Hiking and mountain biking groups say they are committed to a dialogue, after hikers raised safety concerns about a recent mountain bike race in Helena's South Hills.
Helena Hikes, a group advocating for hiking interests in city trail planning and management, sent a letter from its steering committee on June 9 following the annual Helenduro mountain bike race. The letter, which asks recipients to respond, questions the safety of the speed of racers both during and before the race, raises concerns about damage to trails and asks whether other venues should be considered.
“Helena Hikes Steering Committee members believe we need to restore the balance by reducing high-speed mechanized use on our trails and finding appropriate venues for mechanized racing,” the letter says. “We would like to have a system where we enjoy our trails along with our biking neighbors; where etiquette, safety, and respect for the environment and for each other underscore the use of our trails.
“We don’t oppose mountain bike races. However, we don’t think our public South Hills trails/natural area City parks, with their heavy concentration of pedestrians, are an appropriate venue.”
Lisa Bay, a member of the steering committee, says the group has had lingering concerns about the speed some bikes reach on the trails and what that means when they encounter hikers. Last year the group was among those pushing for a moratorium on new trail construction when the city halted and then resumed construction on a directional mountain bike trail.
The letter notes several examples of posted speeds from 21 to 36 miles per hour, and while the race course is marked, practice for the race occurs unregulated in the days before.
Bay says Helena Hikes encourages a different philosophy when it comes to promotion of the trail system, one that keeps speed down “so everybody feels safe,” with a healthy discussion of the benefits and impacts to recreation of heavy promotion, she said. The group feels there has not been enough public input into how the city manages the trails, and hopes to do so as Helena updates its open lands plan.
“At Helena Hikes we’re hoping to use that facilitated forum, sit down like human beings and through that facilitated discussion gets this moving forward,” Bay said, adding that most interactions between trail users are positive.
The letter also raises concerns about damage to trails if the race takes place during rainy weather and says that damage was documented by Helena Hikes members after the race.
In response to Helena Hikes, the Montana Bicycle Guild issued a June 15 rebuttal, saying that bike races have occurred for 25 years without incident and emphasizes respect for the land, trails and other users.
“Helena Hikes recently made many unfounded claims about the Helenduro and bicycles in the South Hills,” the letter says. “Helena Hikes’ letter is ominous, warning the reader of threats to cherished spaces. It employs the divisive language of a political campaign. It is not respectful language intended to bring people together in search of common ground in a constructive dialogue.”
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The guild believes the Helena Hikes letter discounts the vast majority of friendly encounters on the trails in an effort to delegitimize bicycle use in the South Hills. Race director Tony Zammit questions the use of the term “mechanical” to describe mountain biking, believing it attempts to invoke discussion round what is and is not allowed in Wilderness areas.
Zammit says the Helenduro went well this year with many happy spectators and participants.
“We had a lot of people from all over the place traveling for the event, and that’s something we think is good for the community and local businesses,” he said.
The guild places signage at trailheads, contacts other user groups and secures all necessary permits, Zammit said, and riders are reminded before the race to be respectful of other trail users. Other events, such as the Don't Fence Me In trail run, attract far more users to the trail system, he added.
While practice may occur on small sections of the trails, it would not make sense for participants to ride the whole course, just as a marathon runner would not run the full marathon course before running, he said, adding that the race permit covered both Saturday and Sunday.
This year, racers did raise two concerns with organizers. The first was a report of someone placing a log across the course, and the second involved racers being approached by someone who took their photo and said they would be reported.
Zammit says he sent a letter to the city manager concerning the log on the trail but did not contact law enforcement. The riders told organizers they moved the log off the trail and continued on their way, he said.
“It’s about safety, period,” he said. “People thinking it’s an appropriate mechanism to try to stop the race by booby trapping trails is just unacceptable behavior.”
After the race, organizers sweep the course and repair any damage. This year, reclamation took only about half an hour of work to address some places where bikes went wide on the trail, he said.
Helena Parks and Recreation Director Kristi Ponozzo walked the course Thursday with both the hiking and biking groups.
“We did not see any obvious damage from the race, although it’s been a few weeks so it may be difficult to tell at this point,” she said. “(The city of Helena) also had a staff member hike most of the enduro course a few days after the race and did not see damage – there were a few spots where the trail had been raked and smoothed after the race.”
The guild remains dedicated to working with other user groups in an effort to promote safety and courtesy on the trails, Zammit said, and does not want to see a “biker vs hiker” debate ensue.
“We don’t have any issues with hikers, the bicycling community, the portion I represent with the racers, no issue,” he said. “We love and respect our open lands.”
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin