What We Should be Doing Isn’t Necessarily What We Do

Tom Campbell chats with Jim from Peak District MTB about the importance of understanding how to build a sustainable trail

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, which has received global attention. In the 1st of 3 articles,Tom sits down with Peak District MTB committee member Jim Cherrington to discuss the importance of understanding what makes trails sustainable. 

JC: Could you tell me a little bit about the work that you do at the Mountain Bike Centre Scotland?

TC: Sure, the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland is a project hosted by Edinburgh Napier University to provide consultancy and research to the cycling industry in Scotland. To date we have facilitated 200 collaborative ventures and assisted in the development of £16m of cycling related projects. We work across areas of innovation, sustainability and health and wellbeing under the lead academic, Professor Geraint Florida-James, who happens to know a thing or two about mountain biking. I’m the lead for the sustainability theme, which is where the DIRTT project fits into the work we are doing.   

JC: How did the DIRTT (Developing Intereuropean Resources for Trail building Training) project come about?

The DIRTT project has been a long time in the making. There’s been years of discussion at our own conferences and other mountain biking conferences, and a bunch of like-minded people have essentially come together to realize that there’s a need for something here. There was a desire to ensure that we promote quality of trails and, conversely, to avoid poor quality trails.

For me it ties in so closely to wider societal agendas, particularly around increasing participation and the health benefits of mountain biking. I mean, as mountain bikers of all kinds we understand the benefits of biking both to our physical and mental health and how important that can be. And I think this is the impetus, as there’s a real need to ensure that people have a good experience when they first try mountain biking and so much of that can come from the quality of the trails. So, the overarching aim is to get a good quality offering whilst being mindful that good trails are so important for so many different reasons.

The concept is about asking ‘how can we start making sure that we are building better trails or improving existing trails?’ and I think there was a need for some form of quality assurance, too. The project partners are quite diverse in terms of the countries that are represented, and there is a lot of difference here. Obviously, what might make sense in Switzerland may be very different from what we’re doing here in Scotland. 

But what a lot of stakeholders were anecdotally telling us is that they were having difficulty ensuring they were getting competent and quality people into build the trails because you’re often mired in bureaucracy or stuck with a tender that is unfit for purpose. And there’s always that pressure to take the cheapest company. But these people aren’t necessarily delivering quality trails so that was one driver, enabling these people to show that they are competent, and are going to build good trails through some form of overarching quality assurance.

And this is really just a first step, I guess, in terms of moving towards that and sharing knowledge at a European level. Yes, there is a difference across all the nations in terms of access rights and that type of stuff but there’s also so much knowledge. So, it’s about pulling that together and identifying similarities and differences and working out what that framework might look like. And what would be a sensible framework that could ensure a minimum standard, and provide a knowledge base and education to enable people to train or upskill in order to have the right level of competency 

Global approach, local knowledge

JC: So, you’re saying that it’s important to have a European maybe even a global approach to how we build trails and making them sustainable but, whilst at the same time valuing local knowledge?

TC: Exactly, yes and the project has generated evidence to support this. It’s very easy to believe that “if you build it, they will come” and ride it.  But will they stay, will they come back again which ties into social and economic sustainability but also has considerations for the environment. I think we all know that what we should be doing isn’t necessarily always what we do. And I think it’s time to start having more mature grown-up conversations about this, rather than just telling riders what they can and can’t do.

Let us know what you think of these ideas on our Facebook group page. Keep your eyes open for the next part of this interview, when Jim chats with Tom about what he thinks are the most important riding trends in mountain biking.

19 September 2022