Why did you want to create the Soil Searching video?
Riders the world over have developed a language of love for trails. Be it seasoned shredders or newcomers to the sport, we all understand the feeling of entering the elusive "flow state." Often, this is how we interpret the trails we love to ride—they're defined by their nuanced, unique traits, like gnarled set of roots or perfectly poised berms. They're memories and moments we all cherish.
But behind the layers of soil, rock, and cambers lie ingredients that are integral to the trail's being. We might not even understand their role, or existence, but the combination of hardy people, little-understood laws, and collaborations between builders and land managers are crucial to the very soul of the trail. Without them, trails sit on the knife's edge between continuation and destruction. In this documentary, the former World Cup downhill and World Champion, Manon Carpenter, undertakes a journey of discovery. Visiting riders and builders from across mainland Britain, she uncovers what it takes for mountain biking to become an accepted, thriving part of communities. Along the way, managers of large swathes of land where trails are situated share their point of view about why trail existence, and management, is a complex undertaking. When tensions arise, they share how they can be diffused, and eventually transitioned, into collaborations for the benefit of all. You can learn more about the trail associations and groups featured in this film by visiting: Ride Sheffield https://www.ridesheffield.org.uk Developing Mountain biking in Scotland: https://dmbins.com The Tweed Valley Trail Association: https://www.tweedvalleytrails.org Risca Riders: https://www.gofundme.com/f/riscarider... You can read the current national guidelines from agencies we visited by clicking the following links: Forestry England: https://www.forestryengland.uk/articl... Scottish Unauthorised trail guide: https://dmbins.com/trails/unauthorise... Natural Resource Wales: https://naturalresources.wales/permit..."
We got the chance to put a few questions to Tommy and Manon. Why did they feel a film of this nature was necessary? Really insightful, knowledgeable, and thought-provoking interview - enjoy.
It actually went through a few iterations as we developed it, as there's such a web of factors involved in trail creation. Some of those are visible and some are not, people hold different values to landscapes, there's civil laws that can be activated and so on. It can get a bit much, so distilling these down into a film seemed like a good idea. The big challenge for us was how do you take what could be essentially an evidence based thesis, which might be profound and important but no one would read it, and make it entertaining.
I wanted to celebrate everything that is so great about mountain biking, while also getting a better understanding of the challenges that can come up. Having always lived close to a city – mostly Wales’ capital city of Cardiff – I’ve been aware of the land use and user conflict tensions that can arise, and seen petitions from riders wanting to save their local trails when they’re under threat.
I’ve also realised that such a huge proportion of what I’ve grown up riding and training on have been informal trails, and that in Wales I often get around using paths that I don’t legitimately have access to - until recently without ever realising or thinking about it.
Our sport seems so established otherwise, I wanted to understand why things are the way they are currently, and how that might look into the future. By talking to riders and organisations with real experience in looking after or managing trails, we hope to share their insight with as people as we can.
What did you learn through the process?
That while trail access and building is emotionally charged, we should keep things in perspective and chat with those who we might initially disagree with. We need to understand a lot more about the environments we are riding in (This goes for the majority of people in the countryside, not just bikers) and landowners need accept that long term, mountain biking will need to be another layer to their management plans that they can't simply dismiss out of hand.
The riders and the people who manage or own land getting engaged and talking to each other is a great first step. Scotland is way ahead of the rest of the UK in terms of having an actual structure that riding groups can look to follow, to work with landowners. This is starting to change elsewhere, and the health and social benefits of mountain biking are well accepted at the highest level of government, but the process is still far less clear at the moment. As riders we can help by putting our best foot forward for mountain biking – respecting where we are riding, who and what we interact with, and also having conversations where we can. In some places conversations between riders and landowners are well underway, in others they are just starting and some aren’t there yet. But the general trajectory looks positive, and I’d like to be optimistic about that
What do you see as the future for mountain bike trails?
Pretty good. I think we are in a phase of building entry point trails for a lot of riders at the moment, and that is awesome. Looking at the past though, we need to make sure there is provision for them once they've developed beyond those honey pots destinations and want more challenges. That was neglected in the early 2000s. So, more off-piste trails getting adopted by trails associations or local groups, changing the perception that some land managers have the mountain biking needs to be contained to bike parks and more people having access to trails that they don't have to drive to. Every town has footpaths around it, so why not trails or bridleways?
In a lot more places local networks of trails will be far more recognised, as legitimate infrastructure for people to get out and enjoy. Local councils are looking at ways to both introduce more multi-use paths (interestingly, staying away from the footpath/bridleway distinction we have here), and also to recognise the mountain bike trails that exist and are used by so many.
To do this, engagement is needed on all sides to make the best route forward, because we need to share our landscape with everyone else who wants to enjoy it. I think it’s so important for us to have local trails that we can access, as well as more developed destination areas – which are equally brilliant.
What are the risks for the MTB community regarding trails and access?
There are threats, as ever, and being conscious of these is important but it shouldn't dominate our lives either as mountain biking is inherently positive and we need to champion that. As mentioned, I do see some trails that even as a rider, they upset me. For example, if we're seen to be impacting water courses negatively by eroding river banks, or using rocks from the river banks to build a trail, that will activate concerned people to make an issue out of it because it can have a wide effect from pollution, to fish habitat and so on. We can't contest that by saying we just want to ride our bikes.
I think that might happen more with issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss in the news more. Our impact is not worse than other users when we create trails properly, but when they are dangerous, in the wrong place, etc., it does attract negative headlines with connotations. It also seems to me that another threat comes from under-resourced agencies who feel that dealing with mountain biking is a burden on them, and it can be given the civil law requirements placed on a land manager/owner. Would I want that burden if I owned land? Probably not but I would look for a solution. They need to accept that people want to ride, sometimes need to ride, so we need to develop more ways of engaging with foresters, councils and traditional land managers, and vice versa.
The risks come where there is no positive engagement from the different sides involved, meaning conversations can’t take place or progress. Negative incidents or interactions between riders and other users can make it difficult for organisations to rationalise allowing or increasing access for bikes, as legitimate safety concerns have to be taken into account – riding responsibly, and positive interactions with other users can do a long way.
Mountain biking also needs to exist in balance with the environment it takes place within. We need to make sure that our enjoyment is not having an unnecessarily large impact on the places we’re in, which is why it’s important to have conversations and understand these places. A commercial plantation is very different to a native, ecologically rich woodland – although I believe we can and should be able to ride in all of these places, in balance.
How do we mitigate against these risks?
I think Scotland is more than a decade ahead of England and you're already doing it. On the one hand, the sport grows, and on the other there are risks. I'm not sure which way the scale tips right now but coherent groups of voices help in a massive way. I was always anti-club and all that as I grew up when MTB had a strong counter-culture movement. I don't want to see that fade away but being able to have sets of voices that can mitigate the risks by being organised to some degree is going to help massively.
It's much harder to dismiss a group with lots of people who are publicly seeking to work with landowners rather than against them. That be done on a tiny scale or on a bigger scale and not everyone wants to turn their local into the Golfie, so it’s about finding what’s right for your area, your group, the land manager, and the landscape you’re in.
Lastly, and sadly, we need funding. I'd like to see a small tax, maybe 3-5% of all mountain biking sales go into an independently run, well-managed fund that gets put back into our trails. That'll never happen, but we do need to think harder about leveraging volunteer-created resource to make money and then neglecting that resource.
As mentioned above really, every part of the mountain bike community and industry can play a part in getting involved to look after trails. As a rider - be it riding responsibly, attending trail group or stakeholder meetings where possible, supporting riding organisations where they exist or considering starting that conversation with other riders.
Anyone else who benefits from trails – brands, race organisers, media and sponsored riders, guides, and coaches (local communities and authorities?), we can all be thinking about how to give back. Where a trail organisation exists, community dig days can take place so everyone can get involved where they can, and where trails are used heavily by industry and riders there is a clear way to support the trails financially, raise money and apply for grants.
All of this points towards a more supported future for trails, with clear benefits for formalised trails that exist in balance with their surroundings, and ultimately have a secure future.
Want to get involved and support the Scottish trail network?
A New Sustainable Future For Scottish Mountain Biking
MTB Trails Associations
Building illegal trails in Scotland
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