Say “Aye” Tae A Ride: How Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland are helping to take the sport to the next level

by 0

There is, the astute amongst you might observe, something of a buzz around mountain biking in Scotland right now. With a world-class trail network, ridiculously talented athletes, photographers and filmmakers, not to mention highly progressive access laws that let mountain bikers into the heart of stunning wild landscapes, it’s drawing in riders not only from the UK but from all over the world.

Sitting at the centre of this is a rather unique organisation: Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, or DMBinS. For almost a decade this small team has been working to strengthen Scotland’s already enviable position in the mountain bike world. It’s DMBinS who organise the biennial Scottish Mountain Biking Conference and, alongside all the national agencies and cycling organisations involved in Scottish mountain biking, write the Scottish Mountain Biking Strategy. But it’s not all flashy events and high-level planning – they are involved with a raft of initiatives across the country that help grow the grassroots of the sport. They are also pushing the boundaries, an example being their recent Unauthorised Trail Guidance. This is perhaps the first attempt to set out a comprehensive framework for landowners and riders to work together, and bring trails constructed without permission into some kind of stewardship and control. We caught up with the team at the recent Scottish Mountain Biking Conference to find out what they do and how they do it.

(No video? Click here)

“Enabling other people to do stuff”

When the DMBinS project started, it was more or less a one-man band. Luckily that individual was Graeme McLean. Supremely affable, and down-to-earth enough to connect with a broad swathe of the mountain biking community, he’s probably the most recognisable face of the project. Graeme sees the role of DMBinS as a mix of facilitator and pioneer.

Graeme mucks in at the Scottish Mountain Bike Conference Trail Summit

“Most of our work is enabling other people to do stuff, or promoting their work, or supporting best practice. If there’s something we want to happen, often we’ll do it ourselves and then share that experience so it can happen elsewhere. And we also commission research and give people the tools to do it themselves, and put their own spin on it.

“We report back to Scottish Government about how well mountain biking is doing and we’re better placed to do that than anyone. There’s a virtuous circle – mountain biking is doing well and that attracts Government investment.”

Working with local and national partners, DMBinS has scored some big achievements, which include helping to deliver 46 new mountain bike facilities. What’s particularly impressive about the success of the project is that it started when Scottish mountain biking was at a low ebb. The buzz created by the first wave of trail centres had worn off and disillusionment was starting to kick in.

“We started in December 2009. I was a bit naive as I came from a background of getting kids on bikes. For that first year I spent a lot of time with the Forestry Commission, learning about the process they went through with the 7stanes and how they developed trails. The relationship between mountain bikers and Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) was pretty poor and there were some pretty big disconnects in Scottish mountain biking. There was a reliance on FCS to create new trails and political pressure on FCS to maintain and sustain their existing trail network, rather than start new projects. There was a need for us to meet with potential new community, business or Local Authority projects, help energise them, share the FCS knowledge, let them meet each other and share their experiences. Trails on average take 3-4 years to develop so the outputs at that stage just weren’t visible.

“A major turning point was the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Our first mountain bike strategy said we had a need for more urban trails. Local trails, pump tracks, stuff that might seem a bit ‘meh’ to your average mountain biker. A legacy fund worth £9 million was set up, and in total mountain biking was awarded £900,000, which enabled £2.5 million-worth of trails to be built. We were asked by the Scottish government to comment on the applications, and we were able to support some great projects because we were already engaged with local stakeholders and knew the people applying for funding.

“Now more mountain bike clubs are happening and we’ve now got a regional series in every region. This is mainly thanks to Scottish Cycling and local clubs, but we set one up in Tayside and Fife. The races featured both Dirt Crits [beginner XC races] and Mini DH, so kids had a choice of events. It strengthened the clubs in the area and now Scottish Cycling and clubs have taken it over then it’s going from strength to strength – they’re better at running events than we are!”

Slightly to the left

While DMBinS is very much an offshoot of Scottish Cycling, it has some subtle but important differences to how the sport’s governing body usually presents itself.

“We’re hosted by Scottish Cycling and we use a lot of their systems and policies – in fact we wouldn’t exist, or certainly wouldn’t be as effective, without them. When the project began we were on a three year funding stream and that was the expected length of the project. So we were branded slightly differently, to avoid a situation where the funding would end but Scottish Cycling would be expected to carry on with the project. It’s also allowed us to operate slightly to the left, which has helped us when talking to mountain bike businesses and mountain bikers.”

A key part of the project’s mission has been broadening the participation in mountain biking, particularly increasing its appeal to women. Colena Cotter, DMBinS’s Comms Officer, was kind enough to talk us through some of the initiatives she’s worked on.

Will and Colena from DMBinS

“I was initially employed to provide support to Graeme and admin support to the project, but my job at DMBinS has grown as the project has grown. I’ve been involved with quite a few initiatives to encourage more women and girls into the sport. These included Women on 2Wheels, where we encouraged and supported women on their journey to MTB leadership, Go Girls, which provided taster sessions across the country to girls aged 8-13 to encourage them into the sport, and an initiative aimed at teenage girls that saw them bikepacking with Lee Craigie and Rickie Cotter from the Adventure Syndicate.  My role now is primarily to keep the public involved with what’s going on across the country through social media, contact with regional and national media and our newsletter.  I really love my job.”

Another initiative piloted by DMBinS has sought to explore the benefits of mountain biking for people with health issues. Jessie-May Morgan had previously been an intern at the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland (a business innovation project that DMBinS is a partner in) and volunteered her guiding services.

Jessie-May at home in the woods

“DMBinS were running a project that involved taking clients of NHS Borders and to see if taking up mountain biking could aid people’s recovery from a period of mental ill health.” she explains. “Continuity was important and they wanted someone who was available to do every session. The project was a pilot to develop an evidence base, so there was no funding for it. It was delivered by Graeme, I supported it weekly, and in return for my volunteering time DMBinS paid for my leadership training and qualifications.

“We took 10 people out riding each week round Glentress. Some riders used e-bikes as they felt they didn’t have the level of fitness needed otherwise. Alpine Bikes did us a solid – they let us use their hire bikes for free!

“By the end of the project, some of the participants saw themselves completely differently. They were buying themselves gloves and helmets. They were getting well into it!

“This was effectively a pilot, so we’ve got Edinburgh Napier University involved to undertake some research and evaluation. Once we have that, we can then use it to set up similar projects ourselves in the future and spread the word so more groups can develop similar projects across Scotland, and the UK.”

As DMBinS’ profile within Scottish mountain biking has grown, they’re looking at other ways to use their influence for positive change.

“We’re also moving into initiatives that are more on the marketing side, such as the national Take Care of Your Trails weekend.” says Graeme. “That’s becoming a Europe-wide competition next year and we really want Scotland to win. Next year we’re looking to launch a National Pump Track Day. Any kid should have the opportunity to go from riding a pump track on their balance bike to being the best in the sport.”

As well as pump tracks, trails and clubs, DMBinS are trying to support mountain biking businesses, an idea, which as Graeme explains, has resulted in a productive partnership with Edinburgh Napier University and Scottish Enterprise in the form of the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland (MTBCOS).

“Just as anyone should be able to go from pump track to world cup then anyone should be able to take a product from idea to internationalisation. We worked with Edinburgh Napier University and Scottish Enterprise, and delivered a kickoff event in 2012 which brought together 80 businesses and 40 academics. Together we also ran innovation clinics and we quickly realised there was a great appetite from entrepreneurs to start businesses and develop products, with academics helping break down barriers to their development. It got too big for us, but that meant Edinburgh Napier could source funding and bring in a Business Development Executive, Danny [Cowe], and open our office at Glentress – MTBCOS . It has really grown, with Danny working with over 250 businesses in the last 3 years and sourcing funding for a Scottish stand at Eurobike in 2014 for three years. It has been great to take a bunch of new Scottish mountain bike products with us and introduce them to the world – and also promote Scotland as a world class mountain bike destination.”

Danny from MTBCOS shows off some Scottish mountain bike products. Photo: Ross Bell/DMBinS

Models for management

The buzz at the conference has been the new Unauthorised Trail Guidance which was developed through a sub-group of the National Access Forum. Scotland’s unauthorised trail network has mushroomed recently, and thanks to Scotland’s access laws and the availability of online info they can be freely ridden, rather than staying well-kept secrets. Graeme believes that DMBinS has played a large part in helping find innovative new solutions for dealing with this growing issue.

“For a long time riders have scratching out little trails in corners of woodland and this had played a part in the development of many elite riders. Mountain bikes have improved, the standard of riding has improved and the number and uptake of these trails has increased. There used to be something of a status quo, now it’s at the point where these trails pose a serious problem for landowners.

Rider-built trails – naughty but nice. Photo: Ross Bell/DMBinS

“FCS and Scottish Land and Estates presented a paper to the National Access Forum voicing their concerns about unauthorised trails in January 2017. We attended the National Access Forum and basically stuck up for mountain biking. We argued that unauthorised trails are good for mountain biking and help develop riders, encourage tourism and retain participation. The landowners accepted this but they remained concerned over how riders interacted with other users, potential risks to mountain bikers, environmental issues and liability.

“One of the issues was that whenever mountain bikers approached a landowner and asked to build, the answer was either “No” or “Apply for Community Asset Transfer”- a process that effectively ends up with the mountain bikers owning a forest. There are a handful of these happening, but they’re a very slow process — you’re looking at 3-4 years just for the transfer to take place – and then you own a piece of land that comes with a load of other management issues.

“Most mountain bikers just want to build trails and ride trails, so we’re trying to give them management models between those two extremes. Mountain bikers can sit down with landowners and there is guidance to help them through the process. If appropriate to their locality a model could be for riders to set up a trails association to engage with the landowner. This is something we are supporting where we have regional co-ordinators. There’s also some guidance on trail building – things like entry and exit points, and brashing. Nothing revolutionary but it gives you a checklist to work through when you’re out on a site visit and want to assess if a trail is built without unacceptable risks. I’m not saying that all landowners have the time to do this but it could lead to a situation where mountain bikers take stewardship.”

Graeme has confidence in the ability of mountain bikers and land managers to work together. So much so, that on the last day of the conference, dozens of the delegates, including some from Scotland’s biggest land managers, were taken out to some well-established unofficial trails nearby. We were issued with tools and a safety briefing, and then put to work improving drainage, closing desire lines and rebuilding features.

Land managers and riders mucking in together

“It’s inspired by the model in Denmark where trails don’t tend to be built by landowners or government agencies – it’s all done by volunteers. Bad building places all mountain bike trails at risk so they tend to call it out. There’s a better chance of exerting positive peer pressure. Under this model trail builders can organise dig days instead of the land owner doing it all themselves. It should lead to more trust and should also free up staff time.”

Regional range

The current stage of the DMBinS project has involved working more closely with two areas of Scotland, one of which is probably synonymous with mountain biking, the other definitely isn’t.

“Regional coordinators were brought in to address areas that were either underperforming or had exceptional potential. Aberdeenshire missed the trail centre boat, and the Tweed Valley came about because of the local council being proactive. It’s a region where there is still huge scope for growth, lots of passionate stakeholders and two hours a week didn’t seem enough to do it justice.”

Enter Ed Shoote and Will Clarke, regional co-ordinators for the Tweed Valley and Aberdeenshire respectively. In Ed’s words, “I like to say that we’re attending meetings so mountain bikers don’t have to. We represent local stakeholders to ensure they get the most out of MTB.”

Tweed Valley regional coordinator Ed Shoote in his happy place

Will is newer in post than Ed, and has a different set of challenges to get to grips with. “My job this week has mostly been cleaning bikes! Officially I do the same role as Ed, but in Aberdeenshire, where there are different challenges to the Tweed Valley but equally some very exciting opportunities for growth and development. Over the next few years we’re aiming to significantly grow the trail network, and create a local trail association to assist with management of the trails. Part of the Aberdeenshire project will also help local businesses either already in or aspiring to be in the mountain bike industry, as well as aiming to develop the region as a genuinely first class MTB destination. We’re having a DMBinS team ride out in December at Glentress…” “Because it’s got the best trails!” interjects Ed, to laughter from both.

NETCO announce new Aberdeenshire trail centre
Family mountain biking in Aberdeen

When asked why an area with such a wealth of trails needs additional development and investment, Ed has his answer ready: “The Tweed Valley is at the point where it’s getting hard for the community to maintain the increasingly popular unauthorised trail network. We’re trying to maximise opportunities as they arise – things like funding for new trails going in and supporting the TVTA [Tweed Valley Trails Association] with their aims to formally adopt trails. It’s also about promoting Scottish mountain biking around the world. For somewhere like the Tweed Valley that means making it easy for visitors, thinking about their journey and what they might need while they’re here: a place to stay, tuition, uplift…We’re trying to pull everything together in one place, but using sustainable means – I don’t want any projects to die if the funding runs out or I have to leave post.”

What’s next?

The future of DMBinS is, at present, an unanswered question. For a project that was only expected to last three years they’ve racked up some impressive achievements, and the challenge now is to ensure that the good work continues.

“Our funding is actually quite fragile” explains Graeme. “To date we’ve been lucky and had three year funding from national agencies. Scottish Cycling got the money to put me in post which had enabled me to apply for more funding. I spend a lot of time writing grant applications and we’re quite good at getting money in, but there are other uses of my time that could be more productive. At the moment our core funding runs out in April. The regional posts are funded until 2020 when European funding ends. We’re in discussions with central government and we’re hoping for a good outcome.”

Asked for a one-line statement that sums up DMBinS’s mission, Graeme doesn’t miss a beat: “We should be trying to make people’s lives better through mountain biking.“ And that, it appears, is exactly what they’re managing to do.

Disclosure

Antony’s trip to the Scottish Mountain Biking Conference was paid for by DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland).

Leave a Reply