Trail-building pioneers reflect on local mountain biking's early days
By Mark Morical / The Bulletin
Published: September 18. 2011 4:00AM PST
Trail-builder Phil Meglasson and the tools of his art: his mountain bike, a trailer with basic earth-moving tools, some water and food. He is shown along the Mrazek trail near Shevlin Park, one he continues to maintain at the age of 70. Meglasson, the “Phil” behind Phil's Trail in the Deschutes National Forest west of Bend, said he learned trail-building in high school by helping build forest trails for firefighters, which spurred an interest in topographical maps.
When Phil Meglasson was working for the U.S. Geological Survey creating topographical maps in the early 1980s, he discovered an efficient way to go about his business.
“I was able to ride my mountain bike at work day after day,” recalls Meglasson, the “Phil” of the famed Phil's Trail west of Bend.
Meglasson, now 70, and several other Central Oregon mountain biking pioneers began riding deer trails and logging roads in the area, and forming them into biking trails.
Little did they know that their early labors would eventually turn Central Oregon into a mountain biking mecca, a place where today volunteers tirelessly build and maintain trails to which locals and tourists alike flock in droves.
And now those trails have become a centerpiece for major national events, such as the 2011 USA Cycling Mountain Bike Marathon National Championships, held here Saturday.
The 50-mile race was staged on about 40 miles of singletrack trails near Wanoga Sno-park southwest of Bend. Most of those trails did not even exist five years ago, a testament to the rapid growth of mountain biking and biker-built trails in Central Oregon.
When Meglasson and his friends Dennis Heater, Bob Woodward and Mike McMackin formed the Black Rock Mountain Bike Club in the early '80s, they were simply looking for off-road places to ride their bikes.
“We would just pick a little,” Meglasson says, recounting the early days of trail construction. “We didn't use tools.
We'd look and find the best route and throw the limbs out of the way. Sagebrush, we'd pull it until it popped out. Phil's Trail was a mix of deer trail and doubletrack. We didn't have to do much except throw the dead limbs off and ride it.”
In the late 1980s, Meglasson and his crew started putting more effort into building trails. Those efforts would lead in 1992 to the founding of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA), and to the forging of a crucial, long-standing relationship with the U.S. Forest Service.
More than 25 years since its inception, the Phil's Trail network includes a variety of singletrack trails west of Bend in the Deschutes National Forest between Skyliners Road and Century Drive. The area is nationally known because of its wide assortment of trails — trails built by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers.
Still riding his mountain bike four times a week, Meglasson says he puts in 100 to 150 hours of trail work every year. He also maintains the Mrazek Trail, just north of the Phil's network.
Looking back, Meglasson says maybe a dozen or so mountain bikers were pedaling through the woods near Bend in the early 1980s. Now, COTA estimates that more than 10,000 mountain bikers ride Central Oregon trails each year.
So, does Phil miss the early days, before his trail became a household name in Central Oregon and got crowded with bikers, hikers and runners?
“Sometimes, when you're coming down (the trail) and you keep meeting people one after the other, you kind of long for the old days,” he admits. “But back then, we didn't have a lot of singletrack.”
Now they have 350 miles of it — and countless COTA volunteers who continue to build and protect it.
In addition to Meglasson, The Bulletin spoke with three other volunteer trail builders and mountain bike advocates, pioneers who, like Meglasson, have left an indelible mark in the woods of Central Oregon — and who continue to do so.
When professional mountain bike racer Paul Thomasberg moved to Bend from Davis, Calif., in 1989, one of the first things he did was march into the Deschutes National Forest office and talk to Marv Laing.
That was the start of a 20-plus-year partnership between COTA and the Forest Service that would help Central Oregon become a mountain biking hot spot.
Laing, who is now retired, would have such an impact that COTA a few years ago named a new trail after him: Marvin's Gardens.
In Davis, Thomasberg would ride his mountain bike on private lands that became off-limits. Then, in 1984, the Wilderness Act was reinterpreted to prohibit mountain bikes from Wilderness areas. Hundreds of miles of singletrack in California were closed to bikes.
Thomasberg wanted to make sure his new Central Oregon home would not suffer the same fate, thus his meeting with Laing.
“When I moved to Bend, it was all adventure riding — nothing was marked,” Thomasberg recalls. “The (Deschutes) River Trail was user-built by bike riders; it was just a route.”
Thomasberg wanted to build a trail with significant climbing, so he designed a section of Phil's Trail from Forest Road 300 to the helicopter pad. This section is now often referred to as Paul's Trail.
“I knew we needed climbs that actually climb,” Thomasberg says. “We needed something that heads for the ridge top.
“If my friends rode it, soon there would be a little ribbon going through the woods. Now we build sustainable trails that entertain a variety of mountain bikers. The key was that there was this tremendous potential, and I was willing to do my part.”
Seemingly more important to Thomasberg than building trails is his ongoing battles for mountain biker access.
“We've been really involved and we have personal relationships with the Forest Service,” he says. “From a COTA perspective, contrary to a lot of organizations that do what we do, we do not promote mountain biking. Our primary focus is to promote stewardship.”
Thomasberg, 49, is a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and has been a product tester for Shimano, a bicycle parts company, for more than 20 years.
Currently the vice chairman of COTA, Thomasberg was thrilled to have the Mountain Bike Marathon Nationals in Central Oregon. He even raced, finishing 14th in the men's 40-49 age group.
But he and other members of COTA, while mountain bike enthusiasts, are not interested in promoting the sport and bringing more mountain bikers onto Central Oregon trails.
“I'm stoked that the nationals is here,” he says. “But the reason that it is (here) is because there's a bunch of people who have a passion, and they're not doing it for any monetary gain. We're doing it because we're passionate about bicycle riding.”
In the early 1990s, Ben Husaby was training for his career as a cross-country skier, and he was looking for singletrack trails on which to train.
Husaby — who competed for the United States in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics — had grown tired of riding up and down Phil's Trail all the time. So he built what would come to be known as Ben's Trail.
“One evening I brought some survey tape and started flagging the forest how I thought it would be fun to ride back down to the starting point,” Husaby remembers. “I didn't build it necessarily for mountain biking. I just thought we needed singletrack for training ... biking, running, just for being out in the woods.”
Husaby's tool of choice was a pitchfork. He says the most enjoyable aspect of building a trail is simply exploring the area — “the going back and forth, trying to link up places that would be redeeming.”
“I built trails so I could go around things,” he says. “We did it to get from point A to point B.”
Husaby gained some satisfaction when he would return to the trail he had been working on and find that other bikers had started riding it.
And he would ride other builders' trails as well.
“When you went on a new trail, you tried to guess whose trail it was,” Husaby recalls. “You knew it was one of a few guys, and you knew their style.”
Husaby, now 45 and the executive director of the Bend Endurance Academy, would go on to build the Storm King and Voodoo trails, two other popular paths in the Phil's Trail complex.
Kent Howes moved to Bend from Portland in 1992. Though the early mountain bikers in Central Oregon had already established a number of trails, Howes quickly made a name for himself as a trail builder and a COTA promoter.
Though he is asked about it often, Howes, now 58, did not build Kent's Trail, which starts from Phil's Trailhead. (That trail was built by Kent Benesch, another Bend mountain biking pioneer.) Rather, Howes designed and built the KGB Trail, which stands for “Kent's Get Back.”
As mountain biking increased in popularity in the early to mid-1990s, the Forest Service took issue with all the “pirate” trails that were being built west of Bend, according to Howes.
“They wanted everything run through proper channels,” Howes recounts. “The Forest Service had to approve trails and they had to be built to a certain standard. They realized they could work with COTA and let COTA maintain the trails. It was good the Forest Service was magnanimous about it, before they even realized the tourism potential. At that point it became a cooperative effort.”
The trails went from being hand built by a small group of bikers to now hundreds of volunteers building trails with the aid of skid steers, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. Stewards are now assigned to maintain specific trails.
“Both the size and scope have changed,” says Howes, who served as COTA president for 10 years and is now a senior trail steward and a professional trail builder. “Our main focus is to promote connectivity to make it a unified (trail) system.”
Eight years ago, it was a shared vision of COTA and the Forest Service to eventually stage events in the Wanoga trail system, then yet to be built. The Mountain Bike Marathon Nationals were held there on Saturday, and several other races have been staged in the Wanoga complex over the last couple of years.
“I think it's a sign,” Howes says, “that Bend has been recognized as a world-class area for riding and for events.”
Mark Morical can be reached at 541-383-0318 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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