How to Start Trail Riding Interview by James Lynch; Images by William Tracy

For those new to riding, it often doesn’t take long to start looking at the world and thinking of new places to take their bike. And just because the park near your house only has dirt trails, doesn’t mean you need to go buy a top-of-the-line mountain bike. We spoke with Dillon Osleger, executive director of Sage Trail Alliance, about getting onto trails on a bike, opening more land to cyclists and what being out in nature can do for a person and the environment.

Around on Bikes: Tell me about Sage Trail Alliance.

Dillon Osleger: We are a trails and outdoor advocacy non-profit out of Santa Barbara, California. We cover a pretty significant range of the Central Coast of California spanning from just south of San Luis Obispo to Ventura County.

I’m always keen to promote riding bikes and getting more people outdoors, but I find a lot of satisfaction balancing that with conservation and landscape management. So, when we talk about trail orgs or trail stewardship—nonprofits in general in that space—a balance needs to be struck between encouraging people to get outside, diversifying our sport and improving our community who work with land managers to provide more access and preservation for nature as a whole.

AOB: People might hear trail riding and think of Red Bull type events. But getting off the road can be a lot flatter, what is the range of the kind of trail work you are doing?  The kind of lands you are opening up to people?

DO: I totally agree. As much as I love getting a bit rowdy on a mountain bike, I love getting out for a road spin, or out on a gravel bike, and even hiking, fly fishing, you name it. When I talk trails, I am as much there for hiking, backpacking and fly fishing.

A lot of what we do is opening additional public land and trails for communities, ideally closer to homes. I want to get people out of their cars, remove the commute to trails and provide more trail access at city parks or land preserves and land trusts. Tree canopy is valuable no matter where it is—if it’s close to your home or ten miles in the wilderness.

AOB: A lot of people spend maybe their whole lives within a 5-mile radius. But they spend all that time in a car sealed off from the outside. What’s the difference being on a bike in an area someone thought they knew?

DO: On a bike there is a lot more opportunity to stop, to gather other senses. The slower you are going, the more you can pay attention to things around you. You can take different routes. You see more of what exists, and I think there is a lot of value in that, knowing what’s close to home. A lot of people idealize extensive travel, commuting to cool trails, wilderness, even other countries; Covid might have brought us all a dose of reality with what is close to home. I hope people are starting to find a bigger appreciation for what is right outside their door.

I see a bigger purpose in letting the landscape tell its own stories. I’m building trails. I try to guide people towards interesting geology, interesting ecology, viewpoints that display culture or industry. I think you can learn a ton by just letting the terrain dictate its own path and building it in a sustainable manner.

I don’t want to preach at people telling them that they should be voting for nature conservation or climate. The real way for conservation is letting people make those decisions and conclusions on their own. That’s really found by getting outdoors on your own, getting out into nature. People start to see the intrinsic value of nature, people start to appreciate conservation and conserving places and not just for their own recreational purposes.

AOB: What difference does it make when you give people access to this wilderness closer to their home? What change happens when you go from having to drive to a trailhead, to biking there?

DO: That’s really the deciding factor for a lot of people when you look at the outdoors as a whole. I grew up in the early ‘90s, and the general demographic hasn’t changed much since then: it’s overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, the age range is pretty consistent, and even now it is pretty overwhelmingly male, though thankfully now that is evening out.

A lot of that has to do with the disparity of where people are housed. There is more open space and more trails closer to those communities. Once you bring trails and outdoor access to a wider diversity of people, you see that people aren’t different. You see that people want to access those same places; they want to do those same sports.

AOB: What’s the equipment needed for expanding off the road to trails?

DO: This is the big thing. The bike industry is glamorous. It loves to push what the newest color is, the newest innovation, but at the end of the day you can have fun no matter what your bike is.

If you bought a recent road bike, a great thing about the industry is they have moved towards allowing you to put on a little bit bigger tire for all roads. And if you have a ‘90s mountain bike, awesome, people were shredding back then and it’s not holding anyone back now.

My big thing is if you get off the road, even on the road, get a good helmet. If anything has improved in the last ten years, it’s really helmets. But everything else? You don’t need a $90 fanny pack, that one you got for free will look good. It’ll do the same thing. As long as you’ve got the basic safety equipment, get out there and walk the bits that are a little too hard. Soon they won’t be super hard.

AOB: People hearing this and getting excited, how can they find those areas around them?

DO: My first starting point is: find your local community. That bike shop where you bought a bike from, I guarantee someone there does bikepacking, does commuter rides, does group rides on a road bike. They’ll probably know your local trail stewardship or your group of local riders who are out there maintaining trails. Getting involved with the community gives you a place to go with any of those questions. I think it takes putting yourself out there. I know I was super nervous the first time I went out there and went into a bike shop and asked some questions to the tech.

If you can find your local stewardship or your local county park maps, they’ll tell you where the pump tracks, where the trails are, where your public land is. Then, go out and get involved.

Also, Mountain Bike Project is really solid. Trailforks is a really good app that shows you all the trails in your area too.Those are all ways to get out, and if it comes down to it social media is a good tool. Hop on find your closest local rider who seems to know what they’re doing and ask them some questions

AOB: And if there aren’t any, what can they do? Advocacy? Steps or strategies to open up more areas to riding bikes in?

DO: The single biggest thing is: if you already have a local organization, awesome, lend your voice to them, get involved, tell them you want more trails locally or more fire roads. They can send letters of support from their membership to county officials, to forest service district rangers, your district managers. They can be sending it to your mayor, your governor, your city council.

If you don’t have a trails org, put together a 501(c)(3). it doesn’t need to have a crazy name like mountain bike trail access club; just make it your local trail alliance. Get your non-profit license; get a board member together; get some friends together and and start calling up your district representatives. You can always call them and you work your way up that ladder.

It is really about getting involved. They will listen. I want more people to get involved with politics and asking for what they want. It’s only going to benefit everyone in this case—it’s not really a private or special interest group.

AOB: Where can people find out more?

DO: www.sagetrail.org and I’m on most of the social medias @sagetrailalliance or @dillon.osleger