Freeriding: What's the deal with this mtn-biking offshoot?

Many of us involved with mountain biking have been hearing the phrase "freeride" being used by friends and folks in the biking industry. Even bike manufacturers have developed a "freeride-style bike."

So maybe it's time to ask: What is freeriding? And coming up with the answer is not that easy!

Defining freeriding

Since its inception in the mid '90s, freeriding could be viewed as a very close relative (offspring) of mountain biking. There are probably as many definitions of freeriding as there are bikers who consider themselves freeriders.

The origin of freeriding as a style can be traced to the blending of cross-country mountain bike racing, trials riding (slow-speed maneuvers coupled with impressive balancing and dynamic moves), and downhill mountain bike racing (the kind done on the ski slopes).

The technology of hardier-built bikes, long-travel dual full suspension and high-performance disc brakes, combined with the needs of the cross country biker -- for a stronger but lighter bike than its downhill cousin with completely adjustable suspension -- has produced what the industry calls a "freeride" bike.

As a freerider, you now can literally have your own personal bike, kind of like building up a personal computer. You can pick and choose your frame and components and create the kind of ride experience you want, or you can see what manufacturers are offering up and find one to fit your style.

One point to now keep in mind is that this once high end flashy technology is trickling down, making its way into the mainstream, and offering the average rider a new sense of confidence and ability to tackle more challenges than ever before.

The idea of "riding free" implies breaking through existing parameters or restrictions, riding and going to new places or heights where few have gone before.

Almost every athlete, every hard-core participant, is looking to set a new standard, redefine their own personal limits and boundaries within their preferred sport. They seek the adrenaline rush and a challenge of taking your own personal limits to new uncharted areas.

At last year's Tour de France, in a particularly mountainous region of the course, while a group of riders were ascending a steep pass -- lo and behold above them, in the air, was a biker (freerider) jumping off the cliff, over the riders and landing on the other side of the road.

This freeriding stunt was captured in a fantastic photo which appeared in several notable biking mags. Someone was clearly trying to make a statement.

Overcoming the obstacles

In 1996 we were already five years into building trails at Back Country Excursions, LLC New England's first successful cross-country mountain biking touring center. During the winter of 1996-97 an ice storm paralyzed the area, bringing down enough trees to block up the trails for years.

Around that same time I recall reading an article about some riders in British Columbia that were building bridges over trees in order to keep the ride going non-stop. At first I thought: How was it possible to ride on a narrow bridge suspended several feet above the trail?

Then came spring and the seemingly endless job of trail cleanup. I could see that there was still usable trail but numerous sections on every trail had major tree blockage. I began to notice that in several places where trees were down there seemed to be a slight downhill slope, so I thought: What if you had enough momentum that you need not have to pedal -- just balance and coast?

Why couldn't it be possible to just coast over a bridge, even a narrow one?

The thought of being on a narrow bridge in the air was scary, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I carefully built the entry and exit on and off the bridge/ramp -- and it worked! Not only that, but riding it soon became very predictable and fun -- no longer scary, just fun.

So from section to section we began clearing more trail of debris, but in other sections we constructed ramps, bridges, and numerous interesting rideable apparatus/stunts. These helped to keep the riding going and the trail open.

Management of freeride-style trails

Managing and guiding riders on trails of this nature is very important especially for first timers on the trail.

Trails that incorporate obstacles, ramps, bridges, etc. require careful thought and safe construction, design, and signage in order for a wide variety of riders to use them. Obstacles, when built properly, will offer you perceptual risk but the actual risk is very low.

As a touring facility we do a lot of guiding, instruction, and skills development and have an obligation to our clients to offer these kinds of trails in a very responsible and sensitive manner. Riders' confidence varies, so we provide options and a clearly visible alternate route on the ground around obstacles, we make it possible for these trails to be accessed by many riders.

Controversy: An irresponsible few

Some freeriders have built obstacles on public trails that are not patrolled, clearly marked, or managed. Over time this has caused the closure of number of trails in some communities.

The International Mountain bike Association has recently come out in support of freeriding. However, IMBA is a responsible and respected organization and prefers not to support the unauthorized use of trails for obstacle construction. Because of a few irresponsible freeriders, the reputation of the off-road biking community has been tarnished.

In an attempt to fix any damage done and to support its affiliate clubs and members, IMBA has been working closely with park and trail managers to create designated freeride areas or zones and is in the process of offering reliable & safe information on obstacle and trail design and construction.


Cliff Krolick is founder and owner of New England-based Back Country Excursions MTB Touring Lodge and Hostel, one of the first and longest running mountain biking cross country touring facilities in the region. On its 10,000-acre semi-wilderness preserve, BCE offers a wide variety of trails for all skill levels, guided rides, mountain bike getaway vacations, and annual recreational MTB events. BCE also features an extensive skills development program, a highly successful comprehensive teaching approach, and one of the few MTB-instructor certificate programs. If you have any questions about mountain biking, send them to Krolick at bcountry@psouth.net.

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