Respecting the Environment Means Understanding When You Might Be Doing More Harm Than Good

Photo credit: Jason Frank
Photo credit: Jason Frank

By now, you know that COVID-19 created an unprecedented bike boom over the last year, with cycling industry sales seeing unprecedented highs a year ago. Bikes are a powerful tool and a freedom-giving escape, letting new riders connect with the outdoors through their local trails.

It’s great to see a new wave of cyclists out on the trails, learning how to corner, trust their suspension, and time their brakes. But more riders can mean a rapid dilution of etiquette and riding norms, which can lead to trenches and trail damage.

And Dillon Osleger is doing everything he can to protect these trails.

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Osleger—the executive director of Sage Trail Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to trail stewardship—works to build, repair, and advocate for trails across California. Additionally, he works to raise awareness by leading conservation campaigns, lobbying for local environmental legislation, and creating short films to share stories about current environmental issues. And he wants to inspire more people to join his mission to protect the lands on which we all love to play.

“Trail riding is a very rapidly growing sport,” Osleger told Bicycling. “Bikes are hard to get. Recreation destinations see the importance of this group and are building pump tracks, bike parks, and neighborhood trails for them. Getting here took decades of advocacy. Lots of people are getting into gravel, single track, and enduro riding. This means we need a lot more trails, and to improve and repair the ones we already have.”

Osleger admits that he never intended to create a career in trail advocacy. Sure, he grew up playing outside around Truckee, California, occasionally volunteering for the Sierra Club. Despite making his first water bar and drainage for a trail—in order to prevent erosion—at age 12, he says this always felt like play, not work. He now recognizes it helped him grow a deep appreciation for the natural world at a young age.

Unlike most trail building organizations, Osleger isn’t trying to build a massive web of flow trails. Instead, he’s more focused on restoring historically important trails and doing it in a way that makes them sustainable for years to come. He often works on remote trails that provide access for all kinds of users—birders, hikers, campers, and bikers, to name a few.

“Trails are a tool to get people outside and help them start to appreciate the outdoors. These experiences lead to conversations and later, conservation. Trails are the first step towards more people working to protect public land.”

So, how can you, as a rider, help protect the trails? Osleger has plenty of suggestions.


Find your local trail organization and ask about their volunteer days. And this doesn’t have to be with a bike-specific organization; your local Sierra Club is a great place to start, according to Osleger. You don’t need experience or expertise to help out, and you can make change with the tools you do have.

“Swinging a tool for a few hours says a lot,” Osleger said. “And everyone's invited.”

Respect other users

Realize that you represent everyone. Be nice to other trail users, slow down, and say hello. Pack out your trash and leave places better than you found them. There is no more consistent advocacy for cycling than being a good human.

Check out the Trails Are Common Ground campaign

Learn about where you ride

Respecting the environment means understanding when you might be doing more harm than good. This is nuanced and unique to specific places. Riding in the slop might be fine in Bellingham, but in California, riding after an inch of rain could be hundreds of dollars in repairs.

If you’re not sure, ask local riding groups about etiquette, rules, and foul weather. It could be as simple as, “if you’re leaving tracks, it’s too wet to ride,” Osleger explained, or it could be about avoiding certain trails during breeding season for condors.

Call your elected officials (and vote, of course)

While it may not seem like it makes an impact at the time, writing and calling elected officials does change the sport of cycling, Osleger said. Additionally, getting involved with recreation-minded groups like Protect Our Winters and Outdoor Alliance is a good place to start. (It can be as simple as signing up for a newsletter!)

Go green

Osleger doesn’t think that every cyclist needs to know the size of their carbon footprint, but he does hope that riders make local changes, like riding to the trailhead, commuting by bike, or buying locally.

“We don’t need to replace our gear every year,” Osleger said. “We should feel good about used stuff as long as we can.”

Small donations go a long way

Donations to small trail organizations add up quickly and can help expand trail access, Osleger said. So consider donating what you can to your local group or donating to the groups that create the trails on which you ride. Even a few dollars shows that you want to see the trails sustained.

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