Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
From the depths of the Ecuadorian jungle to Nepal, Australia and Canada, a massive upsurge in global mountain bike tourism is helping turn around the fortunes of small, struggling towns.
“It’s bloody magical,” says mountain biker David Bannear as we survey the view from the top of the Girra trail at Mount Alexander. We’re at the newly-built La Larr Ba Gauwa mountain bike park, 90-minutes from Melbourne, Australia. Below us, framed by trees, a panorama of Central Victoria, all golden-brown hills and ancient volcanoes. “We looked at other mountain bike parks around the world that were successful and all of them showed off a unique landscape,” explains Bannear, vice-president of the local Rocky Riders Club.
In this spot sacred to the traditional owners, the Dja Dja Wurrung, the $1.9 million, 21-mile trail network was built to breathe new life into Harcourt. A pretty town of 900, Harcourt has long been famous for apples and cider, although there are fewer than half a dozen growers now, following an influx of imported fruit. Around 10,000 cars a day used to pass through here on one of the state’s main highways, but they disappeared when a new freeway bypassed the town in 2009.
So, like thousands of other tiny towns and struggling economies—from the Himalayas to British Columbia—locals turned to mountain bike (MTB) tourism. Riders are wealthier than average (more than half earn over $80,000 a year) and they’re easily convinced to travel long distances to beautiful and remote regions to check out trails. For rural towns dealing with the economic devastation of a mill or a mine closing, for example, MTB tourists are like manna from heaven. Some 25,000 mountain bikers are expected to visit Harcourt in the first year—within five years that’s projected to reach 100,000 riders annually, worth $7.6 million to the local economy and 900 jobs. Bannear and I make a fast descent down ‘Girra’. It’s a ridiculously fun trail with berms—sloped corners—higher than your head and endless jumps. The trail builders have done an impressive job transforming this pine plantation into a MTB park, incorporating giant boulders as trail features.
A ghost town of just 173 people just three years ago, Derby is now a renowned MTB hotspot that generates $23 million a year.
But the real transformation is in the town itself. The rundown pub has been reborn as a café and accommodation called Tread. The old General Store is being refitted by a Danish chef, a bakery is opening soon and there’s talk of finally reopening the railway station. High-end hipster-style accommodation has also appeared, with the top-rated place a renovated former Boy Scout Hall with all the luxury bells and whistles. “I bought it in expectation of the mountain bike park opening,” explains owner Jacqueline Brodie-Hanns. She says that while tourist numbers are up in the month since the trails opened, the hordes are yet to arrive. “We haven’t seen a massive influx just yet but the café has had a real boost and there’s a real buzz around town from the bikers,” she says.
Locals built the trails after hearing similar turnaround stories—like the former mining and forestry center of Derby in Tasmania. A virtual ghost town of just 173 people just three years ago, it’s now an internationally renowned MTB hotspot that generates $23 million a year for the state.
Fifteen-year-old Derby rider Miles Smith says long-term locals like his granddad love the fact mountain bikers have rescued the town from oblivion. “He’s seen it change from a mining town, to a ghost town and now to a mountain biking phenomenon,” Smith says. “He thinks it’s awesome.” Governments around the world are cottoning on to the benefits and developing MTB strategies. In Scotland, riders contribute $70 million to the economy. In Wales, it’s $32 million. In South Africa, cycling events like the Absa Cape Epic—‘the most televised MTB race in the world’—boost the Cape’s economy by $82 million a year.
In La Paz, Bolivia, the biggest tourist attraction in town is riding a mountain bike down ‘the world’s most dangerous road’. There are now 30 different companies offering the tour and it’s a major source of wealth for the villages at the bottom. That’s a big deal for South America’s poorest country. The effect is particularly pronounced in North America, where swathes of rural towns have had to grapple with sharp economic changes. Oakridge, Oregon struggled after the local mill closed in the 1980s. But since 2004, when the town rebranded as a MTB destination, riders have pumped around $5 million a year into the economy. The same thing happened in Squamish, British Columbia when the town’s pulp mill and biggest employer shut down in 2006. Today however, a 90-mile trail network brings in $8 million a year.
“Not only is mountain biking serious business, but it can change lives for the better.”
There are plenty of other examples, including former steel town Anniston, Alabama, and mining town of Copper Harbor, Michigan. As with Harcourt, each town is transformed. In the seven years since another old mining town, Crosby, Minnesota, opened a trail network, at least 15 new businesses opened up—including a wood-fired pizza joint, a yoga studio and a craft brewery. But even destinations that don’t rake in millions still see some pretty inspiring benefits. Take the small Ecuadorian village of Telimbela, where locals cleared an old smuggling route through the jungle to create a trail. Today, the annual Mama Rumi Downhill race attracts hundreds of competitors and even more spectators. The money generated was responsible for the 2016 construction of a water system bringing drinking water into the centuries-old village for the first time. On MTB news site Pinkbike, writer Lee Lau says it shows that “not only is mountain biking serious business, but mountain biking can change lives for the better.”
In Nepal, more and more people are choosing to ride famed routes like the Annapurna Circuit or the trails through the stunning Mustang Valley, and there’s been a sharp increase in the number of MTB tour operators. “The Lower Mustang single tracks and Upper Mustang is known as ‘Mountain Biking Mecca’ and is one of the top destinations for mountain biking,” explains Jagan Biswakarma, founder of Pokhara Mountain Bike Adventure. “I believe MTB tourists make a big contribution to the local economy and will do much more in future.”
The money Biswakarma generated from MTB tours enabled him to set up a mountain bike training institute for local youth so he can share his passion with a new generation. He says riders from different countries all bond over their shared passion—and that’s why he loves his job. “We get to share our fun-filled adventure with like-minded people from all over the world,” he says. For mountain bikers addicted to taking thrilling rides through some of the planet’s most beautiful natural environments, it will always be about the experience. But these newfound economic benefits of mountain biking show that tourism has the power to do more than just provide a great time.
Andrew Fenton is an Australian freelance journalist and travel writer. He’s been a national entertainment writer for News Corp, film journalist for The Advertiser and a staff writer on SA Weekend and The Melbourne Weekly.