Luminaries | Part 1: Undercover with Covert Trail Builders

Throughout this Luminaries series we will be bringing you interviews, stories and controversial opinions from the very people who influence, shape and drive the development of trail riding and enduro. The series will travel throughout the biking world, highlighting and acknowledging the work of those who make our riding so much fun

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Part 1: The Trail Builder

We all dream of having our own land to build trails, where we can create a trail that reflects our wildest visions and dreams. Through years of absorbing trails through three minute VOD segments, we dream in corners, jacked up on footage of riders shaping perfect clay in the hot mid day sun, but how many of us lift a mattock to craft those thoughts into the earth? When was the last time that you rebuilt a berm or drained a puddle that was forming on your local trails? I am as guilty as anyone, after a few exploratory sessions in the woods I realized how hard and time consuming building good trails are, and my ‘dream trail’ sits barely started.

But there are those that are more motivated; who take pleasure in creating with earth, rock and root. While we are wrapped up warm in pubs or at home, planning, watching and talking about our next trail adventures; there are those out there in the woods, cutting and digging in the torch light. To find out more about what drives these people I spent some time helping a man who’s tireless dedication has helped in the creation of one of the UK’s most exciting technical riding destinations. Although his trails have been used for international race series, sometimes his creations fall into a grey area of legality, so I cannot say who he is, or even where he builds, but he is certainly deserved of the luminary crown.

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We would totally endorse seeking the landowners consent before breaking into the dirt, but when you live surrounded by government run forests, that is not always a reality. Some builders work in a grey area, constructing amazing new trails deep within working forests. Many of these trails come and go as forest operations sweep the hills, but some remain and become engrained, the race stages of the future. These builders do not seek recognition, like ghosts in the darkness they build anonymously, but is their work more important than they perhaps know.

Biking is big business now and the way people ride is changing. There has been a growing movement of riders who are shunning armoured trail centre and bike park trails in favour of the thrills that can only be found from threading a super technical, narrow ribbon of natural trail. Fast rolling tyres are being switched for mud specific grippers, and hardened riders are now looking for the next challenge. The hard work, blisters and digging by dedicated builders not only make great trails, but bring new riders to areas, boosting tourism and shaping the way our sport grows. ‘Natural’ is the new cool and the next generation of riders is coming; schooled on steep natural trails bristling with slippery roots and off camber slabs.

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So surely everyone must be behind building new trails? Unfortunately not, many Forestry Commissions are now transfixed with the fear of litigation in our ‘blame’ culture, and they struggle to understand how in the days of ‘seven figure investment trail centres’, why do people still look to ride something a little more raw? So a line was drawn in the dirt, we are not allowed to build! However, every once in a while a new red ribbon snakes its way over a STRAVA map, and within days the scoreboards start to fill with KOM attempts. The fresh loam gives way under the torrent of riders and the true character of the trail starts to mature, sniper roots lie in wait under the dirt and the riding is raw and visceral. We caught up with a night time builder to find out more about what drives him.

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ENDURO: It’s pretty cold out here in the woods at night, what started you building?“I personally started because our little group used to constantly ride the trails another local builder / legend and a few others had built, and it started to feel wrong to just poach other people’s hard work without doing some ourselves. I guess with anything that takes loads and loads of time and work to do there are days when it’s a grind, or you struggle with motivation; but I do find it really satisfying finding lines and then seeing them transform slowly from nothing to a quality trail. I just need younger wrists and a new lower back to go with my enthusiasm levels. When we started the number of people building was tiny, with just a handful of folk responsible for most of the locally known off-piste network. It’s not so much bigger now, but there are definitely more and more people doing a bit with each year it seems.”

“It’s also quite nice when people ride and like them. I’ve had a few really good experiences meeting people who’ve just ridden one of my trails and loved it but have no idea they’re chatting to the builder. It’s cool just to know you’re making people’s day really.”

ENDURO: A lot of the trails you build are not technically allowed, are there advantages to building unofficially?
“Freedom mainly, You can build exactly what you want, in whatever style you want, to your own timescale. It also allows trails to be built less artificially and evolve through riding and re-builds into a finished item rather than having to go straight to the final product in one leap. This lets the tracks keep a much more natural feel and also lets them evolve and change surface and character as they ride in which is nice for the riders too, the riding experience keeps changing over time.”

ENDURO: But there must be disadvantages too?
“It all comes down to long term security. It would be great to know that trails will stay around, but building unofficially in working forests means that no-one really knows how long a trail might live before that area is felled. Resources are also a bit more limited. We don’t use power tools, can’t import ground materials if we find boggy ground, can’t build structures, so building is all by hand and much more labour intensive than it might otherwise be. Overall, it’s worth it to be able to create the technical, more natural tracks we enjoy riding so much.”

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ENDURO: Do you worry about getting into trouble?
“Not really, in all the time I’ve spent up in the woods I’ve never been disturbed, the forest plantation isn’t good for much else, and the trails aren’t damaging the forestry crop so it all feels quite harmless. I do make an effort to try and build safe tracks, if such a thing exists in mountain biking – though I guess not everyone might look at them that way!”

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ENDURO: Is it a lot of work looking after the trails that you build?
“Yes, as the local trails aren’t ‘surfaced’ like a bike park, they change a lot over time, especially as they are ridden through their first winter. They normally seem to need a little re-build after the first month or two, and then each spring to keep them fun to ride, although we like our trails pretty challenging round here. The amount of time that this takes gets less and less as the trails age and cut into harder ground. The big thing which is changing this at the moment is that these hand-built trails are now starting to be raced more regularly and an event can pack the best part of a years wear and tear into a weekend! Hopefully some kind of stewardship of the trail network will just become part of the culture of these races.”

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It was eye opening to see the level of work, creativity and dedication that goes into making a great trail. If you chance upon someone else’s creation, spare a thought before you grab a handful of back brake to get loose for your Instagram glory video. Have fun and enjoy but if you wreck it, rebuild it and if you hear of some digging going on in your area, get involved. So let us all give thanks to the men and women who build through the dark, for without them, our sport would be a lot less fun!

Words and Photos: Trev Worsey