Special to The Record
No one gets to Cumberland by accident.
Despite its colourful heritage as a mining town, and quiet, energetic family-friendly reputation, it doesn’t have a signature mainstream attraction and it’s not on the way to anything.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a mountain biker.
Fifteen years of slowly chipping away at building trails and relationships resulted in the official launch earlier this year of Vancouver Island’s first authorized backwoods trail network.
Built and maintained by volunteers, the nearly 100-kilometre collection spiderwebs through a mix of public and private working forestland, and is a precedent-setting model of co-operation between forest companies, local government and community volunteers. What they’ve managed to do is take what was an illicit labour of love by a handful of volunteers and transform it into an officially sanctioned community asset.
“Everything done in Cumberland prior to this was illegal,” said Mike Manara. “Cumberland is a real good example of collaboration. It’s really a community initiative that I’m proud to be a part of.”
Manara is president and one of the driving forces of the United Riders of Cumberland, the small but hard-working volunteer group behind the creation of this mountain bike haven. It partnered with TimberWest, Hancock Forestry, the Comox Valley Regional District and the Village of Cumberland to obtain the necessary legal protection for the activity in a manner that doesn’t infringe on forestry. In exchange, it got guaranteed continued access to build and use the trail system, and support for a variety of community initiatives like trail mapping and information kiosks around town and online.
URoC also organizes and hosts a number of events, races and excursions.
As a result of these efforts, more than 60,000 visitors accessed the trail system last year, many of them staying in the local hostel, using the local bike store, and patronizing Cumberland’s shops and restaurants.
One advantage Cumberland has on other mountain biking communities is the fact that its trails aren’t a long drive away from its core. On the contrary, for most of the village, the trail system is literally at its back door.
Manara has been carrying the mountain bike flag for a long time and said the sport has enjoyed a recent leap into the mainstream. At the event level, the number of participants has grown from 50 or 60 competitors to more than 200. Where many of the faces riding past were once familiar, he now sees large groups pedalling by with no one he knows.
He credits a shift away from the extreme; whereas mountain biking was mostly considered an activity for daredevil athletes, it now has become more family-friendly — often more like a brisk stroll along a path than a mad dash between the trees.
“There has been a real explosion,” he said. “It’s not seen as such a hardcore sport.”
The attractions in Cumberland (and Mount Washington Alpine Resort, which has upgraded and re-opened its bike park this summer after a three-year hiatus) are accentuated by the trails at nearby Forbidden Plateau and Hornby Island’s celebrated tracks.
Manara sees a growing push from other communities to legitimize their mountain biking opportunities in a similar manner that can only add to the Island’s reputation as a mountain biking destination.
“The Cumberland model resonates with a lot of communities,” he said. “Vancouver Island is a pretty special place for mountain biking and that’s why some of the best athletes come from here.”
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