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The State of Gravel Cycling in Ireland

All across the world gravel is growing at a vast rate, with new races and routes appearing constantly, yet here, on our wonderful little island, we are going backwards. This post discusses the absolute state of gravel cycling in Ireland.

The Current Situation

As things stand gravel riding is effectively illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Specifically, cycling on the 9000+km of forest roads that are managed on our behalf by Coillte is illegal.

My view is that this is unfair and unreasonable. In spite of this ban these roads are currently used by thousands of cyclists and that, rather than try to stifle the growing interest in off-road cycling, Coillte should embrace and facilitate it. Sure there may be some issues, but ultimately the greater good is served by allowing open access to cyclists.

“A person shall not use on Coillte lands any vehicle, cycle, skateboard, roller skates or blades … except (a) in such areas, (b) on such routes, … as may be designated.”

Forestry Act 1988 (Section 37) (Coillte Teoranta) bye-laws 2009

Now this is not a new development, the bye-law prohibiting cycling was introduced back in 2009. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning was behind the clause banning cycling, but it’s unlikely that gravel riding was the intended target given that gravel didn’t exist as an established discipline at that time.

However, mountain biking very much did and my best guess is that the clause was designed to manage mountain biking on unsanctioned trails rather than cycling on the forest roads.

Given that there are thousands of forests with multiple access points the bye-law is practically impossible to enforce.  And since gravel riding has emerged I haven’t heard of anyone been prevented from cycling the forest roads. I’m not sure if this is because Coillte have turned a blind eye or just felt they have no choice in the matter.

Not just Gravel

A really important thing to note is is that this isn’t just about a bunch of bike dads wanting somewhere to cycle their expensive new toys on Sunday mornings.
 
The forest road network offers a massive opportunity for people of all ages and abilities to cycle in a much safer environment than the public roads. They are effectively traffic-free and practically any bike will suffice.
 
Our forests should be a place where kids can learn to cycle and for families to enjoy; for any one on any bike.

A little background on Coillte

Coillte is a semi-state company that was founded in 1989. It is owned by the state and manages 4,450 square kilometres of forest which is approximately 7% of the country. They are the state’s largest landowner.

They operate 260 recreational forests, 3,000km of walking trails, 12 forest parks and six mountain bike centres. Coillte has an Open Forest Policy which permits access on foot to virtually all of their forest estate, however this doesn’t apply to cycling.

One of Coillte’s objectives is to increase the proportion of their estate that is manged primarily for nature from 20% to 30% by 2025 and in the long-term increase that to 50%.

Cycling in Ireland and the omitted gravel routes

When I was working on the first edition of my guidebook Cycling in Ireland back in 2017 I was keen to add a number of off-road/easy mountain bike/gravel routes and I had several discussions with Coillte about doing so. Initially I was met with enthusiasm, but ultimately nothing came of it. This left me with no choice but to omit the proposed routes.
 
Last year I updated Cycling in Ireland with the intention of adding twenty routes to the second edition, most of which were going to be on gravel, on the basis that it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission. However, after talking to a number of people close to the situation I decided, again, to omit the routes on Coillte property. Don’t be put off buying a copy though, it’s still deadly.
 
This was disappointing on a number of levels: the routes are really great, some of the best spins of any sort I have ever done; I had put a lot of energy into them it represented a waste of my time; and most importantly we have this crazy situation where we aren’t allowed cycle on these routes, yet we all do, we just can’t tell anyone about it.
 

Talks with Coillte

On the foot of the disappointment of having to pull some excellent routes from the second edition of Cycling in Ireland I got in touch with Coillte and asked could we (an interested TD and I) meet to discuss the issue.
 
I was quite confident that we could convince them to allow wider access, it seems like such a no-brainer, but after the discussion it was clear that it wasn’t going to be so easy at all.
 
Coillte’s position seems to be that cycling on the forest roads isn’t compatible with how they are used currently – by walkers and forestry vehicles. My position is that shared use would absolutely work, while acknowledging that if cyclists aren’t respectful of other users then certainly there could be issues. However, these issues would be between third parties, I don’t understand how Coillte could be held responsible for an accident between recreational users.
 
More meetings followed and Cycling Ireland got involved and seemed very engaged with the issue and committed to finding a solution.  During these discussions Coillte raised two specific related issues that they saw as barriers to granting cyclists wider access – liability and insurance.
 
In my opinion the real issue is that Coillte doesn’t have a strong recreational remit, they are focused on the downsides of wider access without taking into account the significant benefits that such access would offer. The details of liability and insurance are solvable.
 

Occupiers’ Liability Act

Shortly after the initial meeting the Occupiers’ Liability Act was amended. This was a very welcome and significant development and the timing was excellent.
 
The amended act provides a better balance between the rights of occupiers and the duty of care owed to visitors, trespassers and recreational users.  The update has been welcomed as a positive one for landowners.

“Overall, these reforms rebalance the duty of care in favour of landowners and occupiers, giving greater protection to both private and public landowners. This should provide assurance to landowners, and encourage those with recreational activity on their land to continue to facilitate access. Less worry for landowners should help improve access for hillwalkers and climbers [and cyclists].”

Mountaineering Ireland statement link

The Gravel Event Ban

Just before Christmas Coillte introduced, with immediate effect, a ban on all gravel events on Coillte property. This was a massive spanner in the works for a number of established events as well as several new events that were planned for 2024. The reasoning given was that “the activity is not permitted on the general forest network”.

This ban has far-reaching consequences for the promotion of gravel cycling and the wider cycling community as well as the localities that benefited from the business generated by these events.

A number of events have been affected, notably:

  • Gravel Grinder West was forced to change its plans, offering just one modified route instead of four variations.
  • Galway Gravel Grinder had no choice but to cancel its 2024 event. See their post on Facebook.
  • The Gravel Race Series, run by Biking.ie, which has planned three events in Wicklow, the Slieve Blooms and Limerick that seem, at this point, to be unlikely to happen.
  • Rebellion Gravel is a very new interesting event set to be held in Cork over a weekend in late August. Fortunately, it will be able to go ahead in spite of the Coillte ban.

These are just some of the major events that have been affected by this policy, there must be many other smaller events that can’t go ahead as well.

I’m not sure what the motivation behind this decision was. It seems strange that they, amid discussion about widening gravel access, suddenly turn around and ban all gravel events. I suspect that they felt that the gravel scene was gathering momentum and the time to halt it was now.

What could be?

The real shame is that Ireland has such great potential to become a major destination for gravel cycling. We are the least-densely populated country in Western Europe and we have the largest network of roads per head in the EU. A combination that means we have no shortage of quiet roads running through quiet countryside. A dream combination for most cyclists.

To bemoan the lack of joined up thinking is a serious cliche, however I don’t that’s reason enough not to expect the people running the country to understand and take into account the bigger picture. Opening up cycling access offers huge benefits in many different areas including tourism, health, road safety and recreation.

Many of the roads in our 100,000km network are wonderful winding boreens that offer a fairly unique opportunity for virtually traffic-free cycling. These road, many of which are pretty rough and would be considered tracks in other countries, make their way through beautiful countryside.

Combining them with Coilte’s forest roads would create vast scope for gravel, bike-touring/bikepacking and general recreational cycling.

This network could be documented, routes formalised and then marketed to locals and visitors alike.

That’s the goal.

“….in Ireland the length of local roads per capita is by far the highest of the EU….”

Road infrastructure in Europe: Road length and its impact on road performance link

What’s Next?

I’m haven’t heard of any developments since the last meeting I attended, but apparently discussions are ongoing between Coillte and Cycling Ireland. I could imagine these talks dragging on for a while before they reach any sort of conclusion.

I had met with my local TD, who is also a minster, a few weeks ago. They were very engaged with this issue and quite optimistic that a solution can be found. Efforts are ongoing on this front.

I think it is fair to say that Coillte are unlikely to have a sudden change of attitude towards this issue. In my opinion the only way to change their minds is through political pressure and I feel that now is the time to exert this pressure given that the Occupiers’ Liability Act is freshly amended and that there is an election coming up. So if you happen to be talking to your local TD then raise the issue or you could possibly send them an email explaining the situation.

The Solution?

Obviously the goal is to convince Coillte to grant access to all their forest roads for cyclists. However, I acknowledge that there may be some forests that aren’t suitable, for example those where there is intensive logging ongoing or some of the more urban forests which see large numbers of walkers. 

How could this be implemented? Funnily enough the answer lies in a Coillte document from 2012, the Off-Road Cycling Strategy, which lays out in some detail a very satisfactory approach. The document introduces a concept called Forest Cycling Areas (FCAs) which are forests where cycling on the roads would be permitted on an informal shared basis.

“there is scope to designate some forest areas to cater for demand for areas away from vehicle traffic (i.e. public roads) for cycling. These will be informal but designated areas for cycling and there will be no waymarked routes and no trail construction in these forests. They will not be exclusively used for cycling; rather that cycling will be just another recreational use of that forest.”

Off-Road Cycling Strategy, 2012

The document describes the signage that would be placed at the entrance to warn users that the area is multi-use and to remind cyclists of their responsibilities. It then lists a number of very reasonable criteria that a forest must meet to be considered as a FCA. These are listed below:

  • The forest should not be a high-use recreational forest already under pressure from many other recreational groups.
  • Forests with many developed looped or long-distance walks should not be considered. Similarly, where arrangements exist with groups to maintain the forest or other trails within the forest, consideration must be given to these in the first instance.
  • The topography should be relatively gentle rather than challenging – forest cycling areas are intended to provide for cyclists with lower levels of experience in the outdoors.
  • Forests with forecasted high levels of operations over the ten year period following the proposal should not be considered.
  • Consider likely ways that cyclists could use the forest and the likely routes they would take. Descents on forest roads should be avoided but where unavoidable, should be mitigated by long clear sightlines and through use of warning signage – cyclists cautioned to control their speed, etc…. Any walking trails within the forest that do not allow for safe dual-use should be marked for walking use only.

Finally, the document goes on to say that “Proposals for sites to be designated as Forest Cycling Areas will be assessed by the Recreation Unit in Coillte”.

To date, twelve years after the publication of the strategy, there are zero of these FCAs.

And while it is disappointing that this strategy hasn’t been implemented, it is encouraging that it exists.

Three Rock Books