I've often puzzled over why some cyclists express disdain for rail-trails. It's not unusual to hear things like, "Rail-trails present no challenge," or "Trail riding is boring." Or even the macho, "Trails are for wimps!" Well, come on... how macho is bicycle riding of any type, really? (Ok, maybe if you're riding the half-pipe, but that's more like stunt work than bike riding.) Their point must be that rail-trail riding is not their cup of tea. I'll buy that. But why all the trail putdowns?
The Clique Theory
Perhaps this disdain is due to a phenomenon that pervades the cycling community and humans in general -- the clique. You know, being part of a cool special group of serious cyclists. Unfortunately, perceiving yourself as cool or special can, of course, lead to you view others as not so cool. So perhaps this issue is no more than human nature itself.
Let's examine one of these profound putdowns more closely, shall we?
"Rail-trails present no challenge -- they're too flat."
I used to ride the roads exclusively. It's funny, but I don't recall hearing any of my riding partners exclaim, "Oh look! There's a wonderfully large, mountain of a hill up ahead! Hurraaaaaay!!" It's true that after conquering a big climb one feels a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment, a great feeling of relief for not having died in the attempt. But after having completed such an effort, how many of you will turn to your buddies and say, "Hey, let's coast back down and climb this sucker again!" Sorry, it just doesn't happen that way for most of us.
Maximizing The Flats
Whether a ride is challenging or not is subjective, of course. Most cyclists should know that you can make virtually any course more challenging. How can you make a flat trail ride more challenging? Ride faster. Ride farther. Ride into the wind on a tandem with a partner who refuses to pedal! And there's nothing boring about scooting along at 20+ miles per hour. In fact, it's quite a rush.
And finally, hard training requires proper rest (if you are in fact training properly). And you'd be hard pressed to find a better way to enjoy an easy recovery ride than a good ole rail-trail.
Another example of trail disdain goes something like this:
"Bike trails are dangerous."
When I first heard this pontification I wondered, "Are they suggesting bikeways are more dangerous than roads?!" Surprisingly yes, and some say exactly that.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot
To John Q. Public this can be confusing. He might rightly wonder, "How can bike trails be more perilous than road riding alongside 3000 lb. vehicles that are traveling at much greater speeds?" The answer lies in the type of danger one is suggesting here. Is it potential death? I think not. Though it is possible to fall off your bike in such a manner that you fatally break your neck, how likely is that on a smooth, multi-use trail? Is it more likely than getting mowed down by an inattentive or drunk or stressed or road-raged or [you fill in the blank] driver on the roads? No. Considering that most cyclists that wave this danger flag say they spend more time road riding, it's quite obvious that they are in the gravest danger of potential serious injury or death.
So what's their point? Apparently it's that the danger they speak of is not necessarily life-threatening. In other words, it's any type of lesser accident: A collision with a jogger or walker or perhaps a dog. These are potential hazards which every experienced trail cyclist is most familiar with and is hardly fazed by. That's because they know how to ride defensively to avoid them.
The Skinny On Trail Safety
To the inexperienced trail user, or one who has never visited a trail, the news that trail riding is dangerous can be quite intimidating. The fear mongers don't bother to mention that proper trail use (following the trail rules or guidelines), along with defensive riding, go a long way toward making a trail ride a safe activity.
More multi-use activities on the trails means more potential for mishaps. Indeed, it does. I'll be the first to admit that I've seen a few accidents on the trail. A cyclist colliding with a rogue ground hog, while another collided with an immovable fence (though he did give it a good test). Yet another crashed into a steel bollard -- not a pretty sight.
One must consider that all three persons easily survived their accidents. What are the chances of a cyclist surviving an accident or serious injury on the road? Well, if you have a run-in with a pothole on an empty road and can get up in time, you should be all right. But other than bike only crashes, your chances ain't all that great.
On the other hand, if you're familiar with how inexperienced trail users behave and ride defensively when you approach any trail traffic, your odds of avoiding danger on the trail is quite good. If you don't ride defensively, however, you are increasing your odds of having an accident.
Is Bambi The Real Threat?
This discussion would not be complete if we didn't take into account the dangers presented by wildlife. That's right. Ohio offers long stretches of rural bikeways where one can ride for miles and pass few trail users. In those cases wildlife pose the only real potential for danger (like that rogue groundhog). Though it's certainly possible to have a collision with an animal, how likely is that? Ok, ok, I admit I have hit a chipmonk. And I heard of a guy who was knocked off his bike by a deer. But he was riding at night. That's another subject altogether.
Well, hopefully John Q. Public has done enough trail riding himself to better understand the real dangers in riding his local bikeway. To me, they certainly pale in comparison to what can happen on the road.
Slanting The Facts
I suppose what irks me about these disparaging statements is that they tend to be sensational sounding, not unlike the tabloids and even the standard printed press these days. I can see the headline: "Bike Trails Are Dangerous!" Whatever happened to balanced reporting? Let's try some here: Due to the increased popularity of bikeways and trails, there is a better chance of having an accident while trail riding than while pedaling on the road. However, though trail mishaps are more likely, they are less likely to be serious or fatal when compared to road accidents.