Bikers endure a rocky ride
Brakes are off as angry riders demand an end to government apathy. Alvin Sallay reports
Mountain biker Tsang Siu-keung was thinking of glory and could almost taste the victorious gulp of Gatorade when his cravings were cut short in the blink of an eye last Sunday.
Taking a blind corner along a trail up the Tai Lam Country Park, the Hong Kong representative, nicknamed 'Stone', came head on with a vehicle.
When Stone was thrown from his bike by the collision with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) Land Rover during the duathlon, little did he realise this incident would spark a widespread call for safer trails, and indeed more trails inside country parks, from the mountain biking community.
The brakes are off now. Stone's band of brothers is up in arms at the lack of facilities and government apathy towards their sport which is now an Olympic discipline.
'We are being encouraged to nurture the 'Olympic Spirit' in Hong Kong prior to the 2008 Games. It's surely better to do this by encouraging active participation in Olympic sports like mountain biking, rather than by just being passive spectators and consumers,' was listener Mike Bains' biting comment on RTHK's backchat programme this week.
The growing number of mountain bikers will agree with Bains' trenchant view. But there is a problem - an increasing number of mountain bikers coping with a limited number of trails.
Only a fortnight ago, the AFCD confirmed more than 6,000 people had applied for mountain bike permits in the past 12 months so they could ride on trails in Hong Kong. And how many designated trails are there? Only 10. An insignificant number when you consider there are more than 1,000 hiking trails.
'The mountain biking community has increased at least 10 times in the past 10 years,' says Julien Lallemand, a mountain-biking enthusiast. 'We believe there are more than 8,000 riders, with at least 1,000 hitting the trails every weekend. Most ride as regularly as twice a month. The existing trails are saturated.'
Add to this a rather lackadaisical approach from the AFCD - the government department in charge of all the country parks - and mostly ignorance among the public towards the sport, and incidents like last Sunday's could become commonplace.
'It is unbelievable that there are so few legal trails,' complained Kurt Lynn on the talk-back channel. 'We always hear that about 75 per cent of Hong Kong is countryside, yet we can only ride on 10 trails.'
And another problem Lynn highlighted was: 'Unless you own a car, it is extremely difficult to get to these trails. We are not allowed on most buses, MTR's etc. And as a Discovery Bay resident, it is almost impossible to get my bike through the tunnel.'
The fact it was an AFCD vehicle and not a public vehicle which was involved in the latest incident highlights the rather careless attitude of the authorities towards mountain biking.
'Our vehicle was on a patrol. We knew there was a race and that was why it was patrolling the course,' said AFCD senior information officer Sally Kong Pui-yan, defending its presence on the course.
But Stone insisted: 'The road should have been closed as the speed of mountain bikes is very fast and the government department should realise it is dangerous to drive on the race course.'
According to organisers of the 5km run and 20km mountain bike race, the driver of the AFCD vehicle did not use his hooter when taking the corner, despite knowing a race was on and even though he was going downhill at some speed.
'The AFCD told us before the race they were going to come and 'observe' the race,' said race director Michael Maddess. 'This could have been done on a motorcycle or a bike themselves. Or they could have driven out well before the race began and got to their observation positions rather than do so during the race.'
Race organisers also had problems trying to stop public vehicles from using the course during the two- to three-hour race.
But the biggest problem facing mountain bikers is the hiking community.
It was complaints from hikers - who felt endangered sharing trails with the bikers - that led to mountain bikers being banned by the AFCD in the mid-1990s from all country parks. It is understood that since the AFCD began keeping records in 2000, and after permission was given to use 10 trails, there have been no collisions between a biker and a hiker.
But the rising number of mountain biking fans has quickly outgrown the resources available - four trails in Lantau South country park, three in Sai Kung country park, and one each in Tai Lam, Shek O and Clearwater Bay country parks.
'For trail development it must be understood that trails with low pedestrian traffic are the ones mountain bikers want to ride. The scenic trails - most popular for hikers - are simply not suitable for riding because they lead to ridges and peaks, always with steps,' Lallemand said.
He added: 'Mountain bikers are interested by contour, low gradient trails, such as a large part of the Yuen Tuen ancient trail in Tai Lam Country Park and parts of the South Lantau trail and Chek Pik trails. The AFCD and hikers must understand that high traffic is 99 per cent of the problem and spreading mountain bikers on many trails is the key. It is today possible to extend the trail network of more than 150km without spending a penny.'
If this became a reality, then in future, athletes like Chan Chun-hing wouldn't have to go to the mainland to train as they purse their dreams.
Chan, 26, has qualified for the mountain biking race at Beijing 2008. But he now trains in Yunnan due to a lack of facilities.
'He will go abroad as Hong Kong doesn't have the type of courses needed to train on,' says Hong Kong Cycling Association secretary-general Frederick Chan Chun-hung, when asked how the Fanling resident would train.
Bains, an environmental consultant, said: 'Aspiring participants in the Olympic event of mountain biking are forced to leave Hong Kong to train, since many potentially suitable trails are officially off-limit.'
Jeff Chan, another biking fan, added: 'The lack of suitable bike trails restricts the development of the sport. We have a world-class rider in Chan Chun-hing. But he has no choice but to train in China due to the lack of proper bike trails.'
While more trails would be welcome, what race organisers like Maddess really want is trails totally free from the public, and indeed the AFCD, on race days.
'If the Hong Kong Marathon can close down public highways and roads for more than five hours, wouldn't it be possible to close down a trail inside a country park, which has much less traffic, for a couple of hours?' asks Maddess.
Bains added: 'One of the star attractions of Hong Kong for many locals and expats is the ability to participate in adventure sports and join events such as last Sunday's Action Asia race. It's probably the best city in Asia in this respect. But the incident with the AFCD van in Tai Lam Country Park was very disappointing.'
While maintaining that trails cannot be closed to the public, AFCD official Sally Kong conceded the department might review the policy on a 'case-by-case basis' in future.
Stone's brush with death might have been worth it after all if the mountain bikers get their way. Then, it won't be all downhill for them.
Numbers don't add up for off-roaders
1. More than 6,000 mountain bikers applied for permits to ride the legal trails in the last 12 months according to the AFCD.
2. Number of legal trails in Hong Kong - 10 - which adds up to 150km of trail.
3. There are more than 1,000 official hiking trails.
4. Since 2000, there have been no reported collisions between a mountain biker and a hiker says the AFCD.
5. More than 75 per cent of Hong Kong is countryside.