Glen Jacobs on trail design and the Cairns MTB World Cup - interview

Legendary trail builder speaks of his work

Glen Jacobs was there the last time Cairns hosted the UCI MTB World Cup. He was also there when Cadel Evans (who later turned to the road) finished fifth at the 1994 elite senior event as a junior, sparking a tradition of five-man podiums at MTB World Cup events in the process. Two years later, when Cairns was the landscape for the 1996 UCI MTB World Championships, Jacobs was there yet again. 

Since he built his first trail in his family’s backyard in Far North Queensland, seven-generation Cairns native Glen Jacobs has been designing and building mountain bike trails and race courses, including those in  Cairns.

Jacobs, owner of World Trail, is considered one of the world’s first professional trail builders, with more than 300 trails spread across 20 countries to his name. And on April 25, the return of the World Cup will feature a new take on an old classic.

BikeRadar caught up with Jacobs to talk about his love affair with mountain biking, the ins and outs of trail building, and what it is that makes Far North Queensland so special.

BikeRadar: Where did your love affair with trail building and mountain biking begin?

Glen Jacobs: My family goes back here in Cairns about seven generations, and I actually have been building trails since I was eight years old, back in the bush with a rake. I was building trails long before anyone would have ever thought of doing this for a living.

It’s been 18 years since Cairns last hosted a UCI MTB World Championship, and 20 since it hosted a World Cup. How important is it for Cairns to host the World Cup once again?

It works on so many different levels. A lot of people, kids at the time, were just starting to get into mountain biking in 1994, and now they are 30 or 40 years old, so they have this massive emotional attachment to the region. They are travelling back from all across Australia – all across the world for that matter – to relive their childhood.

From Cairns' perspective, it means so much to show people that nowadays you can come and ride trails – even race – without ripping the environment apart. Of course the event brings revenue, but more importantly it brings priceless exposure.

Why does mountain biking have such a strong tie to Cairns?

Mountain biking is all over Australia, but Cairns really ignited the growth of the sport during the mid-90s.

What do you love most about Cairns, and the region?

Cairns is the pure adventure capital of Australia. You only have to walk out the door and you’ve got the Great Barrier Reef, jungles, rainforests, waterfalls, stunning swimming areas and trails that go forever.

You designed the original course in 1994 – what has changed this year?

The route is the same, but the whole trail is basically brand new. About 90 per cent of the track has been upgraded and then there is 30 per cent that is brand new.

Are there any other noticeable changes in the trail design?

Obviously the skills of the riders, the bikes, the gear, everything has changed since 1994. At World Trail, we are always changing the style of the trails we design to challenge the riders. The thing that is always in the back of my head is to ‘keep it mountain bike, keep it mountain bike, keep it mountain bike’; a lot of courses are getting dumbed-down to make them more road-orientated.

How are you keeping the course ‘mountain bike’ and challenging?

In this track there are about five sections that won’t get used. The ‘A’ lines won’t be used because they are too extreme, but when the World Championships return in 2017, the bikes will be different and the riders will be better. We are designing something that will be cutting-edge and challenging two years from now.

Rumour has it one of the upgrades has been to the famous Jacobs Ladder, can you explain?

Jacobs ladder is an old logging road that went straight up the hill, but we put in the switchbacks and it’s like a luge – left, right, left, right… boom, boom, boom, all the way down the hill. We installed some ‘A’ lines on the course, and halfway down there you can drop off a rock cliff that cuts off two corners and it will save riders about six or seven seconds if they take the risk. It’s a technical course that drops very steeply.

What is your biggest design tool in creating a world-class mountain bike trail?

Funnily enough, there are no computers, graphs or mathematics that can do the job perfectly. It’s all about predictability – predicting the speed of the rider and what they are going to do – or need to do – to do well. Once you have predictably right, it benefits everything not just from a race perspective, but also from a recreational and sustainability standpoint as well. If you predict a trail right, there is no unnecessary skidding and braking that causes abrasion on the track, which will eventually erode the trail.

Are there any obstacles in working within the confines of a World Heritage-listed rainforest?

 The first thing is sustainability, after all we are putting a trail in an area that is a pristine environment and we are all champions for the environment. First, the trail needs to stay there forever. Second, it can’t erode, fall apart and wash away down the hill. Third, it has to carry riders through the corridor at a speed that is safe and non-abrasive. The trails we create are not just for mountain biking, but can also be used for hiking, jogging, anything.

What are you looking towards most at this year’s World Cup?

The same thing I always do – seeing people having an amazing time and enjoying both mountain biking and the environment, and Cairns does it better than anywhere.

BikeRadar has been in Cairns filming at some of its best riding locations, expect a series of short videos soon.

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