Rachel Fenton: I Just Want the Right to Roam!

James McKnight James McKnight

Words: Rachel Fenton

As you can probably tell from my previous articles for Bike Magic I have dabbled in marathon racing over the last few years. This has inevitably led to my travelling across Europe and beyond to find the biggest mountains and craziest descents. I have rarely raced marathon in the UK and it’s not because of the weather (despite what I am currently thinking after washing a muddy bike – again!) but because it is almost impossible to actually run a marathon race here.

No restrictions on where to go? Better not miss the course marking...
No restrictions on where to go? Better not miss the course marking…

Most of us who ride MTB know that we can ride on bridleways and not on footpaths. But the trail access legislation goes further than that. Riding on bridleways may be fine but racing on them is not allowed. I cannot claim to totally understand how this works but from what I can uncover the story is that the legislation allows certain ‘vehicles’ access to bridleways but the original list of users did not include cycles (although we were later added). These users are able to apply to close a bridleway, however since cycles are not on the list they cannot apply for temporary closure. The later Road Traffic Act 1988 specifically disallows cycle racing on bridleways. So we are in a bind. We cannot race on open bridleways but we cannot apply for temporary closure. As an aside you can race a quad bike on a bridleway so it does seem a little odd.

We cannot race on open bridleways but we cannot apply for temporary closure. As an aside you can race a quad bike on a bridleway so it does seem a little odd.

As a result, event organisers have simply avoided ‘competitive’ in favour of the more legal ‘challenge’ events including the non-competitive marathon, for example those organised by MTB-Marathon in Wales, navigational challenges such as the Polaris series and the more modern off road sportive. Marathon races in continental Europe also provide for the challenge rider in a similar way to the London Marathon. While the front end of the event is a clear race for professional riders behind them are several thousand other people who are simply there to get round the course, or to beat their mate. You can see a clear pathway through from talented amateur to professional, which is not possible in the UK. I wonder whether this necessary focus on non-competitive endurance mountain bike events here is the reason behind the small number of people who are able to compete at the highest level.

Downhill and the competitive sections of gravity enduro are able to avoid the bridleway issue because competitive sections are shorter and can therefore avoid racing on bridleways. This leads to a rather strange phenomenon where it is ok for 500+ competitors in a gravity enduro event to ride pretty fast over bridleways to get to their next race section but it is not ok to have a marathon over the same route. I admit I have never done a gravity enduro but I imagine the reality is pretty similar in both cases.

Wouldn't it be great if we could ride on more of these paths?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could ride on more of these paths?

Thankfully the Scots saw sense and in 2003 introduced right to roam for cycles as well as pedestrians (who have a partial right to roam in England and Wales too). This rendered disputes over rights of way pretty much null and void since everyone has the right to be on most land as long as they act responsibly. This puts the emphasis on the individual to behave well in order to maintain their access rights rather than utilising the blunt and arbitrary access permitted/not permitted approach, which can lead to minority interest groups with loud voices controlling certain paths. For the last three years this has meant a full and proper single loop National Marathon Championships has been able to be held up in Selkirk, along with its non-competitive support event. Giving UK riders the chance to experience riding a proper marathon race on home soil and to measure themselves against top riders.

I have heard rumours that Wales is due to vote on a similar access law in 2014, which would further increase opportunities for some really interesting marathon courses in the future (assuming it gets passed). I daren’t hope that the same will happen in England – there is too much opposition and the outdoor adventure industry is not powerful enough but I wholeheartedly support British Cycling in their attempts to get certain sections of the law rewritten in respect of cycle racing. The insane thing to me with bridleways is that there is no option for closure AT ALL for bikes. Road closures for big events often infuriate drivers and residents yet happen anyway  - surely the backlash from the closure of a section of bridleway would be minute by comparison? Would any MP like to take up this cause?

Remember: Be nice to other cyclists, horse riders, ramblers, bikers – if we stick together we will get more done…

Follow me on twitter @Fentinator or at www.rachelfenton.com

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