Interview: Glentress mountain bike ranger Andy Wardman

Trail maintenance, traffic and riders without helmets

Andy Wardman is one of Forestry Commission Scotland's mountain bike rangers, and it's his job to keep three of the world-renowned 7stanes trail centres in tip-top condition. We spoke to him about trail maintenance, traffic and riders without helmets

What does an average day being a ranger entail?

Typical day to day operations include updating the trail conditions info on site and on the website – www.7stanes.gov.uk – carrying out maintenance work on the trails, supervising volunteer trail building sessions, working on a trail rebuild or a new section, carrying out trail inspections, working with event organisers on upcoming events, helping and speaking to members of the public and giving advice on the trails and other facilities.

I also organise the trail maintenance program for the Glentress, Innerleithen and Newcastleton 7stanes sites, so much of my time is spent planning and costing jobs, designing trail rebuilds and managing the works on site. I spend more time in the office than the other rangers, but I still get to go out and work on the trails sometimes – my favourite part of the job!

How many rangers are in the area?

There are four Forestry Commission mountain bike rangers; two full-time and two part-time. They’re part of the wider recreation team, covering the eastern side of the Dumfries & Borders Forest District. We cover Glentress, Innerleithen and Newcastleton 7stanes sites – about 125km of waymarked trails!

How could I become a ranger – are there any qualifications that help?

I started out in 2002, volunteering with the Glentress Trailfairies. From this I worked for two years as a self-employed trail builder at Glentress and Innerleithen, before becoming a mountain bike ranger with the Forestry Commission in 2004.

Probably the most important thing in becoming a mountain bike ranger would be having experience in trail building, so try to get along to volunteer trail building sessions or look for a work placement. It doesn’t require any specific qualifications – a qualification in trail building and design is still being worked on – but trail/mountain bike leader qualifications would be an advantage, or a course in countryside skills or recreation management. 

What’s the trail traffic like in the Tweed Valley?

We get around 300,000 visitors a year at Glentress, 40,000 at Innerleithen, with around 75 percent of visitors being mountain bikers. [Last year was] very busy. Weekends are the busiest days and we keep busy all year round thanks to the all-weather trails.

At Glentress especially, we get a massively broad range of visitors, from three- or four-year-olds zipping round the green route, to folk in their 60s and 70s. We’re fortunate to have a well developed network of trails for all abilities and have been able to keep developing and progressing things.

We’ve worked hard over the past few years to improve what we offer for novices at Glentress – the blue route especially has seen a lot of upgrade work and new trail. It’s easier than ever to get into mountain biking.

It’s also brilliant to see the work local businesses have put in to help make the area a world class mountain biking destination. Mountain-bike-friendly services and accommodation help make a complete package for visitors – find out more at www.visittweedvalley.co.uk.

Glentress is famous for fun riding and people pushing their limits, not to mention their luck…

Thanks! Building and maintaining the trails so they are fun and safe is the most important thing, but mountain biking is an adventure sport that carries a potentially high risk – accidents will happen.

With the number of visitors on our trails increasing, we are going to get our fair share of accidents and injuries, though rates are comparable to in football and rugby. Knowing your limits and pushing them gradually is important, as is wearing the right kit and having a bike in good working order. 

You must see plenty of people without helmets – are they legally allowed to ride like that?

Unfortunately, yes. We can’t stop it; we can only advise of the benefits of wearing one. It’s frustrating – having attended accidents where helmets have disintegrated on the impact, the value of wearing a well fitting one is obvious…

Riders accept that injury is sometimes inevitable – how does that sit with the Forestry Commission and risk assessments?

It’s understood that injuries out on the trails will happen. For us (the FC), the key thing is to make sure the trails are safe and that we provide enough information for riders to make an informed choice about which trails to ride. We’ve put a lot of work into the grading system for all our trails.

There’s a national mountain bike strategy being developed by a number of organisations, including the Scottish government – it’s possible our grading might become the industry standard, which would be good for biking all round.

Safe doesn’t mean dumbing down though – more that features and the trails are designed, built and maintained to high standards and are appropriate to the grade of route they are on.

Are there regulations for the trails?

Guidelines have been developed on what a certain grade of trail should be like and we aim to build and maintain the trails to these. An important part of our inspection and maintenance program is making sure sections of trail do not slip out of grade.

We have a reasonable trail maintenance budget, thanks to the car parking contributions and the value of the 7stanes to the FC. This makes it possible to have a comprehensive maintenance program enabling us to keep the trails in good shape.

How much time is spent maintaining the trails?

Around 70 percent of our time is spent on maintenance. We’re fortunate that we have a lot of experience and expertise in our team, so can do the trail work in-house, without having to tender work out to contractors. This means we can better keep on top of the trails, react quickly to issues that arise and carry out preventative work to stop small issues becoming bigger ones.

The black rated trails can get you pretty far out in the wilderness. Ever had any stranded riders?

Occasionally! Usually it’s a mechanical or being caught out by the dark without lights. We encourage riders to be responsible and we have emergency info posts out on the trails and advertise our duty ranger number (07834 435380) which people can call any time if they need help or assistance.

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