Sim visits Rowan Sorrell and his band of merry trail builders to learn how to drive a digger.
This article first appeared in issue 98 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words and pictures by Sim Mainey.
Traffic crawls along at a glacial pace as men in neon yellow tops and helmets move heavy machinery backwards and forwards on the other side of an orange cone barrier. Dumper trucks full of stone wait to drop their loads, while men in suits and hi-vis look at a sheet of paper and point down the road. The British motorway system is never finished, it would seem.
I’m on my way to BikePark Wales to meet up with Rowan Sorrell and his Back On Track trail building team, and it looks like today is going to be all about construction. Thanks to seemingly every road between West Yorkshire and South Wales being ‘upgraded’, I’m an hour late to meet Rowan at the BikePark Wales café. He limps out of his office, his right leg surrounded in medical Meccano, the result of riding on a freshly healed broken leg a little bit too early.
It’s Monday and the centre’s café is rammed; mud-covered riders scoff down jacket potatoes and talk about their runs, comparing notes and stories of near misses. Trail centres and bike parks have never been more popular and this demand is driving fresh trails to be built, easing congestion while also enticing riders to revisit.
Rowan’s trail building company, Back On Track, has been commissioned to build a new blue track here at BikePark Wales, scheduled to open on the Park’s birthday in August. I’m here to see how you go about bringing a trail into existence.
It’d be nice to think that trails started with a spade in the dirt, but the reality is that they start with paper on desks. Tendering processes, feasibility studies, archaeological and environmental reports, cost analysis, health and safety and a hundred other pieces of paper, each needing to be rubber-stamped.
Back On Track has been going for ten years now and while Rowan might have started with digging, this admin is the part that takes up most of his time these days; it’s a necessary evil. He doesn’t seem too bitter about this, it’s just the way it’s worked out, and someone needs to do it. He’s not afraid to still get his hands dirty though – broken leg allowing.
Multicoloured rivers cut through the familiar forest on Rowan’s computer screen. Google Earth has arguably been the best tool for trail development since the invention of the spade. The ability to effectively fly over an area and plan where a trail might fit and then chart it, not only helps with the construction aspect, but also with the commissioning, allowing clients to get a good idea of what the team will deliver – much like when you order a kitchen from IKEA. What looks good on the computer though might not actually work in reality, so days are spent wandering up and down hillsides with GPS units plotting the best line, making the most of natural features, almost trying to bring the trail out of the ground rather than digging the trail in.
The trail’s difficulty grading will dictate its path, its construction and the way it’s maintained. Lower grade tracks, such as blues and greens, will require more work with multiple passes required to clear, cut, surface and compact the trail surface. Black trails can be dug quickly, often by hand, and require less maintenance; the rougher and more worn it gets, the blacker it becomes. Back On Track has a document outlining a rider profile for each grading level to help guide them when designing tracks. Throughout the trail building process this is used as the steer as to whether a trail feature is included, how it’s made and how it’s maintained.
We leave the café and head for the team’s drying shed to suit up with yellow vests and hard hats. We walk past a four-wheel drive utility vehicle stacked with wood, propped up on bricks with a wheel missing. The wheel has cracked and it’s been taken off to be welded up – building trails in forests is tough work for man and machine.
Inside the shed, boots dry on the floor and jackets drip from named coat hooks. On the wall is a progress chart, showing how the project is going. Things are on track but, as Rowan says, the chart is out of date the moment it’s printed. Suitably attired for plant machinery dodging, we head out in Rowan’s 4×4 to take a look at the work so far.
Rowan’s crutches sink into the wet clay as we walk up the access track to the point where the rough line of the new blue trail cuts across. A muddy streak, it wiggles its way across the hillside, then back on itself and down the hill. The sound of an engine revving and rock being dragged across rock signals that work is going on just out of view.
Crew member Rob is busy following the rough line that’s already been scraped into the ground, sculpting it further to resemble a finished trail. He does this with a bright orange digger. For such a blunt instrument it’s being used with scalpel precision to carefully sculpt the curves, cambers, berms and rollers that make up a piece of trail. The digger’s arm moves back and forth while the toothed bucket tilts side to side, nudging, compacting, scraping and moving earth. Rob reckons on a good day he can do over 100 metres of trail with this digger. To give me a better appreciation of how impressive that is, I’m offered a go in it.
I have a hard hat on, I’m sat in a digger and I’m working on a mountain bike trail. I think this might be a career high. Rob is trying to explain which control stick does what, but as with anything that’s become second nature he’s struggling to explain it without actually doing it. Once the basics have been explained, Rob and Rowan retreat to a safe distance and give me the nod to turn the key and fire up the engine.
I turn the key, there’s a lot of beeping and then the engine comes to life. There are buttons and levers all around me but I’m concentrating on just two levers: one that moves the cabin left and right, and one that moves the arm in and out, up and down. A rocker switch on the right lever alters the tilt of the bucket. Where Rob’s actions were smooth, metered and controlled, mine are jerky, usually not what I intended and for the most part, pretty ineffective.
Like patting your head and rubbing your belly it takes a bit of time to get brain and arms in sync, but eventually I get the digger to do what I want. It’s only now I’m driving the digger that I realise the sequence of actions needed to do what seems like a pretty basic manoeuvre – for example, to scrape earth towards you, you’ll need to move the arm up as well as backwards, otherwise the shovel buries itself into the earth.
I lose concentration and immediately revert to waving the bucket around in the air trying to remember which lever does what, until I’m relieved of duty. The trail has a deadline and my contribution has probably set them back by five minutes.
Rowan and I drive up the hill to see what’s going on at the other end of the trail. The trail team works in sections, taking a non-linear approach. This means you don’t have a glut of work going on in one place with people trying to work round each other. It also means the trail comes together faster – time is money after all. The 4×4 bumps its way up the fire road, and Rowan points out all the access roads that have been created to get plant up the hill and then covered over again once they are no longer needed, the idea being that riders will never know that many tons worth of heavy machinery has ever been there.
We pull up next to a disused quarry where two diggers, smaller than the one I played in, and a tracked dumper truck sit. The dumper truck is out of commission – the fan has blown up so the engine is overheating – and one of the diggers has a snapped pivot. Including the utility vehicle back at the centre, that’s three machines out of action today. Wear and tear on an industrial scale.
We stalk through the dense woods, me stepping over forest flotsam, Rowan using his crutches to test for solid ground following the raw line of the new trail. Small pieces of red and white striped tape tied to branches mark the course of the trail over rocks and between trees. The character of the trail is already there; it takes a lot of willpower not to pretend I’ve got a set of bars in my hands and faux-ride it. If this were a black trail it would be pretty much finished, but as it’s a blue there’s a lot more work to be done yet. Rowan explains how everything from the gaps between rocks to the level of camber on a corner has to be taken into account on a blue trail. That rider profile document has to be stuck to.
Further up the hill and out in the open, the trail is in a slightly more finished state. Crushed grey rock has been compacted into something recognisably trail-centre looking. It’s still some way from being rideable but it gives a good idea of how the rest of the trail might look. It starts raining and rather than walk further up the hill to see more, we beat a retreat to the car. We drive into the now-empty centre car park, where the Back On Track team are packing tools into lock-ups, parking vehicles up for the night and hanging up jackets to dry in the shed. The broken utility vehicle wheel has been repaired and reattached, ready for another hard day in the forest tomorrow.
Trail construction on this scale is no mean feat. It takes a combination of brains, brawn, skill and passion to make a trail that the ultimate client – the rider – will appreciate. If Back On Track’s builders do their job well, you’ll never even think about how the trail got there, how long it took or who built it. They are the secret superheroes of the mountain bike world.
Read more about what makes Rowan Sorrell tick on the Singletrack website, singletrackworld.com