IT’S SATURDAY, SUNNY AND 75 DEGREES. THE FOREST IS A vibrant green and recent rains have made the loamy, redwood soil nothing short of magical. A seemingly endless conga line of riders labors up a dirt road. Before embarking on their descent, nearly every one of them stops to admire a fresh mural painted on a set of trailside water tanks. Displayed across these tanks are the four stages of a monarch’s metamorphosis; from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to a stunning, 6-foot butterfly.
This once-underground trail network in Santa Cruz, California, is in the midst of its own transformation. But unlike the monarch, the future of these trails is uncertain. As COVID-19 persists and the bike boom continues to gain momentum, more riders than ever are discovering the joys of riding singletrack, leaving communities like this one struggling to maintain the balance between access and preservation.
The tanks epitomize the outlaw culture here. Just like much of the mountain biking in Santa Cruz, painting these tanks is against the law. There are many similarities to the anonymity and mutual respect between people who build renegade trails and the artists who paint the tanks. But while the community supports the rotating art displayed on the tanks, the trails themselves have become a battleground between a generation of don’t-ask-don’t-tell riders and a growing cadre of advocates who want these trails above board for future generations to enjoy.
Joe Graney, the CEO of Santa Cruz Bicycles, is among those advocates. His company’s headquarters are a quick pedal from the tanks, and as such has a culture inextricably tied to the trail network that surrounds them. But Graney can separate the art on the tanks from the proliferating lines rogue builders sculpt in the nearby forest.
“There’s a real danger in reinforcing the wild west roots of the riding here as romantic,” Graney says. “The F-U attitude of the bike industry to advocacy and access is the legacy we have now,” he says. “And it’s an attitude I’m determined to change. I hope these efforts bear fruit before the volume of riders in an illegal zone threatens its existence for my kids to enjoy.” Part of Graney’s work includes supporting the local trail stewardship, Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, which strives to double the area’s trails over the next decade, from 45 miles to nearly 100 miles of legal singletrack, and to create a culture of responsibility around trailbuilding and riding.
As the movement toward trail-network legitimacy envisioned by Graney and MBOSC gains momentum, to some, the tanks represent a last bastion of renegade zeal. But to many others—including the artists—the tanks are a canvas on which to imagine a brighter future.
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