Words by Danielle Baker
With indoor recreation facilities and most organized sports cancelled for this spring and summer, trails in British Columbia have seen an explosion of users in the last few months. With the traditional mountain bike fundraising events usually held at this time of year also cancelled, trail organizations in the province are looking at new ways to support trail maintenance.
“COVID-19 has definitely increased trail usership by all groups, which is great, but our trails got pretty beat up,” says Julie Henderson, President of the Fraser Valley Mountain Bikers Association (FVMBA). “The trail usage tracking data on Trailforks shows that the Fraser Valley region alone had a 97% increase for the month of April from 2019 to 2020.”
Most mountain bike organizations would have already run races as revenue generators by this time of year. Events such as the Vedder Mountain Classic in the Fraser Valley; the Rusty Chain Poker Ride in Terrace; the first stops of the Island Cup Race Series on Vancouver Island; and many more have all been cancelled.
For locations like Terrace, the lack of fundraising and trail work events is especially problematic. “We have a much shorter riding and building season than places like the Sea to Sky,” explains Aleksa Havelaar, Trails Director and Vice-President, Terrace Off-Road Cycling Association (TORCA North), “so to have the pandemic hit right when we would normally be getting people really stoked about the new season felt like a pretty big setback.”
Pivoting quickly within their new reality, TORCA North realized that trail running events were also not happening and they saw it as an opportunity to be inclusive. They designed a 30-Day Challenge using the Trailforks badge system, asked friends with business and local shops to donate prizes within their ability to give, and opened it up to all trail users. “Being mindful of the Public Health Officer’s request to reduce pressures on our medical system, we opted to keep the challenge pretty chill, and we were careful to keep the competitive race vibe out of it as much as we could,” explains Aleksa. “The structure is pretty simple: ride or run a trail, earn a badge. Each badge is worth one entry into a draw. Registration is free, but you have to be a TORCA member to participate. We really just wanted to create a fun event where we could still be connected to our community in a safe way and reach other user groups who don't really know anything about TORCA or how the trail network is managed and maintained here. So far, the results have far exceeded our expectations. Our membership numbers are up about 40% over last year.”
The Fraser Valley Mountain Biker’s Association (FVMBA), has luckily maintained their core funding which comes from annual membership and corporate sponsors. They’ve also been able to apply for and receive grants this year, including the Canada Summer Jobs Grant which will fund two new trail crew positions. And past President, Rocky Blondin, got creative and volunteered his time during the pandemic to reach out to various municipalities and regional districts where the mountain bike associations help to build and maintain trails. With decreased operating costs due to public recreation centres being closed, at his request, funding was able to be redirected back to trail maintenance in each region in order to provide an option to the public for outdoor exercise.
Maintaining the Trails (6-feet Apart)
Trail work and traditional large group trail days can be a challenge to organize with COVID guidelines in play. Thomas Schoen the CEO of First Journey Trails, a trail consulting, planning and construction company, has two build crews currently working in the Caribou region and has taken extra measures to ensure their safety. “In partnership with the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program, we’ve developed a set of guidelines for crew work during COVID-19 times. This covers everything from daily safety talks to education on symptoms and handwashing, and spatial distancing during work and lunch breaks. I provide masks, gloves, Lysol wipes and wash stations. I purchased additional tools to avoid sharing of equipment and most of our work is done in a semi-isolated setting, where crew members spread out and work on a section of trail.”
The Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club looked into the possibility of running smaller maintenance days, but the committee voted unanimously against the risk. “It seemed to be a lot of effort for a very small project,” explains Dana Wacker, President, “and now, we're moving into a season where trail maintenance is quite difficult to do. Instead, we're hoping to empower our community to do some of the low-hanging fruit, like trimming branches and raking trails.”
An unanticipated side effect of the pandemic that trail organizations are trying to manage is rogue trail building. “This is likely not a problem unique to our area,” says Aleksa. “This year we've definitely been noticing higher instances of changes to trails or new lines popping up that that connect to established trails. It tells us that we still have a lot of work to do as an organization to let people know that if they are interested in building, to either reach out to us or reach out to the local Land Manager. We don't want to stop people from building, that's not our role. We are stoked that people are willing to devote their free time to trail projects, we just want to make sure that they know that there are some important steps to take before the tools hit the ground.”
Making Every Mountain Biker Count
This is an especially important time for trail users to purchase memberships to their local trail organizations. Not only are membership fees the bread and butter for many of them, but it is also one of the best ways to collect and leverage the user numbers to show local governments how important and popular mountain biking is in the community and to apply for additional support.
More ways to support local trails organizations:
- purchase a membership
- buy a membership for someone else
- volunteer in the available capacities for your area
- donate through Trailforks Karma program
- sponsor as a business, organization, or individual
- fill out surveys and provide good, honest feedback
- reach out to your local trail organization and ask who you can help
As bike shops everywhere are grappling to get their hands on more bikes and decade-old bikes are selling for big bucks online, Julie offers that the pandemic has really brought to light how important the outdoors is to our health and well-being. “It’s important that funding be provided to BC Parks, RSTBC, Ministry, and other governing bodies, and non-profits so we can ensure the environment, trails, and outdoor recreation opportunities are preserved, protected and inclusive for everyone.”