By Howard Meyerson
Shawn Murphy is looking for a few good riders. Well, to be honest, maybe more than few.
Murphy is the director of the Michigan Mountain Bike Patrol, a small but growing group of volunteer cyclists who have taken it upon themselves to give something back to their sport by patrolling trails and race courses, offering assistance to riders in trouble whether fixing a flat tire or broken bones.
“We’re all volunteers,” said Murphy, a software developer from Canton. “Patrollers put on a red jersey and carry a first-aid kit. They go out and help people get back if they are injured.
“Our goal is to sign-up as many as we can. We would love to have 100 people around the state.”
If you’ve never heard of the group, you are not alone. Michigan’s program has only 30 patrollers around the state. Most live in southeast Michigan. It operates on a shoestring, but its vision is not small.
Michigan’s Mountain Bike Patrol is affiliated with the national program established by the Boulder Co. based International Mountain Bicycling Association. IMBA formed in 1988 and has 35,000 members, 750 chapters around the US, Canada and 30 countries. Its Mountain Bike Patrol program governs 50 groups and 600 patrollers.
It operates like the National Ski Patrol or National Cross-Country Ski patrol, both highly-respected organizations made up of volunteers who patrol ski areas all over the country. They learn first-aid, CPR and rescue techniques. They get called upon to provide a very important service to the skiing community.
The bike patrol does the same for the cycling community. It is, perhaps, an idea whose
time has come, particularly given the changes ahead.
Consider that an increasing number of commercial ski areas across the U.S. are building mountain bike trails and zip lines as a hedge against climate change. They are looking to diversify tourism revenues in the face of a real potential for having fewer skiable days.
Increasing need for patrollers ahead
A 2012 report about the impact of climate change on Midwest Outdoor Tourism, prepared for the U.S. Global Change Research Program as part of a US Climate Assessment discusses the implications of shifting seasons for the winter sports industry, citing that skiable days may decline along with the ability for ski resorts to make snow.
“…considerable opportunities might also present themselves in terms of providing for other activities in the lengthening spring-summer-fall,” writes, report author, Sarah Nicholls, a professor in the Departments of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, & Resource Studies, and Geography at Michigan State University. “Ski areas, for example, are often the perfect venues for spring-summer-fall activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and alpine slides.”
Consider too a 2013 finding by the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade organization that tracks participation trends across the U.S.. It found that adventure racing in 2012 grew more than any other form of outdoor recreation sport, up by 211 percent over the past five years. Adventure races often have mountain bike components. They can be long, hard and grueling events where people can and do get hurt.
“There is a need for the mountain bike patrol,” Murphy said. “You can get pretty far away from a trailhead on a bike and having people who can help others who are injured is going to be pretty helpful.”
That’s what drew Jeremy Verbeke to the patrol. He was a Shelby Township paramedic when he got into mountain bikes a few years ago. Today, he is the patrol director for the Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association.
“For anyone in the mountain bike community it’s like having an ambulance,” Verbeke said. “It was a perfect fit for me. I like to ride my bike and I like to help people. Up until last year there were only nine patrollers in the state – very few people for a lot of trails.
“When someone gets lost, biking is the fastest way to get to them, especially on large northern Michigan trail systems. And we promote good trail etiquette – between bikers and hikers and bikers and equestrians and runners.”
Becoming a mountain bike patroller does take commitment, according to Murphy. Volunteers may easily shell out $150 for the training and gear that is needed.
So far there are no set patrol schedules established for patrollers, but they are expected to patrol at least 40 hours annually to maintain certification. In return they can get discounts from bike dealers and others, even free access to some parks.
“They get trained and certified in first-aid and CPR and trained in making repairs along with how to use the environment for things like making splints,” Murphy said. “We also have to verify that they have good riding skills and good interpersonal skills. They will be relating to people who are upset and to land managers. They have to know how to present themselves.”
Mountain bike patrol good for Michigan
That riders are taking on the so-called badge of being a patroller is a good thing for Michigan. I suspect we will continue to see more cyclists on trails around the state.
Developing a patrol system lends further respectability to the mountain biking community – which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. That cachet is grounded in the work of the responsible riders who have spent thousands of hours building and maintaining trails around the state.
Creating a patrol program in Michigan will also be good for riders – for the obvious reason that patrollers offer help to those in need – and that they become the eyes and ears on the trail in case of trouble; and in doing so they help keep those trails open.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors