Alberta Bikes Conference 2016 – Bike Tourism

I attended the 2016 Alberta Bikes Conference this past weekend in beautiful Canmore. This year’s theme was Bicycle Tourism. There was a lot of discussion around developing urban cycling and road cycling as tourist attractions. Not surprisingly, the same things that make urban areas and road routes popular with locals, are the same as those favoured by tourists: having a pleasant ride [must be safe and ability-appropriate], being able to get to desired destinations [information and wayfinding], and having bike-appropriate amenities [bike-friendly businesses, washrooms, safe places to stash bikes while shopping, etc.]. As a mountain biker, I was more interested in what was happening on the dirt side.

[As an aside, the main reason to desire increased mountain bike tourism is to bring outside money into a community to build more/better trails, and ideally brewpubs. It’s a good thing.]

Tourism ElsewhereAlberta Bike Conference Tourism

Scott Bricker of Travel Oregon talked about that state’s efforts to support mountain bike tourism. As mountain biking exploded in the 90s, riders in the mountains and forests of Oregon were building trails. Lots of trails were established, and a lot of them were super-fun to ride, but some couldn’t handle much out-of-town traffic. At the same time, finding that sweet singletrack was difficult unless you were a local [“…half a mile past Scotty’s cabin on the old FSR, not the new one, hang a left where the big oak used to be, look for a narrow trail 100 yards past the TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT sign. Jenkins is a good guy, he doesn’t shoot bikers…”].

The solution was to work with local trail groups to make trails more sustainable. The government also helped develop trail heads and signage to make it easier to access the trails. In short, funding was provided. Oregon is now a solid destination for mountain bikers from across the US and Canada. Hell, CMBA’s VP is currently riding in Bend, OR right now. Travel Oregon did the research, and discovered that mountain biking visitors wanted fun trails for a variety of skill levels. They also wanted lots of high-quality beer. Mission Accomplished!

Bikepacking

Ryan Correy gave a great talk about bikepacking’s growing popularity, and its potential as a tourism offering. Ryan has twice completed the Tour Divide, a 4418km race/punishment from Banff to Mexico, and is the force behind bikepack.ca, a resource for anyone interested in going for a more adventurous ride. Outside magazine recently predicted that bikepacking will displace backpacking, and Alberta is well-positioned to take advantage of that. With hundreds [likely thousands] of miles of lease access roads, cutlines, etc. crisscrossing the foothills, and a similar number of dirt roads scattered over the province, it’s just a matter of packing the right gear for the trip.

2016-09-18-11-28-36Cypress Hills

<insert insane/membrane joke here> Peter Swain of Alberta Parks gave a great presentation about the development of mountain biking in the Cypress Hills area, southeast of Medicine Hat. Working with local rippers 670 Collective, Parks is helping [with $$$!] to:

  • expand and upgrade the trail system
  • develop lift-accessed mountain biking at the ski hill [!!!!!]
  • create a hut-to-hut network for biking/hiking/running/skiing

The hope is to increase tourism in one of Alberta’s least-visited provincial parks. Cypress Hills is ~4 hours from Calgary, and the hope is to draw some of the crowds away from the Canmore/Banff area. They may succeed…

Status Quo in Parks Canada

Veronique Pelletier and Eric Baron of Parks Canada provided an interesting history of how cycling in Banff National Park has developed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. There were a few take-aways from their hour-long presentation:

  • Banff is awesome
  • Banff was never developed with bikes in mind
  • Banff will not develop more mountain biking trails in the future. Go to Jasper.

Yeah, that was about it.

BULLS**T

The highlight [for me] of the conference was Jacob Johnson skewering the bulls**t state of mountain biking in Alberta. [If we can get the presentation we’ll post it up, but until then I will paraphrase as best I can.]

According to Jacob, the Alberta tourism biz advertises mountain biking in our province to be all glorious vistas and amazing mountain ridgeline riding; the equal of anything in the world [even BC!]. The reality is that mountain biking is largely prohibited in many/most of the mountain parks that people come here to visit. The government spends more money on closing trails than they do on building new ones. Bike shops are seeing declining revenue overall, and the only bright spot is stability in mountain bike sales. Most mountain bikers want to travel to BC to ride the back-country trails there. We have the potential to pull riders into the small towns along the Rockies that could really use the tourism dollars, but we’re doing nothing to bring them in. Instead, tourists can fly into Calgary, and drive past some of the best terrain in the world on their way to Golden, Revelstoke, Fernie, Nelson, etc. That’s bulls**t…

#micdrop

I’m not doing Jacob’s presentation much justice here. It was awesome. There were lots of government folks in the room, and I hope his words didn’t fall on deaf ears.

Final Thoughts

My take-away from the conference is that all the things you need to have an amazing mountain biking tourism experience in Alberta are here, but we’re doing a crap job of putting it all together. We have skilled trail builders. We have a provincial tourism organization that produces amazing advertising [that Insta feed – if I didn’t already live here, I’d consider moving based on that]. We have staggeringly awesome terrain for mountain biking. For whatever reason, we can’t seem to put all those assets together. The best idea I heard all weekend was “copy BC’s approach“. That could actually work…