The unsung heroes of mountain bike trail building
The hundreds of mountain bike trails around the Nelson region owe their existence to thousands of unsung volunteers who build and maintain them. Charles Anderson reports.
On a drizzly Saturday morning Mark Newton drives his truck up the back of the Brook Valley. Usually, he would have his mountain bike with him but today he isn't riding, he is digging.
The dozens of tracks that are peppered throughout the region do not appear by magic. They are created and maintained by hundreds of volunteers who use everything in their power to ensure Nelson's mountain biking facilities are among the best around.
"It takes a community to raise a mountain bike track," Newton says.
He first came up Codgers Mountain Bike track as a teenager. Back then there wasn't any concerted effort to dig. When he moved back to Nelson a few years ago he threw himself into it - seeing the volunteer hours as part of the "holistic" nature of the sport. You can't ride without the trails.
"I'm happy to do it. We all love doing it. It's a passion and one that's caught up with the whole experience and lifestyle."
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Smasher, the most recent track in Codger's, is estimated to be about 1000 hours of volunteer time. An average of 4 people, 3 nights a week, 3 hours a night for 6 months.
But many people, even mountain bikers, might not even know how they get made. In some ways the effort can be thankless. But Newton says the real reward is getting to ride the tracks after they have been built.
They work with the main landowners in the region - Ngati Koata, the Nelson City Council, the Tasman District Council, Hancock Forest Management and the Department of Conservation. Then, where needed, they negotiate with forestry operators to ensure everything is done above board.
Newton says while there has been a boom in mountain biking popularity there hasn't necessarily been a boom in people willing to give up their free time to put in the hard yards in creating new tracks or maintaining old ones. However, Newton believes that people give back in other ways. Some donate materials or tools, others help signpost or map.
"I like the phrase 'contributing' rather than purely digging. People contribute in different ways."
Today there are half a dozen contributors. Ben Pointer sits atop a donated digger padding down dirt on to a small jump that will introduce riders to this yet unnamed track. Kurt Lancaster spades more dirt on top while his dog Pipi watches on.
There are different types of digs. This one is small. But others are more publicised and can see up to 40 people all helping out.
This small patch of trail has taken three digging sessions of a few hours each. There will be a rideable trail in about six more. But, Newton says, just because they are ridable doesn't mean they are finished.
He calls it an investment of time and energy - the trails around the region are an "amazing community facility," he says. Each of the diggers are here for different reasons.
Pointer works in conservation and sees his effort as part of something bigger than just mountain biking.
"I'm in awe of what people have put in in the past. I see myself as part of a succession of trail builders. Now is the time to do my bit. In the future it will be someone else."
Pointer says he took the trails for granted but built and appreciation of them after working on their creation.
"What drives me is being able to build trails that cater to so many people. Seeing kids and families getting into the sport and riding something you have created is a real buzz."
More than that, however, is the opportunity to give something back to the natural world.
"It's more than just riding a great trail - part of the whole package is the environment you are in."
He wants trails to become their own biodiversity corridors where native wildlife can thrive and "everything is in balance".
"We are not just mountain bikers we bring all these elements together."
Newton says unless you were involved in mountain biking you wouldn't know of the huge volunteer effort that has been going on for many many years.
"There's been diggers and unsung heros for 20 years and there will be for the next 20 years."