How much would it cost to make British Columbia a globally recognized destination for all stripes of cyclists?
According to the B.C. Cycling Coalition, the price tag is about $75 million a year. That's the number the organization is asking the province and tourism to contribute to a larger plan to grow the cycling tourism industry.
While that seems like a lot, the money would go towards everything from widening highway lanes, to improving cycle touring opportunities like the Kettle Valley, to connecting and improving mountain bike trails province-wide. Marketing is also in the budget, explained BCCC president Richard Campbell.
"When you look at the big picture, all around the province there are missing links," said Campbell. "There will be an investment of time and money to create a good route, but then it doesn't necessarily connect to where people want to go, or another existing route. And even existing facilities, which are considered world class, need to be cleaned up and better identified."
Campbell added that the Sea to Sky Highway, which was upgraded with wider shoulders for bikes, could use some improvements as well.
"Even that experience, which is becoming world famous, could be improved," he said. "There are a few areas where drains have been placed poorly, or cyclists could use a bit more room on the shoulders.
"In the Vancouver area there could be better connections to some of the bridges, and the Spirit Trail in North Vancouver (the region's version of Whistler's Valley Trail network) is being held up, and one of the challenges there is money... Until the whole thing is completed it's just not as useful as it could be."
Campbell said that no definitive study of the value of cycling to British Columbia has been completed, but he said the contribution to the tourism economy is probably higher than people think. He pointed to a recent study that suggested that cycling and cycling tourism contributed US$325 million annually to the economy in the state of Oregon alone, while a study in Quebec revealed that the province's "Route Verte" system — a network of roads and lanes covering almost 5,000 kilometres — generates $134 million in economic activity each year.
A study by the European Union determined that cycling was one of the fastest growing tourism sectors, and that cyclists spend over 44 billion euros each year. A network of lanes called the EuroVelo network is expected to generate another seven billion euros when completed.
Closer to home, a now dated study by the Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association determined that total mountain-bike visitor spending for Whistler alone was over $34 million from June 4 to Sept. 17 in 2006. Since then the resort's popularity for mountain biking has only grown, while the Sea to Sky Highway upgrades and events like the RBC GranFondo Whistler and Ironman Canada have made the area popular with road cyclists as well.
Campbell said that he's made the case for more funding for mountain biking to the current government, and has received some support from the NDP tourism critic. However, he will likely have to wait until after the provincial election on May 14 before actively promoting the BCCC proposal.
"This is something that needs to be coordinated across several ministries and needs its own place in Destination B.C.," said Campbell. "The reality is that we have cycling initiatives going on all over the province where communities have seen the value in it, but what would be really neat is coordination at the provincial level. We already have all these great trails and experiences, and I really do believe we could be the top cycling destination in the world."
Steamboat Springs bets on biking
While Whistler already enjoys a global reputation for mountain biking, there are communities that are actively investing in trails and infrastructure with the goal of taking over as the top resort in North America for fat-tire recreation.
The Steamboat Springs Trail Alliance has put forward a plan that would divert roughly 90 per cent of hotel tax revenues from the resort — roughly $600,000 each year for 10 years — to trail development.
They've already mapped out a network with 30 mountain bike trails, plus additional "core trails" similar to our Valley Trail network. Overall there are 46 trail projects on the list.
Steamboat Springs City Council will vote on whether to endorse the plan in May, and in November's municipal election the people will be asked to approve.
Meanwhile Whistler is advancing its own plans, albeit on a smaller scale than those proposed by Steamboat Springs.
The Whistler trail budget includes over $1.5 million over the next five years (2013 to 2017) to upgrade existing trails and build new routes. As well, trail development and upgrades are ongoing in areas like Lost Lake, while Whistler's portion of the Sea to Sky Trail/Trans Canada Trail was completed at the end of last year.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler created a Trails Planning Working Group last year that includes various stakeholders, including the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA), a hiking advocacy group represented by the Whistler section of the Alpine Club of Canada, Cheakamus Community Forest and Recreation Sites and Trails B.C.
The working group's major projects include $1.25 million from 2013 to 2017 for an Alpine Trail Program, which includes improvements to existing trails and the construction of new hiking and mountain bike trails extending into the alpine. The Recreation Trails Program has a budget of $50,000 per year for the next five years, which will be spent rebuilding or rerouting existing trails and improving the trail experience. As well, $45,000 has been budgeted to create a Universal Access Trail, a trail loop close to the village.
Tourism Whistler, which promotes the resort as a bike destination, supports funding for trails and cycling infrastructure.
"Tourism Whistler can't speak to trail development plans and funding, however, we are aware that many competitors — not just Steamboat — are investing in developing their mountain bike product," said Patricia Westerholm, manger of corporate communications, in an email. "Whistler has established itself as the global leader for mountain biking, not just with Whistler Blackcomb's world-class bike park, but the extensive cross-country trails, as well as the Valley Trail network. Continuing to invest in evolving our mountain bike offering is important to ensure we remain the market leader."