The Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association is excited to see the government invest time and money into mountain bike trail building, but as the government enters phase two of its project, HKMBA head Nick Dover hopes it will not repeat the mistakes of phase one.

In 2008, the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) conducted a feasibility study and then began constructing a 4km loop around Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, Lantau, which was phase one. They are now building a 6km mountain bike park, with different graded routes for a range of skill levels above Mui Wo, which is phase two.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) is also building trails around Hong Kong – in Dragon’s Back, Clear Water Bay, Tai Mo Shan and Lantau Island. The AFCD will eventually take over managing the CEDD-constructed trails.

But Dover is becoming frustrated because the CEDD’s approach does not have enough input from trail experts or his association. His frustration is doubled when the CEDD is contrasted with the AFCD.

The Chi Ma Wan loop is great for riders, but the Civil Engineering and Development Department ignored the advice of trail experts, rendering the switchbacks redundant. Photo: Handout

“We love the approach of the AFCD, because it’s very organic and very considered. They don’t want to just throw money at it. So, it’s nice that we’re doing this great holistic approach to building mountain trails, which is how it should be done,” Dover said. “But the CEDD comes in with concrete, or bulldozes the mountain down, or builds a multimillion-dollar toilet block.”

The CEDD has spent two years building the toilet block at the Mui Wo park, said a bewildered Dover.

But the issues start long before the building.

The CEDD tenders the work to a project manager or main contractor and the tender must include a trail expert. The CEDD and the contractor then subcontract the building. Dover said it is great they have a trail expert on board to design and supervise the work, but the main contractor and the CEDD control the builders and schedule. So the trail expert is barely on site and most of the work is therefore unsupervised or stops to wait for them to return.

“It becomes a lot of chefs,” Dover said.

“The best outcome after phase two would be the CEDD tender process changes and the way they let the trail experts run the project. Hiring a consultant is OK, but for them [the CEDD and the main consultant] to have overall control of the site is probably wrong.”

The AFCD has become very efficient at trail building. Photo: Handout

He said the CEDD should be able to tweak designs a little, but that is it. “The problem in Hong Kong is we don’t have trail experts. We have people who can build bridges or dig ditches, but not people who can build trails. It’s like swatting a fly with a hammer. They are overbuilding these sites and it’s painful to watch.”

Dover pointed to the Chi Ma Wan loop as an example of the issues that arise from not having an expert there throughout. The final section of the loop was a fast downhill ride. The AFCD wanted to slow the section down for safety. The trail expert came up with a plan for switchbacks.

“But the CEDD only cherry-picked part of his plans,” Dover said. “So they built the new trail but they didn’t plant any shrubbery over the old one, so riders just cut all the corners and went straight through the middle down the old route.”

Lantau is a mecca for mountain biking. Photo: Handout

“Phase one can be characterised as a failure,” Dover said.

In contrast, in the 10 years since the study, the AFCD has become very efficient at building trails, he added. Dover predicts they will finish Dragon’s Back and Tai Mo Shan very soon, as the CEDD continues to trundle on with their park.

“It was very exciting, but now the AFCD don’t want to consult us any more. It’s detrimental,” Dover said.

After Typhoon Mangkhut, for example, a landslide destroyed a multi-use trail. The AFCD shut down the trail, diverted the mountain bike section and constructed a 3km trail in 30 days. It was completed before the HKMBA even heard about it.

“Just 30 days. That’s unprecedented. By hand! It’s scary, exciting, but scary,” Dover said. “Luckily, they did a really good job but we can’t guarantee that every time.”

The CEDD told theSCMP phase two fell under its Sustainable Lantau Office (SLO), which is “dedicated to the overarching principle of ‘development in the north (Lantau), conservation for the south (Lantau)’”.

‘Development is for north (Lantau), conservation for the south’, says the CEDD. Photo: Handout

The SLO will “take forward the planning, assessment, design and implementation of various development projects and initiatives in conservation, local improvement and leisure and recreation in Lantau in a well prioritised, coordinated and integrated manner,” the CEDD said.

“Given the above principle, SLO proposes leisure and recreation initiatives which are environmentally sustainable and be compatible with the local context. The development of a mountain bike project is one of such proposals in south Lantau for public enjoyment,” the CEDD added.

As frustrating as the CEDD is for Dover, and his concern that the AFCD is becoming more distant from the HKMBA, he is generally optimistic about the direction of mountain biking in Hong Kong.

The bike park is still a bonus and the skills of the AFCD are encouraging. The smaller trails on the likes of Dragon’s Back and Clear Water Bay will change the make-up of the community, as they will offer quick rides pre- or post-work.

“The main sites of Tai Mo Shan and Lantau will always be meccas of riding, but we want to develop these other districts and the AFCD are doing that as we speak,” Dover added.