Imagine gliding through labyrinths of towering bamboo tunnels, maneuvering through boulder-studded hilltops and fighting to the top of 300-meter high, jungle-covered vistas. While this sounds like a scene set deep in some mystical wilderness, these landscapes exist in the backyard of one of the largest metropolises in the world. At the top of the climb, unbroken views of Hong Kong’s bustling harbors and skyscrapers sprawl before well-rewarded mountain bikers.
Hong Kong houses some 15 million people, but don’t think it’s all urban sprawl. A curtain of mountainside green envelops much of the city. Development covers only about 30 percent of Hong Kong’s territory, leaving plenty of space for adventure sports and ecotourism amidst the territory’s 263 islands.
Mountain bikers have caught on. The proximity to the city and the dramatic, highly variable terrain makes Hong Kong arguably one of the best places to live, work and ride in the world. New mountain biking trails snaking through the surrounding wilderness are constantly in the making while bike shops pop up alongside the city’s boutiques. More and more, Hong Kong residents and tourists alike are taking to the jungles on two wheeled adventures.
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“Yep, it’s not all concrete sky scrapers,” said Steve Coward, owner of CrossCountry HK, a company that organizes mountain biking trips and lessons. “I’m amazed of the interest we in Hong Kong are getting from folk around the world who are hearing the eco opportunities do exist here,” he said.
A lifelong mountain biker, Coward first discovered Hong Kong back in 1992 when he took eight months to ride from his home in England to Hong Kong, and then decided to stick around. Since he founded his company in 2005, he said, the local mountain biking community has probably doubled in size.
Hong Kong dedicates about 40 percent of its territory to protected country parks, which range from wetlands to mountaintops. On the trails, Coward regularly spots a variety of wildlife, including deer, wild boar and porcupines. On two occasions this year, he’s even sighted elusive leopard cats. “Mountain biking offers a totally non-polluting eco-experience, with fresh air and beautiful views you’ll be unlikely to see otherwise—not to mention to social aspect of a ride with friends,” he said.
Hong Kong, however, was not always the up-and-coming biking mecca it is today. Mountain bikers—mostly expats like Coward—started exploring Hong Kong’s cycling potential in the early 1990s, but conflicts arose when they began using ancient trails connecting farming villages around the city. Locals still use these footpaths to get from one town to the next. When bikers caught on to the trails’ existence, however, the narrow routes—which sometimes occur on a 40 percent or higher gradient—quickly became crowded, and even dangerous. Farmers complained about bikers tearing through their fields while a mix of beginner to expert riders occupying the same tight, unregulated route created the potential for collisions. “You’ve got old people, you’ve got groups and you’ve got a couple hundred bikers going at all different speeds on a Saturday morning, all on these ancient trails,” described Tony Boone, a trail specialist from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. “It came to a head.”
The government soon cracked down on the unregulated sport, banning bikers from using both paved streets in the country parks and the centuries-old paths. Left with little other alternative, the most avid mountain bikers covertly took to the trails anyway, risking fines and legal trouble.
In 1992, a group of frustrated bikers formed the Hong Kong Mountain Biking Association as a way to push back on the newly implemented governmental restrictions and advocate for sustainable trails designed specifically for mountain biking. “Developing trails just for mountain bikes is the only way to solve the problem,” Boone said. “Otherwise, bikers will continue to poach trails that farmers use.”
Nearly a decade later, their efforts began to gradually pay off as Hong Kong reopened a few trails to bikers. “The work and effort that has gone into gaining acceptance for our sport and getting a (limited) number of trails opened has been tremendous,” the Association writes on its website.
Today, Hong Kong’s legal trails total around 80 kilometers throughout its territories, and the Association is constantly pushing for more. The situation still is not ideal, however. The Country and Marine Parks Authority requires all bikers to register and carry an official permit attained through a maze of meandering paperwork, and anyone caught riding outside of the designated trails risks a ticket and fine. Moreover, looped trails—or ones that connect from start to end—are nearly nonexistent, presenting logistical challenges for figuring out how to legally return to a course’s starting point.
In 2005, Coward realized that guided mountain bike services and lessons were nonexistent in the city. He spun the idea for Hong Kong’s first mountain biking startup and founded his company, which soon became a full-time business. “The biggest challenge when I started was lack of legal trails that could be looped to form fun three to four hour rides,” he said. “This is slowly changing and it’s great that the parks department is implementing sustainable trail building techniques and collaborating with the International Mountain Biking Association.”
In 2008, the HK Mountain Biking Association hired Boone to come assess Hong Kong’s potential for new biking paths. Boone aimed to get people off of the steep, ancient trails and build more cycle-friendly, kinetically diverse routes that were both safer and more interesting for riders. Boone was impressed with Hong Kong’s potential for “sweet crosscountry” and extreme biking, but he soon realized that the engineering and political challenges for realizing these goals were “over and beyond what the average club in the U.S. faces.”
He and the Association called in more help from experts in Singapore and Colorado, consulted with engineering firms and, when potential trails sites were selected, collaborated with the Hong Kong government for conservation assessments of the surrounding flora and fauna. Once an area receives the go-ahead for a new trail, Boone, Coward and a couple dozen volunteer bikers and hired farmers come out en masse to build the route. If they’re lucky, they’ll complete a mile of trail in a week, though the more trees and rocks, or the steeper the terrain, the slower the going. Still, the trails are progressing. “Quite honestly, I think we’ve been successful in facilitating trust and building a cooperation,” Boone said.
These days, Coward finds himself out on the trails more often than not. His clients tend to be a 50-50 mix of “high flying city slickers out to unleash their frustration through the pedals” and local Chinese and expats, though he recently took a U.K. chimney sweep for a spin and put up a group of Danish tourists for a week of nothing but mountain biking.
Coward hopes that collaboration between bikers and the government progresses even further in the years to come. While around 1,000 trails exist for hikers, for example, only 11 are currently open to bikers. “I would love the HK government to recognize not just the benefits of mountain biking but the benefits of cycling as a whole,” he said. “The long-term implications are far-reaching and good for all concerned.”
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Rachel Nuwer is a science journalist writing for venues such as the New York Times, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Audubon Magazine, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. Rachelnuwer.com | @rachelnuwer | Takepart.com