The Importance (and Challenges) of Working Together to Look After Mountain Bike Trails

In the third and final part of the recent interview, Dr Tom Campbell chats with Jim from Peak District MTB about the importance (and challenges) of working together to look after mountain bike trails. 

Dr Tom Campbell BSc (Hons), PhD, FHEA, is a lecturer in sport and exercise science and academic at the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland. His applied work centres around innovation and enterprise across the mountain bike sector and the field of dual career athletes. Most recently, Tom led the project DIRTT: Developing Inter-European Resources for Trail-builder Training. In the 3rd of 3 articles, Tom sits down with Peak District MTB committee member Jim Cherrington to discuss the importance of looking after mountain bike trails. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

JC: So your research shows that riders want to look after the environment, but how do you ensure that everyone buys into that idea?

TC: It’s about how you capitalize on that goodwill and translate environmental attitudes into positive action and also how you can monetize it to promote sustainability. So absolutely, from all the riders who participated in our research there is an inherent desire to protect and look after the environment, and I think you can do that in several ways, but how do you actually monetize that. Up here in Scotland there is generally no charge for accessing trails, no paid for parking etc. so landowners, trail centres and trail associations are thinking ‘how do we monetise this to invest back into the trails?’ ‘We can’t tell people to pay for it, so we maybe need to focus on the benefits of them doing so voluntarily; the carrot rather than the stick. My experience here is that there’s almost a tipping point where people suddenly realise that there is so much going into the trails and so much maintenance going on that they start to take note.

A lot of the repair work is unseen, and people don’t really notice that. But where I ride in the Tweed Valley, there’s such a volume of riders now that people are starting to see the difference that the trail association makes. It was interesting to see the effect of storm Arwen which hit us really badly up here. It completely closed all of the forests and there was hardly anywhere left to ride and a lot of people suddenly realized okay there’s actually all of these other stakeholders like FLS (Forestry and Land Scotland) and the trail associations that are so important in terms of us being able to do what is it we want to do.

And the local trail association worked together with FLS in order to get trails up and running as quickly and as safely as possible. Personally, I was upset at the loss of a couple of the local trails but they they’ve come back and have been come back better with diversions and reroutes being built in a sustainable way. So, I’ve kind of gone from being quite distraught at the thought of never being able to ride my favourite trails again to thinking ‘oh that’s better’ and knowing that the local trail association have done this.

It’s kind of human nature, suddenly you see that there’s a lot of work going in here, so you want to contribute. I think there’s also something around societal norms whereby if a couple of members in a riding group start contributing financially or attending dig days then others start to as well, and then incrementally people who have been promising to get involved eventually do. Everyone else is saying look at least I’m paying into the trails and it puts a little bit of pressure, people start to think that this is a normative thing and I should probably need to give something back.

It’s important to think about where that message is best coming from. So, if formal organisations are saying we need money to fix all this stuff people might not pay much attention but when it’s from within your riding group, or the wider MTB community I think it’s easier for people to get on board with it. But it’s not actually that these are really distinct groups, because the folk doing the digging and building and maintaining the trails are all riders as well. It’s just often when it is disseminated officially through organisational channels it’s received very differently.

JC: I guess it must be really hard to try and unite people, given how diverse our community is.

TC: Yeah, oh for sure, and I see that here as well. So, although there’s a definite trend towards people riding more demanding and enduro style trails, riders can have very different opinions on how tracks should be built and maintained. And while you can never please everyone, it can be problematic if riders feel the investment of time and money is creating the wrong type of trail, or where sustainable trails are assumed to be “sanitised” or to have become easier trails. Conversely, if most of the resource is being poured into the enduro trails then I can see why this might alienate the riders who don’t want to ride this stuff.

It’s been interesting in terms of the evolution of the Scottish trail associations in this respect and there’s been a relatively deliberate adoption of existing trails to date. Particularly ones that have been repeatedly used in races and they have been able to ensure the sustainability and ongoing safety of these trails. I think another valuable function of local trail associations lie in their capacity to provide a mechanism to attract external investment, often from within the mountain bike industry, which can only benefit trail offerings for a wide range of riders.

There is definitely still digging going on out with the official trail associations which I can fully understand, and I think this is where the DIRTT project is potentially already having an impact. There have already been a number of pilot training sessions delivered across Scotland to groups of volunteers providing them with the knowledge to start building in a safe and sustainable way, so hopefully that will have an impact.

Thanks to Tom for spending time with Jim to discuss some familiar and important issues for mountain bike advocacy. Don’t forget you can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Please let us know on our Facebook group what you think about the issues raised in these articles.

1 October 2022