Last winter the Thomas Fire raced across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties – the second largest fire in California history. Its devastating march scorched 280,000 acres, leaving them barren and raw. Just weeks later a storm rolled off the Pacific, drenching this vulnerable landscape. In the backcountry of Ojai, California many trails were washed away, essentially erased from the side of the mountain. While a trifling loss compared to the tragedies suffered by many during the fire and subsequent flooding, communities have rallied to rebound these last 9 month and some have begun to turn their attention to rebuilding lost trail networks enjoyed by many backcountry users.
At PELOTON Magazine, we looked to one trail in particular: Howard Creek. It’s 3 miles of single track, a favorite way to access the north end of Nordhoff Ridge road by hikers and cyclists alike. Steep and narrow, perched on the edge of the mountain and gaining 1000 feet, it’s a mine field of loose scree at the best of times.
Howard Creek was more than a local favorite, it was a signature moment of our ride, the PELOTON Gravel Mob. It signals the end of the climbing, and the beginning of the descent to home. But the challenge is far from over, as rider after rider lets us know, “Howard Creek is crazy! What the hell are you guys thinking!”
With Howard Creek unrideable we began to worry the PELOTON Gravel Mob may need to be cancelled, or its personality irrevocably damaged. We reached out to the one man we thought might be able to save the trail, a man who has spent the last 15 years working on the trails of the Ojai Valley: Mike Gourley. A local rider, Mike gives a very simple answer when asked why he has spent countless weekends on the trails with pick-axe in hand.
“It’s just a selfish thing! I just want to use the trails!” Mike jokes. “No one’s going to maintain them, there’s just no money anymore to do that. And I can con a lot of people into helping! ‘Will work for Gatorade!’” says Mike, laughing.
Trail maintenance is back-breaking work, and Howard Creek was devastated, requiring much more than just a few hours and two or three volunteers. Mike estimated it would take a professional crew working almost 300 man hours to make it rideable. With the trail being in such a remote area, the only efficient way to do it is to camp at the top of the trail overnight to maximize early morning work hours before the sun gets too high.
With our ride less than two months away on November 17th, and the entire community missing our beloved Howard Creek, PELOTON Magazine agreed to step in and fund the trail’s re-birth. It was then that a truly amazing thing happened. As we let our partners know the PELOTON Gravel Mob would be alive and well in 2018 and we would be rebuilding the trail, many of them immediately asked, “How can we help?”. The short answer is money, and our partners did not disappoint. Easton Cycling, GU Energy and Wahoo Fitness – all sponsors of the 2018 PELOTON Gravel Mob – offered to write additional checks to help us cover some of the rebuilding costs. These brands are walking the talk, putting their hard earned cash into a grass roots effort to rebuild a trail hikers and riders will enjoy for years to come, well beyond any bike ride or sponsor’s commitment.
With funding secured, Mike Gourley began recruiting his crew: ex-bike racers, ex-hotshot forest service fire men, and a few local riders just volunteering their time to help. All people who know what a good trail should look like and not afraid of very, very hard work. Work began on Friday, September 14th, with Mike and his crew spending three days camping at the trail summit. Mike is clearly in his element, with his people, doing what he loves. We couldn’t help but wonder, maybe Mike doesn’t work on the trails so he can ride his bike, maybe Mike rides his bike so he has an excuse to work on the trails.
“We work from 6:30am to 1:30pm, then we hike out to camp, take a nap, have a beer, watch the sun set. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like meditation.” says Mike, looking out over the landscape he helps make accessible for so many.
Mike and his crew have a lot of work ahead of them, but after three long days, Howard Creek is once again rideable – loose, steep and exposed, but ridable. In California, rain is a blessing and a curse. Ironically the rain the washed the trail away is exactly what’s needed – just fewer inches per hour – to pack it down and unlock the magic Mike and his crew have spent hours creating.
For more info on the brands generously supporting the trail work clink on these links: Easton / GU / Wahoo
Join us on November 17th at the PELOTON Gravel Mob in Ojai, to see the incredible trail work first hand.
The PELOTON Gravel Mob runs through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest and is being held under a Special Use Permit from United States Forest Service. The forest is a sacred resource that depends on our protection. Please give it the respect it deserves.