Northern Ireland has just launched a ten year strategy for mountain biking with one key aim – to raise NI’s profile as a world class mountain biking destination.
Benefiting the local economy to the tune of £25 million by 2024, that strategy envisages five new national trail centres, three new regional trail centres and six long distance rides, and that’s without mentioning Phase II developments in Rostervor, Castlewellan and Davagh Forest.
That ambitious target comes after a year that saw Northern Ireland open over 110km (almost 70 miles) of trails across five locations. Over 100,000 visits were made to those new trail centres in less than a year.
So is Northern Ireland now the world’s fastest growing MTB destination, and set to remain so for the foreseeable?
Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (formerly Countryside Access and Activities Network) is responsible for this new decade-long strategy. BikeBiz speaks with the organisation’s own Chris Armstrong…
What has sparked this surge of interest in mountain biking in Northern Ireland?
There has always been a strong interest in mountain biking here in Northern Ireland with people for years travelling over the border to the Republic of Ireland or by ferry to Scotland in the search for purpose-built trail centres to satisfy their mountain biking urges.
Even as far back as 2003, Dafydd Davis (Trails Wales) produced a report, endorsed by Joey Klein (IMBA), highlighting Northern Ireland’s potential to become a world class mountain bike destination and from then Outdoor Recreation NI (formerly CAAN) has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this vision a reality. In 2009 the first network of cross-country trails were opened on the private grounds of Blessingbourne Estate in County Tyrone and it was really the success of this initial compact trail centre that paved the way for the substantial development of mountain bike trails across Northern Ireland in 2013.
How has the MTB community responded to the plans?
Last year was an incredible year for mountain biking in Northern Ireland with over 110km of purpose-built trails opened across five locations including Ireland’s first official dirt jump park in Belfast and much anticipated downhill trails in Rostrevor. Needless to say, these developments had been long awaited amongst the mountain bike community who are now immensely proud of their own trails and enjoy now welcoming visitors to ‘their trails’ from the rest of the UK and Ireland.
Of course opening five trail centres in six months clocking up over 120,000 visits can create the feeling of ‘let’s keep going …where next’ and so we’ve had to manage and harness this enthusiasm through working with the local MTB community to set realistic targets for the development of mountain biking moving forward.
You hope to bring international MTB events to Northern Ireland. What’s your timescale?
Despite only being open eighteen months, Northern Ireland’s fledging trail centres have hosted the mountain biking elements of the World Police and Fire Games, the Single Speed European Championships and the Red Bull Foxhunt as well as various Ulster and Irish XC and DH championships. With this experience already under our belt our aim is for Northern Ireland to host at least one European standard mountain bike event by 2018 and to host an event of International status by 2020.
Have you any final thoughts to leave us with?
The vision to make Northern Ireland a world class mountain bike destination will only be realised through a consolidated effort from public sector, private sector and the mountain bike community and we are really looking forward to driving this forward over the next few years.