. We nod silently.

This is the way it had been – mule trails, smuggling routes, and mining roads in the mountains beckoned, and the guys rode them until they could visualize something better. Realizing the task ahead of them far exceeded their patience, they started to get help.

“I would hire guys like our shuttle driver and say, ‘Hey, can you clear this, get the trees out,’ and I’ll pay him some money,” says Javier. “And then Peter started bringing people here.”

Now, we’re those people. We base ourselves in the mountain town of Mascota, fuel up on chilaquiles and cafe in the morning, and head up into the hills to ride all afternoon. On the shuttle up, we pass the sleepy towns we’ll ride through on the descent. Men in cowboy hats wave as we pass, and laundry flaps on the line. Peter, who did some of his growing up on a ranch nearby, has been instrumental in creating the trail network here. Taking advantage of surprisingly good roads that climb to the top of mountains and the generous handshakes of local landowners, Peter has created a burgeoning shuttle ride scene. According to Troy, he’s been listening, too.

“Last year we spent a few days talking about new trail and general concepts of how to build. It’s amazing what he’s done in that time,” Troy said. “And, it’s interesting to see how much he embraces our help now when he didn’t want it at first.”

Peter’s willingness to consider change shows: rather than a tangle of sloppy, loose, steep fall line trails (ok, a few of those remain), what we ride is fun in all the right ways. Caracol’s switchbacks are tighter than a snail’s shell. The last mile or so of Wiwichu is full blast rocky steps. Oh, and every trail seems to drop us into the central plaza of a tiny ranching town like Navidad or Yerbabuena. We duck into dimly-lit bodegas for mango popsicles dusted with chile powder and cold beers and enjoy them on shaded benches across from shining cathedrals. It’s church, for sure.

Four months after the trip, my phone regularly explodes with a frenzy of WhatsApp messages from the guys in El Curso. They send pictures of trails they’re building, lines they’re riding, and topical information on where to buy pin flags and biodegradable erosion control blankets. Despite their self-proclaimed challenges in Mexico – lack of funds, lack of land, lack of interest from bike brands – these guys can only be described as stoked. Back in Colorado, we’re proud. It feels like we hatched something together, something that skipped the wobbly-legged toddler stage and charged full-speed ahead toward an untethered adolescence. Building trails may not attract the same attention as building walls, but it’s obvious which ones the world needs more of.

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