How Do You Build a Mountain Bike Trail – Talking with Elevated Trail Design

Fresh new trails are the siren song for mountain bikers – when you hear about a new line or some sweet new singletrack, you have to go and check it out. So when we heard about a new section of trail being built, by professional trailbuilders, on our usual home office lunchtime loop (a 6 mile trail system in a local sustainable development) our ears perked up and we had to know more!

We rode by to check out the construction progress and meet the guys from Elevated Trail Design, otherwise known as Andrew Mueller and Peter Mills. Based out of the Carolinas and Boulder, Colorado, ETD creates trails that integrate unique trail features into the natural landscape while maintaining high standards of safety and sustainability. They offer a variety of natural surface and resurfaced trails for many types of clients, and their specialties include multi-use trails, mountain bike trails, backcountry hiking trails, and bike parks. With experience building both machine built and hand built trails and all types of mountain bike features, they take pride in being a rider-owned company, and strive to secure projects which allow them to build creative and progressive features.

With that in mind, we fired off some questions to Andrew to find out more about what goes into building great trails.

Andrew riding the new trails at Briar Chapel

Andrew riding the new trails at Briar Chapel

How did you get started building trails as a job?

I started building trails the same way a lot of pro trailbuilders do; by building illegal trails. I guess it started around age 12, when digging holes to build jumps (without permission, of course) in the neighborhood was just a good way to get out of our parent’s houses. After all, until you can drive, a bicycle is about the closest thing to freedom that a teenager can get. Spots came and went, jumps were built and torn down, but I knew by the time I was 18 that I loved building bike trails…I just didn’t know it could be a job. My desire to ride and build led me to Appalachian State University, where I studied Geographic Information Systems and Sustainable Development (you could argue that I minored in downhill mountain biking!). I took an internship my senior year at the newly-envisioned Rocky Knob bike park in Boone, NC. We worked alongside a trail contractor, both working on the trails and then mapping them. It all pretty much fell into place from there; I got a job working for a trail company, met Peter Mills, and realized that we should be doing this on our own. We knew that if we wanted to build the unique features and trails that were in our heads, we had to go legit, and Elevated Trail Design was born.

What does it take to design & build a great trail?

I think design is huge.  So much of a trail’s potential comes from its design. Our first step is looking at maps and exploring. I want to know where all the rocks are, find the cool trees, and learn the layout of the terrain before we drop the first flag for the line. The next thing is drainage; you have to understand how water is going to behave if you want to build something that lasts. The last thing is experience. I think what sets Peter and myself apart as bike-specific builders is our diverse backgrounds as riders. We’ve ridden so many different types of trail and terrain that we have a unique vision for what mountain biking should be. We understand how trails evolve beneath knobby tires and how to prepare for that. It’s fun to think back to a fun section you rode in some other place and envision how we can replicate that experience where the users might not expect it.

Pump track built by Elevated Trail Design

Pump track built by Elevated Trail Design

What do you use to build trails?

The tools really depend on the project. A lot of people think pro trailbuilders just drive through the woods with a bulldozer and build some boring trail, but we really try to work with the client to build what he or she wants. We do machine built and handbuilt trails, and I think there are a lot of great things about both.  Nothing beats the artistic quality and minimalist traits of a handbuilt trail, but there are also situations where a machine can build better product in less time. I can confidently say that learning how to build trail with an excavator has made me much better at handbuilt trail and vice versa. For handbuilt trails, we start with chainsaws and blowers, then remove organics and cut the trail with trail tools (Rogue Hoes, Mcleods), then touch up with rakes and loppers. For machine built trail, we only use mini excavators.  The excavator is the ultimate do it all trail machine; we can use it to build minimal trail with rocks and roots, or we can build big dirt features that make places like Whistler famous. Either way, separation of materials is key…it’s all about keeping as much of the good mineral dirt on the trail and discarding the waste materials in a clean fashion.

Technical section at Briar Chapel

Technical section at Briar Chapel

What’s your favorite place to ride?

I’ve ridden a lot of great places, but for this question, I think I have to stick with my roots. I learned to ride in Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, and I still have to say it’s my favorite. I love the rugged trails there and the remote feel that they have. I hope that people see that we try to pay tribute to the rocks, roots, and rhododendron of Pisgah even though we’re trying to build sustainable trails and also make a living. Peter would probably tell you his favorite places to ride are Whistler Mountain Bike Park or any nice big dirt jumps. I think that’s what makes us a great team; we draw from different mountain bike experiences and put them all into a totally unique product.

What’s a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

It’s hard to pick just one, but believe it or not, I have to mention a hiking trail here. Last spring we did a 1.5 mile “face-lift” on part of NC’s Mountains-to-Sea trail near Boone, NC. It was called the Boone Fork Trail and it involved hiking into a remote drainage each day to build a huge variety of trail features. We did excavator trail, hand-built, rock armoring, and ladders with local timber, all on one job. Just working in that beautiful setting; with huge hardwoods and cascading rapids all around us every day, made that job really memorable.

New trail in Briar Chapel

New trail in Briar Chapel

What would be your ideal trail?

I like variety in my trails. My favorite trails mix new-school mountain bike trail building with natural terrain. I love a trail when you are smashing through some crazy rocks but there’s a perfect berm at the bottom to hold your speed into the next section. I love turns; if I’m riding in a straight line I better be hitting a nice jump or some roots and rocks, otherwise I’ll be bored! I also love trails that descend through different zones and environments, making you feel like you’re experiencing the forest and having a blast in a way a hiker could never understand.

And of course, near to our hearts, how would you describe the trail you just built at Briar Chapel?

Briar Chapel was just an all-around great project for us. It was a design/build, so it allowed us to show off our full vision and potential as trailbuilders.  We tried to maximize the terrain in every way possible, striving to show people that you can have a rugged and fun mountain bike experience even in a suburban, residential setting. What that vision resulted in is a huge variety of building and riding styles packed into a small amount of trail. We built flowy berms and rollers, tight singletrack, rock gardens, stuff that’s clearly machine-built, stuff that people will think is handbuilt, and stuff that actually is handbuilt.  We were calling it the party trail while we built it; it makes you just want to do lap after lap. If people come there and ride our trail two or three times in different directions, we accomplished our goal [note for locals: please check trail conditions before riding - the new section of trail may not be open yet due to weather].

Peter having fun in Moab, Utah

Peter having fun in Moab, Utah

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