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Improvement for improvement’s sake? Update on Lantau’s mountain bike trail upgrades

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Avid mountain biker Jason Pagliari discusses the joys of off-road cycling in South Lantau and provides an update on government plans to upgrade the trails.

Perhaps Lantau’s most enduring feature, besides its beaches and mountain scenery, is its hiking trails which are ‘world class’, certainly among the best in Asia. That many of these are designated mountain bike trails is an obvious boon for local bikers, who relish the opportunity to get offroad and back to nature.

The coastal trail from Mui Wo to Shap Long and the Lantau South Water Catchment maintenance road, which runs from above San Shek Wan all the way to Fan Lau, are popular with mountain bikers, as is the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail. As a Ham Tin resident, I’m lucky enough to have the latter on my doorstep. The scenery – Pui O Beach below and the mountains to your right – is really incredible, and as you zip along, you can achieve a sense of inner calm that’s hard to beat.

Few bikers use the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail during the week, although at the weekends it gets busy. Groups of up to 10 bikers are a common sight, always with the leader well ahead of the pack and a few stragglers at the back. No one’s in competition and everyone is there to have a good time, but a difference in skill levels and equipment dictates the pecking order.

Mountain bikers, unlike road cyclists, are there to enjoy the scenery and occasionally rough terrain. Here the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail delivers in spades. While the setting is picturesque, the stones and rocks beneath your wheels add to the challenge and the ‘naturalness’ of the experience. The only noticeable manmade features, drainage channels which run across the trail at intervals, are unobtrusive and fairly easy to ride over.

On-going enhancements and trail upgrades

It has come as a surprise to some Lantau residents that the Lands Department has authorised the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) to upgrade the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail for the benefit of mountain bikers. It’s controversial in that many local mountain bikers are perfectly happy with the trail the way it is. People are worried that the so-called enhancements could change the dynamic of the mountain biking (and hiking) experience, certainly affecting the scenery and possibly encouraging bikers to increase their speeds.

The CEDD’s expressed aim is to create mutually safe conditions for both bikers and hikers, increase user enjoyment, and improve sustainability, drainage and erosion control. The focus is said to be on improvement and enhancement, rather than new development, with no visible concrete or other artificial material used. Trail users are voicing their concerns, however, citing these upgrades as both unnecessary and potentially destructive of the natural environment.

Principally, the CEDD’s stated objective is to improve drainage and erosion control. At downhill areas, the existing channel drains which cross the trail will be removed and the surface levelled to an angle of 2.5 degrees, so that water will drain away naturally. The CEDD assures that the amount of earth compaction required will be minimal but the exact extent of it isn’t clear. The concern is that plans to compact the ground could significantly alter the natural conditions.

What’s important is that the works should not make the trail look artificial. Concrete will be used but only for the footings of the distance posts (to be placed at 500-metre intervals). Ideally, the new soil, put in place to level the trails’ natural undulations, would be colour matched to the existing soil but here the CEDD is not in agreement, holding that colour differences will vanish over time and that safety has to override a natural look for a short while.

In levelling the ground and removing existing defects, the CEDD is also putting in a series of technical features to improve the biking experience. Many trail users question why natural features, that already pose a challenge for bikers (and enhance the scenery), need to be removed and replaced with artificial ramps. The technical features being added comprise three types of earth ramps – ‘rollers’, a series of 0.8-metre high bumps that are to provide bikers with a sense of weightlessness; ‘jerms’, angled bumps for cyclists to navigate through; and ‘berms’, ramps at the turns designed to minimise braking, which leads to soil erosion. The berms are up to 1.2-metres high at the downhill areas.

A good thing about mountain biking is that when you come across an obstacle, like some rocks or a drainage channel, you slow down to ride over it, or you get off your bike and push it. That’s all part of the experience, which isn’t all about going fast. It remains to be seen how these earth ramps will impact biking on the trails and, importantly, the safety of non-bikers. It’s possible that cyclists will be encouraged to increase their speed, so they can jump off the new earth ramps. Should this come to pass, hikers will need to watch their step.

Monitoring the extent of the works

The first stage of works began last month and is expected to be complete in December. The initial works cover a 1-kilometre section of the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail, from the trail start at the Chi Ma Wan Road hilltop, towards and above Mong Tung Wan. CEDD consultants Maurice Lee & Associates is providing environmental monitoring for the works.

Upgrades are in the planning stage for the trail as it continues past Shek Kwu Chau, The Sea Ranch and Tai Long Wan, all the way to Shap Long Irrigation Reservoir. A spur in the Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, at Lantau’s closest point to Cheung Chau, is also designated for upgrades. This extension to the trail offers the best hiking and scenery in the area with spectacular boulder formations. It’s hoped that the CEDD will take particular care to preserve the natural look.

The coastal trail from Mui Wo to Shap Long and the Lantau South Water Catchment maintenance road are also slated for improvement works. Again, the CEDD’s expressed aim is enhancement but plans call for a 13-kilometre stretch of metal handrails, where there is a risk of falling into the water catchment channel.

According to the CEDD’s presentation material, a feasibility study for this project was made from 2009 to 2011, with members of the public and stakeholders showing general support for the proposed works. Plans seem to have slipped under trail users’ radars, however. I only got wind of the project in June when I noticed a sign at the Chi Ma Wan Country Trail head, informing users of impending works. Since then I have raised up queries with the CEDD about the full extent of the works.

My experience dealing with the CEDD continues to be positive, and demonstrates that as residents we have a voice and should not hesitate to express our concerns about preserving Lantau aswe know and like it. A group of dedicated local mountain bikers is also following up with recommendations from the Hong Kong Mountain Biking Association’s (HKMBA) trail designers.

At the end of the day, these trail upgrades may turn out to be an improvement, especially for the casual mountain biker, since certain eroded areas need to be made good. However, there is a real risk that the trails will be blighted by excessive soil compaction and gradually transformed into yet another of Hong Kong’s artificial, concrete-clad ‘attractions’.

An upgrade for the sake of an upgrade is not always a wise decision; we need to ensure a satisfactory long-term outcome for all trail users.

The government’s appointed contact person for further information is CEDD engineer Kenny Ho. You can reach him at 2231 4421, [email protected] If you would like to view the CEDD’s presentation material, outlining the trail enhancements, you can contact Jason Pagliari at [email protected].

Image: Jason Pagliari

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