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Interview: Dafydd Davis, the godfather of mountain bike trail centres

Coed-y-Brenin by BkMSE, on FlickrMountain bikers have a lot to thank Dafydd Davis for. He’s the man who developed and helped build the UK’s first purpose-built mountain bike trails in Coed y Brenin, North Wales, and whom paved the way for other now world-famous riding destinations. Further afield, he's helped build trails in the likes of Australia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

The boom in mountain biking has now finally hit in Northern Ireland – something which everyone in CRC is more than excited about!

“I’ve been working in Northern Ireland for about ten years,” Dafydd says. “I first looked at Rostrevor and Castlewellan in I guess it would have been about 2003, but there were some pretty severe difficulties.

Recreation and forestry working in harmony

Work in progress at one of Rostrevor's downhill runs
Work in progress at one of Rostrevor's downhill runs

There was a bit of a clash between the people who wanted to develop the leisure side of things, and the land use. And what people were thinking was that developing lots of mountain bike trails would compromise their core land use; compromise their ability to do forestry.

When we came to Northern Ireland we had a model that we could show people, ‘look it’s been done here, here and here’ and there were some lessons to be learned from pretty much everywhere.

So basically what we’ve been able to demonstrate from in other parts of Ireland I’ve worked in is that you can have formalised recreation, and mountain biking in particular, and you can have commercial forestry happening at the same time. We just had to try and make sure what we did in Rostrevor and Castlewellan was sympathetic to commercial forestry and also the landscape.

It wasn’t an easy process in Northern Ireland but I can understand the concerns that people had because it is a fairly big change.

Good things come to those who wait…

Trail and landscape flowing together along Rostrevor's cross-country trail.
Trail and landscape flowing together along Rostrevor's cross-country trail.

I’m over two days a week, every week. People are really interested and dead keen, they’re pretty stoked that there’s actually going to be something in Northern Ireland but I try and politely say guys you shouldn’t be on the trails right now, but people are all over them!

The thing is there’s no signage at the moment, no waymarkers – so some people have been riding trails that have been designed as climbs…and coming down them, so they’ve been skidding corners out and stuff so they’re creating a bit of extra work for people, but the main thing is that the trails are actually technically a construction site so if anybody was injured on the trails, it’s essentially an accident on a construction site so could be a bit tricky. So people need to stay off, basically.

Potential for 30 sites in Northern Ireland; excited much?

I did a lot of work in Davagh [trails that are currently being completed by Phil Saxena and his team] back in 2008, looking at what the potential was really. When you combine Davagh with Rostrevor and Castlewellan and various other places like Blessingbourne, there’s going to be quite a bit for mountain bikers to go to in Northern Ireland quite soon.

Winding through the forestry in Castlewellan.
Winding through the forestry in Castlewellan.

I think there’s potential for more stuff elsewhere in Northern Ireland. I’m hopeful that what we’ve been able to demonstrate through Rostrevor and Castlewellan is that we can do this in a really sustainable way. We can limit the impact of the trails on the landscape and environment but also on the land use, so hopefully we’ll be able to start looking at some other areas in the future.

I did a strategic review of off-road cycling in Northern Ireland in 2003, and I looked at about 30 sites altogether so there are lots of sites that within that strategic review did show some promise but I couldn’t really say where they are at this stage – I’d be creating trouble for myself I think!

Trails for all

We're expecting more sites like this to be developed throughout Northern Ireland, who knows, they could give the 7Stanes a run for their money one day.
We're expecting more sites like this to be developed throughout Northern Ireland, who knows, they could give the 7Stanes a run for their money one day.

The Strategic Review looked at everything – it was for family cycling, cross-country mountain biking and for downhill. What we wanted to do in Rostrevor was make a trail there that was a proper mountain bike ride. We wanted it to feel as natural as we possibly could, we didn’t want it to feel too artificial so what we were trying to do there was cater for the existing demand, the existing mountain bikers in Northern Ireland and in the south of Ireland.

In Castlewellan the idea there has been to make trails that are a lot more accessible – that then hopefully encourages more people to come into mountain biking. And then on the other side you’ve got places like Castle Ward which are not mountain bike trails, but trails which you can ride a bike on. And that’s really accessible to pretty much everybody – if you can ride a bike you can ride those trails.

A bright future for cycling in Northern Ireland

It’s looking good for Northern Ireland mountain bikers and because of the approach we’ve taken in Rostrevor and Castlewellan it means other things can take place in the future as well. I hope so, anyway.

What’s really interesting is absolutely nothing has happened in Northern Ireland for years and years until the last two years really. And then suddenly it all comes rushing in at once."

So there you have it, straight from the trail builder's mouth. Not only is Northern Ireland in the wake of a mountain biking boom, but the potential here is huge too! We're staying away from the new trails until they're officially open, but try and keep us away once they're ready to ride! Maybe see you there soon?

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