Words: Will Shaw 

Images: Dom Hook, TBS, DPAW, Blue Derby Wild, Nick Waygood, Matt Staggs 

In theory, mountain bike trails are simple. Grab a few tools, head into the bush, and go for gold. If it’s your own property, that might be exactly what you do. In practice, a new sanctioned trail anywhere in Australia is a massive achievement, and one that requires work, sacrifice, and compromise from more stakeholders than many people realise.

Whilst the last five years has seen an absolute explosion of trail development across Australia, so much so that millions of dollars’ worth of funding washes over me like another Instagram post these days, not everyone thinks this money is well spent, or that mountain bike trails in Australia are going in the right direction.

Millions of dollars are spent on developments like Tasmania's Wild Mersey Network.

For this article I spoke to several stakeholders involved in the trail building, sanctioning, and maintenance process. Alongside their voices, I wanted to include some of the contrary views that exist, views that new trails across the country are too vanilla, that the ‘old for new’ approach is leading to trail sanitation, and that the trail selection (for example flow trails) versus ongoing funding equation is often out of whack.

Rod Annear is the Assistant Director of Parks and Visitor Services at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation, and Attractions in Western Australia (DPAW). It’s a long name, but it’s the equivalent agency to NWPS in NSW, Parks Victoria, and Queensland National Parks. Rod says that in WA it’s never been a better time to be a mountain biker from a new trails perspective. 

Photo: Nic Quinn

‘For the people who’ve been around in the advocacy space for some time, they realise just how much things have changed for the better. I’m not sure if the scale is clear to everyone, but if you’ve got any connection to a club then it’s generally accepted it’s a good time to be a mountain biker. There’s a feeling that the actions we’ve taken in terms of helping people follow our processes have led to a good outcome. People often want to go out with a shovel and just start building stuff, but if you take that approach, you’re setting yourself up for failure from the beginning.’

Western Australia has seen a huge increase in funded trails in recent years.

‘All new trail centres are the same’

For those without experience when it comes to advocating for new trails, or fighting to keep existing ones, the land manager plays a critical role in whether mountain biking is feasible on that land. If mountain biking is feasible, what styles of mountain biking are appropriate is the next question that needs to be answered. Whilst the widespread nature of green and blue networks that are predominantly flowy in nature might seem like a ‘pleasing the masses’ move by land managers, another reason these networks are so appealing is their lower impact on the natural environment. Rod says that from his experience, many factors contribute to the dominance of green and blue trails.

‘The majority of the trails are built for the majority of the people. If you think of the riding population like a pyramid, right at the top you have the hardcore people, they ride a lot but they’re a very small number. While that may grow over time, at the moment we’ve got a lot of people who’re towards the bottom and middle of the pyramid in that entry to intermediate level. The other part of it is that a lot of the technical, straight down the fall line trail isn’t sustainable. We get the hardcore people going out and building steep trails for the minority that cause far more damage than a well-built, heavily used intermediate trail. If your focus is on challenging yourself against the environment, it’s less what we’re about (on Department of Biodiversity, Conservation, and Attractions in Western Australia land).’

DPAW have a number of resources that guide new trail developments.

Craig Meinicke is the founder of Blue Sky Trails, who’re a risk and asset management agency who consult to trail builders and land managers. Craig is also the trail care coordinator for Samford Conservation Park on the northside of Brisbane, and he spends plenty of time there building and fixing trails. According to Craig, the blue flow trail revolution is merely giving the people what they want.

‘I do a lot of work with Craig Stonestreet who has led the development of the trails at Thredbo for the last 4 or 5 years, and he has a similar view to me in that everyone wants more jumps. It’s a bit of a tricky one, as lots of people say they want more technical trails, but the data shows they still love flow trails. Bigger, longer, and slacker bikes are also driving changes in the trails being built to make them wider, faster, and flowier.’

People complain about flow trails, but they also love riding them according to Craig.

‘Old for new’ trail construction

Old for new trail construction involves the shutting down of existing trails and replacing them with brand-new sanctioned ones. Alternatively, an existing illegal trail is heavily modified to meet the requirements of the land manager. The consensus on old for new trail construction is that land managers tend to be cautious, and this leads to technical trails often being made easier if they’re being sanctioned. Alan Vogt from Kowalski Brothers Trailworks in Canberra summarised this best.

‘It’s tricky, because I think that a ‘trade’ isn’t necessarily like for like or in some cases the best outcome. Land managers are generally risk averse which means they’d likely prefer removing a more technical trail and see a safer and easier trail in its stead. Ideally, I’d like to see both as there’s a need for both and a need for more trails generally.’

Interested in new trails? See below for recent trail developments around Australia.

More trails for Mogo
New trails for Kunanyi 
New MTB facility for Sydney proposed 
New Mountain Bike Trails in Queensland's Bunya Mountains 
Fox Creek rises from the ashes
Ride on, ride off at Wild Mersey

Craig says the ‘old for new’ method isn’t one he’s been seeing recently, and that land managers will sanction existing trails if they meet the necessary requirements.

‘We’ve dealt more with legacy trails that aren’t on optimum alignments or are shared trails and we either converting them to MTB only, or adjust them to keep them as shared trails. If a trail makes sense and is built sustainably, landowners will consider legitimising unsanctioned trails, however there’s often a reluctance to ‘reward’ unauthorised building by legitimising unauthorised trails.’

How can mountain bikers get more trails?

According to Rod, he’d like to see more mountain bikers giving back to the trails that give them so much. While there are amazing volunteers and groups out there maintaining trails, removing trash and weeds, and generally getting things done with little to no thanks, Rod says it’d be great to see more mountain bikers taking a real interest in the conservation side of the areas we ride.

‘The reason I get up every day is the long-term conservation of these areas. We want to have people who stick up for them in the long term. When you come to parks and you enjoy the trails, you are more likely to speak up for protecting it. In the next five years I want to work with trail groups on things like replanting trees and removing weeds.’

Rod would like to see more riders helping to care for the land they ride on.

Aside from the conservation of the physical area we’re riding in, Rod says that creating a deeper sense of attachment is important. 

‘We have to engage with people on how else they can go about protecting this place and create a deeper connection. The names of our trails always have a story that connects back to the place. It’s not just some name the trail builder came up with. The one I always use is Busted Nuts, which is one of the trails at Dwellingup. Where the name comes from is there’s a lot of different Cockatoos in the trees where the trail is, and they leave a different mark on the nuts that they’ve chewed. Around the network there’s little signs that tell you about the cultural significance of the area.’

Rod points to Derby as a good example where the quality of the trails and significance of the area have combined to motivate mountain bikers to speak up against the logging activities, something we’ve covered this year also.

‘There’s this environmental psychology thing called place attachment, which is what I’m talking about. Think about the place in the bush that means the most to you, and why is that. Derby is an interesting example. The local shire always knew that area was potentially going to be logged, but now you’ve got mountain bikers speaking out against changes happening in the forest. People that have a connection to the place are the ones speaking out.’ 

Logging at Blue Derby has been met with widespread criticism amongst the mountain biking community.

Craig also stressed the importance of more mountain bikers getting involved in local maintenance and trail care groups.

‘Sweat equity from mountain bikers is important in any trail network. Things like clearing out drains and mundane routine trail maintenance can lessen the burden on the land managers, who’re often dealing with limited budgets for trail maintenance. If you’re building illegal trails in an area that already has a sanctioned network, the land managers will be wasting their precious resources shutting down illegal trails rather than maintaining sanctioned ones or looking into new ones.’

What about the gnarly trails?

If you’re at the top of the pyramid Rod described, you might feel like the world is against you when it comes to technical, challenging trails. A consensus I got from all the people I spoke to is that if you’re after true double black and above descents, their future may lie in private properties and commercial operations. Rod points to the Goat Farm in WA, which caters more to the gravity and technical trail market, and he also says local government managed land is more likely to have trails with less of a focus on conservation values.

‘We’ve got an old, cleared farm called the Goat Farm, and that’s where there’s a lot of the more gnarly stuff. Local government are another one that’s good with land that might not have as high conservation values. Linga Longa bike park is an example of this too.’

Linga Longa Bike Park in WA is a private facility that caters to the gravity market.

New Zealand is often pointed to as somewhere that seems to be able to sanction genuine double black, red, and orange trails. If you’ve ever been to Queenstown and ridden the A Lines on trails like World Cup, Hobbit, and Killer Bee, an Australian black probably isn’t providing a great deal of challenge for you. What you need to bear in mind though is that Queenstown Bike Park is built in a Wilding Pine plantation, which looks beautiful but is an invasive species in New Zealand, which they’re spending millions of dollars on to eradicate. For this reason, their land managers aren’t too fussed about cutting in steep and deep trails in these areas.  

Sticking on the bike park theme, if you’ve ever ridden a pirate loamer in a bike park consistently, you’ll have noticed how quickly it goes from being the best trail you’ve ever ridden, to an unrideable rut once you get enough tyres through it. This was another area the experts I spoke to agreed, that it’s very difficult to build sustainable steep trails, as riders are always going to be braking hard and inevitably creating ruts. The best bet for steeper trails is either land with no conservation or cultural value, or private property. Alan summed this up nicely.

‘Maintenance and sustainability are fundamental to officially recognised trail networks. It’s a critical aspect of any trail riding location. Technical black and beyond trails tend to run straight down the hill. They’ll catch more water, erode more readily, and require much more skill from the rider, that’s why it’s harder to get them over the line.’ 

Craig says that for steeper trails to be environmentally feasible, rocky terrain is required.  

‘You need to be in rocky, slabby kind of territory to build the steep trails. Erodible soils that we see a lot of on the East Coast simply aren’t going to work. Sustainable alignments are very tricky to achieve in steep terrain.’

Rocky terrain makes getting steeper trails over the line easier.

Another anecdotal comparison that can be made between New Zealand and Australia from trail builders I’ve spoken to on both sides of the ditch is the way trails are used. While Kiwis are more likely to self-evaluate their riding ability and respect the trail grade, Aussies are more likely to charge into a black trail, even if their skills aren’t at that level yet. Craig says this is another barrier when it comes to building black trails.

‘It is hard to build true black trails at present as all level of riders will just ride them. If they need to, they will ride around or get off and walk over trail filters or features they can’t ride. This leads to land managers creating black trails with a blue line to manage their risk.’

Another lesser talked about style of trail is technical climbs, something Craig says is disappearing somewhat from the Australian trail landscape.

‘When we talk about black trails people always think of gravity, but when you build a black climbing trail you tend to get people complaining that it’s too difficult. We had that at Ironbark with a climbing trail we built. I think the hardcore XC riders are missing out to some extent by the move towards more one way gravity trails. When you look at the Olympics, the riders are like A-Grade roadies as far as fitness goes while also having awesome bike handling and gravity skills, and we need some trails to replicate that.’

You don't see too many technical climbing trails in new networks, although this is changing with the emergence of eBikes at places like Wild Mersey.

Despite land managers trying their hardest to cater to the widest range of riders possible, Rod says there’s always riders who want gnarlier.

‘I think everywhere that trails are built there are people who want harder, want gnarlier, want raw, and they go and stick in their own trails. Harnessing that enthusiasm is tricky.’

Canberra is a good example of a place in Australia with reasonably good access to legitimate higher-grade trails. Despite this, according to Alan they lose out in other areas, like access to natural riding areas as opposed to plantations.

In Canberra we’ve got good access to plantation areas, but our access to natural areas isn’t as good. Stromlo is its own thing, but originally Stromlo was a plantation, and then it was burned, so in a way it’s an isolated case as it was a plantation area, but the fires changed that. The Stromlo example is unique, and I don’t think it’s easy to replicate it elsewhere.’

Mount Stromlo is a great facility, but not easily replicated according to Alan.

Craig agrees that there aren’t enough legitimate black and above trails, but he also thinks there’s not enough green, and even pre-green trails. 

‘I think at the moment with trails in Australia there needs to be a focus on the green and even before green, and then true blacks. The guys we work with use trail counters, and they know where to position them to get the best information. We did a project where the aims were more green, more black, better links, and taking the load off one blue flow trail. The data has proven and justified exactly our objectives of the project, suggesting there is a need for this increased diversity.’

Who’s looking after the trails with all the new riders?

If your local trails are anything like mine, there’s been more people riding them than ever before. Nowhere would this be truer than Stromlo, but this increase in rider numbers has coincided with a change in maintenance operations, one Alan says could be a good example for new trail centres in future.

‘There could be some interesting learnings out of Stromlo’s management moving forward. Pre-fires Stromlo was managed by ACT Parks and Conservation Services. After the fires its management fell under Territories, Venues, and Events, the same people who managed Bruce Stadium. First and foremost, this provided a different management style, but over the past 18 months it’s shifted again to the National Arboretum.'

Changes to the land managers at Stromlo have led to changes in trail construction and maintenance.

That has coincided with the contract being tendered for maintenance of the trails and Iconic Trails have picked that up. It’s a new horizon at Stromlo on all fronts. As an outsider but regular rider of the location all the signs are that they’re getting very close to volunteer maintenance and trail work getting done. Iconic Trails will be the ones who will lead volunteer days.

Perhaps it’s not just the volume of people on the trails leading to faster trail degradation, but the way they’re being ridden also? Craig says modern bikes have fundamentally changed the way we ride trails, and trail builders need to adapt accordingly. 

‘There’s a difference these days in how trails are ridden. In the past people wouldn’t ride a line that’s too rough, but now people are blasting through those lines. We tend not to build off camber stuff anymore because people don’t know how to ride off camber. It becomes a sustainability issue when they keep riding off the edge of the trail. Because people all tend to ride the same line these days, it really accelerates degradation. For example, the signature flow trail where I live is worked on every week, working top to bottom. By the time you’re at the bottom, the top needs work again.’ 

Modern bikes allow you to bash through chunky terrain.

Another interesting point Craig made that I already mentioned was regarding the death of the technical cross-country climb. Think about it, what was the last legitimate trail network you went to that didn’t have an easy switchback climb to the top?

‘There are two things at play reducing the number of trails for technical climbers. Switchback climbs make it easier for the majority, and one-way trails are easier to maintain and build. Everyone thinks of a black trail, and they think of a gravity black trail not necessarily a black climbing trail. When you switch something from dual direction to single direction it takes it away from technical climbers, who’re often pushed to a switchback climb.’

Will pirate trails ever go away?

According to the experts I spoke to, probably not. Once again, you only need to look at the number of pirate trails in places like Whistler, Rotorua, and Queenstown to realise that people always want gnarlier, different, unrestricted by bureaucracy trails. Does that mean you should stop reading this article, grab your saw and rake and head bush right now? Alan thinks not.

‘I think the best thing you can suggest to the eye patch wearing types is that they first look to join up with the group who are approved to build and maintain trails in that area. The main risk in going rogue is potentially damaging the relationship the group has with the land manager. Often these arrangements are sensitive and doing your own thing could be counterproductive to the group’s aims. Make change from within!’

Bare Creek on Sydney's Northern Beaches is a good example of perseverance achieving results.

Craig also thinks making change from within is far more effective than going it alone.

‘I’ve previously left a note for kids with their tools letting them know that what they’re doing is a bit uncool and to come and join the trail care group. For people who should know better I would ask why they’re not working with their local trail care group to progress trails in the area? Also, what are they building that isn’t currently provided by the network?'

'I see a lot of unauthorised trails that are totally unsustainable (skid trails), are dangerous (sketchy gap jumps), or don’t make sense from a network perspective, as they start and finish in the wrong places and don’t allow for shuttles or good connectivity. Dangerous gap jumps, large areas of disturbance, trees being cut down, and borrow pits all really annoy landowners and paint unauthorised trail builders as vandals not builders.’

Another thing that allows pirate trails to operate indefinitely is a lack of funding to the land management agencies. This sentiment was echoed by everyone I spoke to, but Craig put it bluntly.

‘Most of our public land managers barely have the money to do anything. They’re relying on volunteers to do the work for them.’

Where to from here?

It’s clear that mountain biking is on the up, there’s no two ways about it. As a result, land managers are becoming more familiar with the needs of mountain bikers, and the process of building or sanctioning trails. Alan says that stakeholders across the board in the ACT are becoming more aware of mountain biking, its benefits, and the best way to achieve a positive outcome for everybody.

‘I think if there is a trend emerging in Canberra it is that Canberra’s land managers and political representatives are more aware and more accepting of the need for recreational trails and that’s a great thing! More trails equal more recreation opportunities and that’s good for our community and it’s also good for tourism.’

Innovative tourism ideas like Blue Derby Pods are another benefit of mountain bike trails.

Rod is a great example of someone in a land management role with a ‘let them in’ philosophy, which he summed up nicely at the end of our chat.

‘If there’s one message out of anything that’s important to me it’s that there’s a place for everyone in parks, and we’d rather have people in parks working together than having a ‘go away and find somewhere else’ attitude. We see your presence in a park as helping to protect the park.’

Craig’s points in summing up are that if mountain bikers want to see changes to their local trail landscape, they need to get involved!  

‘Many landowners simply don’t have the resources to maintain trails, and they aren’t viewed as an asset on their balance sheets. Volunteers can help take the load off land managers, and paint mountain bikers in a positive light. This being said, I do think there needs to be a shift in landowners viewing trails as an asset just like they would a fireroad, as there’s a range of substantial benefits they bring. Once something is viewed as an asset it starts to get funded and maintained appropriately.'

Bike Parks have known for years that looking after your trails brings economic benefits.

Speaking to Rod, Alan, Craig, and numerous others in the trail building industry, advocacy space, and pirate building community there were common themes that emerged. The first is that it’s okay for some spaces to be about conservation. While a great trail can be built on a slope of any variety, a truly endangered species of flora or fauna can’t be replicated.

The second is that the best way to get more trails, more funding, and more diversity in your area when it comes to trails is by getting involved in an official capacity. With green spaces becoming more and more precious within our cities, the best way to preserve and create networks for perpetuity is through the official channels.

Are you the kind of rider who’s only interested in the gnarliest, steepest, most challenging trails out there? Unfortunately, your local trail network in most places across Australia probably isn’t going to quench your thirst for this style of trail, however there are more and more private facilities and bike parks catering to the top of the mountain biking pyramid.

Finally, I’d have to agree that overall, us mountain bikers are spoiled for choice these days. The huge increase in funding, awareness around the sport, and private investment have led to an explosion of trails around the country, and it’s time for me to go and explore some more of them I think!