Trail Grades

Ahh, trail grades. The debate, the inconsistency, the headache! There are a couple of varying trail grading systems across the country that are being used in bike parks. The two primary ones being grades 1-6 (DOC) and the second system being Green to Double Black (Same as the ski industry and IMBA).

There are three areas identified for discussion this area and a preliminary introduction to all is below:

What trail grading system should be used?

Probably the primary system used in NZ is the grade 1-6 system as taken from department of Conservation. The second system and not as common in NZ, but more popular internationally is the Green to Double Black system. Skyline Rotorua runs with the international grading system and the reasoning for it was quite simple; the colours made more sense. A Black trail means an increased level of danger, whereas the blue of the DOC advanced trail has less of an impact. It was actually Disney, yes the cartoons Disney who came up with this trail grading system for a proposed ski resort in the states. Research was conducted on what effect colours had on people’s feelings of difficulty. Skyline wanted clear definition in the trails grades and Blue does not scream ‘Advanced’. Also, with a fair amount of business coming from international riders, Skyline wanted a familiar grading system. Trails are now often divided into Flow vs Technical trails, due to riders being spoken to after accidents that said they were an advanced rider but they couldn’t jump. Alternatively, some rider’s maybe great in the air but hate the technical.

This is just one take on the trail grading debate however and there will be benefits to the NZ trail grading system. Ideally moving forward within the industry, we settle on one standard.

Should we have a different trail grading system for gravity parks?

From the bike parks spoken to, from across the country the answer to this question was an overwhelming “YES”. A green trail (no matter what grading system you use) in a regular trail network as opposed to a gravity park will always ride as a different grade. Why? The answer is in the name, gravity! In a forest trail, typically if you stop pedalling and don’t brake, you will come to a stop. At a gravity park if you stop pedalling and don’t brake, your speed is going to increase. A gravity park rider, even a green one, needs to know how to control their speed by braking effectively and body position in order to negotiate a trail safely. We’re thinking Low Pressure (440), Hipster (Skyline Rotorua) and Hammy’s(Skyline QT). These compared to the likes of Tahi in Whakarewarewa forest are a completely different kettle of fish. Tahi and its equivalent are truly green trails suitable for a person with 0 mountain biking experience. Whereas a gravity park green trail, you are going to need to have a grasp on the basic mountain biking skills. This will be a key issue pushed when Worksafe look to introduce a national trail grading system.

What set assessment do we grade our trails against?

Currently, there is no assessment. When this question was posed to different operators across the country, including trail builders, there was everything from a relatively scientific approach to the “we have a look at it and just grade it what we think” approach. This has led to obvious grading differences across the country. An advanced trail in Rotorua may be considered Intermediate in Wellington or Nelson. This is an issue that needs to be resolved and Worksafe have gotten the ball rolling with a risk assessment of mountain biking and a proposed trail grading system. This is not set in concrete and they are open to feedback.

The international IMBA have a similar system being used that determines, width, fall, features, speed etc. and the resulting trail grade that is matched. We don’t think anyone would disagree that a set of guidelines to measure and grade a trail by would be an advantage. The fallout from this though is that some bike parks may end up being graded out of the beginner market when trails do not meet ‘beginner’ criteria. However, every one of us daily could find beginner riders on our intermediate and advanced trails so this standardised trail grading would arguably not affect business, should a bike park not have beginner trails on offer.

Dealing with Hot spots:

Hot spot is a term used to describe an area where you have repeat accidents. You can ignore them and say “ah well, that’s just mountain biking” or take a proactive approach to them. Brian Finestone, Whistler Bike Park was asked how many accidents on a feature before they consider changing it? His answer was surprising; “One”. Gone are the days of the “its just mountain biking”. The reason being, it’s not! If you are having accidents in the same location, there is an issue with the engineering or another factor at that location. What is just mountain biking is that people will crash, you cannot avoid that, no matter how refined your operation is. But, this should mean for an even spread across the park as the unexpected happens; slipping a pedal, just took the wrong line etc.

When you have a hot spot, it’s usually the same M.O. every time and you will continue to see injuries at that location until you alter the feature in some way. This sometimes takes a few attempts to get right and sometimes can just shift the problem up or down the track. The jump might be too boosty, too long, short, frequency of the features on the trail too close together etc. With the likelihood of bike parks and uplift operators having to complete the AA audit increasing, no auditor will look kindly on an operator who lets hot spots develop. And let’s face it, we all want our customers going home happy and if you know one area of your park is hurting people, you have a duty to do something about it.


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