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21 Jan 2019

Dick Balharry Prize report

Douglas Carchrie, winner of the Dick Balharry Prize in 2018. He is pictured doing a jump in a wooded area on a mountain bike.
Douglas Carchrie, winner of the Dick Balharry Prize in 2018
In March 2018 the Trust sponsored a new international travel prize in the name of our former Chairman Dick Balharry. Douglas Carchrie, a Geography student at the University of the Highlands and Islands was our inaugural winner.

Douglas proposed to visit Canada to learn about and experience their mountain bike trails. This was prompted by his own experience in Scotland and an understanding that unauthorised trail building was becoming a problem for landowners as well as putting riders at serious risk. Douglas undertook his adventure last summer.

Organiser of the Dick Balharry Prize, Stuart Brooks (Head of Conservation and Policy at the Trust) says: Douglas was the first recipient of the Dick Balharry Prize and we couldn’t have been more pleased with the way he embraced the opportunity and got so much from it. All of us involved in the Dick Balharry Prize – including Dick’s family, the National Trust for Scotland, the University of the Highlands and Islands and Scottish Natural Heritage – wanted to honour Dick’s memory by inspiring a young person to challenge themselves, go beyond their comfort zone and benefit from learning in new environments. Douglas has already achieved a lot in the world of mountain bike racing but this experience has given him the opportunity to influence the future of his sport and how it can benefit sustainable land management in Scotland. I can’t think of a better way to ensure Dick’s name and legacy continues by inspiring the next generation of Scotland’s land managers.’

In his own words, Douglas shares his experience with us:

I applied for the Dick Balharry prize without any expectations as these funds are usually highly contested. To my surprise I was invited to interview! I put together my proposal to travel to British Columbia on the west coast of Canada to study mountain bike trail building and compare this with the situation in Scotland. In particular I had identified a number of issues surrounding mountain bike trails and trail building in Scotland – mainly the lack of any guidance or building standards within the trail-building community along with a lack of organised trail-building groups. I was aware that there are a large number of trail-building groups and organisations operating successfully in Canada; these groups were working to existing International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) trail-building standards and had produced excellent results. I was keen to see what was different.

On arrival in Canada, I spent the first week in Vancouver. Whilst the centre of Vancouver isn’t known for its mountain bike trails, from the cycling infrastructure that’s in place there’s a clear indicator that cycling was accepted and embraced as a leisure activity as well as a way to get from A to B. Buses are equipped with bike racks with room for two bikes, there are segregated bike lanes, and you’ll find ample cycle storage at SkyTrain stations. In addition, the main routes through parks have separate cycle and walking lanes, with Stanley Park in the west of the city having a 10km coastal cycle path. I got the impression that bikes are very much a part of everyday life. I took my bike on the SkyTrain, without any issue, to Simon Fraser University in the suburb of Burnaby as I had located some official mountain bike trails on the campus. To my surprise there was a small network of well-built trails with trail signs and a noticeboard warning that bears were in the area!

Bear warning sign pinned to a post at the Burnaby mountain conservation area
Bear warning sign at the Burnaby mountain conservation area trails

Burnaby mountain conservation area (to the east of Vancouver) features a trailhead with a trail map, local information and emergency contact information. Although the trail network surrounding the university is small, the trails were properly built and are well maintained. Despite being barely outside the city, there were warnings that this was indeed Canada and bears were in the area. This was a common sight at all the trail systems I visited – the clearly presented advice for mountain bikers was to ensure that you always made noise so as not to surprise any bears!

I met with Ryan Pugh and Christine Reid from the North Shore Mountain Bike Association (NSMBA) in North Vancouver. Ryan is the NSMBA’s administrator and has lived on the north shore his entire life; Christine is the executive director at the NSMBA. We discussed all aspects surrounding mountain biking on both the north shore and in Scotland. It was great to get an insight into how the organisation worked, the importance of including everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or economic background, how funding was obtained, how trails were constructed and how the need for official trails had originated from the threat of total trail closure in the area. Ryan and Christine were more than happy to share everything the NSMBA has learned in its 21 years. I was urged to “take away” any methods and principles they had learned and apply them in Scotland. In their view we are all mountain bikers working towards a common goal: “trails for all, trails forever”.

Following Christine and Ryan’s recommendations, I spent the next day at Mount Fromme on the outskirts of North Vancouver. I had travelled from the middle of a major city to some of the most famous mountain bike trails in the world! The newly rebuilt trailhead featured a large car park that was almost full, a trail map and information board, toilets, bike wash, public bike tools and, most importantly since it was 25C, a water fountain with cold running water ... bliss!

‘Christine had suggested I started with a Green/Blue-graded trail called Bobsled, named after its flowing sweeping turns. This trail is quoted as being “the most ridden trail in the world (probably)”. The trail is ideal for introducing beginner riders to mountain biking, and perfect for experienced riders to warm up.

Espresso Trail on Mount Fromme
Espresso on Mount Fromme

‘Ryan had suggested that I try out a Black-graded trail, popular with intermediate and advanced riders, aptly named Espresso. All official Mount Fromme trails have been built and maintained by the NSMBA to IMBA standards and this was reflected in the condition of the trails and how well they rode. There were few signs of damage on the trails, no braking bumps or holes – a testament to the way they’ve been built and managed.

Mount Seymour trail
Mount Seymour trail

‘Before travelling to Canada, I had made contact with Michael Boyd who moved to Vancouver from Scotland. I’ve known Michael for a number of years through the Scottish cross-country mountain bike races. He suggested we meet one afternoon at the Mount Seymour trails just outside North Vancouver. We rode on some lesser used unofficial trails that, without local knowledge, I would never have discovered. These trails had signs at the entrance warning users that they were entering private land, and were in stark contrast to the well-built trails I’d ridden the day before. The trails were in a state of disrepair with holes, fallen branches and completely washed away sections. Whilst these trails offer a different mountain biking experience, the environmental damage caused by them must negate any positives.

‘I had organised a meeting with Alister McCrone, a recreation officer for the Sea to Sky district of British Columbia. I wanted to speak to someone who worked for the local government to get a different view on mountain bike infrastructure. Alister is an “old school” mountain biker who has been involved in trails for many years. We discussed all the issues surrounding mountain bike trail building in both Scotland and British Columbia. These meetings allowed us to learn from each other, even with my somewhat limited knowledge in comparison to those I was meeting with. We were joined by Abby Morgan, who works with Alister reviewing the trail applications. The Sea to Sky district have conducted many investigations into the economic, social and environmental aspects of trail building and they were more than happy to share what they had learned with me. The trail application form was extensive, and it is expected that each applicant should spend around a week filling it out. The overall impact of mountain biking in the area was seen as overwhelmingly positive, with the few jobs the government funded being seen as a nominal investment in comparison to the economic and social benefits of mountain biking in British Columbia. I was impressed with the positive attitude to sustainable tourism and outdoor lifestyle from a local government organisation.

The Pleasure Trail
The Pleasure Trail

‘The next day I visited Alice Lake Provincial Park. Following the Trailforks app, I decided to ride a highly rated route called Pleasure Trail. I was not disappointed! The trail had recently opened and had yet to have an official route sign installed. However, the trail builders had constructed a huge hanging sign at the start of the trail; those who had spent the past six months labouring wanted people to know what trail they were riding, and rightfully so! The trail descended a rocky forested slope over 300m, with perfectly placed wooden bridges linking boulders and rock slabs on the descent. The trail was a perfect example of the trail-building excellence present in British Columbia. I spent the best part of an hour on a trail that usually takes less than 10 minutes, taking photos and looking at its construction.

Dan Prisk (and dog Zed) from SORCA
Dan Prisk (and dog Zed) from SORCA

‘The following day began with an early start as I had contacted the local trail organisation Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA) to volunteer with one of their trail-building crews. I met Dan Prisk, who was originally from Cornwall but studying in British Columbia, and the rest of the team which was made up of three other young enthusiastic trail builders. I spent the day working alongside the group while asking them loads of questions and taking photos. I learned that the trail crew were employed 4 days each week over the summer and paid the living wage to build and maintain the local trails. I got talking to Jano, who had just finished school and was spending the summer building trails and learning how to mountain bike. Despite spending much of the day talking, work continued and after a few hours good progress had been made.

Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival, Whistler
Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival, Whistler

‘For the final week of my trip, I made my way to Whistler, arriving halfway through the Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival, one of the biggest mountain bike events in the world. My time in Whistler was spent riding a small percentage of the huge number of trails in the area. While I hadn’t scheduled any meetings for my time in Whistler, talking to locals, tourists and trail builders in the area gave me a good insight into how the area is run.

‘I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Canada. Meeting like-minded people who were as enthusiastic about trail building and mountain biking as myself was amazing. I was welcomed with open arms by everyone in the mountain bike community, who were genuinely interested in Scotland as a mountain bike destination and more than happy to share what they had learned through years of work.

‘I was contacted by Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland following the trip and asked if I would like to present at the Scottish Mountain Bike Conference in November in Aviemore. Standing in front of 200 people was certainly nerve-racking but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and meeting like-minded people in Scotland, along with the opportunity to meet a few of my idols within the mountain bike and trail-building world.I aim to continue my research in Scotland by contacting trail builders and groups around the country to gain insight and share knowledge. Undoubtedly, the Dick Balharry Prize not only inspired me but also offered an opportunity that I could never have undertaken on my own and which will influence my life and future career.’

Applications are now open for students to apply for the Dick Balharry Prize 2019. Applications close on 15 February 2019.