The Pro/Open field at Pats Peak was pretty stacked. I realized this early when I lined up at the start next to Jonathon Page, yes, that Jonathon Page (why doesn't his wiki page note that he got 2nd at the 2007 Cyclocross World Championships?). I was fortunate to be able eavesdrop on his conversation with Jerry Chabot, who had just won the Cat2 singlespeed race. I picked up some valuable course reconnaissance. Jerry mentioned that the course was "old school" mountain biking. This stuck with me for some reason, then I heard a whistle and sprinted into a ditch.
As I was making my way around what was left of the Pats Peak course, I started thinking about exactly what "old school" mountain biking means. I've heard this phrase used before to describe courses like Brialee and Mt. Snow. These courses are tough, mostly because the trails are in horrible condition. From what I can tell, "old school" mountain biking is what mountain biking was before the sport got popular. Back in the day when you could ride a bike on any hiking trail you wanted to because land managers weren't even aware that it was possible to bike in the mountains. Back in those days, there were no "No Biking" signs on any trails. NEMBA, IMBA or any other MBAs did not exist. The concept of sustainable mountain bike trails had not been thought of yet. There were no trail care crews, or trail building schools. A trail was a trail, if a bike could roll down it, it was used for mountain biking, for better or worse.
What does this have to do with Pats Peak?
I have noticed that most of the time, if you complain about a tough muddy race, you are branded a pussy. Most people assume (some more vocally than others) that I complain about the horrendous condition of the Pats Peak trails because I am a pussy that can't handle difficult trails. This is not the case. I like racing on difficult, technical trails. The trails at Harold Parker are incredible, Landmine and Fort Rock are two of my favorite races. I won Winsted Woods, which was both technical and muddy. I do not like Brialee, but I always do (did?) well there.
old school, baby.
The problem with Pats Peak is that due to erosion, which is obviously accelerated by thousands of mountain bike tires, the trails are quickly becoming unrideable. If these trails were on public land, you would probably be shot on sight if you were caught with a bike near them. In the last 3 years, I have not noticed any trail work being done, or trails being rerouted around sensitive areas, or bridges being built. The trails are just destroyed, then left to be destroyed even more the next year. This not only gives mountain biking a bad name, but in most other situations the race would disappear.
Yes, disappear, as in go away, and leave us mountain bike racers with nothing but a weekend of yard work. There have been a handful of races that have disappeared over the last few years. While the reason for disappearance is never officially announced, rumors almost always appear on the message boards claiming that the destruction of the land was the primary reason. There really never is any reason to dispute this either. We as racers usually just shrug it off and say "wow, that kind of sucks." The North Shore Classic, which used to be held in nearby Bradley Palmer State Park, is a perfect example of this.
Hypothetical situation: Imagine if there is a family that goes hiking at Pats Peak every Monday afternoon. How do you think they feel about mountain biking after this week's hike? Let's hope that family isn't influential in the local or state government.
But it's their land, we can't force them to not destroy it.
Yes, Mt. Snow, Brialee and Pats Peak are all races held on private land. This is no coincidence. An economist will tell you that the organizers of these races feel the profit they make on race day is great enough to offset the damage done to their land. This is true, and is also helped by the fact that zero percent (estimation) of the profits are used to repair race day damage. If something doesn't change, there will be a tipping point where racers will feel the trails are just too horrible to justify racing. I raced Pats Peak in 2007 and 2009, and as far as I can tell there hasn't been a single man hour of trailwork done in the last three years. After this past weekend, I think the tipping point is right around the corner, unless someone picks up a shovel.
Concessions can be made. I don't see where blatantly ignoring common sense and destroying trails promotes the sport. Technically, USA Cycling exists to promote the sport of biking. USA Cycling is also the body that sanctions these races. We can't tell private land owners what to do with their land, but I would like to see certain guidelines put in place (similar to IMBA's rules of the trail) that must be followed in order to become an officially sanctioned race. If last year's trail damage is not repaired, or if this year's course is not rerouted through a less sensitive area, then you're not getting sanctioned. (yes, I realize this will not happen because a) it's not practical and b) it would involve USA Cycling actually doing something.)
I have seen trail maintenance days scheduled after EFTA races specifically to repair the damage caused by the race. I think this is an excellent idea. You would be surprised how much free labor you can get from the pool of mountain bikers, if you just give them an opportunity. (Did you hear that Mt. Snow?) Buy a keg, and you'll have more volunteers than you know what do with.
Let me briefly touch on the subject of weather. It has been said that the organizers of Pats Peak are not to blame because they can't control the weather. While it is true that you can't control the weather, you do know if your course is particularly susceptible to moisture. You also know the climate in your region. I'm not breaking any news when I say it always rains in late spring/early summer in New England. So if you have a race course that falls apart when it gets wet, you don't schedule your race for the rainy season. Pats Peak has already chosen the exact same date for next years race, as opposed to a historically dryer date in late August, for example. So the excuse of not being able to control the weather only works the first time your race turns into a mud bog, after that you have to take your region's weather into consideration when you pick a date.
This is a long winded way of my trying to convince you I am not a pussy and that "old school" race courses are bad for mountain biking. The reason I do not like Pats Peak, Mt. Snow, Brialee or other "old school" courses is because they are bad for the sport of mountain biking, and I like mountain biking. By racing Pats Peak I feel like I am hurting the sport of mountain biking.
(late edit: Just found out that another great race, Moody Park, has been cancelled this year. Last year was a miserable mudfest (here, here, here and here). Moody Park is public land. People hike there. Just sayin'.)
(even later edit: while looking for links for the above edit, I learned that this year Fort Rock is being held under the conditions that it be postponed if there are heavy rains leading up to or forcasted for race day. They acknowledge it's pretty much a logical nightmare to cancel so late, but besides that I think this policy avoids more problems than it causes.)