Riding The Flow Trail With A Builder

The Flow Trail at Soquel Demonstration State Forest is a masterpiece of mountain biking engineering. For those who helped build it, riding it is a rowdy trip down memory lane.

by Matt De Young

July 21, 2015—There aren’t too many places to ride your mountain bike on a four-mile descent where you hardly need to touch your brakes, where every turn happens to be a tall, deep berm designed to let you carry all of your momentum, a descent where pumping rollers is more efficient than pedaling to generate speed. These attributes are what have made the new Flow Trail at Soquel State Demonstration Forest so popular with mountain bikers around Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. The roller coaster-like experience has people hooked.

But it didn’t dig itself. While the trail lends itself toward pure, unbridled mountain biking bliss, sometimes when I’m out riding it I also like to consider how this unique trail came to be. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Flow Trail’s creation, working as a trail builder for Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, a local mountain bike advocacy organization that partnered with land manager CAL FIRE to take on the project. For all of the staff and volunteers who invested so much sweat equity into the project, riding the trail is an especially potent experience, for they have seen the trail’s evolution from concept to reality.

Ye Olde Ribald Trail Crewe

Dropping in at the very top of the Flow Trail from the picnic bench on the ridge trail, easing into the rhythm of the trail, I think back to the early stages of the project, the hours spent hiking through the woods, squinting at maps, looking at different options for the trail alignment, figuring out the best spot for switchbacks and avoiding archaeological sites and areas that may be logged in the future. As the trail pitches downwards into the first traverse across a steep hillside, I recall the difficulty of flagging out the trail in these near-vertical cross slopes, trying to maintain footing while shooting grades and hanging flags.

Quickly dipping my handlebars back and forth through a tight stand of redwoods, I recall the small army of men clad in orange wielding chainsaws and hand tools that helped clear the way for the trail. Inmate fire crews from our local conservation camp did an immense amount of work clearing away logging debris and fallen trees from the route that we had flagged. They moved mountains of duff—organic debris—from atop the good clean mineral soil that makes up the trail’s surface. I chuckle to myself as I recall their spirited banter, which they have refined into an art form perhaps rivaling the sharpest-tongued Shakespearean dialogue.

The sound of tires pushed to the limits of traction buzzes in my ears as the last long traverse of the upper portion of the trail gives way to a series of back-to-back shoulder-height berms. Months before, the dominant sound here was the mutter of diesel engines laboring under load. A mini-excavator and small skidsteer served as the workhorses that allowed us to move so much dirt and to build features on such a grand scale. The experience of smoothly rolling around a turn on a bike is in stark contrast to the very mechanical movements of earthmoving equipment.

The Mountain Bike Bridges of Santa Cruz County

The smooth surface of the trail briefly gives way to the rough texture of a bridge of hand-split redwood, sourced from a beautiful old-growth redwood log left by loggers who first harvested the forest over 80 years ago. Sourcing and processing materials on-site was a point of pride on this project. Hours and hours were spent wielding a double-jack, splitting decking with wedges and froe, much the same as lumber was shaped in the days before the prevalence of sawmills.

The trail crosses a road at the end of Segment Three. This is a good place to stop and catch your breath. There are often groups of riders here taking a break, recounting their favorite portions of the trail thus far and enjoying the camaraderie and wholesomeness of a good day spent aboard their bikes out in the woods.

Hilltromper signup ad

Leaning hard into a berm, I’m taken back to the rainy day when over 60 volunteers came out to help shape a section of roughly cut trail into its final sculpted state. Even as the sky gushed rain, spirits were high as berms were sifted, shaped and compacted into giant waves of dirt. These volunteer days were some of the best times out building the trail. So many people, so excited about contributing their time and energy to the project. There is a quick back-to-back berm transfer where one eager volunteer, a kid about 8 years old, didn’t put his tool down all day, not until the feature was finished, whereupon he promptly hopped on his bike and gave his handiwork repeated test runs until it was time to head home.

Blasting into a steep section of the trail tightly flanked by redwoods, I am reminded of some of the challenges overcome in the process of trail construction. I squeeze between two trees in the very same spot where the excavator arm on our trail machine suddenly fell off, leaving us immobile in a very tight spot. I remember the time spent scratching our heads and hemming and hawing over how to fix the thing. Eventually we were able to find the obscure parts to repair the machine and jury-rigged ourselves up some mickey-mouse version of a hoist to put the thing back together using what rigging we had and the trees above.

Toward the bottom of the run, where the trail opens up into a final crescendo of speed and sweeping turns, I notice the places where the dirt is packed so hard it’s been blackened by the multitude of tires that have passed over it. I am thankful for the little rain we did get during trail construction, for without it, the trail would surely have returned to dust, and there are a few places where it is doing just that. Let us hope for a real winter…

The Best of Times

The last few hundred feet of the trail slow to a mellow finish, dropping riders out onto a fire road for the climb back out to the parking lot. Here riders congregate at picnic tables, steadying their shaking, fatigued legs after four miles of non-stop ups and downs, rollers and berms. Here you might encounter a CAL FIRE truck, the foresters out making their rounds and checking on the state of the forest. I am always sure to give them a word of thanks, for they are the ones who have made mountain biking and the Flow Trail a reality in the forest, and who face the day-to-day challenges of trying to juggle sustainable timber harvest, environmental conservation and recreation.

Arriving at the parking lot after the stiff climb up from the bottom of the Flow Trail, I recount all of the good memories of the time spent hanging out in that dirt lot surrounded by tall lanky redwoods, tired, sweaty and dirty after a long ride or day of digging. All of our volunteer days ended here, with food, drink, raffles and laughter, a fitting end to a hard day of work thanks to the generosity of the project’s sponsors.

Next time you make it out to the Soquel Demonstration Forest, enjoy the trails, but also take a moment to reflect on how these long ribbons of dirt, which provide us with such immense pleasure, got there.

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