The Irish government recently allocated €13.6 million to fund over 300km of new mountain bike trails across the island. The money is part of a larger investment to revitalize rural areas and bring tourism to the Irish countryside. The project’s anticipated revenue return is €22 million annually, all spent in regions of Ireland where there is little to no existing tourism industry.
The funds and related trail projects will be managed by Coillte, Ireland’s state-owned forestry company. Coillte is an Irish word that translates to “forest,” and the company covers every imaginable aspect of their moniker. Alongside private land management companies, Coillte manages more than 440,000 hectares of land, or roughly 1,087,000 acres. In total, that land makes up 7% of the country’s landmass.
In addition to commercial harvesting and planting, Coillte manages several productive wind-energy farms; environmental assessments; biodiversity, health and safety concerns; nature education programs; and recreation. Unlike the US Forest Service and other government forest agencies, Coillte largely generates funding for projects with profit from timber sales instead of tax funds.
We recently interviewed Coillte’s Deborah Meghen to get all of the facts on the new tracks, and to bike tour operator and trail designer Niall Davies who has been involved in the design and planning process of the new trail systems.
Ireland has an Open Forest Policy, meaning that people can recreate in any forest that Coillte manages, so long as there is not an active logging operation taking place. Roughly fifteen years ago a slow revolution began in Ireland to start growing the sport of mountain biking. In 2012 Coillte began working on a plan to build trailheads, and add dedicated mountain bike trails to the existing walking trails and scratched-in tracks that people had been riding. This recent funding push from the Irish government is going to massively extend the reach of those tracks across the Emerald Isle.
Coillte’s first trail center was Ballinastoe in Co. Wicklow, and from there the spaghetti network has blossomed. The coming trails will be located in Ballyhoura (Limerick/Cork), Coolaney (Sligo), Slieve Blooms (Offaly/ Laois), and Ticknock & Ballinastoe (Dublin/Wicklow). All of these destinations are within a reasonable driving distance from larger cities, though the focus is on bringing international tourism to the countryside. Every pre-ride coffee and post-ride beer, along with hotel fees and bike shop visits will benefit the small towns near these networks.
The 2017 Coillte Emerald Enduro covered some of the finest tracks Ireland had to offer, in appropriately wet weather. At the time, none of those tracks were sanctioned or permitted, making up what Coillte calls “wild trails.” With a focus on opening up bike access to as many users as possible, the new trails will not be designed with gravity racing in mind. Instead, they will be built so that everyone can get as rad as they like at their own speed.
New trails are being designed by mountain bikers and built by folks who know what trails should look like. Though Ireland does have a few private trail centers with burlier tracks, the Coillte installments will be built with 80-90% of riders’ interests and abilities in mind. With public funding driving development, the project managers at Coilte want to make sure the majority of the public can enjoy their resources.
There will be bike rentals, skills courses, and guides at several of the trail centers, provided by companies like Biking.ie, run by trail designer Niall Davies. Several of the tracks are being designed with racing in mind, including the Biking Blitz XC series that Niall puts on. Digging his energy in as many dirt-related directions as possible across Ireland, Niall is definitely the right person to oversee these trail building projects. With the wet weather in Ireland and unique soil types, having a local builder on hand is a fantastic benefit to each of the unique locations.
Deborah Meghen has ridden all over Europe, and she had a unique perspective about what’s different in Ireland.
“What’s unique is that you can quite often have a mountain to yourself. You can head out for the day, and you may not see another mountain biker. You are out in the wilds, you’re away from everything, and there really aren’t the crowds.”