This is Part II of our interview with Neils Grether (read part one here). In hopes of delivering a little inspiration to those wanting to be more involved with their local bike advocacy groups and trail building, we caught up with Neils to ask him a few questions about how this whole “trail building” thing works and what it takes to make a dream become a reality. Below is the transcript discussing how a trail is physically built, from scouting to digging, planning to flagging, manpower, and water issues.
Scotty: How do you scout spots for a potential trail?
Niels: I chose the location because I felt if there was going to be a bike-only trail anywhere, it would be there, at the bottom of several popular bike trails and next to The Eucs jump trail. I’m very concerned about hiker/biker interactions. I remember riding Tunnel Trail probably five or six years ago and hikers just being unreasonably pissed off at me. I don’t want San Luis Obispo to end up like that, and I think single-use trails in SLO will prevent it. I think that separating high-speed, thrill seeking riders from hikers, improves both user groups’ trail experience. There are a lot of places where multi-use trails work great, but in addition to multi-use trails a trail system needs hike-only and bike-only trails to be complete. (I’ve left equestrians out only because of my lack of knowledge and experience with horses, they deserve trails too). Also, hikers always get single use trails, why shouldn’t we? So to get back to the question, there’s a lot going on in that area that made me think it was the most likely place for the trail to get approved.
Scotty: After you’ve scouted the spots for the trail, how do you go about marking the trail?
Niels: The first thing I did when laying out the trail was read Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack. Then I went up there with some friends and started flagging the trail. Grade is very important when designing trail, so I’d take a clinometer and walk up or down the hill looking through the clinometer to get sections laid out right. Sometimes you end up having to abandon a section or add a switchback to get the right slope. My friends were great: Ryan Cerf helped me a lot and Nate Lewis was helpful too. Nate built the Ancient Peaks (a local race) downhilll and dual slalom courses. Just to give you an idea, helping me usually meant “Stand there, no…step uphill a little bit…no back a little” or “hold this rope while I walk back and forth a bunch.” It wasn’t always like that but that’s what the grunt work of trail design looks like. In most cases you want an even radius corner so I’d use the rope to set the radius and lay out corners.
Niels: Building this trail mostly consisted of bench cutting and building berms. Normally there would be a lot of brushing—cutting plants out of the way—to do. This area is pretty open so we didn’t have to do any of that. Bench cutting is basically like building a tiny road. You start cutting away sloped hillside untill you have a wide enough flat spot, then you keep doing that for a while heading down the trail.
Building berms takes a lot more time. We used big rocks to support most of the berms, which meant we had to move way less dirt. We would set up all the big rocks in the arc of the turn, then cut away dirt and use it to fill the rock arc. The dirt was super dry, but luckily we had a water source. It took us a little while to get it right, but you have to evenly wet and pack all the dirt as you build the berm, otherwise it just blows up when people ride it. We rebuilt the big berm at the top of the trail three times.
Scotty: What types of tools and equipment are necessary to build a trail?
Niels: I grew to really love the rogue hoe. Its like a souped up version of a hoe you would use to cut weeds in your garden. You can use it to cut away and pack dirt. It’s more precise than a McCleod. McCleod’s are the standard trail building tool. Its basically a square piece of iron on the end of a stick, but it has a rake on one side. We also used picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. Rockbars were great, and we used tamps before I broke all of them (that took about an hour). We also had a dingo up there a handful of times. A dingo is a mini front end loader. It was great for moving lots of dirt or moving big heavy rocks.
Scotty: Were you mostly working with others to help build the trail? If so, was it hard to manage them and get them to understand your exact vision for this trail?
Niels: Yeah, I learned a lot about managing work during the trail’s construction. I was imagining building the trail would mean me moving lots of dirt, but it ended being me walking around giving directions a lot. I had to learn to be really clear about what I wanted the trail to look like. The volunteers were great though, including the Felsman’s for example, who don’t even mountain bike, but they still came every week to help. I know I must have gotten on people’s nerves a few times when I would give directions, then come back and basically tell them to start over because it didn’t look right to me. If you don’t ride bikes fast, it’s hard to see problems that look obvious. So yeah, I learned to be very clear.
Scotty: Was building the trail a bit of an issue without much water here in San Luis Obispo?
Niels: The dry dirt definitely made trail building more difficult. We had that big storm in July and it was like heaven for the next week. I remember I working my butt off and rebuilding an entire berm on that workday.
Scotty: How long has the trail taken to physically build from start to finish?
March 18th to July 29th, so four and a half months with probably 14 people working about 4 hours a week.
Scotty: Any shout outs or people/organizations that you’d like to thank?
Niels: I want to thank all the volunteers that helped (Nancy is a legend) and the San Luis City ranger crew for all the work they put in.
NOTES AND FACTS:
Days worked on trail: 20
Hours worked on project (3hr day): 60
Berms built: 17
Volunteer hours (3hr day): 660
Volunteer numbers: 220
Ranger hours: (3hr day): 240
Machine days ($224.26/day): 5
Machine hour total: 15
Machine cost: $1211.25
Drains open: 8
Total trail length (ft): 2850
Feet of new trail: 2045
Feet of berms built: 606
Area of drains cleared (sq/ft): 1035
Eucalyptus girdled: 12
T Posts pulled: 120
Signs installed: 6