Almost a year and half ago, Susie Murphy took a big gamble.
The San Diego native, who’d been mountain biking the region’s trails since 1994, decided to go all in on her passion for two-wheeling. She left the chaotic-but-stable career of an elementary school teacher to serve as the first director of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association (SDMBA).
Since Murphy took the handlebars the 20-year-old association, which protects and promotes mountain bike access in San Diego County, has noticeably up its game on advocating for riders and trails. Outdoor SoCal caught up with Murphy recently for a chat.
What made you decide to take the position at SDMBA? Does every region have a similar position?
I had been teaching at an elementary school but was looking to change careers into some sort of non-profit job. I heard from friends that SDMBA was planning to hire an executive director. I was in the right place at the right time. I have been in this job now for almost a year and a half. It’s awesome.
SDMBA BY THE NUMBERS
3000+ trail work volunteer hours (2016)
100 events hosted (2016)
20+ miles of trails built or authorized (2016)
We are a chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association, so we benefit from being connected to their larger network and policy expertise. There are only a handful of mountain biking associations across the country that have an executive director or any paid staff. I am able to connect with those I know so we can compare notes and share best practices. We are all growing and learning together to get more mountain bikes on more trails.
How has the organization changed since you started a year and a half ago?
SDMBA has grown and evolved immensely. We’re holding many more events and we’ve really increased our memberships, volunteers and board members. Even the number of tools we own!
We now have a 3-year strategic plan and improved financial operations and formal governance policies in place. We are also working on a new website platform that will enable us to serve our members and our community better.
There was a big ride by mountain bikers to protest closures at Mission Trails two or three years ago — it had a Skateboarding Isn’t a Crime vibe. I’d never thought about mountain bikers as a counter-culture until then. Does that ring true?
The Mission Trails protest ride actually happened before my time in early 2014. It was an important moment, however, in the growth of our organization and it galvanized our community.
Mountain bikers showed up and spoke up and people listened. We are still capitalizing on the momentum that was created at that time. There is no way that we would be where are are today with the progress on the Stowe trails without that momentum.
I think it is a little dated to think of mountain biking as a counter culture. I guess some factions like to think of themselves as being totally rogue, but I have heard more often lately that mountain biking is the “new golf.”
This means it is respectable and has some money behind it, supported by successful people at a stage in their lives where they can buy expensive bikes and all the accessories and travel to destinations to use all that stuff. The industry is listening.
Mountain bikers put in a huge amount of work on San Diego trails. Is there a backlog of maintenance, or are San Diego’s trails generally in good shape?
San Diego County is a big place with many parks and other informal riding areas. We work in cooperation with land managers and always with their permission to do any work. Most of our trail work happens in the winter when the soil has some moisture. In the past year, we have been swamped with work. More than we can manage, really.
We have brought on new regional Trail Liaisons who are our first line of communication and planning with land managers. We are starting trail crew leader training programs this spring so we can train more leaders. My vision is to have regional Land Stewardship Crews that are connected with their local Trail Liaison and vested in their local neighborhood trails.
The land managers value our expertise and always are happy when we can dedicate time and talent to their areas.
Can anyone get involved, even if they aren’t an SDMBA member?
We currently have over 20 Trail Liaisons who each are in charge of the communications and planning for individual parks or riding areas. These liaisons are experienced trail builders who are in contact with land managers frequently to plan work days or discuss issues in trail use.
When we have trail work days – most every weekend in the winter – anyone can show up. No experience necessary. We have all the tools and can give guidance as needed. Volunteers do not have to be SDMBA members. We have National Interscholastic Cycling Association high school racers, cycling clubs from local colleges, trail runners and even equestrians show up at our trail work days.
Do you run into conflict with other groups, like hikers or equestrians, when it comes to trail access issues?
This is a matter of ongoing education in any area that has multi-use trails. The majority of participants in any user group follow the rules and then there are a few in each group who don’t. SDMBA works hard to let the community know that everyone needs to follow the IMBA Rules of the Trail and that cyclists need to yield to all other trail users. And use common sense and courtesy. I know, funny concept. But it’s a vision.
SDMBA has promoted using trail bells for over 5 years and currently provides bell boxes and loaner bells at Mission Trails, Noble Canyon and the Tijuana River Valley. We’ve also partnered with local equestrian groups to organize horse desensitization workshops in order to get the horses used to bikes and vice versa.
Trail networks in other regions seem to be growing faster than those in SoCal. Why is that? Is everybody busy surfing?
It is true there are many distractions in San Diego, although we don’t have to compete with the NFL anymore. San Diego County, like most of Southern California, has a much more complicated land ownership landscape than places like Caliente, Nevada, for instance. In Caliente, which is being developed into a major mountain biking destination, trail planners basically only had to deal with the Bureau of Land Management.
To give you a San Diego example, to install a new bike tool station at Sweetwater Reservoir in Chula Vista, we had to get the approval and cooperation of US Fish and Wildlife, the County of San Diego, and the Sweetwater Authority Water District. We even pulled in the CCC (California Conservation Corps) to help with the installation.
Any given trail project can also include private property easements, other municipalities or agencies such as California Coastal Commission or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This is not a game for anyone interested in immediate gratification. It takes diplomacy, patience and humor. Forward progress is always the goal even though the final product may take years.
What are some of the other issues SDMBA is focused on right now?
The major focus for us right now is the opening of the historic Stowe Trail that links Santee and Sycamore-Goodan Ranch in Poway. We’ve worked with the Marines and many other entities, government officials, and jurisdictions to make this trail connection a reality.
You may have heard that a year ago almost 50 bikes were confiscated by the Marines because riders were trespassing onto base property. The San Diego Mountain Biking Association took a leadership role pushing for a viable solution all parties could embrace.
With support from political leaders, SDMBA, user groups and the Marines, a permit resolution was agreed upon as the best solution. When using the historic Stowe Trail, all trail users will need to have the permit in their possession. SDMBA and the Marines are hosting a work day in February to decommission unauthorized routes and ensure that trail users stay on the desired path.
We’re also continuing to work at Black Mountain Open Space Park with over 1 mile of new trail built this season to add to the almost 4 miles completed in the past 3 years. This area is fast becoming a great destination for mountain biking close to town. We’re also working with the County of San Diego to plan and build a bike park.
How do electric mountain bikes fit into the picture? Are they allowed on mountain bike trails just like old-fashioned muscle only bikes?
Well, that is the electric elephant in the room. IMBA has been putting out statements and presenting findings of research regarding e-bikes for a few years now. Some land managers are starting to understand that they need to create a policy on e-bikes but some don’t really understand what is coming.
SDMBA is currently working with other IMBA California chapters to create a document that gives some guidance for consumers, retailers and land managers. We believe that land managers ultimately have to make this decision for their areas.
We also want to try to let retailers know that they need to be honest with their customers. They can’t sell an E mountain bike and allow the consumer think that they can just it anywhere they want.