Ask a die-hard mountain biker what “flow” is and you’ll likely get an enthusiastic response. Compare the answers though, and odds are you’ll find them to be very different. Ask a random person off the street what flow is in context to the mountain biking experience, and who knows what kind of response you’ll receive. And yet, flow is one of the hottest words in terms of mountain biking and trail design today. What’s strange to me is how loosely this term is used in describing trail experiences. But is this a good thing, or bad?
I’ve heard the term “flow” used to describe trails, or sections of trail I didn’t find flowy at all. This leads me to believe that the term has been done an injustice, and it doesn’t seem to be helping our cause. (getting more and better trails) Assuming that to be the case, what the hell does flow really refer to, and what does it really mean? Looking at the dictionary, flow is generally used as a verb, referencing the movement of water or other fluids. As a noun, it’s a term describing “the act of flowing,” or describing fluid movement.
That seems to sound about right. One thing that bothered me about the IMBA Trail Building School program is the usage of the term “flow.” Flow is defined in the Trail Solutions Manual as the rhythm or “feel” of a trail, with two basic types presented: “open and flowing,” and “tight and technical.”
Can the lack of flow be used to describe flow? If flow is being used to describe a type of movement, how to we go from using the term to describe fluidity to a stop and go type motion? Instead of using Flow as the blanket term for the “feel” of a trail, the term Tempo seems to me to be much more accurate. I’ll accept Rhythm as well. (Tempo, or Rhythm? sound off on what seems more appropriate in the comments below)
Let’s look at that again. Now in describing the trail experiences we want to design, we have open and flowing trails, (ie, FLOW) and tight and technical tempo, or rhythm.
Since flow is a term we’re using to market the mountain bike experience, I believe it is important we define it properly, and in the right context. If we’re knocking on doors and asking land managers for a specific trail experience that provides “flow,” it is probably best that we’re all talking about the same thing.
In the Pacific Northwest, there is a major trail renaissance going on at present time. Several new trail systems have been designed and constructed in recent years, with even more happening right now. These new trails offer riding experiences far above the typical mountain bike ride of the past— trails that are designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, and managed by other mountain bikers in key positions in local land agencies. More than just contemporary or progressive trail design, these trails are incredible models of what flow is in the MTB context. Not only are the trails designed and constructed to be sustainable, but they feature a minimal number of switchbacks, instead incorporating insloped turns whenever possible. Water bars have already been discontinued as a method of water control and drainage by the forest service, replaced by rolling grade dips, knicks, and grade reversals. These trails take up a notch by incorporating rollers all over the place, and bringing the pump track into the trail riding experience.
One of the most notable new trail systems in the NW is the Sandy Ridge Trail System. A shining new example of the new trail revolution, the trail was designed and constructed by Jason Wells and Joey Klein of IMBA Trail Solutions in conjunction with the BLM. The new trail projects undertaken by these trail building teams are possibly some of the most relevant contributions IMBA is bringing to the sport today. Mr. Klein is considered by many at Bike Magazine as an absolute wizard of trail design, and having ridden several new trails he’s had a hand in designing, I’m inclined to agree.
The Sandy Ridge Trail has been built in several phases, and is one of the first one-way trails of its kind in the Portland area. While it is permissible to ride both up and down the trail, the new trail has been so successful that riding up the trail on weekends is discouraged, with downhill riders receiving the right of way. (The trailhead is easily accessed via a paved road climb that is only open to non-motorized use)
After riding a trail like this, one’s definition a killer trail simply change. In fact, while the rest of the trail was under construction, the first 4 miles of open trail received so much buzz that 300+ riders a weekend showed up to ride them, doing lap after lap. Mountain Bikers regularly driving over an hour to ride a 4 mile section of trail—the trail is that good. The amazing thing was that riders of every discipline were making this trek— from hard core XC single speeders to freeriders on their gravity sleds.
It seems that we as mountain bikers finally have something in common. We all love flow, whether we can define it clearly or not.
In order to spread flow from place to place like a trail building Johnny Appleseed, first we have to define it. Without a clear definition of the term, there is no way to sell it to others. Fortunately for us, this is a problem that has already been solved.
Flow Country: Flow, defined
A new term has been recently been coined to describe the new trail experience: Flow Country Trails. Brought to us by Freeride Pioneer and MTB legend Hans Rey, the term gives this new progressive trail design not only a name, but a definition to go along with it.
Flow Country trails are flowy, purpose-built singletrails for mountain bikers of any skill level or for any kind of mountain bike, no matter whether beginner or expert or on a hardtail XC or downhill bike; and especially for the ever growing section of All Mountain/ Enduro riders. This mountain bike specific trail will provide a common playground for both worlds of riders, the endurance driven riders and the Freeriders. The tracks shall neither be extreme, nor too steep or dangerous, small berms and rollers shall provide the addicting rollercoaster feeling and sensation.
A mix between a Bike Park, a Cross Country trail and a long pumptrack.
Flow Country is a new term I have coined, for a purpose built mountain bike trail with lots of flow. Nothing steep nor dangerous, with small berms and rollers, predominantly downhill. This trail is designed to accommodate all skill levels and all styles of mountain bikes. In my opinion it bridges the gap between freeride and cross country. Every town or resort worldwide should offer Flow Country trails.
Bringing the Flow Country to us
We recently moved back to the Bay Area, a land where our access as mountain bikers to trails is extremely limited. Forced to share multi-use hiking trails and fire-roads, the trail experiences are shared with other users that often have no sense of trail etiquette. Many of the “trails” are dirt routes that lead from point “A” to point “B,” with no regards to grade, and wide enough to drive a tank on. As a mountain biker, these dirt road experiences are the furthest from what I desire in my riding experience. Now that the “flow riding” experience has been coined and defined, it is time to work towards creating these types of trails a reality. Multi-use trails, while often the solution, are not at all satisfying the growing mountain biker demographic.
We have to start somewhere. We don’t have mountain bikers in decision making positions here, but if we can build just 4 miles of incredible flowy trail somewhere close to the population, the masses will come to ride it. And once we have this model trail, where riders of all disciplines can gather and bridge the gap between freeride and XC, maybe we can give this revolution a solid start. Legal access to dirt roads is simply not enough, it is time to get things moving. However, the question remains: where in the Bay Area is the easiest place to get a project like this in the ground?