Alison Whitney – Mountain Biking Advocate

I recently had an opportunity to sit down and chat with Alison Whitney who has done some tremendous work on behalf of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association (SDMBA). Whitney talked about what the SDMBA does and how they help maintain some of our open preserves and public parks. The SDMBA will be doing some trail work next Saturday and they are looking for volunteers to help lay the foundations for a bike skills park. More details are available on their Facebook event page.

BikeSD: How did you get started with the SDMBA?
Whitney: The SDMBA invited me to help promote mountain biking as I’m naturally a very social person and I loved mountain biking. One of the rides I organized was a mountain biking ride for women called, “Wenches with Wrenches”. The ride was geared towards showing women of all riding levels how to prepare for a ride, what things to carry at all times and general maintenance. So we enlisted the help of one of our local bike shops to host a maintenance clinic that taught skills such as how to change a tire. The ride was broken up into three groups. I coached the novice riders and taught them about body positioning, how to look ahead on the trail to see what’s further ahead on the trail and other similar skills.

Wenches with Wrenches. Photo from Alison Whitney (kneeling on the ground between the bikes)

BikeSD: What did you notice when you rode with these women?
Whitney: When I ride with men they want to talk about their gears and other technical details but women say, “let’s just ride!” It was just really fun to have these experiences. Many of us don’t get as much opportunity to be outside these days since we’re so sedentary. So we need to tap into it more often. I hope to spread that message a bit more.

BikeSD: How do rides like Wenches with Wrenches help SDMBA?
Whitney: These events helped by bringing in more members. We increased our membership by over 400% by organizing these rides regularly. It also changed in how we, at the SDMBA, looked at advocating. The new social aspect of being on our bikes and exploring new places with people we know is also a way to advocate besides doing trail work. Trail work is important and has its place, but in order to get people to our meetings you have to get them excited about being around us and about the stuff we do. When they are excited they’ll realize why we are stewards for our trails.

BikeSD: What are some of the advocacy issues that the SDMBA works on?
Whitney: They provide liaison opportunities between the parks and the riders. We maintain multi-use trails that are used by hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers and educate our riders on how to use them responsibly. We also encourage the land managers to keep the trails smaller and more sustainable. So we help create trails that avoid damaging the land by erosion. We work with IMBA (The International Mountain Bicycling Association) and the Army Corps of Engineers to develop best practices in trail use and trail building. We build trails that are both environmentally sound and challenging to the trail users by using the existing natural features. We also do mountain bike patrols to ensure that these parks are safe spaces for the public to use. We help keep the parks clean by cleaning up the trails. In 2009, we got some press coverage when we worked with other community groups to clean up the trash within the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. This trash pick-up day resulted in us filling up two 40-cubic yard dumpsters [pdf link]. But despite that, we barely put a dent in cleaning up the preserve. Recently it has been difficult to expand our advocacy efforts because the City has a barometer for safety based on whether one twists their ankle and they want to create trails based on that idea of safety. However, that is not an effective measure of safety because people trip on the sidewalk every single day. A lot of times when you’re going to ride on a trail, you want to experience nature in as true of a form as possible. What we’ve done to our environment is not natural. But the City is looking at all this from a liability standpoint. So that is been one of our biggest problems.

BikeSD: So tell me more about some of the challenges you deal with in mountain biking advocacy.
Whitney: We have ignored our parks for so long, that some people have gone and built their own trails and they haven’t done it right. So sometimes we see a lot of redundant trails in our parks which causes a lot of erosion. We also have to deal with property owners who have properties adjacent to public trails and parks stating that they don’t want people in their backyards. Often, these property owners don’t understand that their homes were built on what used to be public space such as canyons or part of a public park. But we try to communicate with the property owners that regular trail use helps create a safer environment and one that is more ecologically sensitive. We express that our volunteer hours directed toward trail maintenance and trail building helps us in being stewards of the space we use. But this is not always an easy message to convey when we’re seen as trespassers.

BikeSD: What else is coming up for the SDMBA?
Whitney: We’re working to get a Mountain Biking Park in Morley Field as this seems to be the best place to build it in and the most promising. So we’re looking for volunteers to help us next Satuday. Our calendar lists a lot of other events that are coming up.

Alison Whitney riding on a log