Wheel of Fortune

By Deb Acord
The Gazette - Oct 24, 2003


If trails in the Colorado Springs area were named after the groups that worked on them, you'd find "Medicine Wheel" trails at Ute Valley Park, Garden of the Gods, Palmer Park, Section 16 and dozens of other places.

But so far, there are no Medicine Wheel Trails among the hundreds of miles built, maintained or repaired by the volunteer mountain bike advocacy group that goes by that name.

That could change next summer when Cheyenne Mountain State Park opens south of the city. Park manager Rich Dudley, who has been watching members of the group build a trail in the park for the past six months, says, "I asked the group for name suggestions, but I've started thinking it should be named after them."


To members of the group, having their name attached to a trail is a low priority.

On this day, especially, they have gathered to ride. As a reward for their work at the new 1,600-acre state park, they have been invited to explore several miles of trails, including the one they built.

More than a dozen people gathered on a sunny Sunday morning at the invitation of Dudley, for a short presentation on the park's trails, a quick survey of a map and a few hours of riding.

Medicine Wheel's members are united by a love of mountain bikes and trail riding. This gathering at Cheyenne Mountain State Park is as close as they ever come to a meeting. They don't pay dues, at least not the monetary kind. And since the late 1980s, their purpose has been clear: to perform proactive trail work and be trail advocates, so trails can be kept open for all users.

The group's history goes back more than 20 years, to a time when mountain bikes were just starting to take to area trails.

Hikers and equestrians were alarmed - their newest competition for trails could move quietly and quickly across the terrain. Trail studies confirming the use of bicycles as legitimate trail equipment hadn't yet been conducted. Land managers were unsure about how to manage the newest use of their trails, and environmental groups were concerned with the possible degradation of the terrain.

Trails in the region could have been closed to bikes then, but a local rider with a vision decided to take the offensive, says current Medicine Wheel president Josh Osterhoudt.

Brian Gravestock, an owner of Criterium Bike Shop, founded the group in 1988, naming it after the American Indian medicine wheel, often used to represent the seasons of life, spiritual growth and maturation.

Gravestock had a clear idea of how to ensure trail access for mountain bikers and began organizing volunteers for trail maintenance workdays, Osterhoudt says. "He saw that cyclists did have an impact on trails and that their upkeep would be necessary to continue using them.

"This exercise also proved valuable in building relationships between cyclists, other users and land managers. It became evident that mountain cyclists were willing to put their shovel where their mouth was and we became proactive rather than reactionary."


In the 15 years since, Medicine Wheel has established itself as a leading trail advocacy group in the region.

Chris Leiber, administrator and trails coordinator of Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) for the city, has worked with Medicine Wheel members for five years. "They've been instrumental for us, in an advocacy role and in putting their ideas into physical projects on our properties."

Lieber worked with members at Palmer Park and Stratton Open Space. He believes the group has become important to trail-building projects throughout the city. "They've taken it upon themselves to become experts when it comes to trail maintenance and construction. They have the energy and the manpower. In our community, they stand alone."

Dudley, manager of the new state park, saw that energy surface last spring, when Osterhoudt approached him with some ideas.

"He wanted to know how we might go about getting the group involved in the park's planning and creation," he says.

Trail building experts from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) were recruited to teach Medicine Wheel members how to build a trail, and after being trained, volunteers began working every Thursday night with shovels and picks.

Dudley says he has been impressed by the way work done by the group. "One of the key elements in trail building is making them sustainable. They need to be there for along time. This trail will be."

The "Medicine Wheel" trail - about 1 1/2 miles when finished - rolls through stands of scrub oak. Its surface is sand and gravel, but about midway lies a huge granite boulder. It's the kind of trail expert mountain bikers love to find - one that contains unexpected challenges like rock hopping, along with pleasant stretches of straightaway uphill and speed Inducing curves downhill.

It' even too difficult for some of Medicine Wheel's members, but they're pleased by that.

"We want to make sustainable trails that are still fun," says Osterhoudt.

Over the years, the group has worked to be "the voice of reason," he says. "Early on, we saw hikers opposed to equestrians, and equestrians opposed to bikes. We became the group that was known for coming in and saying, 'let's talk about this.'"


Education is a large part of Medicine Wheel's mission, Osterhoudt says. The group established a volunteer mountain bike patrol a decade ago, when the North Slope Recreation Area opened on Pikes Peak. That successful patrol encouraged the International Mountain Bicycling Association to put together a national program.

Now, the patrol volunteers are members of the IMBA patrol, a group sponsored and trained by the national association. Patrollers provide assistance to hikers, equestrians and all trail users, especially mountain bikers; they give information and directions; they help with minor repairs and first aid, and emergency assistance.

"You could say we promote safety and serenity on the trails," says Medicine Wheel member and patrol coordinator Paul Byer.

To that end, Medicine Wheel members have been watching the newest mountain biking trend - downhill racing - with interest.

Downhill riders use specially designed, full-suspension bikes. Their objective: to race downhill on trails as fast as they can, conquering rocks and roots with speed and adrenaline.

Many people view the new riders as renegades with no regard for the trails or other trail, users.

Medicine Wheel sees this new generation "as a challenge that's not insurmountable," Osterhoudt says.

"We try to teach people to ride responsibly," he says. "We have preached multi-use forever. We don't want those guys off the trail. But we do need to figure out a way to manage what they want to do. Maybe a special-use area, designated for downhill, would work best.

"It took us 15 years to build our trails. This is a new generation. We need to figure it out'