Inside Innerleithen's chairlift plan - Bike Magic

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Inside Innerleithen’s chairlift plan

The proposed chairlift at Innerleithen has moved a few steps closer to reality, with leisure industry business consultants Tourism Resources Company having made a presentation to the powers that be in the Scottish Borders making a preliminary case for what would be the world’s first bike-specific chairlift.

We reported on the emergence of the idea back in February 2007, commenting then that the Innerleithen proposal was by far the most likely of a few chairlift ideas booting around to actually come to fruition. It had the backing of some key people, and a working group was set up by the Tweed Valley Development Group.

Tourism Resources Company’s presentation, made in early December (and lurking in a dusty corner of the company’s website), draws on the input of a number of useful-sounding engineers, environmental consultants, cableway specialists and, not least, Gravity Logic. Gravity Logic is the bike park consultancy arm of Whistler Blackcomb, operators of the legendary Whistler Bike Park and therefore probably the world’s leading authorities in developing a successful MTB destination.

The proposed lift is a high-speed quad chair with a capacity of 1,100 bikes and riders per hour. The 85 chairs will run on cables supported by 11 towers up to 17m high, with bikes being carried upright on purpose-built “chairs”. Access to the lift will be from the Traquair-Walkerburn road.

The lift itself is only part of the proposal, though. There would also be a new “base station” building and new 420-vehicle capacity car park at the bottom of the lift and, possibly more importantly, 30km of new DH and XC trails plus slopestyle/freeride areas. The new two-storey building would feature a ticket office, shop, bike hire, toilets and showers on the ground floor and a cafe on the upper floor. The proposed expanded trail network is described as comprising “short, interconnected trails” to “attract novice to competitor” riders. There would also be hiking trails to viewpoints including the summit of Minch Moor. The proposed arrangement of trails would make the centre work more along the lines of a ski hill than existing loop-based centres – get to the top, choose which combination of trails to use to get back to the bottom, repeat.

Riders would have access to the lift 255 days per year – it would be open seven days a week from April to October and on weekends and public holidays the rest of the year with the exception of January when annual maintenance would take place. Proposed opening hours are 10am to 6pm in the summer and 10am to 4pm (or whenever bad light stops play) in the winter. There would also be late opening two nights a week, with the lift running until 8 or 9pm.

All sounds good so far, although some of the market research backing the plan up seems perhaps a little bit iffy. Having interviewed over 1,500 people, the consultants have concluded that 7% of the population “undertake mountain biking”. Taken nationally, that would suggest that there are 4.25 million mountain bikers in the UK, which leads us to wonder where they’re all hiding. Apparently 1.3 million mountain bikers live within a four-hour drive of Innerleithen, and while we’d love to believe that, we can’t help thinking that that figure relies on a somewhat loose definition of “mountain biker”. Focussing on the definite enthusiasts reveals that downhillers would use a lift at Innerleithen an impressive 23 times a year on average, although it’s not clear whether a “time” means a day or if, say, a week-long trip counts as only one “time”.

Anyway, the upshot of the research is a projection of 95,000 MTBers per year, plus 30,000 sightseers. With visitor numbers at Wales’s Coed y Brenin centre apparently running at 100,000 a year (roughly half mountain bikers), a total of 125,000 at a unique-in-the-UK lift-assisted centre doesn’t seem all that implausible, however optimistic the numbers used to make the projection look.

Of course, what you really want to know is how much all this is going to cost you. The suggested pricing has single-journey tickets at £7, day passes at £25 summer and £23 winter, weekend tickets £45 summer/£40 winter and season passes £235 summer and £185 winter. To put that into perspective, the current vehicle uplift costs £30/day and we’d imagine would struggle to get as many runs in as a chairlift. A pass for the Nevis Range gondola is £19/day, but there’s only one run down (albeit a pretty stonking one).

These are all ballpark numbers, though. The next stage of the proposal is to make more detailed plans from which decent capital and operating cost estimates can be made. Only then will it be possible to make a decision as to whether the whole idea is viable at all. The new bike park plan is described as being “fully commercial”, which suggests that it’s supposed to pay for itself although clearly it’s going to need some substantial funding to get off the ground in the first place. Assuming that all the numbers stack up, a planning application would be made in summer of this year, an operator signed up in 2009, the chairlift running in 2010 and all the new trails completed by 2013.

The benefits to the local economy of such a scheme are the usual – bringing in money, raising the profile of the area, boosting inward investment. The benefits to mountain bikers are pretty clear, although some observers are concerned that such a substantial investment in one area risks sucking the available funds away from the rest of the country. But it’s hard not to see an extensive trail network served by a high-speed chairlift being hugely popular. We’d be there like a shot…


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