Guardian angels on mountain bikes patrol the trails

Members of the New England Mountain Bike Patrol simulate a real-life emergency in a suburban Boston trail  Credit: Jack Morris/
Pretending to be unconscious, David Watson listens carefully to the words his potential rescuer says as he lies flat on his back in the grass.

"This is Tim Kuhner with the New England Mountain Bike Patrol," says a mud-caked man dressed in a red shirt, spandex shorts and bike helmet as he talks into an imaginary cell phone. "I've got a rider unconscious with possible head injuries and need assistance at the Sheepfold parking lot."

Hovering over Watson is also Drew Penziner, whose ear is inches away from the fallen rider's mouth, checking to see if he is still breathing.

Welcome to a day of training for the New England Mountain Bike Patrol where Kuhner and Penziner are among 30 or so rookies working to become one of New England Mountain Bike Association's elite patrollers at the Middlesex Fells Reservation just a few miles outside of Boston.

It's here (and at other state parks across the country) that the regional affiliate of the International Mountain Bike Association in conjunction with the National Mountain Bike Patrol gets the latest crop of volunteer riders ready for action with the simple credo: "Educate, assist and inform."

Watson, a 34-year-old products and systems coordinator for a legal Web site in Boston, has been helping to educate trail users and mountain bikers on proper land use, trail safety and riding responsibility since the patrol's inception in 1996.

This MIT and Cornell graduate is a national mountain bike instructor and the leader of the Greater Boston Mountain Bike Patrol which regularly rides through three parks just outside of the city. But the goal is not to enforce park policy and Watson makes that clear even as he rides through the woods, shouting it to the trainees as his voice echoes off the trees.

"We don't enforce, that's not what we're about," Watson says. "We've agreed to abide by the parks' rules and we encourage people to do so."

Part of this encouragement also means traveling around the country, speaking to patrollers and riders about his experiences on the trail.

Parks such as the Middlesex Fells, which are owned by the state, see plenty of activity, especially on warm summer afternoons when hikers, walkers, dogs, horses and mountain bikers all share the same trails together. In many cases, confrontations with mountain bikers (as well as state police) and other trail users have forced state authorities to ban mountain bikes completely on certain trails. This is the burden of the NEMBA Patrol.

While Watson and his crew run through mock medical scenarios along the trail, their main job is to ride. In fact, patrollers are encouraged to ride at least 10 hours a month but Watson says he clocks in, on average, 20 hours plus administrative time (writing up trail reports and attending NEMBA meetings).

Pedaling at a moderate pace, but by no means fast, Kuhner, 24, and Penziner, 32, lead Watson (all three of them are dressed in red jerseys with the NEMBA Patrol logo emblazoned on the chest like the Red Cross) through the twisting singletrack and wide fire roads of the park, always keeping an eye out for other riders and hikers. They say "hello" to everyone who passes by and every so often stop to talk to people and make sure they know which trails are closed.

Recently the Massachusetts District Commission, which patrols this area, has been handing out fines to riders caught on closed singletrack.

At a major crossroads, Watson and his crew stop to talk to a group of riders, one of whom appears lost and another whose front tire abruptly lodges in a hole, sending him soaring over the bars, landing in a thick bush, unhurt. At the same time, Kuhner's front tire goes lame, sagging into the dirt. "Uh-oh," Watson laughs, "Time for a mechanical clinic."

"It's good to know these guys are out here," says one rider. "Now that I know, I might not bring my cell phone with me when I'm riding alone," a policy Kuhner later says is not very wise.

"I always bring my cell phone with me when I ride alone so that I can at least have a last word with my girlfriend before I kick the bucket," Kuhner jokes.

Pulling a 1-inch thorn from the inside of his tire he reveals the culprit of the flat, puts in a new tube and the patrol is quickly back on the trail.

Watson only recently took up mountain biking. For years he pounded the pavement as a road rider, never racing, only getting out from time to time with friends. Gradually, he got hooked on the knobby tires and quickly found himself riding regularly at the Fells.

Soon, he realized that there were problems on the trails. People were riding closed sections, there was vandalism and erosion and riders were frequently getting lost.

That's when he approached Philip Keyes, the executive director for NEMBA. According to Keyes, Watson had the organizational skills and the experience (Watson received his graduate degree in law from Cornell) to build the patrol into what it is now.

Watson says that in his time with the NEMBA Patrol he's seen only six medical situations, most of them involving just minor injuries that were treated on site. However, he did refer to one incident involving a head injury that he cared not to expand on. What he did say was that the person was taken out of the Fells in an ambulance and treated at a hospital.

But medical emergencies are rare, Watson admits. In the off chance that someone is hurt on the trail and can't move, the patrol carries cell phones, among other equipment, to call for help.

While the patrol has no direct relationship with local authorities, Watson says he has talked to the police about the patrol's presence in these parks, even though some troopers who patrol the area aren't aware of it.

The training program, which begins in early April and lasts through the better part of June, typically sees 30 new volunteers each year. All the trainees must complete a long list of accomplishments including First Aid and CPR training, mechanical skills clinics and crisis management. While the training usually begins in April, Watson says volunteers will be accepted throughout the year.

"It's basically about helping people out," Watson says. "We let people know what's going on in the mountain bike community at large."

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