25 May 2021

Member of the month: Grassroots Trail Association

Catch up with our latest member, Bern McClure from the Grassroots Trail Association, who chats about the establishment of GTA and lobbying for trails closer to home.

What led to the formation of Grassroots Trail Association? 

For years the North of Ireland has lacked decent off-road mountainbike trail facilities and at the same time local mountain bikers have been dismayed as road cycling federations and quasi outdoor groups purported to represent mountain bikers when central government offered funding for bespoke mountain bike trails was made available.  In the absence of purpose built trail centres and poor quality natural trails many local riders just travelled else where to enjoy their passion.  Many of us would regularly take the ferry to Scotland or head further afield to well-known European alpine trail destinations like Morzine and Les Gets in France to experience purpose built mountain bike trails. Then around 2012 with EU funding assistance the Government began to invest in developing mountain bike trail centres but because of inadequate user representation, poor design and inferior trail building techniques we ended up with sub-standard featureless (lacking jumps berms etc) trails devoid of flow and any real challenge.  Also, during this period of trail centre development land owners and Government forestry policy focused on wrecking many if the natural and wild trails we had.  

Who established Grassroots?

Grassroots was formed by local mountain bikers, like myself, who were growing increasingly frustrated at the poor quality of local trail centres, the persecution of riders who built wild natural trails and the overall lack of representation to articulate the views of local riders when it came to addressing the current and future needs of mountain bikers.  A few of us founding members called a meeting and we were pleasantly surprised at the huge gathering of nearly 200 mountain bikers who turned up to voice similar concerns and demand change urging the establishment of a truly representative organisation to be the voice of local mountain bikers.  The name ‘Grassroots’ was chosen during the inaugural meeting as it exemplified our ethos and the fact that we are all volunteer riders and builders with a passion for quality trails and a passionate desire to seek recognition for our natural trails. 

How did you drive things forward and what are your aims?

After agreeing a constitution and governance structure we sought to gather and collate the views of our members.  We agreed our key objectives:

The aims and objectives of Grassroots to be:

  • To lobby for and represent Mountainbikers across Ireland
  • To offer encourage best practice and sustainable trail building techniques
  • To build capacity amongst Mountainbikers by providing support, knowledge, expertise and passion especially where none exists
  • To encourage those building trails and riding trails to do in harmony and agreement with landowners
  • To build develop and manage suitable and sustainable trails
  • To ensure a duty of care to all members of the club
  • To provide all its services in a way that is fair to everyone

In order to inform and validate opinions and views ‘Grassroots’ organised a survey to identify issues and highlight how the current approach by government, councils and landowners needs to change in order to support transition and ensure that trails are delivered that are progressive, sustainable and truly world class.

To develop this report, we combined our insights and knowledge of what constitutes sustainable trail development with original research supported by empirical evidence. We initiated a survey of mountain bikers to uncover perceived and core issues with the existing approach to trail centre development and usage of natural trails to consider ways forward.

The Key Take Outs & Opportunities identified by our survey included:

  • Respondents were clear that trail centres do not meet their needs as they progress in mountain biking.  Riders are consistently underwhelmed and bored with featureless trails.
  • Trail centres are seen to be lacking in flow.
  • Mountain bikers are willing to spend money and travel to enjoy the sport.
  • Riders want trails that have flow and they want to ride trails which are interesting to ride & have features.
  • They want to feel safe from sabotage and not put other people in the area in danger.
  • Only 6.3% of respondents were female, more research needs to be carried out to find out why there are so few women mountain bikers in Northern Ireland.
  • Natural trails which are clearly marked and maintained could prove to be hugely popular.

We identified a number of Key Recommendations to central and local government:

  • We recommend new trail centres and the existing official trail network of trails should be reviewed to consider and improve the ‘flow’, in addition to adding optional line choices encompassing features such as jumps and drops.
  • We also recommend that government sponsored trail management organisations and local councils proactively engage and develop robust partnerships with mountain bike clubs and representative organisations to provide better quality trail outcomes and ultimately, world class facilities.
  • Government agencies and landowners should be encouraged to work in partnership with mountain biking community to develop models and formal agreements to sustain the option of natural trails in a safe and managed environment, as the alternative the stone built trail centre type trails.
  • Trail sabotage and the risk of injury is a constant fear expressed by all riders when using natural trails.  This is an issue which government and landowners have consistently failed to take seriously.
  • To address these concerns we recommend that government landowners such as Forest Service and councils demonstrate leadership by initiating steps to protect natural trails by initiating innovative lease or temporary management transfers to constituted mountain bike clubs.
  • We also recommend that Forest Service and councils should work with clubs to agree formal codes of conduct and maintenance schedules encompassing adequate signage, defined skill levels and warnings that trail sabotage will not be tolerated.

Following publication of the survey findings and recommendations we embarked in a series of online meetings taking a ‘top down’ approach we started at Central Government level with the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and then working our way through all the Local Government District Councils.  We also met with the regional sports governing body ‘SportNI’.  We received very positive responses and support from all those we met with.

What do you see as your main challenges going forward?

Apart from the challenge of Covid-19 and the accompanying ‘lock-down’ restrictions which have hampered much our physical and outreach plans we have nonetheless managed to work around these issues using technology to conduct meetings and social media to communicate our plans and views.  We have also been able to participate in some socially distanced site meetings at some trail centres where work continues on trail development and we are there to provide a voice for local mountain bikers with funders and contractors involved.

What is needed to unlock the full potential of mountain biking in Ireland?

I consider that we are maybe 10 years behind the likes of Scotland who have led the way by releasing massive economic, leisure and tourist benefits from mountain biking for many previously uneconomic areas in remote highland areas.  Throughout the whole of the island of Ireland we have similar economically stagnant upland areas with the same potential for trail development.  As a trail association we are determined to drive development forward with better trails, more facilities and essentially providing a conduit for better relations with land owners.

For us joining IMBA Europe has been a major milestone in our development, it provides us with credibility and an governance link to an international organisation of enormous standing recognised at all levels of government. We cannot thank IMBA Europe enough for the support and guidance we have received during the last year.  We will continue to build our capacity as a representative organisation offering support and guidance to local mountain bikers and lobbying government for better facilities. 

On a practical front for our members and affiliated clubs we are now in the process of establishing insurance cover for riders and trail builders to give them peace of mind when carrying out their activities. We are also working on a series of templates for newly formed mountain bike clubs to aid their governance development and capacity to galvanise local mountain bikers. 

The next year will be both challenging and exiting – much like a good downhill trail!