The Trail to Local Growth

Mountain biking has surged in popularity in recent years and many communities have taken advantage of this as an opportunity to boost local tourism. By drawing cyclists to well-built, signed, and advertised trail networks, visitors not only support bike-related retail sales but also local small businesses in the form of accommodations, food, and other tourist activities.


As a result of dedicated mountain bike tourism initiatives, towns like Breckenridge, Colorado and Oakridge, Oregon, are now famous cycling destinations and the economic benefits have been astounding. For example, Breckenridge has a population of under 5,000 and yet boasts over 22 miles of trails within town (not to mention the extensive backcountry network in the surrounding area). Consequently, Breckenridge now draws in $2.3 million in bike-related retail sales and over $700,000 in race-related revenue each year. And of the 17.4 million tourists that visited Oregon in 2012, approximately 25% of those rode a bike while visiting and 43% of those mountain biking tourists preferred to stay in commercial lodging over camping (in contrast to the stereotype that mountain bikers are young, broke, and sleeping in their cars).


Nicholas Meltzer of the University of Oregon (Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management) confirms that “Oakridge, Oregon has seen a measurable increase in the number of mountain bike visitors over the last [decade]. These visitors are providing a needed boost in their economy, which was historically based in natural resource extraction.”


The Government of Alberta has set ambitious goals to increase annual tourism revenues from $7.8 billion to $10.3 billion by 2020. Owing to the massive success of cycling tourism initiatives outside of Alberta, mountain biking has been increasingly factored into discussions at both the provincial and municipal levels. Substantial recent increases in singletrack trail development have enabled communities such as Canmore, Bragg Creek, and the Crowsnest Pass to host national and provincial cycling races and draw tourists that would otherwise travel to popular riding destinations in British Columbia.


Laura Mislan, Director of the Moose Mountain Bike Trail Society and owner of Alberta 66 MTB, has witnessed usage of the trails around Bragg Creek increase as a result of both the growing popularity of mountain biking and the improved local trail infrastructure. “Developed trails on public lands are low-cost assets that enable people of all ages to get outside and be active, but also enable new commercial operators to hold events and bring tourist revenue to the region,” she says. “Trail development can be done at a fraction of the cost of implementing other sport facilities like ice arenas, aquatic centers, or ski hills and brings as much or more benefit to a region.”


Canmore is a particularly compelling case study. Twenty-two kilometres of largely unconnected off-road trails were amateur-built at the Canmore Nordic Center for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Over the last decade, Canmore embraced cycling tourism by improving in-town infrastructure for bike transportation, linking Canmore and Banff with the paved Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail, and professionally rehabilitating and expanding the Nordic Centre trail system. The Nordic Centre now has an impressive 100km of volunteer-maintained singletrack trails within only 4.5 km2 of provincial park (demonstrating that mountain biking can go together with responsible land use). In 2016 alone, the Canmore Trails Alliance logged 617 volunteer hours doing trail maintenance.! Thanks to their efforts, trail usage has been steadily increasing each year and visitors now make up a whopping 84% of Nordic Centre users.


Closer to home, Alberta Parks is now leveraging mountain biking to increase tourism in the Cypress Hills area. Historically, Cypress Hills is one of Alberta’s least-visited provincial parks but, by further developing and interconnecting the existing singletrack trail network, the area is being rebranded as an outdoor recreation destination.


“The 670 Collective [mountain bike club] in Medicine Hat helped turn renegade, unsanctioned mountain biking into a respected sport,” says Wes Heaton, the Service Manager at Alpenland. “Cycling has economic benefits for the community, but also offers a way to preserve and enjoy natural landscapes.”


But what about Lethbridge? Despite our shortage of mountainous terrain, Lethbridge has a considerable local cycling community and regularly spawns professional-level riders. Three bicycle shops and four cycling organizations – BikeBridge, Headwinds, the Lethbridge Area Cycling Association (LACA), and Lethbridge BMX – are dedicated to making cycling a sustainable form of both recreation and transportation within our community. But even with all of LACA’s volunteer trail maintenance and cycling advocacy efforts, the Lethbridge Mountain Bike Park desperately needs a facelift and the existing singletrack trail network remains unsanctioned and unsigned. The only “off-road” trail currently designated for cyclists in Lethbridge is the 2.4m-wide gravel Coal Banks Trail and the only other reference to mountain biking on the City of Lethbridge website is a brief paragraph meant to caution cyclists against riding off-road. The local cycling community can only do so much without additional municipal support.


Besides the economic benefits from tourism, an established singletrack trail network will also undoubtedly benefit other coulee user groups including trail runners, dog walkers, and hikers. Proper trail signage and regular maintenance will increase safety and accessibility, reduce conflicts between users, and provide information for emergency services to pinpoint injured users. In addition, by employing experienced trail builders to implement low-angle climbing trails, banked corners, and proper drainage, any potential environmental impacts can be minimized. A designated and well-mapped singletrack trail network will also help to distribute the impacts of regular trail use away from sensitive conservation areas, ultimately enabling reclamation of those zones.


“We moved to Lethbridge for my wife’s job [in 2018]. We had lots of options and wouldn’t have considered Lethbridge if there wasn’t any mountain biking” says Paul Smith. “Trail development would attract other professionals to live and work in this community."


Lethbridge is uniquely positioned to take advantage of two-wheeled tourism. Our community neighbours other notable riding destinations and has an existing 50km volunteer-built trail system that can be vastly improved and better interconnected with the support of the City of Lethbridge, Tourism Lethbridge, and Tourism Alberta. Considering the recent implementation of the 7th Avenue Bike Boulevard to improve the safety and accessibility of cycling for transportation, fostering mountain biking as a tourism attraction is the next logical step towards boosting our local economy and further supporting community health.

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