Last Thursday, U.S. Olympian Justin Reiter stood atop Pikes Peak, one of the most iconic peaks of Colorado’s 14ers — the 58 mountains located in the Centennial State that rise at least 14,000 feat above sea level.
He had just completed a grueling 19-mile pedal and became the first person to summit and solo mountain bike all 15 of the 14ers that are legally accessible by mountain bike. But his pedal was just the beginning of his struggle, as his effort set off a debate between conservationists and mountain bikers in the state.
“You have conservationists who essentially say that unless you are barefoot and not making a sound you can’t be up in that area,” Reiter told GrindTV. “That’s crazy. We need to get as many people interested in exploring these areas, and if mountain biking is one of those ways than we should encourage that.”
The 34-year-old Olympic snowboarder was just one of a handful of Coloradans who have recently taken interest in mountain biking the 14ers.
Golden, Colorado resident Jessica Martin, who last week became the first woman to complete all 15 peaks on her mountain bike, and the duo Whit Boucher and Ian Fohrman, which have dedicated a website to tracking their progress are a few others.
All of them have a common goal: to open up more of the 14ers to mountain bikers and encourage people to explore the peaks.
“These rules that exist banning mountain biking from these peaks were implemented for the wrong reasons when mountain biking was still coming out,” Reiter said. “We shouldn't penalize the next generation of mountain bikers for these rules. We’re all hoping to just create a dialogue on how to get the next generation out experiencing the outdoors. We think mountain biking is a solution.”
As mentioned, 43 of Colorado’s 58 14ers are off-limits to mountain bikers. They are classified as wilderness areas under the U.S. Wilderness Act, and any mechanized travel through them is prohibited.
Those who have biked the mountains like Martin say that not only do these limitations stymie public interest, but also handicap the efforts to repair the hiking trails on those peaks.
“The broader picture of biking access in general, is that we want to broaden the scope of these trails,” Jessica Martin said. “Some of us who were biking it proposed a permitting system, whereby you have to pay for mountain biking permits for these peaks. I agree with that; there has to be a way to make everyone happy and make it profitable.”
While Martin noted the estimated $24 million in repairs that are needed to maintain the condition of summit routes in the 14ers as a reason to allow mountain biking, others point to it as the exact reason to continue to ban bikers.
“I wouldn't hold my breath if I was a mountain biker and looking to ride the wilderness 14ers,” Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the conservation group Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, told GrindTV. “The people who manage wilderness are concerned about impacts from hiking already, allowing mountain biking will only increase that impact.”
Athearn notes that much of the high-alpine ecosystems present on the 14ers are extremely rare and susceptible to damage from human contact. On top of that, he claims mountain bikers pose an imminent threat not only to the ecosystems, but also to the hikers summiting the trails which are often steep, narrow and technical.
“Because mountain biking hasn't been happening traditionally on the 14ers, we haven’t seen the full effect of its impact,” said Athearn. “But if anything this media attention has probably raised a number of concerns amongst the public. Talking some of our main contacts in the community, it seems there have been a number of people already talking about getting run off the trail by mountain bikers.”
That safety concern for hikers is the one thing that seems to resonate most with locals within the climbing community.
Ryan Flook, a 27-year-old hiker from Lakewood, Colorado, who has summited over a dozen of the 14ers, calls the effort to mountain bike some of the peaks, “very insane.” Flook said that he can’t even wrap his head around how, let alone why, someone would want to bike them. But those who have biked the mountains claim they aren’t asking for anything radical.
“We understand there are peaks that nobody should ever be allowed to try and take on riding a mountain bike,” said Reiter. “Just like you wouldn’t try to go hunting in the desert. We’re just trying to say that there are some peaks that should be opened, and hoping to start a dialogue.”
To that point, Martin agrees.
“At the end of the day we just want to be outside and enjoy the experience like everyone else.”
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