Belfast Bike Ban: An Access Rights Saga

by Hannah Dobson 15

Cave Hill in Belfast has been a point of contention among its users for some time. Way back in 2002 a report was commissioned to see whether dedicated mountain bike trails could be established on the hill, however local opposition from residents and walkers meant the idea wasn’t pursued and the plan was shelved in 2006. Again in 2008, Belfast City Council heard from council officers that mountain biking on the site needed to be managed, and that banning it was unlikely to be successful:

“Talks with some local mountain bikers have taken place, with Officers explaining that they are currently repairing some paths within Cave Hill Country Park and Officers fear that if mountain biking on the site is not managed correctly then the damage caused to these new paths could be substantial.

To try to remove mountain biking from Cave Hill CountryPark would be a very costly exercise in terms of man hours and possibly with little success given the nature of the sport.”

To try and address these issues, the officers were seeking approval to ‘ ..try to accommodate the sport within the Country Park and to explore avenues of funding available’. Permission was granted, and engagement with local riders appears to have resulted in a reduction in issues on the Cave Hill site, as reported to the Parks and Leisure Committee in 2009. At the same time, a study with input from a professional trail builder Dafydd Davis (who has an MBE for all his trail building efforts) determined that Cave Hill could not satisfactorily accommodate mountain biking trails. Instead it was determined that a dedicated trail should be pursued at the nearby Mary Peters location – the tone of the officer’s reports does seem to suggest that the gap in provision of legal trails needs addressing, and recognises the growing interest in mountain biking. In principle plans for a £340,000 trail and skills facilities were approved in 2010 – and although they appear not to deliver the same downhill style of riding that Cave Hill offers, the trails opened in 2013.

It is notable that in 2010, at the same time as approving the idea for a dedicated trail, the Council also approved the following recommendation:

‘Agree to deploying extra resources to enforce the by-laws at CHCP.  This would include employing Park Rangers at the weekends and summer evenings.’

The park bylaws state:

‘A person shall not ride any bicycle in a manner which is unsafe or likely to cause damage to the park or give reasonable cause for annoyance or alarm to other persons in the park’.

In a report to the committee in 2012, seeking permission to relocate a race to Cave Hill following an outbreak of larch disease in Tollymore Forest, the Assistant Director of Parks and Leisure noted thatmanagement had engaged with mountain bikers for over a decade and had dealt previously with issues of public safety and illegal biking within the park‘, suggesting perhaps that relations with the riding community were good. Various assurances were put in place to ensure environmental sensitivities were taken into account.

By the Council’s own admission, the activities of downhill riders at the Cave Hill site remained under the radar until 2015 when there were allegations of sabotage to the unsanctioned trails – the kind of sabotage intended to cause a rider to crash and injure themselves. At that point park officials appear to have overlooked the unsanctioned nature of the trails and instead it’s stated that they attempted to keep an eye out for any obstacles.

Again in 2017, riders approached the Council, this time with video footage of people sabotaging the trails. However, while the police did investigate, the council decided that after 15 years or trying to find a resolution, it was now necessary to ban riding in the park. Effectively an escalation of the 2010 decision by the Council to enforce the by-laws.

Castle Hill Belfast
Strava Heatmaps shows the trails being used.

Phew. So now we’re caught up with where we are today, and the point at which national press coverage starts.

In considering the decision to prevent mountain biking on Cave Hill, the Council cited three issues here bullet pointed.

  • The dangerous nature of this activity on this site has been highlighted as a serious public safety issue and would draw Members attention to two recent, high profile incidents involving the death of a walker in Colin Glen Forest Park in a collision with a scrambler and also the death of a pedestrian knocked down by a cyclist in London.

– this justification has been criticised, as neither example relates to mountain biking. The walker that was killed was hit by a scrambler – a motorbike – and the London pedestrian was hit on the road by someone with a non road legal fixie.

  • The police investigation noted that riders can reach speeds of up to 30mph.

– Ben McClure, a local rider has been quoted in the press as disputing this claim. Sadly, a quick look on Strava shows that the police are right – on this segment the lead rider had a maximum speed of 33.8mph – a section of path rather than the more technical downhill trails, and likely the kind of spot where you’re more likely to run into conflict with pedestrians. A further bit of Strava digging reveals one of the downhill trails, where the leader has an average speed of 17mph, and a maximum speed of 27.7mph.  As Hannah predicted, riders are sharing their data and it will be used against us. It might be that the data could also be used to demonstrate a decline in use since the 2010 enforcement activities, but that’s not something readily accessible. Strava Heatmaps does show a number on relatively lightly used trails criss crossing the steep hillside, compared to heavier use on the more established footpaths.

  • ‘A suggestion that an area of the park could be segregated for the sole or part-time use by mountain bikers is not feasible. Council would then be seen to be actively encouraging mountain bikers into the park and therefore would be responsible for the safety of mountain bikers and the consequences of any subsequent conflicts between users.’

– It seems clear that the Council has attempted to broker some kind of solution in the area. It’s not clear how they would be responsible for the consequences of conflicts when there are other riding facilities elsewhere where presumably a walker could run into a rider, but maybe this is the effect of the bylaw – if it says you mustn’t cause alarm, and the Council doesn’t enforce that, they could be liable?

All is not lost however – the Council deferred the decision – so did not approve the recommendations in the report, and there are to be further investigations and likely working parties set up to look at the issue.

From this distance, it’s hard to be too critical of the Council – many local groups would be delighted to experience this level of engagement from their local authority. There’s a significant amount of officer time gone into the issue so far, and we await the outcome of the latest round of consultation with interest.

What do you think? Should we have the right to ride everywhere, or do we sometimes need to accept that some places are out of bounds? Are riders and/or the Council acting reasonably?

Comments (15)

  1. Both interesting and concerning in equal measure.

    Ref to wholly irrelevant incidents is ballix by the council. How many pedestrians killed by iegslly driven cars around the country ? That by the same logic should mean banning all cars, trucks etc.

    It does also show how Strava is a own goal.

  2. Fight for universal open access not crumbs…

  3. I am with you on that. Though i maintain that setting traps to ensnare yourself along the way is not a particularly bright thing to do. Which is what Strava does, like it or not.

  4. It seems the Council have been fair but whether we like it or not there are more than mountain bikers using the countryside. However, the examples of reckless cycling shows they couldn’t find any at CHCP. The Council won’t want to consider a financial solution (I’m surprised they were even considering one a few years ago) due to today’s economics.
    The bikers should attend the Council meetings if they haven’t already and work with them developing a realistic cost effective solution. It may mean raising the funds themselves with the Coucils blessing and reassurance any projects are seen through

  5. Rule number one. Don’t use strava for anything. Bridleways will even see problems if some NIMBY gets their hands on data showing anyone going at more than 5 mph.

    Rule number two. Don’t campaign for access. In my experience it just brings out the NIMBYs. Just crack on. Leave no trace, don’t hurt or frighten anyone or anything.

    Sorry to say, but the average Mail reader (retired type who has the time to sit on parish councils etc) thinks that they own the countryside and anyone who enjoys it in a manner that they don’t approve of should be banned. Don’t give them a platform.

  6. Dannyh – totally with you on that, I’ve stopped using Strava, but must confess to having ridden many illegal trails as fast as I could in years gone by. Does anyone know if you delete your Strava account does it delete your times etc info too?

  7. Banning MTBs wont stop the people who’ve built and rode there from continuing. It may put off the hordes of Stava using noobs who probably don’t know where the proper trails are and therefore end up bombing down the paths.

    What pissed me off the most was that Welsh trailbuilding Knight saying Cave Hill isn’t suitable for MTB. It’s like saying Fort Bill is unsuitable! He rated every trail he was shown as black/double black. That’s what we build and ride. So instead they built a few kms of blue runs on flat ground. That’s great for beginners but did nothing for the riders who’d been campaigning for proper trails for years. Rowen Sorrel or Phil Saxena would have a field day if let loose up the hill.

    I’ll not mention the 6 months of hard work spent building a prime jump spot that was destroyed a week after the Welsh fella was shown it. Or the £80k spent rebuilding them to council standard (i.e. shite!)

  8. For me dannyh has hit the nail on the head. If you want to build trails and you want to keep them then they have to be secret. That means no Strava; careful planning of trail heads and exits and don’t use or cross FP’s. If you can’t stick to those rules then expect to have your trails destroyed and don’t whine they are.

    I used to live near Nannerch in N.Wales and I would ride the ‘Scousers Trails’ on FC land there. They weren’t sanctioned by the FC and for its time they were pretty extreme (probably still a black run now) but the FC turned a blind eye and let us get on with it. That was until gap jumps over fire roads where people walk appeared and surprise, surprise not long after that the trails were demolished.

  9. As Euro says, I think the issue is the council assuming that a mountain biker is a mountain biker and a trail is a trail. I’ve not ridden the Mary Peters trails (the official “replacement” for Cave Hill) but they look like they’re geared to beginners to put it mildly.

    If you want to ride technical trails then the options around Belfast all involve a drive of an hour or so, from a city with some of the worst traffic congestion in the UK. So it’s no surprise that people are building and riding closer to home, and will probably continue to do so regardless of bans.

  10. @jim the saint – That wasn’t the end of the story though because after the Scouse Tracks were demolished the FC worked with local riders to establish official trails at Foel Gasnach, which are still going today.

  11. Would it not be better overall to avoid breaking the rules currently in place while working towards getting them improved?

    The council is not there to prevent people having fun. It’s primarily concerned with not getting sued (in the event of accidents/injuries).

    The suggestion of ‘carry on breaking the rules but keep it secret’ does come across as irresponsible, at best.

  12. It could be argued that technically Strava doesn’t prove use of a path by a bicycle, it just proves that someone has followed a certain route in some manner and recorded it… I could set some pretty stonking times on road routes on my motorbike I’m sure!

  13. open access and building dh style trails are two completely different arguments but i’m not sure what the issue is here.
    sounds like locals building trails that the council then (as usual) declares them unsafe and removes them.
    I want open access. I want to ride legally anywhere that has public access.
    I enjoy riding local, handbuilt trails (second only to going up an actual mountain I reckon) but thye need to keep a low profile and be away from other users as much as possible.
    if its under the radar it remains so. as soon as your mixing with dog walkers and horses all hell breaks loose if you ride like a plonker..!!

  14. “The council is not there to prevent people having fun. It’s primarily concerned with not getting sued (in the event of accidents/injuries).

    The suggestion of ‘carry on breaking the rules but keep it secret’ does come across as irresponsible, at best.”

    Have you met many local councilors? In my experience a large proportion of them are retired baby boomers who use their copious spare time to sit in meetings trying to reverse what they see as ‘the place going to the dogs’. Don’t underestimate how much a lot of these people hate seeing others enjoying themselves.

    It was only a matter of time before Strava was used as a stick to beat mountain bikers with, so don’t give them the ammo.

  15. To be fair to ‘the Welsh trail building knight’ it does depend what he was asked for. If the Council were behind his work, ‘a few Kms of blue’ probably resulted from a need to consider more than just the Trail Gods. Given the level of engagement it seems odd that the needs of more experienced riders were ignored, I imagine there’s a lot more that deep local knowledge would be needed for going on here.

    It does sound like the Strava data is what has really knackered the case though. If the local riders wanted to show they could coexist responsibly with other users in the CP then posting evidence of razzing down the footpaths was pretty dumb.

    Sadly this is exactly what people were warning about back when Strava was a new thing. If you’re riding somewhere you shouldn’t be, posting Strava is asking for trouble. “If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen” goes both ways.

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