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Mountain bike conference drawing interest from across continent

North Shore biking group calls for more support from industry

Wherever you find mountain biking, you’ll find trail use issues.

The growing popularity of the sport, the increased use of public and private land, trail use conflicts, and concerns about liability have put the sport on the radar screens of municipal governments everywhere. The economic potential is also intriguing, with areas like Whistler and Moab capitalizing on mountain biking to bring tourism to their area.

For their part, mountain bikers are realizing that they have to take a more proactive approach over the construction and management of trails, and by fostering responsibility within their communities. Youth programs and clubs are becoming more and more common, and mountain bikers are more involved in land use planning than ever before.

The mountain bike industry, wary of the impact that trail closures could have on growing sales and the reputation of the sport, is also starting to get more involved in the politics of mountain biking and trail access issues.

All three players in the mountain bike world, riders, governments and the industry, will meet for the first time next month in the District of North Vancouver at the North Shore World Mountain Bike Festival and Conference, which runs from Tuesday, Aug. 17 to Friday, Aug. 20.

The idea to hold a conference to discuss trail issues came from the North Shore Mountain Bike Event Society, which was formed to put on a festival for the North Shore area.

"Because mountain biking is such a contentious issue due to land management issues, and because we’re concerned with sustainability issues… we thought that before we put on a festival that would potentially invite more people to ride and raise interest in the sport, we’d better make sure that we have a sustainable sport," said conference organizer and environmental planner David Diplock.

The North Shore is famous around the world for its freeride mountain biking trails, which gave birth to a whole new style of riding that incorporates hand-built stunts into the natural surroundings.

Still, it’s been one controversy after another for the area, from residents complaining about the number of cars parked outside of their homes near the trailheads to municipal concerns about the stunts that prompted officials to tear down the obstacles.

The issue of mountain biking is still contentious, but the conference organizers feel the experience of bringing together the community, local government and the riders to discuss the future of mountain biking in a constructive way could help other communities going through the same problems.

"The whole idea is that all of this information, this expertise that has grown out of the North Shore, that is valuable to other people," said Diplock.

"There are still some below-the-seams concerns, but (the mountain bike community) has been very proactive in terms of dealing with the district on issues like trail building, maintenance and environmental concerns.

"The North Shore is currently in the planning process for an alpine recreational strategic plan, which will be part of an alpine official community plan, but those take a long time to do, and the (municipality) needs some relief right now. They’ve basically been caught off-guard by the growth in mountain biking in recent years.

"We’re dedicated to promoting sustainability in the sport. We recognize some of the positive attributes that mountain biking brings, for example it’s a family sport, it’s positive to get people into the environment and into recreation. There’s a North Shore high school league and youth programs.

"With that we also recognize the economic engine. Mountain biking is directly a $25 million a year revenue source for the district in terms of the mountain bike stores alone. That’s not including the spin-offs of tourism, hotels, restaurants."

On any given day you can run into visitors from places like Switzerland and New York who travelled to B.C. specifically to ride the North Shore trails, which have been featured in mountain bike videos and magazines for almost a decade now, says Diplock.

Industry-wide statistics are hard to come by, but one report published in 2002 estimated that almost 44 million Americans had taken their bikes off the road, and that mountain bike sales were well over $5.4 billion over the previous four years.

The interest in the conference has been stronger than organizers anticipated, with municipal government representatives coming from as far away as Scotland and Australia to take part. From the U.S., there are already representatives from Utah, Idaho and Colorado, and from Canada there’s been strong interest from Ontario and Alberta. Fifteen B.C. governments have already signed on.

There are two kinds of governments that are signing up for the conference, says Diplock. "There are the people who are dealing with it and don’t know what to do, they’re stuck with it like North Vancouver, and then there are the places that would love to have our problem.

"Some of the more rural economies are looking for more economic diversification… they look at Squamish and the Test of Metal, which infuses $2 million a year into that community. Places like Gold River, which has a lot of trails, would love to have that kind of excitement in their town."

Ski resorts fall into the second category and many are looking to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park as an example of how to increase traffic in the off-season.

"Ski resorts definitely have a role to play. There are some people who say that the Bike Park was the best thing to happen to Whistler’s trails, because it gets a certain type of rider off the trails. That’s what we’re looking for as well in North Vancouver, we would love it if a mountain did that and brought some relief," said Diplock.

Another important area of discussion is insurance, and for that reason the conference has a special session that deals with risk management. That session starts with a study on mountain bike injuries from Vancouver General Hospital, followed by a discussion on behaviour modification and increasing safety, followed by a discussion with a lawyer on an occupier’s liability and personal injury claims.

There will be a representative from the insurance industry to discuss the possibilities, as well as from Cycling B.C., which insures and sanctions clubs and events across the province. From there the discussion turns to risk mitigation through trail design, and how to show due diligence when building and maintaining trails. A new provincial program called AdventureSmart will also be discussed, ensuring that people are adequately prepared for the trails.

Another topic of discussion is corporate social responsibility.

"What we’re trying to do is to find that balance where there’s some corporate social responsibility, it’s not just take, take, take, reaping the benefits without providing for the venue. In this sport you have volunteers going out and building trails on public lands while private industry reaps the rewards. That’s like a hockey mom being asked to drive the Zamboni – it doesn’t happen in that sport," said Diplock.

The full conference program is available online at www.nsmbfc.com. The first day is a guided tour of the North Shore trails, followed by The Environmental Sustainability Factor on Wednesday, The Social Sustainability Factor on Thursday, and the Economic Sustainability Factor on Friday. Dozens of speakers will present at the conference, including Keith Bennett from the Resort Municipality of Whistler parks department, Whistler Mountain Bike Park managing director Rob McSkimming and Cliff Miller from the Test of Metal.