The Ups and Downs of Mountain Biking Etiquette

Riding in Grand Junction, CO

Here at Element Sports, we have seen first-hand the growth of the sport of mountain biking the last two years.  We have introduced many to the sport ourselves, and have sold a great number of mountain bikes to new riders.  Part of selling bikes and the sport, though, is sharing our experience and providing knowledge.  It is our responsibility to our customers to share not only the details of how the bikes work, but to encourage stewardship and responsibility when it comes to riding on the trails in the Winchester area.

One of the greatest resources we can point out for new riders is the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), found at

This organization has worked tirelessly for mountain bike trail access, trail funding, trail work, and trail etiquette.  In this blog, I’d like to focus on the “IMBA Rules of the Trail” which focuses on trail etiquette.  You can find more info here:

The main points of the IMBA Rules of the Trail are as follows:

  • Respect the landscape
  • Share the trail
  • Ride open, legal trails
  • Ride in control
  • Plan ahead
  • Mind the animals

These Rules are not actually laws, at least in most areas, as some wrongly state, but they are designed to help mountain bikers ride safely, interact well with land managers and other riders, and to thoroughly enjoy the sport.  Many land managers have formally adopted the Rules and enforce them on the trails in their systems.

Under each Point, IMBA adds a blurb to further define it.  Most of the rules are straightforward and generally common sense for most.  If you tear up the trails by riding when you shouldn’t, they won’t be any good to ride when should.  Poaching trails will get yourself in trouble, and failing to plan ahead or ride in control or minding the animals could get yourself injured.  Most mountain bikers have no trouble understanding or following most of the Rules.

The Point that often does get a lot of discussion in mountain biking circles, though, is the point of Share the Trail, and what exactly that means, especially regarding who has the right of way on a trail.  IMBA defines that cyclists must yield to hikers and equestrians, for their own safety and the safety of others.  Which, it seems, in discussions, most people understand; after all, a horse is bigger and can hurt a cyclist more than the cyclist could hurt it.  The arguments start flying, though, over whether IMBA is correct in asserting that the descending rider must yield to the climbing rider.  Many of the arguments come from new riders who have discovered the joy of mountain biking, especially the thrill of the descents, but just lack the knowledge as to why this rule is in place.

I’m going to share a few of the arguments made for downhill riders having the right of way, but why IMBA is correct in asserting climbers should have the right of way.  I’ll start with the weakest argument: downhill is more fun, so climbers should yield so that the downhill rider can keep enjoying his ride.  Who is having more fun cannot be determined by just which direction a rider is going; some riders actually much prefer the climb.  So to say one direction should have the right of way based on perceived enjoyment is nothing more than selfishness and entitlement.

The next argument asserts that it is easier for the climber to stop and yield since he is moving slower.  Since it is easier for him, he should just go ahead and yield.  However, it is not as simple as that; it is not necessarily easier for the climber to yield.  There is also the issue of getting started again.  On a tough climb, stopping can be the end of riding.  The climber will have a hard time getting clipped back in and getting going again; he may have a lot of trouble getting going again even on flat pedals.  Yielding will possibly mean walking the rest of the climb instead of riding. If there is room to pass without either having to stop, and the trail is technical, the downhill rider has a much better chance of getting through the harder line, so he should yield the easier climbing line.

Many riders, even if they realize that the first two arguments do not end in the downhill rider’s favor, will make their final assertion that sounds like it can’t possibly be wrong: that it is SAFER for the climber to yield.  They’ll point out that the climber can hear the downhill rider approaching, and should see him earlier, that he will have more time to react and so make space so that the downhill rider can safely fly by.  It sounds good, and almost logical, but it is not correct.  First, the proliferation of ear buds while riding unfortunately means no one hears anything but their own music (now why that isn’t such a great thing is another discussion entirely).  Further, bikes really don’t make that much noise, so even a rider without earbuds might not hear someone coming down the trail.  As for seeing the other rider, the downhill rider actually has a much better chance of seeing the climber first. Most people only look as far ahead as they will be traveling in the next few seconds.  Which for a climber going slow, means he may be focusing not much ahead of his front wheel.  Head down and putting out a lot of effort, he can still stop before he runs into something.  The downhill rider will travel much further at his higher speed, so needs to be looking further down the trail, anyway.  So he’s actually likely to see the climber first and be able to make adjustments to speed and line earlier.  Due to the fact the downhiller travels faster, riders will argue that it’s harder to stop a bike when they are flying downhill, and so therefore it is safer for the climber to yield, instead.  This is a fallacy.  First, one should ride within his abilities and within his sight-line.  By that I mean, that one should never ride faster than she can see to stop; she should always be able to stop before what she can see down the trail.  If he cannot stop before what he can see, he is riding beyond what is safe.  One should slow down before blind corners for his own safety.  What if a tree has fallen or a bear has decided to hang out on the trail around that corner?  It isn’t going to yield to the descender.  If the downhill rider is riding within his sight-line, he will always have time to yield to the climber.  Also, as far as safety is concerned, if two riders collide, the climber is likely to have nothing more happen than being knocked over.  The descender, traveling at a higher rate, has a potential to go flying from his bike and risks greater injury.  So from a safety perspective, it is within the descender’s own self-preservation interests to yield.

There are a couple more very good reasons that one should follow the IMBA’s Rules regarding right-of-way.  As mentioned earlier, many trail and land-use managers and owners have long adopted the Rules.  Over the years, they have been ingrained in most mountain biker’s and trail steward’s psyches.  And since it has become a fairly universal code across the States and around the world, it will be difficult to change people’s mindsets to agreeing to chance the Rules to giving downhill riders the right of way.  Now, granted, the argument of “everyone does it this way” is pretty weak generally, after all if everyone else jumps off a bridge…  However, the fact that so many have accepted the standard that descending riders yield should give one pause to think through WHY it has been so universally accepted, which, when viewed through the lens provided in the above arguments quickly demonstrates that IMBA has the right of way process correct.

For those not convinced, there is another reason that one does not want to test if he can help it.  If a downhill rider were to not yield and cause an accident, he often could be held liable.  Even if we changed the Rules to give him the right of way, the descender could still end up in hot water.  What if the climber tried to yield, but stumbled and fell in front of the downhiller?  Even if the climber refused to follow the new Rules and didn’t yield keeping going up the middle of the trail, he is likely to win in a civil suit.  His lawyers will simply argue that the downhiller was riding recklessly and out of control.  Courts don’t know much about mountain biking; they would not care if the IMBA Rules gave the descender the right of way.  Legally, they are going to side with the one who was moving slower and in control.  So for one’s own safety, the safety of others, the pleasure of riding, and remaining free of potential legal troubles, yielding while descending just makes the most sense.

Now, having demonstrated that IMBA is correct in providing the climber the right of way, I’d like to point out that it is often easier and smoother in real life riding than many of the internet arguments make it out to be.  Most of the time, riders are respectful of each other, and it is generally possible to get by each other without either having to stop.  The downhill rider can slow, and move to side, allowing the climber to take the best line for climbing while still getting around and continuing his fun without a real interruption.  And, of course, some trails are one-directional, which means if it’s a downhill trail, climbers shouldn’t be on it in the first place.  I hope this primer on mountain biking etiquette, particularly regarding right of way, helps you to enjoy the sport even more and to be a great advocate for mountain biking!



Element Sports