As most community-minded mountain bikers know, the trails we so enjoy were not made by magic. And while those who build them may be referred to as trail pixies, that’s more because we think the trails they build are magic, not because of the people’s secret powers.
Hundreds of mountain bike trails around the country owe their existence to thousands of unsung volunteers who build and maintain them. Here at Trail Fund, we are pleased to be running a series highlighting some of these unsung heroes, and finding out what drew them to spend weekends and lunch hours digging trails for all to enjoy.
We are kicking off the series with Wellington-based trail builder Jo Boyle, a committed volunteer and advocate for getting more women into trail building.
Jo’s story starts much like many good riders and builders – a friend was going to a dig and she tagged along to check it out.
“We were working on a downhill trail in Polhill Reserve and they handed us the gear, gave some good directions and let us get stuck in.
“I just instantly loved it. Being outside, creating something from nothing and just the general banter. I was hooked.”
She found an old licence plate on that first day and, when she asked the guy leading the work party what to do with it, he said to hang it on the trail. Six years later, she says seeing the sign always reminds her of finding her new passion.
Jo’s keen interest didn’t go unnoticed. Soon after starting, she attended a dig at Makara Peak and, within five minutes, another local trail building stalwart had convinced her to join the Makara Peak Supporters committee. Over the next few years, she took part in and led work parties at the popular mountain bike park, helping build Upswing, the much-anticipated climbing track that crosses a swing bridge to reach the summit.
“It was such an exciting build to be part of,” says Jo. “I think a lot of people didn’t really believe it was going to happen, so with every work party and every new metre of track, people became more and more excited.”
Jo feels particularly connected to the section before the bridge, as she managed 10 days of work parties there when she was between paid jobs.
“A group of ANZ managers got their teams together to use their volunteer day on one big project, so I organised the logistics and led most of the groups of volunteers. It was great to watch some people experience exactly what I had on my first day – heaps of them really enjoyed it and have since become more involved.”
Keen to continue developing her own trail building skills, and to provide the best support she could to newbies, she took part in Trail Fund’s Trail Crew course, which she describes as “empowering”.
“Every trail builder has his/her own way of explaining how to dig trails. The course was ideal because it summarised all the basic skills in a simple and concise way, and explained why different aspects of trail building – such as building a grade reversal or cutting branches without damaging trees – were important.”
Jo says she’s used the material regularly when managing work parties since, and noticed how well people respond.
As her love for trail building continued to grow, she started questioning the lack of women joining in.
“I couldn’t really understand why more women weren’t keen, especially with the increase in women mountain biking; but in talking to a few friends, I realised there was a perception that it is just about heavy digging, or for people who have heaps of similar experience.”
With this in mind, Jo has teamed up with Revolve Cycling, Wellington’s women-only cycling group, to offer introductory digs, and lead Trail Fund Trail Crew courses to teach women the basics of trail building. The first course sold out in one weekend.
“It was great to see so many women interested in learning about trail building,” says Jo. “The more competent women feel, the more likely they are to turn up, give it a go, and take on the jobs they feel comfortable –whether that is digging out tree stumps, a bit of finishing, or pruning.”
However, Jo admits there are some challenges that come with being one of few women trail builders, even if you’ve been around for a while.
“I’ve found that most trailer builders are well-meaning, but you can get nudged out of the way. It’s usually if you’re going doing a particularly physical job, such as smashing rock or digging up a tree stump, you might find some stepping in with an “I’ll take care of that”.
“I’ve learned to politely say “I’m good, thanks” and mention that it’s the more physical digging that I’m there for. I love smashing rocks and digging up trees, so sometimes I’ll even get to a dig a bit early to stake out the job I’m keen to do.”
Being overly helpful aside, Jo says that in general, trail building is extremely inclusive and full of great people.
“I can’t recommend it enough. You get to spend time in the bush, building something that hundreds of people will enjoy riding, all while hanging out with good people. You also get to be creative and make a lasting influence – it’s a completely different connection to a track if you’ve helped turn it into a reality.
“Most importantly, it’s important to realise that everyone has something to contribute to trail building – whether you like pruning, sweeping, digging, or gravelling – there’s truly something for everyone.”
These days, in addition to helping with the Revolve dig days, Jo spends many Sunday afternoons digging at Polhill, where the Brooklyn Trail Builders are working hard to complete a downhill trail through the reserve’s native bush.
Do you know someone who is an incredible volunteer builder? Send us an email and let us know why!
Photo credit: Dan Sharpe I visualsby.me