This article is pulled form a post I made on Paul the Punter’s Patreon page regarding a question about what makes a black trail black. Paul’s question. was “what’s the difference between trails that are dangerous and those that need skill?” This is my answer.
What makes a trail difficult? Why to people label a trail black?
I suppose the difference is subjective. One person’s black is another one’s blue. My Wife considers most of the blue trails I ride to be “impossible”, while the black trail I crashed on in February (Chutes and Ladders) could easily be considered blue if it were found in Brevard or Squamish. (That video will come, I just have to bring myself to be able to watch my crash footage first.)
I have always considered the difference between “skill” and “danger” to be based on consequence. Moab’s Slickrock trail, a generally low-consequence black trail, has some speedy spots but is also somewhat slow compared to other blacks. Your wheels generally stick to the ground and a bad fall could result in, at worst, a concussion or some broken bones. (As long as you don’t wander off the trail and ride into a chasm). Not pleasant, but survivable.
On the other hand, Moab’s “Captain Ahab” is generally pretty high-consequence. The ride contains rocky drops and steep edges. An accidental veer off the narrow path could lead to a long fall and certain death.
Both are black trails, but one is distinctly more “dangerous” in terms of consequence.
Another way to look at trail difficulty is in terms of overall physical demand.
Can a trail be labeled black because it is hard to climb? Some black trails are demanding and very strenuous, while others are comparatively easy.
San Jose’s Rocky Ridge trail (near my house) is a short downhill ride on jagged rocks, but the climb is incredibly challenging both in terms of technical difficulty and endurance. It’s just a bit over one mile long, but it is so technical that I don’t know anyone who has successfully climbed it without dabbing at least once.
Conversely, Durango’s “Dark Star” is smooth but steep. There are very few rocky sections (if any), but the soft, gravely dirt and incredibly steep grades make it a VERY challenging climb. It’s one of the tougher climbs in the area and it’s pretty smooth.
Both are labeled as black trails because of their downhills, but the climbs also merit the designation.
In July of last year I drove from California to North Carolina (solo). I tried to stop at as many riding locations as I could along the way. Options were thin in the great plains, but I did see a small, squiggly section of black trail at Bluff Creek Park in Oklahoma City. I planned an overnight there and even looked for cheap accommodations close to the park in question.
The day was going to be 105º, so I woke before dawn and headed to the trail. This was both a blessing and a curse. I was able to beat (most of) the heat, but the dense trees made the trail so dark that my GoPro Hero 7 footage was unusable and I had to scrap the ride video. Damn!
But the bigger point was that this trail, while likely one of the more challenging ones in the local area, was flat. Over 4 miles, it climbs 89 feet (27 meters). It has a few drops and a few “jumps” (I use that term generously), but it generally just twists and turns through the trees. There was almost no challenge and I never felt that I was in danger.
Perhaps this is the most difficult trail in the area. Perhaps the riders aren’t used to big, rocky drops and speedy downhills. Regardless, this would be a green trail in most riding areas I frequent, and it would be a blue trail in a few others.
I had a thought that it might be a good idea to log into Trailforks and change this black trail to blue. I figured that its black status might be misleading to others as it was to me.
But I left it – mainly for two reasons:
1. This isn’t my riding area. I should keep my nose out of other peoples’ trails and let them define them how they see fit. It’s just not my place.
2. This trail taught me something about perspective.
I met a few local riders after my loop as I was loading my bike onto the 4Runner. They were super awesome folks who, like me, were there to get a few miles in before the heat of the day reared its ugly head. They asked me what I thought of the trail and I told them that it was a fun romp and that I had a great time (both were true). I didn’t want to be too critical of someone else’s local dirt, and I definitely wouldn’t want to alter their perception of the trail’s difficulty.
If they called this trail black, then good for them. I won’t argue. It may not be a Pilot Rock or a Captain Ahab, but it’s the tough ride in the area, and they undoubtedly regale their friends with stories of their attempts to conquer it.
I guess I’m trying to say that, while there may be a standard in bike parks (I really don’t know of there is), these standards either do not exist on public dirt, or there is no standard that is enforced. Either way, it’s pretty tough to define a difficulty level when the standard is based on personal experience.