With just over a week to go until this year's UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, we caught up with Snorre Pederson, the main man behind Norway's Hafjell Bike Park, to find out more about the host venue.
MBUK: When did you first get into trail building?
Snorre Pederson: I started building jumps in my parents' garden. You can still see some remains of the trail I built when I was nine! That’s 32 years ago. I was building trails before there was something called mountain biking in Norway. It’s been my lifelong passion.
When did you realise you wanted to build a bike park?
My wife and I were living in Oslo and moved to Hafjell in 2000. In Oslo I was building mountain bike trails, but up here there weren’t any trails, just the ones from when I was growing up. In June 2001 my best friend and I started building trails up on the mountain, without permission.
What did it take to get Hafjell to legitimate bike park status?
Well, I competed in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City in skeleton [you know, the one where you go headfirst down a bobsled track on a tea tray – Ed] and I met up with an old friend who was living out in the States at the time. He introduced me to another guy who was also into mountain biking. We spoke about the trails they were building in Park City, Utah, using small excavators to build way out into the backcountry. I said we were doing the same back home now. The guy asked me where I lived and I said Hafjell. He looked at me stony-faced and said: “I’m the manager in that resort.” I was like, 'holy f*$*, what are the chances?!'
Well, after three or four beers we were good friends, so when I got back home he said we could start running the lifts in summer. In summer 2003 we had our first race, the King of The Mountain Chinese Downhill, and the guy who organised that event has gone on to organise the World Cups and the World Champs – we’ve all been around since the beginning. At the start we used regular excavator drivers and that didn’t work for building trails, so I started to do it myself –2003 was the first time I’d ever built a trail with an excavator.
So, you learned to build trails with an excavator while building trails with an excavator?
I’d done a bit of yard clearing with one before, but that’s a long way away from shaping berms with one! Because of my background in skeleton, luge and bobsled I’m really nerdy about lines and curves and shapes and profiles. I picked up shaping pretty fast because I knew exactly what I wanted.
That explains your vision for some of the trails here. Even after one day riding them I feel like I could go semi-pro in bobsled...
Ha! Well I rode jump bikes since I was four years old – I broke my first bike frame at that age! Then I rode motocross and raced karts a bit, basically anything that would go fast. That’s why I like to build really fast trails.
How long did it take from meeting the Hafjell manager in Salt Lake to getting the park up and running?
We met in 2002 and opened in summer ’03. We already had some trails ready because we’d been building illegally for two years, so we had the Norwegian nationals track, which was a full-on DH race course, and after that we started on Buldre [Boulder] Trail, our first freeride trail. After that it got more and more intense until I was employed full time in 2005, five years after we first started building trails on the mountain.
Health and safety in the UK is verging on the ridiculous. You have trails with huge jumps and gaps on them – what are the H&S laws you have to deal with?
The Nordic countries are still a bit different from the UK and the US. I mean, the suing business in the UK and US is crazy! Here how it works is that if you're in nature and you hurt yourself, you have to deal with it. There’s no blame game. But if you move a rock or build a berm, you’re influencing nature and have to take responsibility for that. When we build things we have to make sure that it’s safe to fall. If you look behind the berms, all our crash zones are cleared out, branches are cut, there's padding on rocks and trees. Also, I designed the trails so you can pretty much ride them brakeless if you know what you’re doing, so we're using the jumps and the berms to take away or increase speed as needed. Basically, people have to think for themselves and not blame other people if mistakes happen.
Good, we like that – people do need to think for themselves! What are your visions for the future of Hafjell Bike Park?
To have the best World Championships ever! We’ve been talking with the local club about trying to have the UCI World Cup for three more years after the World Champs. The riders seem to like the downhill trail here and I have another three or four trails in my head that we just need to build.
Has the type of rider visiting the park changed over the years?
In the beginning it was perhaps five per cent women and now it’s up to 30 per cent. We see a lot of skier and snowboarder girls try it and get hooked on that feeling of flow and speed. Our average increase overall, year on year, has been 15 to 20 per cent.
You seem to pride yourself on the aesthetics of the park. What drives you to make it not only work but look beautiful at the same time?
Well, thanks. Since we started very small and to begin with most of the trail building was by volunteers, we knew we needed to get photos out there and articles published to bring more people here. I learned that for photographers it makes it easier to have good framing and backdrops. I like clean lines and shaping stuff and taking photos myself, so we tried to design the park to have photographable spots all over it, which would get us more media play. When we built the trail we looked at how we could place berms and jumps in a way that would create the best photographs – and riding, of course.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own bike park?
Don’t do it! No, learn from other people’s mistakes. Make a good plan, not just for the first year but where you want to be in five, 10 and 15 years. When you design the trails, think not just about the first two trails but where you'll be when you have 15 or 20 trails, to make sure you’re not blocking yourself off. Also, think about the passion people have for riding – take that seriously because it’s a powerful thing.
Did the UCI pick Hafjell for the World Champs or did you approach them?
Actually the UCI approached us about World Champs and that was even before we had the first World Cup. They were really impressed with the progress, with the organisers saying: “You’re asking questions we’ve never been asked before and it’s still one year until the event.” I think we were second in the best event competition – Fort William beat us.
What’s this we hear about damage to the downhill track?
We had 80mm of rain in a few hours earlier in the summer. Until now we’ve never closed a trail because of bad weather – we’ve put a lot of effort into water management so we can offer good riding no matter what – but we had rivers going over the banks and some ended up coming into the trails and washing them out.
And how about these reports about Hafjell’s owners possibly closing the lifts in summer to save money?
Our board have still not decided what to do. They’ll look at the results from this summer and then decide.
Where does the bike park fit into the grand scheme of things?
I’d say the bike park is 90 per cent of our summer revenue. The regular tourists bring in a little money, but nothing compared to the biking. People come and rent apartments and bikes, and get lift passes, and drink in the pubs, restaurants and bars.
Find out more about the 2014 World Champs in issue 308 of Mountain Biking UK, out now. You can watch the World Champs live on Red Bull TV, from 11.05am BST on Sunday 7 September.