• Alasdair MacLennan

eHaulin' For Trail - Derrick Bell

Updated: Jun 24

IMAGES: Sterling Lorence

Meet Derrick, a trail builder who uses his ebike to access and maintain a lifetime of trails.

When it comes to trail building and ebikes there has historically been a conflict of values. Luckily, some people are changing that history. Meet Derrick Bell. An Oregon-based builder who rides more than most and builds more trails than most have ridden. We sat down with him recently to find out how ebikes help him as he maintains hundreds of miles of trails around his home, all as a volunteer.

A: So Derrick, you're a trail builder...

D: I’m not a full-time builder, I have a day job, and a lot of the building and maintenance I’ve done is volunteer work, certainly all the stuff you saw in the Shimano video was. Here in Oregon, and elsewhere, between Lane County and Deschutes County, there’s been a good volunteer workforce out there for the last 30 years. It’s been a mainstay of the community for a long time, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

A: If trail building isn’t your day job, what’s your background? D: Well I currently work at Robert Axle Project, a niche project to make through axles and still be able to carry a Bob trailer. They now make them for one-armed trailers, kids trailers, etc and now have a new release called Lightning Bolts. These are normal through axles to replace quick-release levers like Maxles. I’m lucky in that I’ve pretty much managed to stay within the bike industry through most of my working career. I worked for Co-Motion cycles for a while, painting bikes for a couple of years, and at Vulture Cycles too. I did work as a professional trail builder for a small local company here in Bend called Dirt Mechanics. It’s a professional trail building company of 3 or 4 guys with a crew who do localized work.

I can carry enough tools up the trail for twelve. The twelve people who are coming out to do the maintenance don’t need to lug heavy tools for miles up to the worksite. They save energy, dig harder and a lot of them really appreciate it. It makes it a lot easier to talk some of them into coming out with us and helping out!

A: You’ve obviously got some amazing terrain to build on in Oregon. Does the wet climate impact your work significantly?

D: I think the rain is more legend than it actually is a factor, but then I could probably say the same about Scotland! It is wet on the Western side of Oregon as we’ve got the Cascade Range which splits the state into thirds more or less, and the western third from the range west gets something like 60 inches of rain a year. Here on the east side of the range, we get only get 12-16 inches. The weather tends to come in and hit the Cascades which pushes it up and it then dumps the rain over on that side. It is quite a bit different here.

A: I hadn’t realized quite the variety of weather you got, that must make for some really varied building challenges? D: That’s what makes the mountain biking even better, there are trails all over the state and you can be riding in a super dank, lush forest one day and then the next day be bombing down some super exposed granite thing where the tallest tree is barely 30ft tall.

A: So are the forestry service generally supportive of the mountain bike scene? D: Yes, definitely, and especially so over the last ten to fifteen years. They’ve just been able to see the impact of mountain bikes. I’m sure back in the late nineties and further back when there weren’t too many people doing it they perhaps didn’t think much of it but now we’ve got so many more people taking part a big part of the population is riding bikes. And then there are places like Oak Ridge which was a town created by logging which had two huge mills there, but then in the late eighties/nineties there was a downturn, the mills caught fire and the income for these small towns dried up. So they were these generally poor, struggling ex-mill towns, and they had trails all over these places. So once mountain biking appeared and riders went hunting these trails down and found them, and then more people got involved. Then I moved up here, at a time where I didn’t have a driver’s licence, so I just wanted to be able to ride from my door. And now the economy for that little town, a good percentage of it is outdoor tourism and a large part of that is mountain biking. It’s seasonal but the town’s staying alive because of mountain biking and outdoor tourism.

A: Are the towns positive toward this? D: In general, yeah. Of course, there are nay-sayers like in anything but as far as business owners go they love it. There’s sometimes a bit of friction between long-time locals and mountain bikers, perhaps more so in Oak Ridge than in Bend. There is that issue where mountain bikers have been buying holiday homes in these areas because the homes are cheap to their pockets, or they’ve turned them into Air BnB’s which stay empty nine months of the year. I could go way deep on that and it’s one reason I don’t live in Oak Ridge anymore. A little bit of that was down to the politics but also there was no house available that I could afford which would have allowed me to stay there.

A: We’re probably diving down a rabbit hole of human behaviour here but there’s a risk in lots of places where tourism gets involved and people lose sight of the impact their actions have on the locals who have lived their entire lives in these places.

D: Totally, we’ve just got to stop making babies [laughs]! A: Exactly! This is where I’ve had to re-align my own views on bikes It’s not ebikes that are actually the cause of the issues I frequently see on the trails or in these communities where there has been a significant increase in mountain bikers. It’s just bikers, and to a greater extent, the way a lot of people new to the outdoors choose to interact with the outdoors that I find disrespectful. Once I reframed the facts and situations I started to view ebikes as a positive rather than a negative.

D: We’re all on two wheels rolling around!

A: Do you find the other trail builders around you beginning to come on side with ebikes? D: Yes, definitely. One of the local guys is actually R&D skunkworks for Shimano, a guy called Paul Tomasberg. He’s been on one for a few years now and he’s a trail builder when he’s not doing his Shimano stuff. There’s a guy over on the coast range too. Pretty much all the trail builders I know either already has one, or they’re working on getting one, or if not that then Yamaha does a nice little TW200 fat-tired dirt bike that works really well for tugging around on the trails without tearing them up too much. They pull well at low speed, and you can touch both feet on the ground sitting on them.

A: It sounds like ebikes are actually the more acceptable, less damaging version of the dirt bike - from a trail sustainability perspective?

D: Oh yeah, definitely. And I’ve also spun it that with my ebike and Bob trailer I can carry enough tools up the trail for twelve people. I can carry enough tools up the trail for twelve. The twelve people who are coming out to do the maintenance don’t need to lug heavy tools for miles up to the worksite. They save energy, dig harder and a lot of them really appreciate it. It makes it a lot easier to talk some of them into coming out with us and helping out!

If you get a group of ten people are out with you who’ve been together for a long time, you can get a huge amount of great work done in a day.

A: So there a healthy building scene in Oregon?

D: Oh for sure, there are hundreds actually. There are maybe a dozen professional trail builders across Oregon, but then the volunteer force is much bigger than that. Here in Bend, we have a couple of hundred people turn up to some work parties, with maybe 400 - 500 people over a weekend coming out to dig. It’s overwhelming to me just how many people come out for some of the bigger, more organized days. And then on the west side of the range, there are a few groups of a solid 20-30 people who consistently get out and get some great work done.

The majority of what we do though is the maintenance as there’s this whole huge process to get through before you can build a new trail, and generally that’s where the professional trail builders come in. So the volunteer side is mostly just maintenance but some of these groups have been around for 20-30 years and some of the members almost the same. It’s quite often the same people you see coming along again and again, and after this time they’ve become really pretty good at it. If you get a group of ten people are out with you who’ve been together for a long time, you can get a huge amount of great work done in a day. And over this time we’ve not only become better at building but also engaging with the land managers and showing them the appeal of having mountain bikers and these trails around in their forests. There’s the Oregon Timber Trail too over near built by a group out of Portland which is a pretty significant ride that runs the length of Oregon from south to north, primarily using singletrack. It’s a pretty significant ride but that one’s raised a lot of awareness of the need to look maintain and look after these trails.

A: When it comes to trail maintenance, what’s your approach? Do you try to work with the land, or go for flow and perhaps try to open the trail up to more rider abilities? D: We tend to leave the flow trails to the professional trail builders, and if there’s a way to make something work in a trail then we usually build it into the trail rather than removing it to make it smooth and flat. But to a large degree, a lot of terrain dictates the trail rather than you being able to dictate the trail! Where we are here in Oregon a lot of the rock particularly is volcanic and quite young in geological terms, perhaps only 15,000 years old. So there’s a lot of nasty and sharp basalt rock that’s hard to break apart because it’s porous so it doesn’t tend to just split but breaks off in small pieces to leave sharp edges. So there’s only so much you can do, so in some areas, there are the smooth, flowing, sterile trails and then nearby there can be something that’s super gnarly and rough and you basically ride the terrain as it is which you absolutely need. Because we have so much terrain and so much space I think we strike a nice balance of trail types. It’s kinda hard to complain if you already knew what you were going to get before you got there!

A: Having trails for everyone is definitely the key, rather than killing off the super hard stuff so there’s no progression, even if fewer people have the ability to ride them. Otherwise, where would the fun be if you had nothing to progress to? That’s the thing I’ve been loving when speaking to people about bikes - they cover so many abilities, and so many reasons for owning them. Everyone’s story is slightly different, and where some can only really ride with the help of an ebike, you’ve also got guys who still have all sorts of bikes and enjoy each for their own merits. Do you still have a normal bike, an ‘acoustic’ bike if you will?

D: Yeah, I’ve got a Santa Cruz Bronson and I love that bike, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. There are a lot of times where I’m super glad to put the ebike away and jump on the Bronson to go out and ride the same trail I just came off of.

A: I’ve heard other people say you should never ride your favorite trails on your ebike because it’ll ruin it when you jump back on your normal bike! It’s really interesting hearing you say the exact opposite! D: Yeah, I’ve had times where I’ve had a ride on the ebike and then gone back straight after on the acoustic bike and absolutely smoked my previous Strava time because the bike’s close to 15lb lighter! There’s the same amount of suspension, the same amount of traction but a whole lot less weight and a whole lot more fun. And I only weigh about 150lb so a 45lb bike is a fair bit to hang onto for more than a couple of miles of descent!

A: That’s the great thing about having more than one bike though, isn’t it? D: Totally. I guess I probably think of the ebike as a utility rather than pure fun, although there are a few trails where I still love to pull it out because I can pull it out and do a great loop in about an hour, and the ebike works perfectly for that. A: Bringing loops into that one-hour window from your door is definitely a good place to be, especially with so many of us working from home at the moment, and looking likely to do so for some time. Being able to go out with the ebike n your lunch hour and get a bunch of trails in and be back in time to log back in is a great place to be. And then that saves your other bikes for the weekend when you have more time. How would you sum up ebikes?

D: Ebikes are here to stay, and hopefully there’s definitely a place for them. Hopefully, people’s attitudes have softened post-virus. And especially in the modern world where other forms of transport are pushing hard towards electric, it’s hopefully a new phase in transportation.

Not only can ebikes be fun and accessible but also help to develop and maintain the trails for normal bikes. They can be the tool to get out for a quick lap, or they can help you get to the top of that climb you normally couldn’t do. The fact that ebikes open up mountain biking to more people is inarguable, but it is up to those of us who ride bikes to decide for ourselves whether that is a good thing or not. Personally, I have gone from being heavily skeptical to sitting on the fence, to truly seeing their potential to help mountain biking in general. With Derrick and those like him there should be more than enough space for ebikers to enjoy their ride in the way acoustic riders have done for decades. And of course, having more people as riders means a louder voice to shout for more access. Thanks to Derrick for the time, and of course a massive shout out to all those he works with to maintain an incredible trail network.

- Alasdair MacLennan