Dozens of mountain bikers gathered together at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park earlier this month to call attention to what they say is a lack of trail access for cyclists to use.
The Feb. 6 demonstration consisted of a protest ride along the park's fire roads, which are the only trails mountain bikers are legally permitted to use. However, the roads are shared by hikers, equestrians and other park users.
"Since we're only allowed to ride on fire roads and fire roads are about 8 to 20 feet wide and they condense all the user groups on the fire roads -- which is horseback, dog walkers, hikers and bikers -- that's where all the conflicts are happening because bikers go screaming by and it makes the hikers upset," said Chris Beratlis, who spearheaded the Pleasanton Ridge protest ride.
Beratlis, a Pleasanton resident who owns My Buddy's Bike Shop in Livermore, said this action was the result of a decades-long battle between the mountain biking community and the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which oversees and operates most of the local mountain biking trails, including at Pleasanton Ridge.
"Since day one after the park district was formed, biking was not allowed, and when they allowed it after biking became more popular in the '70s and '80s, they were only allowed to be on fire roads, just like they are now," Beratlis said. "So, no laws have changed, no rules have changed. They've treated the biking community almost as if we're outlaws, and we're not."
Using social media to spread the word about the protest ride, Beratlis said he saw people come from other communities to support the effort, including Modesto and even from as far as South Lake Tahoe.
Over the past 20 years, Beratlis said that he and other members of the mountain biking community attended several meetings, including with the Pleasanton City Council and EBRPD, to make requests for more riding options for mountain bikers. He said that they received "nothing but 100% resistance."
San Ramon resident and avid mountain biker Ron Balthasar shared similar sentiments.
"We've gone to countless meetings -- land access meetings -- I've filled out a lot of documents, we've tried to go about this the correct way and work with East Bay Regional Park District but there's been absolutely no results and if anything it's gotten worse," Balthasar said, adding that bike riders have recently been receiving tickets for riding on other existing trails within the parks that are not designated for bikes.
Both Balthasar and Beratlis said bikers have resorted to using the alternative trails to alleviate overcrowding on the fire roads.
"The current policies are that we're all allowed on the same fire roads, which is very, very unsafe. It's ridiculous how unsafe it is and that's what we were trying to demonstrate," Balthasar said of the protest ride.
He said that on the day of the event, he spoke to some of the hikers in the park and let them know what was going on. He said the protest was actually well-received by the hikers he spoke to who agreed that they need separate trails. "They don't want to see a bicycle coming down a hill that they're walking up," Balthasar said of the hikers.
While the access issue existed pre-pandemic, overcrowding on the trails has become exacerbated by an influx of park users over the past two years, which EBRPD does recognize as an issue, according to Brian Holt, EBRPD chief of planning, trails and GIS.
"When gyms were closed and a lot of other things were closed, people from all user groups and stakeholder groups rediscovered the parks," Holt said, adding that the increase in demand is not going away even as pandemic restrictions ease.
Like Beratlis and Balthasar, Holt also said there have been decades of tension between the mountain biking community and the park district.
Holt said that a trail user working group that was formed after a 2019 board workshop explored several ideas and concerns among the various park user groups, including hikers, cyclists, dog walkers and others.
While the working group has since phased out, he said that their discussions led to some short-term strategy ideas for how to address growing mountain bike demand in the parks.
Among those ideas are some pilot programs that could potentially be implemented, such as operational controls like designating certain trails as one directional or exploring alternate use days for trails where mountain bikes are permitted on some days and other days are strictly for hikers or equestrians, according to Holt.
Beratlis and Balthasar both said that there are existing trails at Pleasanton Ridge and other EBRPD parks that could be designated for mountain biking but currently are not.
Holt said that redesignating trails gets into policy decisions that the Board of Directors would have to make. "Under our existing ordinance 38, bikes are prohibited on any trails that are less than 8 feet wide and that's the regulation," Holt said.
He continued, "There can be exceptions to it; certainly it's possible that the board could vote to exempt certain trails, but I think there's concerns about the user built trails in that they haven't gone through what would be the traditional process, which is environmental review and a look at how the full system works. And that's generally something that is voted on and approved by our board, and that also gives all the other stakeholders an opportunity to provide input. So that's where, frankly, this process gets hung up a lot of times."
Holt said that while addressing the needs of the mountain biking community is one of the goals of EBRPD's master plan that was adopted in 2013, it is a challenging process -- particularly amid controversy and tension that tend to make policy decisions difficult.
"We've been working with the mountain biking community for a long time and we will continue to," Holt said.
He added, "While things may seem slow and unresponsive, we're working within a difficult political and permitting environment with these types of things, so we're trying to continue to find those opportunities to partner. And moving forward, the only way any of this is going to be successful is a good partnership where we're all working together and understanding the constraints that we have at the park district and our need for environmental protection and safe trail experiences."
Beratlis said that he plans to host additional protest rides at other EBRPD parks until there is some action taken to address the biking community's concerns.