Bespoken Word – Changing wars into welcomes at the most important mountain biking meeting I’ve ever been in

Mountain biker on an Everest challenge
(Image credit: GuyKesTV)

The UK Trails Project is a three year DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) hosted and SRAM funded program to try and work how to create a better trail network in the woods and wild spaces we love to ride in. And if you take a second to let that sink in, that’s the most important thing of all about mountain biking. The cost of your bike, angle of your head tube, how you shift gear, what size wheels you prefer, the clothes you wear, or whether you’re an epic ride fan or a schralpy shredder. None of this means anything if you’ve got nowhere to ride and the importance of doing something about it right now can’t be underestimated either.

That’s because pressure on trails is increasing to the point where the previous level of ‘blind eye’ tolerance from a lot of landowners is being stretched to the limit or often snapped. A lot more new riders have come into the sport off the back of Covid bike sales and e-MTB enablement – with little or no knowledge of how to ride or access the countryside responsibly. At the same time, bike development means experienced riders need steeper, more challenging and faster trails to get our fix. The whole mountain bike zeitgeist has changed too with social media ‘shreddits’ encouraging unsustainable ‘ravage and repeat’ rut trails being gouged into previously beautiful landscapes. Trails that have existed sustainably under the radar for years suddenly being ‘outed’ on Strava and YouTube, then destroyed by the increase in traffic. And if they survive the bigger number of riders, they’re often flattened or fenced off by landowners for fear or liability or other issues such as litter, dangerous parking or community conflicts. In short, we’re often doing a great job of crapping in our own beds right now.

Three MTB men in an office

UK Trails Project Manager Dave 'BikeCorris' Evans, SRAM MTB Communications Manager Alex Rafferty and Graeme McLean of DMBinS looking rightly chuffed at kicking off something massively significant for UK mountain biking (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

So how is the UK Trails Project going to not just fix this, but flip it round to make landowners and other countryside ‘stakeholders’ realize that we mountain bikers are generally a decent bunch? How do we create a roadmap for working responsibly together rather than fueling a guerrilla war in the woods and hills of this green but increasingly unpleasant land? How do we change the perception of farmers, foresters and gamekeepers from seeing us as an infestation of illegal conflict causing vandals, to a potentially super-lucrative cash crop and economic miracle that thrives in the most disadvantaged, commercial deserts? And how can we all play a part in that?

The meeting yesterday certainly felt like a hugely positive first step. SRAM is funding massively experienced trail assessor, negotiator, MTB community leader and trail builder, Dave Evans, from Corris in Dyfi, Mid Wales in a new UK Trails Project Manager role for the next three years. Alex Rafferty from SRAM explained what Dave will be doing to the industry representatives who made it to the Sheffield meeting.

“Although hosted by Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (part of Scottish Cycling), the UK Trails Project is a nationwide three-year program to help understand the current position of the mountain bike trail network in every UK country. The project is supported by a steering group comprising of British Cycling, Cycling Ireland, Welsh Cycling, Forestry and Land Scotland, Forestry England, Natural Resources Wales, and Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland.”

“The project's first step will be to develop a UK-wide' Right trail, right place, right people, right time' report to give riders, land managers, and the bike industry the space to tell the stories of their trails. Working with the bike industry, we wish to develop a deeper understanding of current trail developments that have helped grow or strengthen your market and the different types of trails that will meet the needs of your riders into the future.” 

The good news is that thanks to DMBinS work in the Scottish borders, the rider revitalization of the fortunes of the Dyfi area in Mid Wales, Lady Canning's trails in Sheffield, Northampton’s urban golf course trails and even global examples like Bellingham to prove encouraging MTBing can be a huge positive.

The bad news is that Dave has already had other countryside ‘stakeholders’ (land owners and land managers from National Parks, national forestry and private companies) telling him that mountain bikers they meet are often "ignorant, arrogant and entitled”. From our side, there are countless stories of seemingly unnecessary conflict, demolition and sabotage of trails that were allegedly ‘under consultation’ with trail groups trying to do the right thing.

Forestry England often get a bad rep for demanding unrealistic percentage revenue tax from mountain bike business using its publicly owned land. This skills coaches who are actually working to reduce the chance of liability claims from crashes, event organizers and media on photoshoots or film projects who are growing the usage of forestry facilities by showcasing the areas. And let's not forget that many landowners – both public and private – get substantial tax breaks or direct payment for encouraging greater access and recreation while doing the exact opposite.

Add the number of disparate groups involved on every side of the equation and that’s the complicated, constipated and often angry mess that’s been stopping meaningful progress of hopeful projects like this for decades.

This one feels really different though, not only because it’s properly funded with significant engagement from many industry brands already, but also the weight of positive evidence behind MTB growth as a good thing is much greater than before. This project is also working alongside other trail group projects which I’ve been involved in meetings for and I’ll be able to talk about more soon.

A man riding a rocky trail on a MTB

Dave Evans in his natural habitat: Responsibly riding sustainable trails in the booming MTB hot spot of Dyfi, Mid Wales (Image credit: Bikes Corris)

So in terms of next steps, Dave is going to continue his journey of meeting as many involved people as possible – whether that’s in council offices, forestry meeting rooms or with gangs of mattock and rake militia in undisclosed woodlands all over the UK. That will help him build a picture of the current state of trails in terms of what exists, what’s missing and what the stories are so far from both sides. The project will also be launching a public feedback loop so riders can add an extra level of detail themselves. And if you’re worried that sounds like a baited trap, it will be anonymized and done at a postcode level so individual trails and builders can’t be tracked down by the terminators. 

That’ll obviously take a while to set up though (watch this space for details), so in the meantime one really valuable thing we can all do is make Dave’s meetings going forward a lot easier by being the best politicians we can. Petting dogs, stopping to let ramblers past, chatting to pensioners about the weather, closing gates and picking up litter. Riding responsibly in terms of speed, trail conditions and the times we’re on potentially busy shared use trails. Tightening up on parking, littering and being too loud in normally quiet landscapes. 

And if you’re already doing that and setting a great example, then it’s time for us to step up and start educating the riders who don’t know better or don’t seem to care. Because like most situations, it’s the actions of a few that can ruin it for the vast majority. And believe me, I am fully aware that trying to educate people to be a bit more thoughtful without coming across like the condescending, hypocritical ‘Fun Police’ is an incredibly hard thing to do. Especially for someone like me who makes a living riding – and often shouting to a camera about – bikes on ‘cheeky trails’. 

But then I reckon not getting involved and having those trails taken away from us would be a much harder thing to cope with, so let’s do our best to make sure we’re part of the solution not the problem. 

Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg