New Zealand Mountain Bike Web

25 March 2009

On your left!

By Jonathan Kennett 2009 [This article was previously published in Spoke Magazine]

Riders and walkers may come from opposite sides of the playground, but both have plenty to gain from sharing their turf

Rewind ten years, four months and six days. Location: Makara Peak. Grid coordinates: 528-891. You find yourself thrashing around in thick gorse with five other people, scouting out a route for a track appropriately named Missing Link. It’s the start of a monumental effort by Wellington mountain bikers to build what has since become one of the Peak’s favourite trails.

Now fast forward to the summer just gone. More clear skies, not a breath of wind––a typical Wellington day. One of the five pioneers is back in the park, on foot again, only this time running along Missing Link’s flowing line. Behind her she can hear a mountain bike approaching so she steps aside (in plenty of time) and calls out a cheery ‘hallo’. The rider scowls. Ten minutes later, on the climb out of the valley, the runner catches up with the rider and says hello again. This time the scowl is followed by a stern telling off, in a thick European accent: “You are not allowed on these tracks.”

“Excuse me,” replies the runner, “but yes I am.”

“No! It’s dangerous. This is a mountain bike track,” exclaims the Euro. In the end he lost the argument, but was he right? Are runners and walkers taking an enormous leap of faith by venturing onto cycling tracks?

Cyclists are particularly familiar with leaps of faith. Every time we ride on the road we must have faith that the dominant road users will not swerve and hit us. Sometimes, the car drivers themselves try to persuade us that it’s too dangerous to cycle on the road. Nevertheless, for the growing number of cyclists the obvious benefits outweigh the slim risks.

Thirty percent of the users at Makara Peak are walkers, and I guess they feel the same way. Which brings me back to Missing Link. I’d argue that runners, who can quickly step aside, are safer on bike tracks than mountain bikers themselves. Some riders like to blaze, even when it’s not race day, and Missing Link is a two-way track. Last year two fast riders met on a blind corner––Smack! The combined speed of 50 km/hr broke one nose and bruised a shoulder. Luckily, the bikes were okay, but it was a painful reminder to slow down and be prepared to meet riders, walkers, track builders or fallen trees around any corner. It was by no means an argument for segregation!

Ever since we started riding, walking advocates have been arguing that it’s too dangerous to share tracks. It amazes me that some cyclists are now singing the same tune. If they win that argument then we’ll all be banned from riding walking tracks. Doh! Now this may not bother you too much if you live north of Taupo. In Whangarei, Auckland, Tuaranga and Rotorua, riders are banned from riding most walking tracks already. But south of Taupo it’s a different story. Land managers are more tolerant and potential track users are usually assessed according to their environmental and social impacts (an approach that’s finally creeping into National Parks). In Wellington, mountain bikers share over 30 traditional walking tracks, and walkers have access to all 28 mountain bike tracks on public land. In fact, over the last few years some walkers have been helping build mountain bike tracks (or should I say dual-use tracks).

In the South Island the split is less balanced. A flick through Classic NZ Mountain Bike Rides shows that 70% of the four-star rides existed long before cyclists started heading off-road. Mountain bikers have built the rest in the last ten years. Most are dual-use.

Land managers usually see dual-use tracks as an optimal use of resources, and most mountain bikers agree. We want to share the Heaphy and the 42 Traverse and the Whakamarina, etc. Although there are still some complaints from walkers about skidding on tracks, or almost getting hit by bikers, sharing tracks is generally working out fine.

I’ll concede that some tracks are just too busy and narrow to allow all users (the Huka Falls walking track springs to mind ––since we were banned BikeTaupo have built a great alternative, the Rotary Ride). But most tracks can be shared amicably, with a little bit of respect from mountain bikers and little bit of faith from our biped friends.