Monday, 14 September 2009

All-abilities day at Ae Forest

Sometimes words fail me (admittedly not often.) And sometimes, editorial decisions seem to me to be slightly suspect.

Here is a blog I did last week for the Guardian's bike blog which never made it onto the site in time and for this I am (breathes deeply) very sorry. It was about the all-abilities day held at Ae forest on Saturday. Had I known it wouldn't be published in time, I would have run it on Friday. Anyway, with a few ammendments it still reads ok. Plus Phil is a legend and is seriously fast.

'It's not a major undertaking,' says Phil Hall with some northern understatement. 'It's just a few tweaks.' The sentence could be applied to both the way he rides his bike and to his dogged campaign to adapt Forestry Commission mountain bike trails so he can use his £6,000 bike - one of only four in the country - on them. Phil runs Rough Riderz, a mountain bike club for wheelchair users which he started in 2007 after breaking his back in a motor bike accident. On Saturday the club joined up with Ae Forest – part of the 7Stanes mountain biking trails in Scotland – to host an all-abilities day, the first of its kind in the country. The aim is two-fold: to improve facilities for disabled riders thus encouraging more into the sport, and to boost investment from vehicle providers.

'We've been working with the Forestry Commission in Scotland and north England for two years and giving them feedback on trails,' says Phil. 'It doesn't usually take much to adapt them. For example step-offs are dangerous and challenging on a four wheel bike because it's much harder for use to lift the front end up. So on the Amoeba trail at Ae Forest, we've just levelled out the run around area past some obstacles – it doesn't really affect the more hardcore riders and in fact makes it more accessible for more nervous mountain bikers in general.
'The worst thing I could do is go to a nice piece of singletrack and change it. That would upset everyone, including me.'

Phil rides a four wheel bike custom-made in Canada by company R-One. It has 20 inch BMX wheels on the front and 26 inch mountain bike wheels on the rear with disc brakes and suspension as per a regular mountain bike. In fact the main difference is a lack of pedals. Riders roll onto the track using manual propulsion – from then on in, it's all about gauging speed and maintaining it as much as possible. This is a difficult skill which if you've ever tried to 'no pedal race' your mates on a track you will appreciate. But if skilled, like Phil, you can find yourself hurtling up to 30 miles and hour primarily fon downhill trails rather than more pedally cross-country routes. The major hurdle for most potential riders is the price – at £6,662 you've got to be pretty dedicated to invest.

'I was a motorbike rider before my accident, I love going fast. I went to the USA and tried the sport of four-cross (not to be confused with 4X racing) there. It's so much more established with disabled riders racing with able-bodied riders. There are very few sports that offer this level of adrenalin and danger to wheelchair users.'
Rough Riderz currently has a membership of 120. Phil's plan is raise enough money to purchase another R-One bike which can then be shared among members through a series of taster days.

Colin Williamson, the main behind the all-abilities day at Ae said: 'We got in touch with a range of vehicle providers for people to test their machines on the day, which ranged from hand cycles to rugged mobility scooters. We know Phil's type of bike is quite rare and very expensive but he is a great inspiration for people to get onto our trails and enjoy our forests.
'We hope vehicle providers can get a sense of the potential demand for their vehicles and it's a chance for us to encourage more disabled riders and to find out what they need from the trails. It certainly hasn't taken much to convert the downhill and green cross country route so far.'

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