New hometown, new trails
By Jonathan Hodge
When I found out about the move to Hong Kong, one of the first things I did was open Google and search for mountain biking.
OK, it was the first thing I did.
It was early 2016 when we found out my wife had been offered the job. Leaving my job wasn’t an issue. I’d been ready to go for some time. Living an eleven-hour flight away from my family and friends, that was giving some pause. Still, the single biggest thing I was worried about was would I be able to ride?
I didn’t know much about Hong Kong. My picture was pretty cliché, a busy city with many people crammed into not much space. Big city living, luxury shops, office blocks and tiny apartments. A skyline of 40 story buildings and not much else.
Hong Kong would prove to have all those things. It is, after all, the fourth most densely populated region in the world. In some places, there are over 50,000 people per square kilometre.
But what Hong Kong had that I didn’t expect was the vast amount of green space. The territory is approximately 1000 square kilometres. About 45% is designated as Country Park. With that stock of land and hundreds of kilometres of trails, the locals are avid hikers.
No surprise that my search uncovered the existence of a handful of mountain bike trails. If you want an excellent introduction to Hong Kong trails, check out Hans Rey’s recent film, Trans Hong Kong.
Hong Kong trails … a new challenge
I was born in New Zealand, and I’ve been mountain biking on and off there since I was a kid. I was used to consistent trails with a smooth, progressive learning curve. Ride a blue route, and it will be a blue trail the whole way. So Hong Kong trails took some getting used to.
I was unfit and a little nervous about my first ride in Hong Kong. Meeting the local mountain bike association at the trailhead meant I needed transport. That meant I had to hire a van and driver to get there. I’ve gotten used to this part of Hong Kong riding, but I still miss just getting in my car.
The ride started well. Our first trail was a zig-zag collection of flowing switchbacks—nicely packed dirt punctuated by roots and rocks. Named HM’s Entrance, after the designer, it is still one of the few purpose-built trails on the hill.
The Ho Pui contour trail, which HM’s links to, is another thing altogether. It’s rated double black on trail forks and one of the oldest, busiest routes on the hill. As a significant link trail, pretty much every rider ends up navigating it regularly.
The first time I rode this trail, a section that now takes me 20 minutes took an hour. The thing that makes the contour a challenge is the variability. This intermediate XC trail is regularly interrupted by advanced rocky sections. In places, you risk a 4-metre drop into a creek bed if you choose the wrong line. This inconsistency makes Hong Kong a challenging place to ride.
That first ride was a bit of a shock, but these odd, janky trails were definitely mountain biking. As time passed, I realised that there were many places to ride if you knew where to look. I did quickly switch to flats after a few unscheduled trips into a rocky creek bed.
Hong Kong trails … Some history
When you look at how the older trails came to be, it makes more sense. In the early 1990s, mountain biking was banned in Hong Kong’s country parks. After a big push by the local association, the government opened up some routes to mountain bikes.
Totalling 100km, it was a mixed bag. Some were existing trails designed for hiking and shared with other users. Essential work was done to adapt dangerous sections for bikes. But they were still rocky and challenging. And worse, punctuated by areas that needed most riders to walk.
Sadly, most of the 100km was paved access roads that make gravel fire roads look technical. Even now, these roads are still considered part of the trail stock.
In time, advocates made progress with the government bodies. The result was the construction of HM’s entrance and Tin Man (purpose-built blue flow trail). These trails are bike-only and help link the older hiking trails together.
Five years after my first ride, many parts of those trails have become much more challenging. Hong Kong’s has a tropical climate. For 6 months of the year, temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius, humidity is over 80%. When it rains, it pours and trails decay quickly here.
Despite a lot of work by dedicated locals and the park managers, the decay continues. Given enough time, a green trail in Hong Kong will slowly fade to black.
Meanwhile, deeper in the jungle …
In the early days, I was often unsure if I was riding a legal route or not. Even now, there are a few regular trails that I’m not sure are legal despite seeing a lot of traffic. But given its history, it makes sense that Hong Kong has a lot of unsanctioned trail building. There is much debate worldwide about unsanctioned trails. Yet, they fill a need that the legal tracks don’t—a challenge for advanced riders.
In 1998 a Hong Kong rider, Brian Cook, won bronze in the Asian Games. When asked where he trained by the media, he had to explain that he’d had to ride illegally to prepare for the race. The government, who were keen to celebrate the achievement of a local sportsman, lost face. This did lead to the opening of more trails, but the unsanctioned building continued.
Busiest on Saturday (shuttle day), these unsanctioned routes are hand-built, technical trails. They are filled with steep chutes, rock gardens and drops. These tracks are deep in the jungle and lost in the undergrowth. They are often far from emergency access. This causes trouble when a new rider inevitably wraps themselves around a tree.
The negative view of mountain bikes has subsided on the legal trails. Not so much on the unsanctioned routes. Every week riders are still dodging the AFCD to avoid fines and court appearances.
New trail development
Until recently, I would have said Hong Kong riding was lacking good trails for learners. Anyone who has mastered places like the North Shore would adapt quickly. But, for beginner and intermediate riders, there’s a steep learning curve.
Thanks to the consistent effort of the HKMBA, change is beginning to happen. The latest addition to the trail stock, the Mui Wo bike park, has changed that. It has started to bridge the gap between the beginner trails and the rest of Hong Kong’s network.
We aren’t talking about a lift-served bike park with lots of elevation or a massive collection of trails. The park has a small, well-built selection of green and blue trails. They’ve built them so that even advanced riders can find fun in them. There is a skills area, a set of dirt jumps and even an asphalt pump track. If you want more challenge, you can drop down to the coast on the more advanced downhill.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Hong Kong if they didn’t build the beginners trails at the top of a steep hill. It’s also on Lantau Island in an area primarily accessible by ferry. Driving is possible but requires permits. Not that riding anywhere in Hong Kong is quite as simple as it ever was at home.
These trails are needed. The last few years have seen real growth in mountain biking in Hong Kong. In these times of COVID, lockdowns and restrictions, one of the only things left to do with your day in Hong Kong is ride. The number of people riding has ballooned. Yet, the sport is still under-resourced in term of trails and riding spaces.
Hong Kong is yet to recognise the sport’s growth and the potential profit of being a riding destination. World over, we have seen the effect of mountain biking on local economies. Hong Kong is right in the middle of South-East Asia. The greater region has little in the way of developed riding, but the community is growing fast. Hong Kong is a big city with a lot of infrastructure. It could quickly become a destination for riding.
Despite the challenges, the riding community in Hong Kong are an optimistic bunch. It’s a pretty diverse scene with multiple languages in play. Still, no matter if you can communicate or not, everyone is pretty stoked.
Unlike many places, the local hikers are pretty friendly. Many will murmur with awe as you pick your way past them on the narrow rocky trails. Some even shout an encouraging ‘ga yau, ga yau’. This literally translates to ‘add oil’ but roughly means go for it or give it some gas.
The secret trails have pushed my limits. The challenging weather has taught me to take hydration seriously. I’ve massively improved my skills when faced with slippery rocks and wet roots. The effort to connect good trails into any kind of route has made me fitter and, I’ve even learned to enjoy the climb.
I’ve heard local riders say, ‘if you can ride Hong Kong, you can ride anywhere. I’m sure that statement is bolstered by more than a little local pride. Still, the challenges available here are far beyond what I expected 5 years ago. The mutated hiking trails, jungle chutes and rocky horrors have a charm of their own and one I’ve come to love.
Looking back, moving here has been great for my riding skills. Here in Hong Kong, I’ve had to face challenges that I might have avoided on tracks at home.
I’ve found myself seeking out more challenging trails. I’m taking the full face and pads out more often and feeling my confidence grow. I’ve developed a massive soft spot for Hong Kong trails and, when the day comes to leave, I’ll miss them.