Last month we brought you news of an exciting new cycle-centric activity centre in South East England which will feature mountain bike trails, a road circuit, a BMX racetrack and family cycling paths.
Some commenters on the original story were enthusiastic about the Cyclopark, which will be located near Gravesend. Others were less impressed, suggesting that 6km of mountain biking trails wasn't a whole lot to get excited about. And some of you questioned whether, in these straitened times, the project would secure the funding needed to get off the ground.
Keen to reassure potential users, Cyclopark project manager Laurence Tricker spoke exclusively to BikeRadar about the issues you raised and the project in general. We kicked off a lengthy chat by asking him about the mountain bike trails, and specifically their rather meagre length.
BR: Do you really feel that 6km of trails will be enough to attract mountain bikers to Cyclopark from outside the immediate area?
LT: The trail that we can create within the confines of the site is a 6km technical route to test agility, ability and technique. It'll allow people to develop skills that they can't hone or develop elsewhere in the county because the Kent countryside simply doesn’t offer it.
Wouldn’t it be better to be fit, ready and able to go up to North Wales or South West Scotland and be able to ride your mountain bike more proficiently than if you'd just been crawling along the Kent Downs?
Even if the trails are fairly technical, will that be sufficient to attract people from some distance away?
Cyclopark is about a 15- to 20-minute drive from South East London so that potentially gives us access to about nine million people. Within the catchment area of South East England, our suggestion is that Cyclopark is a facility where you can develop and hone your skills because there will be both coaches on hand and a technical course to work from.
But given its location adjacent to the Kent Downs and the wider countryside, it’s also going be a place to start a more extensive journey using thousands of miles of bridleways and other utility trails and rights of way. Not all of that is open to mountain bikes but a good chunk of it could be.
We feel Cyclopark is a destination for developing skills and technical ability but equally a gateway into the Kent countryside. So, with these two elements we think it’s quite an attractive package for people from the South East and within the M25 corridor. And if you consider us alongside other mountain bike centres in the South East of England, altogether it offers people quite an attractive package.
Who will build the mountain bike course?
The lead contractors are VolkerFitzpatrick. The course-building sub-contract has yet to be awarded but it will be a specialist course builder. We’ve got ongoing mountain bike course design workshops so we can tweak and finalise the course before we award the contract.
Providing input at those workshops are Tony Williams from the International Mountain Biking Association, Luke Anderson from British Cycling, pro-rider Billy Whenman and Ray Blackwell, who's been responsible for a number of courses around the country. They've been involved in the workshops over a number of months and are now fine-tuning the design before we award the contract.
Presumably the design process will be similar for the courses used by the other cycling disciplines...
Exactly. The process started with a public consultation which created embryonic designs which are being revised and refined by specialist groups. For example, Clark and Kent who are doing the BMX track suggested at the workshop last week that this is going to be the best BMX track in Britain. It'll include a pro section as well as a milder version which will be more accessible to a wider variety of abilities, including people who want to come and try BMXing for the first time.
What about the road circuit?
Cycling is very much within the DNA of Cyclopark but in order to make the closed road facility element work for the wider community, inline skating, wheelchairs and mixed ability cycling will be a part of the mix. But for road cyclists there will be an opportunity to have a training facility in a traffic-free environment with lighting, which gives the possibility of year-round use.
We’ve got club user agreements which guarantee exclusivity of use for cycling club members but they recognise they will not need all of the tracks, all of the time which opens up the options for other users. For road bikers, a bit like mountain bikers, you can start off from Cyclopark using the facilities there and set off on a longer endurance ride using the public highway.
Who will run Cyclo Park?
The facility will be run by an operator who'll be selected via a tender process. They need to come with a track record of delivering community-based sports, they need to have charitable status and they must be able to demonstrate to British Cycling, Sport England and others that they can make the facility work.
I don’t think it'll be a traditional leisure operator as the main operator has to have charitable status. But there are franchises that could be run on a more commercial basis. There's a 100-seat café, retail space, cycle hire and health treatment facility which can be run for profit, and as long as it’s affordable and accessible then we're comfortable with that. But the main operator needs to have charitable status.
How many people will be able to use Cyclopark?
We expect about 100,000 annual visitors, about 60,000 of whom will be locals who'll use the park on a regular basis. We're constrained by a capacity of 70 people in the changing rooms and parking for 250 cars but we should be able to accommodate up to 920 people per day, each paying between £1.72 and £3.20 depending on their use of the facilities. We want to give people a quality experience without simply pushing them through the turnstiles.
What's the timescale for opening the centre?
We're working towards a grand opening in the spring of 2012. The main part of the contract which has just been awarded will be completed by November this year but the pavilion, which is the heart of the park, won’t be completed until Christmas or early 2012.
There's been a degree of scepticism expressed by our readers as to whether you can secure the funding to make this project happen. Can you reassure them?
Kent County Council, as the lead developers, have put in £2m of their own reserves and we've secured funding from national sporting bodies such as British Cycling, UK Athletics and British Triathlon, along with funding from Sport England, a local charity and the European Union, plus central government money from the Homes and Communities Agency. All those funding streams have been combined so that we now have the £6.8m required to get on and start awarding the contracts.
I think it's worth reinforcing the fact that even though local authorities are cutting staff, resources and services, this project is being funded by five separate organisations, all of which have signed up to a legal agreement, so our money is secure. That sum is the current budget but I'm optimistic that we might be able to secure some further funding to develop additional facilities prior to opening.
So there we have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: the funding is there, the project will happen and while the mountain bike course will only be 6km long, it'll have enough technical interest to compensate for it shortness. Are you persuaded by Laurence’s arguments, do you still have reservations or are you eagerly looking forward to Cyclopark’s opening? Let us know in the comments box below