Tuesday, September 28, 2010

TNGA Fallout

"It's wearing on my mind! I'm speaking all my doubts aloud!"

By all accounts the TNGA was awesome. Well, not all accounts. My USFS contact forwarded me this email a few days back...

(names and contact info have been suppressed)

Dear [usfs rep]: I append a copy of the report regarding the TNGA marathon bike race from [forestwatch rep], one of Georgia ForestWatch's dedicated volunteers in Rabun County. It sure looks like these mountain bikers did not follow their own self-declared rules to walk thir bikes down from Wilson Gap to Ramey Fields.

As this one of the reasons the district cited in deciding not. to require a Forest Service permit for this race, I wonder if it might not be advisable to contact the race organizer and formally note the district's reaction to this breach of the group's own rules.

To my knowledge the national forestland track in question is a steep user-created trail that crosses over Ramey Creek at a location where the district and its partner organization, the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited, had spent no small effort trying to improve the fishery in that area.

I look forward to hearing back from you. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
[forestwatch rep]

CC: [usfs, forestwatch and trout unlimited members]

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: [forestwatch rep]
Date: Mon, Sep 6, 2010 at 10:30 AM
Subject: Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Adventure
To: [usfs rep]
Cc: [forestwatch members]

Dear [usfs rep],

I was out hiking the trail from Darnell Creek/Ramey Fields to Wilson Gap on this past Saturday (September 4th, 2010), which was also the local portion of the TNGA mountain bike adventure. This was the one trail on the event's route that was "hike only/no bikes." Following are my notes (and some photos) from this outing. I hope that you will find these useful.

[forestwatch rep]
cc: [forestwatch members]

I arrived in time to see all riders come down the trail - the first guy was already on the roadbed between Ramey fields and the road gate, so he wasn't really on the no bike portion of the trail. Once across the creek and heading up the first hill, I was almost run over by four guys riding fast and skidding to slow down as I stepped off the trail.

Then a pair of guys - the first one saw me and quickly jumped off his bike, the guy behind him heard us so jumped off before he saw us.

The next group was fairly close to the top of the trail, near Wilson gap and riders were taking a break. I waited till these pushed on, then turned back with the final rider - a young woman from Pennsylvania, who "loves sleeping out in the woods." She seemed to be on her own. She told me that about 20 people had shown up at the starting line, and they were all likely to finish in 4 days or so, though allotted 9. Also that she was camping, but many would go into towns and stay in hotels. That one person was from Ohio and many from close by.

I am fairly certain that the only person who pushed her bike most of the way was this one young woman. I saw several riders on the trail, and walking back down the length of the trail, it was obvious that they had ridden the trail, and there only appeared to be footprints of one person in the sandy areas.

All in all, this was a very low impact event (in the stretch that I saw), mainly because there were only 20 riders, as opposed to the 70 rider limit for the event. This is a no-fee, self-governing race/event, and riders are supposed to enforce the rules for themselves.

It was pretty obvious that every rider knew this was a hike only trail (and, as you know, it's clearly posted at the trail head).

From the TNGA rules (taken from their website, http://www.firstworks.com/tnga/ ):

* There is one manditory hike section, the Ramey Field Trail from FS155 to the intersection with the Ramey Creek Trail. Participants must dismount and walk or carry their bikes through this sections. This section may be monitored by officials.
* Riders are strongly encouraged to portage (carry your bike over, rather than ride through) any stream crossing that is not crossing a road, even if the road is closed. The USFS, Georgia ForestWatch, and I are concerned about the impact of up to 70 riders riding through a stream, that hasn't been armored for vehicle traffic, in a short period of time. To mitigate this impact, riders are again, strongly encouraged to portage applicable stream crossings.

All riders were friendly and polite, and seemed a bit self-conscious, as if they felt they were expecting me to be either an official or a ForestWatcher, perhaps - or maybe just because they all knew they were breaking the rules.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that human beings will most often break the rules as long as no one is watching. When there are so few participants, it's not such a problem, but if this had been 70 riders, there would have been a lot more impact.

If this report is accurate, it's pretty discouraging.

And it's not like I don't have reason to doubt its validity. I debated one of the Georgia ForestWatch board members at the Mountaintown meetings and he made so many deceptive claims and generalizations that I was able to write a veritable book in response. Their first comment regarding Mountaintown included even more; lots of us that were at the meeting had ridden the trail... well, my dad and I did get injured -- a sprained thumb and shoulder, very minor injuries, kind of an important detail... I suggested that a collision between a biker and hiker would injure both people... and so on. They stepped it up after the EA showed bike traffic had no detectable effect on the environment. Their comment on the EA begins by quoting Mike Vandeman, demands a new EA, then goes on an Appeal to fear/FUD campaign, making lots of bad-sounding, but irrelevant statements and claims, cherry picking inflammatory and divisive quotes from the web, and pretending not to understand satire. Their web site states: "We support biking and count many bikers as members and friends. In fact, we have never opposed any of the dozens of legal mountain bike trails established across Georgia’s national forests." But, their documents attack the credibility of mountain biking as a whole, and the board member I debated has stated openly, twice, that "mountain bikes are inappropriate in the National Forest" and, referring to bikers on Bear Creek, that "...they're out of control, they're a menace, they should be banned from the National Forest..." There was more of the same at an Equestrian Access Assessment meeting. It's very hard to tell what they're after. Clearly, on some level, they care about the environment, but it comes off as a mask, hiding some deeper, indiscernible intention. Man, this paragraph is longer than I meant it to be. I guess I'm trying to establish why for me, personally, it has become hard to trust anything coming from their organization.

But, while "I'm speaking all my doubts aloud..." maybe my impression of them just stems from the fact that most of the face time I've had has been with one individual. Their documents do carry his attitude forward though, so it's easy to assume it's pervasive. On the other hand, I did speak with their ecologist on two occasions, and he seemed as cool and reasonable as they come. But, as much as I want to like him, I am left wondering if it's really just part of some kind of good-cop/bad-cop play.

What I'm really getting to here is that when I first started reading this report, I was all dismissive; "yeah, yeah, those guys again, woohoo" and in the preface, there is a bit of that berative tone I'm used to just tolerating from them. However, the report itself was actually refreshing to read. It's clean and objective, even kind in places and doesn't carry much of their classic, heavy-handed rhetoric at all.

There are a few inconsistencies in it...

I doubt that they were just "out hiking." It's more likely that they were out there with the specific intent of monitoring the event, which, actually, would be totally fine. I imagine the advantage of omitting their intentions could be to make it come across like encountering mountain bikers was unexpected and thus even more of an intrusion. But, they didn't try to play it that way, and they easily could have, so I'm not going to read that into it.

The trail is not clearly marked closed to bikes. When I was up there last there were horse-yes, hike-yes, atv-no stickers there, but no bike sticker at all. An inconsistency, but ultimately moot, the riders knew not to ride that trail.

The trail is not a user-created trail, it's an inventoried trail that follows an old road bed. According to USFS GIS data, it's part of the Darnell Creek Horse Trail. I didn't know that name for it when I first made the maps and cue sheets. An inconsistency, but again, moot.

It doesn't sound like the four riders that "almost ran over" the writer were on the hike-only section. The hike-only section goes from the forest road down to the tree with the purple paint on it. The first hill after the creek (heading opposite the direction of the route) is after that section, not on a horse trail, and was not designated hike-only. Perhaps the writer assumed that section was hike-only, but per the route cue sheets, it was not, (update: well... see 4th comment) and no issue was raised with it being rideable prior to the event as long as riders carried over the creek. Also, the report doesn't establish exactly where the next two riders were, maybe they were also on that rideable section as well.

On the hike back, they reported only seeing one set of footprints in the sandy areas, and from this it was determined that only one rider likely walked. The prints of the writer's party should also have been visible. They may have been, and that detail was omitted, or the writer's party may have intentionally avoided the sand so they could later tell how many riders walked through it, and that detail was omitted. Or, the writer's party may have walked through the sand but not been able to discern their own prints, in which case, riders may also have walked through it, indiscernibly. Another possibility is that the writers party may have just naturally walked to the side of the sand, in which case, so might the riders have. In fact, when pushing, riders tend to naturally walk to the far left of the trail, or even a little off trail, while pushing their bikes on the right. They almost always walk on the left to avoid hitting their rear derailleur and to avoid getting chainring tats. The report doesn't provide enough footprint evidence to determine that only one rider walked.

The photo of the tire track in the mud also raises a little doubt. It's not clear whether it was taken on the hike-only section or not, but either way, it doesn't look like 17 bikes worth of tire tracks. Maybe only one rider rode through that exact spot, or maybe he/she pushed his/her bike through it, loaded down with gear and left a track. Hard to say.

Also, they say they saw all riders, but didn't account for all of them in the report.

Blah, blah, blah... Minor details.

These inconsistencies cast a shadow of doubt, at worst revealing a misunderstanding, but there is no clear attempt at deception. It reads like an honest report, written in good faith.

My USFS contact was really cool about the whole thing, agreed with them that since there were so few riders, the environmental impact was not a concern, and basically just reiterated that next year I should bring them (the USFS) into the loop early. Maybe it'll be OK. Maybe I'll be required to post marshals there next year. Maybe I'll be required to somehow route around it. Worst case, I'll have to get a permit for the ride, which will cost money, could be denied, and if so and riders still line up, they (and I) could be cited.

But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it...

Back to the point.

Did this actually happen? Did all but one rider ignore the hike-only rule?

At the outset of this event, I was condemned for, among other things, presuming not to trust people to walk a mandatory hike section without being monitored. In fact, that lack of faith was one of the reasons given for a boycott of the event by several riders. Imagine my internal struggle over that one. I knew that the USFS and ForestWatch were both watching this event. By not actually going out there and standing at the trailhead, I knew I was taking a risk. I thought about doing it, and decided not to. Me and the girls went and hiked Rabun Bald instead.

Was that the wrong decision?

I can read this report, I can engage in a frustrating internal debate, wrestling with my own prejudice, judgement and tolerance while I'm at it, but I've had my share of those little struggles already this year with this event, and now I'm just tired. So here's my challenge. If you rode the TNGA, comment below, or hell, email me, or just tell me when you see me again if you don't want it displayed publicly. Did you walk that section? So far, ForestWatch has the only word on the subject. The USFS assumes you rode it. If you did, saying so won't make any difference with them. If you didn't, even better. At this point, you can't be DQ'ed from the event and it won't have any effect on your time or anything else, event-related. If you rode it, there is no worst case. Best case, maybe it's wearing on your mind too, and the truth will set you free.

PS. You get 5 extra points if you can name the song quoted at various points in this post, from memory, don't just Google it. It's been stuck in my head for like 2 months.


  1. I stink at pop culture so I pass on the song name....

    I do however have a comment on the hike-a-bike. Since EO and ML were [slightly] lost off route at this point, when I passed through this trail I was among a group of 4 riders. We made up second place through fifth places of the event at that moment in time. Only one person was in front of us at this point - he can chime in if he wants and if he even knows he was in first place during that section. We all walked (the 4 of us). I did take note that there were both ATV and bike tracks in the dirt - though older than a day in my opinion. So indeed an observer may believe many bikes had been ridden on the trail. Then a short speculative leap to it being TNGA riders. The four of us together did not pass a single person on foot on this trail; that I can assure you. Hiding off trial, who knows?

    When we saw the purple banded tree, be tossed our legs over our steeds and off-a-pedalin' we went.

    Your ability to find objectivity and neutrality a commendable. I see something different.....

    I did meet a Forest Watch volunteer on day 3 however. Hiking between West Amurchee and East Amurchee. Matter of fact, when I called in from E. Amurchee I was looking right at him standing within 50 feet of me. I'm afraid we did not exchange names - but he said he lived near Chattanooga. He also met the rider just ahead of me that morning - perhaps 2-3 hours prior. We talked for quite a while and I certainly enjoyed his conversation. I think a group that services a need - a gap if you will - between the Forest Services' objectives and its ability to be accountable to said objectives is commendable.

    We all should keep in mind that there are prejudices between user groups. From where they are borne could fill many an hour of debate. Any opportunity to take advantage and gain a foot hold by any means will be used. No one is immune from the disease of self importance. Myself included.


  2. Thanks Rob. This is very valuable information. I hope others will chime in with similar accounts.

    Maybe what I chalked up to minor details in their report aren't so minor. I'm starting to get a clear picture of what happened.

  3. We could of rode after the purple??? I'm an idiot. Not only did I hike this whole section even after the purple but I got lost went left st the purple and went back up in a big circle. Steep hike a bike. I Aww no one, but I hiked from the sign past the purple down the little downhill then got on when the trail opened up to old double track If that makes any sense. If he saw Ruth who wad with Jeff who were way behind me at this point then I don't know what four riders they speak but they had to be behind me and before Ruth.

    As you know Dave I am not new to this type of racing and honor is the biggest and most important aspect and challenge of it all.



  4. Thanks Karlos. This gives me even more insight.

    I'd bet that the FW folks walked by while you were off track.

    I think I'm part to blame for what's happened.

    Now that I look back at it again, the rules say where the hike-only section is, but the cue sheets don't. The cue sheets describe the turns, mention the tree with purple paint, but don't mention trail names or anything about riding vs. hiking. I had described where to hike at the pre-ride meeting, I remember saying "you can't miss it" about the tree with the purple paint, then thinking better of it and saying "well, you could miss it, I guess, keep an eye out for it."

    The map originally showed two trails - the Ramey Field Trail, leading from FS155 all the way to Darnell Creek Road, and the Ramey Creek Trail, leading west of the tree with the purple paint. Prior to the race, I'd downloaded a bunch of USFS GIS data and added trails from it to the maps on my site. In doing so, I realized I had the names of the various trails in the area all wrong. I renamed Ramey Creek Trail to Darnell Creek Horse Trail (it looks like on Aug 9th), but left Ramey Field Trail alone, not wanting to confuse riders who might be using the map. Unfortunately, even renaming Ramey Creek Trail to Darnell Creek Horse Trail left the map inconsistent with the rules, which still referred to Ramey Creek Trail.

    Anyone might have misunderstood where to hike, depending on when exactly they looked at the map, and whether they remembered what I'd said at the pre-ride meeting. My first contact with the USFS about the event was Aug 18th, so they and FW may have looked at it before or after the change. No way to know.

  5. Myself (the 'old man from South Carolina'), the 'young woman from North Carolina' and the 'young man from Ohio' did not ride from the trailhead to the purple-slash tree. We walked the trail. There the 'young woman from pennsylvania' joined me and we rode to the creek (as was legal in the rules). We then walked over the creek, pushing our bicycles and resumed riding on the old road bed (as was legal in the rules).

    That was how we understood the rules.

    The four of us did take a short break at the trailhead, then continue while the 'young woman from pennsylvania' stayed behind for a moment. We are the group of four he refers to. We saw a couple (man and woman) hiking who we believed to be watching for the racers. We spoke to them briefly and were off.

    I believe that the letter writer assumes that the entire section between the trailhead and the gate was off limits to bikes (purple tree and all). I never noticed any signage, I went by the rules David laid out.


  6. Thanks Jeff.

    I'm thinking that they believed the section from the road to the creek was hike-only and possibly that they're also overconfident in their ability to determine that bikes had been ridden rather than just pushed.

    This is all starting to make good sense now.

  7. I walked with the group of four down to the tree with purple paint and then walked a creek crossing further down. I think one of the above photos is the exit of this creek crossing. Between there and the road, we encountered some hikers and were as courteous as possible. We were riding then on an old roadbed with tall grass. For some reason, they looked out of place and now their facial expressions make perfect sense.

    John H

  8. Thanks John. I'd bet that you were in a group behind Ruth, with Trey, Charley, and one of either Stephen, Lisa or Cricket, the others being in Jeff or Rob's groups.

    I talked to Eddie and he says he and Matt walked until the purple tree as well. Mark Donaghy's ride report indicates that he walked, and got lost for a while.

    This accounts for all riders. They mentioned 1 by himself (Shey), a group of 4 (Rob's group), a group of 2 (Eddie/Matt) and then "a group" (Jeff's group of 4, including Ruth). Karlos was probably lost when they passed. Your group of 4 passed them on their way out. Mark was off the back. Don dropped out before that section. Eighteen riders started. 1+4+2+4+1+4+1+1=18

    Shey hasn't said one way or the other, but it can't be established that he didn't walk. Odd the report doesn't mention you guys. It's not inconceivable that you saw a different set of hikers. Who knows.

    Thanks so much guys.

    BTW - Nobody went for the 5 bonus points? Come on. It's so obvious. Pantera - "The Great Southern Trendkill" Doesn't everybody know that song?

  9. I was with Shey, Rob, and Trey. We stayed together until Rabun Gap. Shey motored on, Rob stopped at the PO for water, and Trey and I went to get some barbecue. I think Eddie and Matt were behind us at that point because of a wrong turn.

  10. Russ Marshall was out in front of us at this point, Dave.

  11. Matt and I both ran along side our bikes down the hill from the trail marker to the purple mark, then rode on from there to the creek and dismounted. I don't remember if we pushed our bikes or carried them. I probably carried it since I was still fresh and I hate to mess up my chain for no reason, but have no recollection of what Matt did. We remounted and soon after is where I believe we saw the hikers. Maybe 60 to 100 yards after the creek. I was surprised to see them given the remoteness of the location and the hour of the day (early). Matt and I were moving quickly. I was in front. We quickly greeted them and it seemed like we surprised them as well, so I apologized as we rode on.

  12. Ok, so...

    All riders claim to have walked from FS155 to the tree with the purple paint (the intersection with the Ramey Creek Trail), which was the entire section designated hike-only.

    Russ was up front and was reported riding between the creek and gate, which was ridable.

    Rob, John, Trey and Shey were next and were reported riding on the first hill after the creek, which was also ridable. John reports seeing hikers between the creek and gate, also in a ridable section.

    Eddie and Matt were next and were reported riding an unknown distance further toward FS155 than the previous group of four, possibly still in a ridable section, the report is unclear. Ed reports seeing hikers between the creek and gate, in a ridable section.

    Karlos may have been next, nobody reported seeing him. He was probably lost off route at that time.

    Jeff, Ruth, Stephen and Cricket were next and were reported seen near the intersection with FS155. Ruth was reported to have walked, but the others were only reported to have "pushed on" which could be taken figuratively, or could literally mean that they pushed their bikes. Jeff reports seeing hikers near the intersection with FS155.

    Brad, Lisa, Charley and Matt were not reported to have been seen at all, nor have I heard from them, nor are their ride reports revealing either way.

    Mark Donaghy wasn't reported to have been seen, but his ride report indicates that he walked past the purple tree and got lost like Karlos, eventually finding his way back to the trail after the creek.

    Don Meredith dropped out before that section.

    Given that they took issue with riders riding on the first hill after the creek (heading south), it seems that the hikers didn't know exactly which section was hike-only.

    The photos show at least two hikers, riders report seeing two hikers, but only one set of footprints was reported seen by the hikers. Even if everyone rode there should have been two sets of footprints. Or more likely, the footprint evidence is just unrevealing as to the number of people who walked through the area.

    The statement "it was obvious they'd ridden the trail" without discussion of where it was obvious or elaboration as to why, isn't sufficient to establish guilt. Or, perhaps it was somehow, really obvious, but again, in the section that was misunderstood not to be ridable.

    I think it's likely that the riders acted responsibly and that the hikers' observations were accurate, but that the hikers' conclusions were inaccurate, as they were based on a misunderstanding of what exactly was hike-only and on an overconfident footprint analysis.

    I am a little concerned with the discrepancy between the locations people reported seeing each other. Riders in the first two groups reported seeing hikers between the creek and the gate and the hikers reported seeing those riders between the creek and FS155. I can't come up with a way that both versions of the story could be accurate.

    Given that the hikers reported seeing the riders riding in a ridable section and that was established prior to any comment by the riders, there would be no benefit to the riders in misrepresenting where they saw the hikers. However, if the objective of the hikers was to find fault, there would potentially be benefit to the hikers in misrepresenting where they saw the riders riding. I can't conclusively say though, that anyone did anything except misremember where they saw each other. And it's irrelevant anyway because neither version of the story establishes guilt on the part of the riders.

    Woohoo! This was once, lets say, emotionally challenging, but now it's just boring. I guess that's good, as it relegates it to the "not a big deal" section of my mind. If it becomes necessary, there's enough here to establish a good defense.

    Thanks for the input everybody.