Mountain Bike Trail Difficulty – Measuring it exactly?

At the moment in mountain biking there are just four classifications of trails; green, blue, red and black (some places have double-black but it doesn’t seem to be used very often…). Anyone that’s ridden somewhere like Innerleithen in Scotland though will know that red and black trails can vary hugely throughout and we could do with something a bit more exact to let us know what we’re about to put ourselves through. Well, one project aimed at putting exact measurements on the difficulty of a mountain bike trail is the fancily named, International Bike Parameters index.

The guys behind the IBPI have been using high quality GPS data to measure exactly how much you’re climbing and descending and then to calculate a percentage mark for that trail out of 100.  It sounds like a good idea in practise but the index doesn’t take into account any environment factors at all, most importantly the ground you’re riding over. A 20% gradient hill on tarmac isn’t too bad to slog your way up, but put it on loose singletrack and throw in a couple of rock steps on the way up and the difficulty skyrockets. It’s the same with the downhill – a 50m descent down a fireroad counts for the same as a similar length, sphincter tightening, near-vertical slide down a rock garden.

I shouldn’t criticise because it seems that the system is more aimed towards cross country racing and the fitness required, which is useful to let you know whether you should steer clear for fear of popping a lung. It would be quite nice though to get a more comprehensive grading system in place on the trails, just to let you know how well you’re doing when you conquer a 25k black run with no falls in 2 hours. Look at the rock climbing world for example, they have a massive array of grades, from beginners level up to uber-expert, and those at the top of the game search out the most death defying cliffs to push the grades ever upwards. Could we manage that with mountain biking?

I can picture it now, the world’s first descent of a Quadruple Black trail – Steve Peat riding down Mount Everest waving at the crampon wearing, axe wielding, snow monkeys on their way up. Hmm, perhaps we could do without the encouragement to push the limits. We don’t have ropes…


Colin started mountain biking in the early 2000s and has haphazardly, and with barely increasing skill, dragged his bike around the majority of Scotland's trail centres since then. Colin has oodles of hard earned experience in how NOT to do things - listen, be warned and don't repeat his mistakes...   More about Colin... Google+ Colin

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