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Trail Travails: Getting Sweet Singletrack on the Ground

Trail work is physically demanding and dangerous, but Joey Klein of the International Mountain Biking Association is a 15-years veteran of traveling the globe making singletrack for the rest of us.

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By Vicky Sama

Joey Klein scrambles down a precarious cliff in Northern California’s King Range National Conservation Area. Slivers of shale rock crack and slide beneath his boots with each step.

“This is where we always fall,” says Klein, master trail builder for the International Mountain Bike Association.

We hike into the Rabbit Hole — a maze of tangled manzanita, whitethorn and poison oak. This is an access point to the yet-unnamed eight-mile mountain bike trail that will hook up with the 14-mile Paradise Royale loop finished last year.

For the past three weeks, Klein has flagged the trail with pink and black plastic ribbon. He moves quickly through the brush while skillfully ducking under branches and hopping over roots. We descend from 2,400 to 2,000 feet to a traverse cut into the side of the ridge.

“This is the corridor,” says Klein, pointing to the narrow clearing in front of us.

The route is about a foot wide and climbs gently between moss-covered rock and madrone trees before swooping in a U-turn and rolling through alders and Douglas fir. On previous hikes, Klein cut back some of the growth with hand clippers—just enough room to squeeze through. Later, crews will widen the trail with heavy-duty tools —shovels, McLeods and Pulaskis.

We stop at a hump called the “lunch rock saddle.” This is what is known as a control point — a place that Klein wants to be included in the trail.  He admits that for some  riders this might be a hike-a-bike.

“This gives you a taste of how difficult the terrain is around here. It wraps around 100 feet then schooooo,” he says motioning to the drop off and making a sound like a crashing airplane. “Straight down.”

Trail work is physically demanding and dangerous. But Klein is no rookie. He’s been designing trails for 15 years, ten of them with IMBA. He has a mountain biker’s dream job: traveling the globe making singletrack.

“Tasmania, Jerusalem,” Klein starts to recall all the places he’s been — 35 states and 13 countries at last count.

Klein explains the art of trail building over lunch of canned oysters, carrots, tomatoes and Sausalito cookies.

“Step one is always going to be about permission: Whose land is it, and can we build partnerships.”

In this case, the Bureau of Land Management oversees the land and the main partners are IMBA and Humboldt County’s Bigfoot Bicycle Club.

The Next Steps

IMBA and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have added miles of mountain bike trail in the King Range on California's north coast. Photo by Vicky Sama
IMBA and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have added miles of mountain bike trail in the King Range on California's north coast. Photo by Vicky Sama

The next steps are to understand the boundaries, identify control points and design a trail that rolls gently so that it doesn’t wash away, especially considering the price tag. The 14-mile Paradise Royale took five years to complete and cost more than $1 million, according to IMBA spokesman Mark Eller. He says IMBA crews will design and build 500 miles of new trail in the U.S. this year — including cross-country trails and bike parks.

“That number would be tenfold if we counted trails that IMBA clubs build,” Eller says.

IMBA will put $300,000 toward trails this year, Eller says, and leverage more than a million dollars from federal and state sources.

Back on the trail, Klein ties ribbon to tree branches at eye height and uses a Clinometer to measure the grade. “Five to 12 percent is my target. I’m trying to have a trail that rolls and undulates along this slope,” he says. “A gentle traverse. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Once the entire corridor is flagged, land managers and biologists will do a final walk-through to make sure no plants or animals are threatened. In this area, that means endangered spotted owls.

“The owl biologists have already been out here calling for owls and they’ve had no responses. That’s good,” Klein says. “So it’s looking good for this trail to actually happen.”

Finally, Klein shows me the secret stash. We crawl over mossy rock and under low branches to an out-cropping with a stunning ocean view. The sun is strong over the Pacific and the water reflects a metallic glow like crinkled aluminum foil. Klein muses at the wilderness.

“Old Doug firs, 100 years old, mossy oaks, incredible views, unique rock cliff bends —this is the treasure we’re after,” he says.

There’s no doubt that Klein enjoys riding his bike, but he loves nature even more.

Down the Rabbit Hole

BEFORE YOU BUILD
The 12 steps to building sweet singletack the right way:
1. Get permission and develop partnerships.
2. Identify the property boundaries.
3. Decide who will use the trail: Mountain bikes? Horses? Hikers? Skill levels/types of riders?
4. Identify the control points—places on the route that you want to hit or avoid.
5. Conceptualize legs that can be ridden as loops.
6. Design a rolling contour trail with gentle grades to minimize erosion.
7. Determine type of trail flow.
8. Walk and flag the corridor.
9. Develop a construction plan.
10. Depending on land ownership, conduct an assessment study.
11. Flag the final alignment and confirm permission.
12. Engage partners, trail builders and volunteers to build the trail.
If you’re serious about building a trail, read IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack at imba.com.

On his last day in the King Range, Klein meets with land managers at the BLM office near Shelter Cove. Gary Pritchard-Peterson is the conservation area manager. D.C. Carr is the backcountry ranger who creates the area trail maps. David LeFevre is starting his first day on the job as the outdoor recreation planner. The five of us board the agency’s pick-up truck for a bumpy ride to the Rabbit Hole.

“It’s going to be a long day,” Klein warns me. I take an extra bottle of water.

When we reach the lunch rock saddle, Klein reviews the plan with the BLM crew. Pritchard-Peterson suggests a change.

“There isn’t enough rock to build a wall,” says Pritchard-Peterson. “We should probably use pressure-treated timber.”

Klein is agreeable to the idea. He’s been working with the BLM here since 2003, when he first came out to design the Paradise Royale loop. He’s developed a close partnership with the BLM over the years. Their camaraderie shows as they joke about whom among them is likely to suffer from poison oak.

After a long day’s work, Klein gets a brief chance to indulge in his other hobby: surfing waves on his stand-up paddleboard. Then he’s off to Rapid City, South Dakota to work on another trail project. But he will return next spring to supervise the construction of the new trail here.

As we climb out of the Rabbit Hole, Klein looks back at the ocean and exhales a deep breath.

“I don’t know what we’re going to name it,” he says, “but this is magic.”

Vicky Sama is a freelance writer living in Northern California. She followed Klein through thick forest and steep cliffs with a 15-pound video camera on her shoulder — and she didn’t get poison oak.

Homepage photo: Joey Klein looks out over the King Range National Conservation Area to the Northern California coast. Photo by Vicky Sama

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