On Track with Back On Track
15 May 2014
By David Scorer
Wales. Land of my Fathers. As a born and raised Welshman, the phrase stirs the emotions. The opening line to the National Anthem - "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" takes me back to match day at the Millennium Stadium (or it's previous incarnation - Cardiff Arms Park) for Rugby internationals. It's in the blood. So the big boom in mountain biking in the country over the last 5 to 10 years is especially exciting for me. I grew up longing for the trails in the Alps or the Rockies, convinced there was nothing as good in my homeland.
Well that's just not true anymore, and it probably never was. As a former Welsh Downhill Champion and elite racer with years of experience on the UCI World Cup Circuit, Rowan Sorrell knows everything there is to know about what makes a good mountain bike trail. Fortunately for us, along with Rob Breakwell and the rest of the Back On Track team, he's using that knowledge to turn the country in to a mountain bike mecca, whilst also crossing borders to give the rest of the UK a push in the right direction...
WBP: Thanks for taking time out to chat to us. To kick things off, can you tell us where you are right now and what are you working on?!
RS: We’ve just finished work on a small bikepark in Ireland called Fairymount Farm, added a couple of new runs at the Forest of Dean and right now we are actually building some slopestyle/jump trails at the company compound!
WBP: How long have you been riding bikes and how did you get in to the business of building mountain bike trails?
RS: I’ve been riding mountain bikes seriously for almost 20 years, I did my first downhill race in 1996 and even before that time, we were building short 30 second downhill trails in the woods behind my house. I feel that I’ve always had a good eye for a line and through a mixture of being in the right place at the right time and taking some risks early on; I managed to forge my way to a career in trail building. I started out maintaining the cross country trails across South Wales with a van full of tools and slowly moved into redesigning existing sections of trail and then started designing new sections. This subsequently led to me being appointed as trail designer for a large project designing a four trail network for a new trail centre. From there the business has evolved each year into what it is today; a design consultancy and construction company all rolled up in one, this year is actually our 10 year anniversary since I started Back on Track.
Rowan followed by Leon Rosser over the jumps at Afan Bike Park.
WBP: What projects have you been involved with before now?
RS: Wow, it’s been quite a lot now over the years; It started at Fort William, I was involved in building the 4x course and designing changes on the DH track, since then amongst others we’ve worked on Cwmcarn, Afan Argoed & Glyncorrwg, Brechfa, Margam Park, Forest of Dean, Swinley Forest, Garw Valley, Lee & Cragg Quarry, Rychlebske Stezsky in the Czech Republic, Gisburn Forest, a host of pumptracks around the UK and of course Bikepark Wales.
The steep tech of the BonneyVille Trail at Bikepark Wales.
WBP: How big is the Back On Track team, and tell us about the group?
RS: The team has grown and evolved over the years, which has been great to witness as each member has their own strengths and brings something new to the table, which makes us better at what we do. Much like riding, it’s a constant progression that we’ve been pushing for, you can always do things better. Rob Breakwell is one of the key men here who has been working with BoT for 9 years working and leading on sites, we have four people who are more office based working on the design, feasibility and project management side of things and then a build team which varies from four to ten men depending on the size of the projects, though during the construction of Bikepark Wales we were right up to 15. One of our newest builders Joe, is a really strong BMX dirt rider who spends a lot of his time upside down and we have been able to really push some new ideas together which has been great and he’s been taking to the big bikes really well too so wont be long before he’s sending some hucks with us!
Rob Breakwell at the controls.
WBP: What’s your must-have piece of equipment on the trails when building - the item that you just can’t do without?!
RS: Hand building, it’s the mattock, easily the most useful hand tool, when working with the machines it is the powertilt, which allows the digger bucket to tilt, they make us so much more efficient when shaping trails and make the job much easier, all of our excavators have these fitted now.
Some of the big machinery put to work.
WBP: Do you have a defined philosophy for building great trails and can you share your approach - what do you think is important?
RS: No, nothing set in stone, I think that would stifle creativity and people may well start to feel they are getting the same old formula regurgitated. I love so many different aspects of biking that I like projects where I can call upon the different styles and employ them where they suit the terrain, trail grade or site. Bikepark Wales and the new trails at Cwmcarn were perfect for this as we used different machines and techniques to create different styles and feels for the trails as you travel through the site. I love working with the landscape trying to get the most out of both the trail and the environment so that the experience for the rider is not only that of a great trail but also takes in the best views, threads through big feature trees and interesting landscapes.
The crucial thing is that however we build them and whatever style we employ that they are fun to ride. People say that they can tell when we have built a trail and that we do have a style to our work, so I guess there must be some thread of similarity as we work from site to site in the overall flow of our trails.
Early days of the Bikepark Wales build, just before the road tunnel.
WBP: What are your big projects for 2014 and beyond?
RS: Getting Fairymount Farm in Ireland up and running kicked off the year, the summer should be spent at Bikepark Wales expanding the trails offer there and then we are likely to be back out to SW Ireland to build the biggest Downhill trail in the country.
WBP: How do you see the future of bike parks and bike park trail progression?
RS: I would like to see European resorts start to pay more attention to good trail planning and design to make trails more flowing, fun and accessible. I think in the UK, we are way ahead in this respect compared to the rest of Europe, as we have modest height drop so we have to make the most of it. In Europe there are plenty of great downhill tracks but it seems that the majority of ski resorts who have created bikeparks are completely missing the rest of the package. Despite this I feel that we are in a really great position where mountain biking continues to grow in popularity and I think Bikeparks can play a key role in this; I’ve always believed that there is no reason why Mountain biking shouldn’t become as widely practiced and accessible as skiing, we just need to make sure the right trails are out there to allow people to try it out and get hooked. I hope that Back on Track will work more in Europe and other continents and bring some of the lessons learnt in the UK overseas.
The man at work in a massive digger!
WBP: Any final thoughts/comments/shout-outs/etc?
RS: Shout out to the whole Back on Track team, with whom it’s a pleasure building great trails together. Big shout to the trail crew at Bikepark Wales, especially Billy and Stuart, who work really hard to ensure that the trails are in great condition there whatever the weather, and a shout to all the rest of the staff at Bikepark Wales who are all fantastic and make the place what it is; friendly, laid back and a great place to hang out.
Finally a big thanks to my long term sponsors, Orange Mountain Bikes and Fox Racing Shox/Mojo Suspension who support me in my various ventures on and off the bike.
I’m excited about 2014, and after the crazy period that was planning and developing Bikepark Wales, it is great to have time to really enjoy my riding again, see you all on the trails!
The Cafall Trail at Cwmcarn.
Rowan getting air time on the Pedalhounds DH course at Cwmcarn.
And again on the Rim Dinger Trail at Bikepark Wales.
Looking out over the Welsh Valleys from the Bikepark Wales hillside.
IMAGES: Andy Lloyd: andylloyd.photography