“As a trail builder, I am able to paint the trail behind me and leave no destructive remnants of what happened in the process. I try my hardest to leave no trace of ruin and contribute to the beautification of the area after I finish the build.” -Kyle Jameson
We had a chance to sit down with Kyle Jameson, aka “KJ,” a trail builder from the future. Kyle is a progressive trail builder, professional mountain bike rider and truly connects with the land through his work. Kyle’s design style focuses on flow, speed control and a deep connection with the land in which he builds on.
Name: Kyle Jameson, Founder, Black Sage Dirt Works
Hometown: Davis, California
DC: What’s your short story? Tell me about when you started riding bikes and how your passion for trail building developed?
KJ: I was in 5th grade when I started riding bikes and I immediately got hooked. I pursued mountain biking not only as a hobby, but also a lifestyle. As soon as I was old enough, I started working at a family restaurant to save money to attend local bike camps. By the time that I was 16, I was approached by Scott USA and they became my first sponsor. In addition to riding competitively, I coached at mountain biking camps and built jumps for the community. When I was 19 years old, I created a job for myself once I realized I could be paid to build jumps. It was a way for me to make money while biking. I started building pump tracks around the nation and worked for various film production companies that needed professional builds for their mountain bike movies. I completely immersed myself into the mountain biking world and became great friends with the athletes and professionals in the industry.
DC: Did you have a mentor at any point? How did you develop such a skill set for building flow trails?
KJ: Randy Spangler took me under his wing. He is a local pro from my hometown of Davis, California. We worked for a company called Alpine Bike Parks and Randy taught me the art of building pump tracks. Randy greatly influenced my style of mountain biking when I was growing up–the way Randy rode a bike was the way I wanted to ride a bike. Randy’s riding is all about flow and fluidity and we built trails with those aspects top of mind. He taught me how to dig and build dirt jumps when I was 16 when I started getting sponsored. I soaked up everything he was doing. By the time I developed my own riding style, it also translated to how I wanted to build trails. Because Randy and my riding style was so unique, our trail building was also equally as unique. We wanted to build trails that we loved riding.
DC: What do you pay attention to while building the trails?
KJ: My approach is to constantly think about speed management and how every feature plays into how fast the rider is going. If I am building a downhill trail, I try to eliminate pedaling down the trail but rather coast or pump down the trail if needed. We manipulated the terrain by building rollers, berms and jumps to manage speed.
DC: How does building trails give you a sense of freedom and independence?
KJ: I get a big rise out of making a beautiful mess and then cleaning it up. The mess, created by a machine, evolves into a polished trail. I have great reverence for the forests and terrain that I build trails on. For many trail projects, I use a large excavator. My goal is to re-naturalize the area after I move the dirt around, and I build effectively enough so that I do not have to revisit the site with heavy machinery again. I create this oasis of trail and water management within the forest. The concept of “growing a trail out of the ground” with my excavator and then riding my bike down the final result is pure freedom.
DC: Talk to me about your relationship with the land while riding and building trails.
KJ: I have such a massive respect for nature. I spend endless hours in nature working, riding and living deep in the ponderosa forest. When I have a new trail building project, I spend lots of time walking in the woods and thinking about how to not force a trail into the existing nature. The forest is a blank slate at the beginning. The trail is already there, I just have to take time to visualize the trail and find it. It’s a bit of a zen moment. As I walk around and visualize, I flag the route of the trail and different aspects of the existing terrain that I want to feature within the trail. Occasionally I have to grit through some sections because I can’t leave the corridor and I must stay within the boundaries of the trail system. My excitement bubbles over throughout this whole process.
DC: What about trail building brings you the most joy?
KJ: I get a rise out of going to work in the forest and being in nature each day. As a trail builder, I am able to paint the trail behind me and leave no destructive remnants of what happened in the process. I try my hardest to leave no trace of ruination and contribute to the beautification of the area after I finish the build. There is typically no way of the user knowing heavy equipment came through the area.
Throughout the whole building process, I love the overall experience of test riding the trail. I get on my bike and flow test the segments of the trail where there are enough built features in a row. For example, I’ll test out four different features of the trail to make sure they link together
DC: Do you feel that trail building gives you a platform for your own creative expression? How?
KJ: I build the trail based on the way that I like to ride the trail. Trail building is equally an expression of creativity as is the ride.
DC: How have you seen trail building evolve?
KJ: There is a much greater sense of awareness of using equipment to build trails and general respect of the land. The communities are moving away from pure hand build to incorporating excavators more frequently. I’m able to achieve the same rider experience by using different size excavators while building the trail. I am able to move larger amounts of earth to influence speed and flow. Flow is becoming a high priority in addition to incorporating the technicalities like rock features, roots and drops. Having rollers and grade reversals are good ways to generate speed and flow on the trails rather than having a pipe underneath the trail for drainage.
DC: Let’s talk about the timeline and the aspects of the trail building process that involve your time and expertise. In Part I of the The Art of the Build series, I interviewed Emmy Andrews, Executive Director of Central Oregon Trail Alliance. She explained to me the intricate steps and timeline of planning to build a new trail. Emmy mentioned because of the lengthy pre-planning process, trailbuilders like yourself typically integrate in at last 5-10% of this timeline.
KJ: Yes, that sounds about right. Trails often take up to five years to approve. A non-profit organization, like COTA, or a private party conceptualizes the project. Then a land management official comes through and flags the corridor indicated where the project will be built. Multiple different kinds of “-ologists” come through and survey the natural environment to make sure there are no endangered species such as spotted owls or preserved nature areas like wetlands. If the corridor passes these inspections, an official RFP goes out to numerous contractors interested in securing the job or the job is directly assigned to a contractor.
For any RFP that I am interested in, I visit the land and take a long moment to understand and survey the terrain. I map the trail and assess the costs associated with the build, as well as consider the timeline to execute. Eventually, an organization like COTA assesses all of the contractor’s bids and awards the project to the appropriate recipient. If I am awarded the bid, I walk the forest with COTA and the Forest Service and place flags where the trail is to be built. Oftentimes, we end up moving the trail so the original flagged route isn't always what the final product looks like! The length of the trail is usually determined by the original approval from the forest services. The start of the trail is indicated at highest point and end is indicated at the lowest point and the length in between is zig zagged throughout the terrain in between.
DC: What machines and tools do you use in the build?
KJ: I use a four ton excavator with a tilting bucket to shape burns and sides of trails. I also use big and small chainsaws, pole saws, plate compactors and an array of hand tools for finishing such as rakes, shovels and hoses. Throughout the build, water is critical so we use a 275 water tote with a trailer, a skid steer and a pump to water down the dirt. Dirt bikes and quads pack it all down at the end.
DC: Which trails have you built and which trails are you currently working on?
DC: How do you suggest people get involved in trail building?
KJ: Find your local trail building association and volunteer. Plug yourself in the community. Ride all different kinds of trails and diverse terrains. Take notice of how you feel on your bike when you’re riding. And if you want to become a professional trail builder, reach out to the local companies that you aspire to. Get involved and bee ready to dig.
As we celebrate Earth Day, notice all the trails in your community. Get out and ride! How does access to the nature around you make you feel more connected to yourself and to the world? How can you take notice and slow down to appreciate and have deep reverence to the community behind the scenes providing us with opportunities to explore, ride and hike the beautiful land all around us? Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us to “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” And let’s continue to support the individuals that work hard to encourage our human sense of independence, freedom and relationship with the land.
Board Member, Central Oregon Trail Alliance
All photos by Javan Ward, 29NRTH.com