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Hot on the trail

Mountain bikers are in desperate need of new places to ride as overcrowding and erosion begin to bite

Unus Alladin
Updated on Oct 05, 2008

Mountain biking has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the last decade in Hong Kong but a lack of trails is becoming a major headache for riders. There are an estimated 12,000 mountain bikers in Hong Kong but because of restrictions laid down by the government, only a handful of country park trails can be used for one of the fastest growing sporting communities. And none of these trails are purpose-built for the sport.

The Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association (HKMBA) has been hard at work trying to convince the government to open up more trails.

"There are abandoned trails throughout the parks that would be perfect for mountain bikers and at the same time significantly reduce contact between hikers and bikers," said HKMBA chairman Bob Smith.

The government sees these mountain bikers as nuisances who roam the countryside, causing havoc to hikers. Mountain bikers just want their own space so they can enjoy their sport. As the ranks of mountain bikers continue to swell, the HKMBA has experienced a "rebirth" with their newly elected chairman promising to help his fellow enthusiasts find new places to ride.

"One of our main tools is our new website
which keeps riders up to date on advocacy
issues as well as bike community issues," said Smith.

The HKMBA has announced a comprehensive plan to increase awareness of the sport to visitors, residents and budding stars who might want to follow in the footsteps of Chan Chun-hing, who represented Hong Kong in mountain biking at the Beijing Olympics.

"One of our main tools is our new website which keeps riders up to date on advocacy issues as well as bike community issues," said Smith.

The HKMBA has taken a series of steps to bolster the mountain biking community, including regular meetings with officials, land managers and other stakeholders to encourage greater acceptance of mountain biking.

"With an estimated 12,000 active bikers [85 per cent Chinese] given access to only one per cent of the trails in Hong Kong's country parks, there is clearly potential for opening a limited number of additional trails to meet the growing demand," said Smith. "There are numerous trails throughout Hong Kong's parks that are not used by hikers, or are only very lightly used, and these could easily be opened to mountain bikers in order to alleviate over-use on the most popular trails."

According to Smith, half of that one per cent of available trails simply can't be utilised properly because they are not purpose-built.
"Half of those trails are made of concrete paths which cannot be used by mountain bikers. Once mountain biking came back on the scene, there have been more people asking us where they can go to ride," he said.

Tom McGuinness, a director of the HKMBA, said although mountain biking could be a rough sport, "it's about community and it's a social event".

"We have more people interested in the sport, but the potential problem is with the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the managers of the country parks," said McGuinness. "These trails are not really designed to accommodate 12,000 bikers."

Shaun Horrocks, another director of HKMBA, said he had seen mountain biking's popularity soar from fewer than 1,000 bikers when he first came to Hong Kong in 1994 to more than 12,000 today.

"A tremendous amount of work has gone into gaining acceptance of mountain biking as an Olympic sport and opening a limited number of trails in Hong Kong," Horrocks said. "However, a greater challenge remains. We need to improve the quality and quantity of trails available to riders. Today, there are more hikers and bikers than ever before - all using a limited number of trails that make up only one per cent of the total available. The result is over-crowding and we want to avoid this by opening unused trails for mountain bikers."

Smith said mountain bikers faced several problems. For one thing, the trails are too steep and are not designed for bikers. These trails can easily deteriorate, too. "We can make adjustments to these available trails. There are more than enough trails for everyone [about 1,000] and one of our goals is to provide alternatives for our bikers. We have had many meetings with the Civil Engineering and Development Department and they are also looking for solutions," said Smith.

"We are looking to redesign the parks to make it more sustainable. There are very few entry and exit points for mountain bikers to gain access to. Take the Tai Lam Country Park for example. We have one of the most popular trails, but the only way to get to the top of the mountain is by hiring a van or having your own transport. It is very difficult to get to the top because it is too steep," Smith said.

"Let's find other areas where there are abandoned or lightly used existing trails that can separate the bikers and downhill areas. It would also provide for a wider range of riders such as cross-country and beginner bikers."

One of the problems the sport is facing is that the trails are being destroyed. The HKMBA is trying to lend its expertise to come up with a solution.

"We're taking our own initiative and doing our own study on the problem. The trails are eroding and it's getting to a stage where nothing can be done about it. We hope our recommendations can be looked at and reviewed and not thrown out," said McGuinness.

"Hong Kong has the perfect infrastructure and geography for mountain bikers. All we need to do is provide bike racks and sustainable trails. Many people could benefit from it."

On the bright side, the Civil Engineering department is listening to the HKMBA and it is in the middle of a procurement process and a feasibility study aimed at looking at developing an entire network for mountain bikers on Lantau Island.

"It's like living in Switzerland and not being able to ski."

"It's not a huge financial investment to have, say, a 20km loop trail. I would expect the cost to be a few hundred thousand dollars for the actual labour. No concrete would be involved. We don't want concrete, so that would save the environment, too. The trails can be used for runners and bikers alike," Smith said. "We had an Action Asia race in Tai Lam recently and we had more than 200 competitors, although half of the race was on concrete. The number of competitors we had just shows you the huge demand for trails."

"There's so much potential in Hong Kong," said McGuinness.
"Hong Kong has some beautiful trails but we've been banned from using them. It's like living in Switzerland and not being able to ski."

Michael Maddess, director of Action Asia Events, said the government must realise that mountain bikers need their own space. "They cannot keep giving hiking trails and reclassifying them as mountain bike trails. The time has come to construct a purpose-built trail for the benefit of the whole mountain biking community," Maddess said.

In the meantime, the HKMBA is promoting its activities the best it can. It has arranged group rides, skills classes and community meetings on Lamma Island and at Tai Lam in the New Territories, where the HKMBA will outline organisational changes and talk about future plans. Competitive cross-country mountain bike races are planned at several venues, including on the Chi Ma Wan peninsula on Lantau.

Copyright © 2008 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All right reserved


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