Ah, loam, everyone’s favorite form of dirt. This beautifully mixed soil composition is not only ideal for gardening and other agricultural uses, but also for constructing good ol’ fashioned mountain bike trails. Just mention the word and any mountain biker within ear shot will perk up like a terrier hearing its master shout, “SQUIRREL!” But for dyed-in-the-wool mountain bikers, those societal misfits who prefer to spend their fleeting existence flying through the space-time continuum aboard two knobby-tire’d wheels, loam is much more than a soil type or a trail base: it’s a motto, a state of mind, a way of life.
After a summer of seemingly endless mountain bike outings on a plethora of loamy trails, featuring flecks of filth smeared upon my face—sometimes even adorning my front teeth due to the shit-eating grin I sport when flying down a particularly flowy section of singletrack—I felt inspired to offer up a few words of praise about this most hallowed of Earthly substances. Be prepared for prose, for poetry, for a literary smattering of soil like a skunk stripe upon your proverbial pantaloons. This is my ode to loam.
But first, we need to clear the air. Just what, exactly, is loam? Technically speaking, loam is the term for a fertile soil consisting of roughly equal portions of sand, silt, and clay. Artistically speaking, loam is the holy trinity of raw ingredients for trail builders. When I initially set out to write this piece, I was going to wax poetic about the types of trails typically found in spruce and hemlock forests. But Zach Adams, a friend and professional mountain bike trail builder based in Canaan Valley, quickly corrected me. Turns out, I was mistaking what I thought of as loam for duff: the aerated, soft, partially decomposed layer of organic material sandwiched below the leaf litter and above the mineral soil layer comprising a forest floor.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love duff. With its rich, fluffy texture, duff is the mountain biking equivalent of skiing powder. You can tap your rear brake lever and drift around a corner, pump your pedals and spring out of the exit, catch a smidge of air, and land softly back on terra semi-firma.
But there’s really nothing like a good rip on a proper loamy trail. Unlike the cushy nature of duff, which can zap your speed and reduce pedaling efficiency, loam compacts into a hard and smooth riding surface that drains water effectively and can even have a pavement-like quality to it. This reduction in rolling resistance translates directly to an increase in speed. When loam is dry but not-too-dry, it becomes quite tacky, making knobby tires stick like glue to this revered surface. Blasting through the woods at breakneck speed on loamy singletrack, you can lean into a turn—further than you think—and then lean a little bit more, simultaneously maintaining traction and that aforementioned shit-eating grin on your mud-splattered mug.
I did some research and referenced a USDA soil composition chart to painstakingly recreate an incredibly nerdy version of my own in Microsoft Paint. As you can see, there’s quite a bit of soil variance among various combinations of sand, silt, and clay. Ending up with too much of one ingredient tips the scales of loam’s precarious balance. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of ripping around the full spectrum of trail surfaces. After greasing through slimy clay right here in West Virginia, washing out my front tire in sand in Western Colorado, and dusting myself in glacial silt in France, I know quality loam when I see it.
While natural features like rocks and roots and streams typically define West Virginia’s notoriously rugged singletrack trails, the dirt that lies in between is just as important. Modern trail builders like Adams are opting for an all-of-the-above strategy, embracing the gnarled terrain of Appalachia while also moving massive amounts of dirt to craft delectable sections of flowy riding in betwixt Mother Nature’s myriad obstacles. Because loam compacts so well and holds up to abuse, it can be morphed into a dizzying array of berms, jumps, table-tops, and rollers. A skilled rider can turn a well-thought-out, purpose-built trail into a playground, pumping through the trail features to maintain speed with nary a peddle stroke.
Over the years, I’ve heard—and even uttered—my fair share of groaningly bad loamy puns. The “loam ranger,” “loam wolf,” “loam officer,” “loam thugs-n-harmony,” “loamstar state,” and “chillin’ with my loamies,” are just a few verbal infractions that come to mind. In an attempt to spare you any further grammatical pain, I have made a concerted effort to class up this joint and elevate the dirty discourse with the following loamy poems.
Loam, a haiku
Morning light hits dirt
Ribbon snaking through the trees
Focus, flow, love, loam.
If We Must Ride: a loamy sonnet
If we must ride, be it on tacky loam
And not upon silt, clay, or sand.
For other trail types on which we must roam
Make for rides of the type we can’t stand.
If we must ride, let’s not do it alone,
Place your helmet upon your wary head.
Make haste for today, for there’s mud to be sprayed,
May we all shred until we are dead.
For when the day comes that we must journey home,
We find peace with the miles we rode.
Through silt, through clay, through sand, and through loam,
The ingredients for this, my ode.
Thanks for reading, dear friend, if this sonnet you like,
Put this mag down and go! Ride your bike!
A loamy limerick
There once was a man from Nantucket
Who found a dirt jump and wanted to huck it.
But with mud and no loam,
He crashed and went home
With his bones and his bike in a bucket.
In fact, just writing about loam makes me realize I’d rather be out cruising on my vélo de montagne, so I think I’m going to throw in the towel and head out in search of some evening loam. This piece of prose, however, needs a conclusion, so I’ll leave you with this contrived bit of philosophizing.
At the end of the day, a bike ride is a bike ride is a bike ride. Regardless of how sandy, silty, or clay-y a trail is, I always have a great time—unless, of course, I crash or bonk. In the pursuit of the best loam, much like the pursuit of happiness, we must often muddle through undesirable conditions to reach just what it is for which we search. Whether it’s a stretch of tedious house chores or a section of silty clay loam, the struggle is often worth it, because life, much like a bike, is all about the ride.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors. He likes to ride bikes, both with friends and a-loam.
Feature Photo: A self-portrait of Brice Shirbach floating above the impeccable loam of the Big Bear Lake Trail Center in Preston County. Photo by Brice Shirbach