Mountain biking is continually growing and diversifying. One of the most pleasing changes is the increase in accessibility to mountain biking for younger riders. More bike brands are offering high-quality bikes in youth sizing, and as we have covered in previous issues there are a number of youth mountain bike programmes around the country. These are aimed at getting outside, being active, developing skills or creating purpose. Leo Cerda also wrote about taking your kids on bikepacking trips, and how to help them progress from a balance bike to their first descent.

This is a positive reflection on the growth of mountain biking, but one area that has been difficult to conquer is mountain biking being seen as a mainstream sport. While many regions are building purpose-made mountain bike trails and skills parks, having mountain biking integrated into school sport may be the final step for making mountain biking a much larger sport in Australia.

Mountain biking has become far more mainstream in recent years.

Having started my career as a PDHPE teacher, the hurdles for integrating mountain biking into school sport are readily apparent. While some schools are able to have trails or skills parks on their premises – it's not the norm. Many schools have mountain biking as part of their outdoor-education offering although it's typically the realm of private education. Making a mountain bike option fit into the normal school sport system is riddled with issues, especially when you need purpose-built trailers and a coaster bus to get students and bikes to the appropriate facilities. The teacher to student ratio is a poor fit for almost all school sport programmes.

Private enterprise for schools mountain biking:

Enter Rocky Trail Entertainment and their Schools Academy. Sure, it's not weekly mountain biking as school sport, but it is an event format where Rocky Trail do the heavy lifting for organising and risk assessment, letting schools turn up with parents and teachers, students, bikes and a good attitude.

The Rocky Trail crew provide a briefing to students.

The event format is the same as the Rocky Trail Super Flow, where the event team set a few trails with a descending focus, and riders need to complete each trail, in any order, with riders set off at timed intervals. This means it's fun, it reduces the chances of crashes with multiple riders on a trail, and it is self-paced. Students can go to each trail as a school group, or group of friends. They can also speak to their teachers about their performance, and opt to have another crack to improve.

I recently visited the Rocky Trail Schools Academy event at Sugar Bag Road on the Sunshine Coast, where over 300 students were in attendance at the mini mountain bike park in the suburbs. This facility has a bitumen pump track, proper car park, a picnic area, toilets, bins, skills area and a wide variety of trails. It's right on a bike path and it is 5 minutes to the beach at Caloundra.

Sugar Bag Road is a fantastic facility.

Jo Parker from Rocky Trail told me the growth in the Schools Academy had been incredible, with this event now their 7th that Rocky Trail had run.

“We had 170 riders here on the Sunshine Coast last year, and that was our biggest number. So to see it sell out at 300 is amazing. The growth from the local schools who have adopted mountain biking as a sport is incredible and we're getting more and more demand to bring school's based event design for students to more areas.”

Interestingly, much of the demand is coming from the school teachers, as Jo explained.“The format is what teachers love. With three tracks, teachers can support the younger riders if need be. The structure is very flexible.” Given the laid back event structure, teachers can work with students without needing to chase up individuals to be at stage starts at exact times. And they can share their experiences with peers from other schools as well, adding an extra social element for both teachers and students.

Rocky Trail works with schools to continually refine the events.

Bob Morris from Rocky Trail said that the first event came about by working closely with a school

“We got approached by Nerang High School to run the first event. They had been involved in the National Schools Championships and saw the benefits, and we thought it was a great idea.” While there has been incredible growth, the past two years have meant the impact in the coming years could be even greater, Bob said. “We're only running one in Victoria and the rest in Queensland. So when we can open events in New South Wales and do more in Victoria it will really take off.”

There are a number of elements to get right for a successful Schools Academy event, just like any mountain bike event, “Not everywhere is as lucky as the Sunshine Coast to have a mountain bike park right in the middle of town,” explained Bob. He went on to relate that kids develop their riding best when the trails are accessible. Students from the local schools ride past the Sugar Bag Road trails to and from school, and frequently drop in to ride.

Sugar Bag Road is easily accessed by kids on their way to school.

Kurt Martin is the Recreation Trails Activation Officer for Sunshine Coast Council, and he said that the location isn't by accident. The aim was to bring all the elements of a major mountain bike park into a condensed format within the suburbs.

“We're replicating the core of a mountain bike town, with a hub with the facilities you need and the trails right there.” And with growing demand on land in Queensland especially, the need for facilities like this is increasing. “Unfortunately for me, part of my job is shutting down illegal trails in reserves. Our development has got denser so kids struggle to find places to be outside. Having trail centres like this that are easy to get to are how Australia will get more mountain bikers.

With the pump track just opening, and hundreds of kids riding around as I spoke to Kurt, he was clearly pleased with the outcome.

“The Schools Academy is exactly why we built a facility like this. Seeing 300 kids cruising around having a good time is a perfect result.” Of course, the facilities get used plenty for the rest of the time as well. “I've got 5 trail counters out there, and I'd estimate we have 80-100k a year going through, but with the pump track and more just opening up, that's going to go up.”

People of all ages are loving the Sugar Bag Road trails.

Kurt would like to see a few more facilities like Sugar Bag Road be built around the country, as even in the time the trails have been open he's seen the amount of kids on bikes in the area go through the roof. He did hint to keep an eye out for what the Sunshine Coast delivers in 10 years time for Brisbane 2032, which should prove to be a huge boost to mountain biking in Queensland and Australia.

So far, every Schools Academy has been a resounding success. Jo Parker and Bob Morris from Rocky Trail have said the demand for more events is massive – but they communicate that in a positive way, clearly excited about what this growth means for mountain biking in Australia. I found the day to be completely unlike any other school sports activity I've been at as a student or teacher, and hope to see the event rollout grow around the country.

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