Well, a report commissioned by Belfast City Council has recently recommended a total ban on mountain bikes on Cave Hill but in classic Northern Ireland style when the proposal came before the People and Communities Committee this week, a decision couldn’t be reached. So again, in classic Northern Ireland style, tensions are mounting on all fronts. Walkers vs bikers.
Now before you go jumping to conclusions because obviously I’m an avid hill walker, let me be clear. I’m not entirely against bikes on mountains, despite being hit by one a number of years ago as a pedestrian walking along the footpath on the Lisburn Road, of all places. Believe me, when you are hit by a mountain bike that’s galloping along, you know all about it, wherever it happens. I’ve had my fair share of near misses on the hills and likewise, I’m confident mountain bikers have their war stories too of sabotaged trails and dog walking hecklers, although in fairness that’s much less likely to occur on the Lisburn Road these days.
From a walkers perspective every mountain bike encounter is instantly frightening. That’s the bottom line. They are fast (arguably much faster than 4 mph) and their direction of travel is unpredictable. More often than not they don’t ‘appear’ to be in control and the strong ‘perception’ is that riders are significantly more confident than they are capable. Evidenced by the sheer volume of gear worn by ‘some’ riders …helmets, face guards, knee pads, back boards, shin guards, elbow pads, wrist guards, dare I go on? I hastened to add this gear is bloody expensive so it’s often the preserve of young adults post-Christmas or those MAMIL’s roaming among us… Middle Aged Men In Lycra! (sorry boys!) The point being that the very ‘prospect’ of a collision between a bike and a walker who is not wearing any protective gear, is intimidating and terrifying. Throw a young child into the mix, wandering livestock or out-of-control dogs and what started as a relaxing day out soon becomes just as stressful as the rest of the week. For all of us.
Now for illustration let’s use an unrelated example: Skiers vs Snowboarders. ‘The Battle of Shared Slope’ has been a long and arduous one, splitting friends and families across Europe …well everywhere in Europe but here as our snow tends to grind everything to a halt! But the point being that it’s a similar issue, albeit on a grander scale, that couldn’t be ignored. Cutting to the chase, people had to accept that the mountain belonged to everyone and they needed to celebrate their enormous appetite for their fantastic local outdoor space. They were forced to refocus and look to the collective opportunities it brought. Everyone had to adapt for it to work.
The reality is that bikers and walkers for the most part need separate areas in addition to any shared space. Snowboarders have their snow parks and skiers have runs that can only be accessed by flat trails. Both have clear rules of engagement in shared areas, mostly for the benefit of insurers but predominantly to avoid collisions. In reality though it’s up to each individual to take personal responsibility for adhering to these rules. The foundation being mutual respect, right of way and consideration of others. If you look on any NI hill walking or cycling code of conduct, that’s exactly what you’ll see. Here’s a stronger cycling code of conduct and a few ideas from the Malvern Hills.
In my opinion, bikers should have their ‘snow park’, their dedicated area that’s large enough and challenging enough for them to enjoy freely. An area that encourages bikers away from the walking trails and into a space that’s purely devoted to them. That way, if there’s a risk they’ll collide with anyone, it’ll be with each other!
Walkers and bikers may want different things from their day out but they have one thing in common. They both love our local hills and the outdoors. This must be preserved. The way I look at it is that a mountain biker today could become a conservationist tomorrow and that’s why I don’t believe a total ban is the way forward. Just please, don’t crash into me again any time soon, slow down when you see me and try to understand what it’s like to be a hill walker facing down a high performance machine on unpredictable terrain with an unlicensed driver. I’ll aim to do the same for you. I can go from 4 mph to 0 mph in one step!
So Councillors… gear up, dig out your lycra and strap on your poles! There’s a decision to be made.