by Karyn Riedell
A group of local mountain bikers, dubbed the "Sedona 5," pedaled their way to national recognition last November when they rode their bikes into Grand Canyon National Park territory which is strictly off-limits to mountain bikers.

Their feat - and subsequent arrest - has hit the pages of national biking magazines and fired up dialogue on the Internet.

Thousands of e-mail messages sent to the group's web site express support for the group, viewing them as folk heroes of a grassroots movement seeking trail access for mountain bikers.

At the same time, critics revile them for promoting a bad-boy image of mountain bikers.

On Nov.19, the group decided to take advantage of the five-day shutdown of the park and go for a spin on the North Kaibab trail-head, located on the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

However, they were never able to complete their ride. Fourteen miles into it, they were intercepted by park ranger Sandie Hand, who took them to Phantom Ranch to be interviewed and frisked. Searches revealed 18 grams of marijuana and 15 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

THEIR RIDE out of the Grand Canyon was quite different from their ride in six hours earlier. They left in leg shackles and handcuffs aboard a National Park Service helicopter. Accompanying them were two rangers with automatic weapons and bullet-proof vests.

The five bikers - Rama (Jon Cogan), Long Tall (John Panetta), Wheeze (Mitch Obele), Forest (Forest Michaels) and "Dangerous Dave" Hart - were taken to the National Park Service holding facility.

Ten days later, they were found guilty in the U.S. Magistrate Court of violating a national park closure and bicycling in a prohibited area. Each was fined $244 for the helicopter ride and $250 for violating the closure and riding in a prohibited area.

Although the $250 was suspended, the riders were forced to turn over their bikes to the court. As part of the plea bargain, drug charges were also dropped.

"This is the most notorious thing in the world of mountain biking," said Cogan, group member and owner of the Mountain Bike Heaven shop in Sedona.

Since the November ride, admirers have praised the group for committing a daring act of civil disobedience, while detractors have condemned them for damaging the reputations of mountain bikers everywhere.

ONE SUPPORTER, writing on the Internet from Canada, praised the group's act as "a revolution of sorts," saying that "working with the system isn't going to work in this case."

"l am all for what you guys are doing," wrote another supporter from Arizona State University.

"We cannot let the developers and the 'forest circus' (U.S. Forest Service), along with ranchers and miners, the Sierra Club, and numerous overly conservative horse loving conservation groups crowd us off the land that we pay to maintain. As a climber I have seen it already happen," he continued.

This e-mail is one of more than two-thousand sent to the Sedona 5 web site address. Most of these - about 75 percent - express support, according to Cogan.

Some of those sending e-mail messages indicate that they plan to boycott Sedona if mountain-bike access will be limited.

"I am going to Sedona this winter with my family. I am very concerned that mountain-bike access to trails might be curtailed. If this takes place, we may reconsider our winter vacation plans. I speak for a family of four," wrote David Yu Greenblat, of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

BRUCE BOIKESS, a resident of High-land Park, N.J., even seemed to think that Sedona would be closing trails to mountain bikers.

"l am a mountain biker. Sedona is famous for having beautiful riding areas. I was planning to go there in the future. Now I hear trails may be closed," he wrote.

Some mountain bikers fear that the Sedona 5 are damaging their reputation.

Daniel Paduchowski, manager of Sedona Bike and Bean, said he is afraid that confrontations with other groups, such as hikers and equestrians, will escalate and that even more trails will be closed to mountain bikers!

About 80 to 90 percent of trails in the Sedona area are now designated as wilderness and are thus closed to mountain bikers.

Paduchowski regards the group's Grand Canyon ride with disdain.

"They're not the first people to ride the Grand Canyon. They're just the first ones to get caught. They probably think it's cool that they get written about as bad boys, dope smokers and renegades," he said.

EVEN ONE of the Sedona 5 has since abandoned his fellow bikers. Obele said that he is no longer a member and regrets his participation in the group.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a member of the Sedona 5 organization, and I do not support their policies or share their opinions. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, I do not support the use of controlled substances," Obele wrote in a letter to the Sedona Red Rock NEWS.

Another critic is Jennifer Burns, landscape architect and planner for the Sedona Ranger District.

"We're concerned about the Sedona 5 giving mountain bikers a bad name," Burns said, adding that Sedona 5 members have not attended U.S. Forest Service meetings or contributed to discussions.

"These guys have not really worked with us. If there is something we can do to meet their needs, then we'd like to talk to them. But I don't know what motivates them," she continued.

BURNS SAID that the U.S. Forest Service is considering opening up more trails for mountain bikers and developing more trail connections, such as one between Midgley Bridge and Schnebly Hill.

For his part, Cogan said that he will continue his efforts to increase trail access for mountain bikers by seeking grass-roots support.

One of the things Cogan wants to see changed is the 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act.

"The Sierra Club was instrumental in keeping mountain bikes out of the wilderness. They weren't nearly as successful at keeping out ranchers and miners," Cogan said.

The Wilderness Act restricts all mechanical vehicles, including bicycles, from entering wilderness areas.

"We're not saying we're better than cows. We just want equal rights. I have nothing against a wilderness act that would keep out cows, horses, mining equipment and rugged hiking shoes," Cogan said.

Anyway, much of the area around Sedona is not really a wilderness - as defined in the Wilderness Act - so the trails should not be off-limits to bikers, Cogan said.

But Cogan said he has gained hope from the movement that he helped launch.

"The political stuff is new and alive. It shows hope that maybe the people can impact something," he said.