The reality of running a mountain bike park
There's no way Tim Browne envisioned owning a mountain bike park ten years ago, for he was most likely making shapes on his board in a snow park on the other side of the planet.
Over time the travelling and injuries associated with chasing a career in snowboarding took its toll and he returned home to establish a more stable career in IT, be closer to family and start one of his own.
Winter sports like boarding and skiing cross over nicely to mountain biking, so with little surprise Tim found stoke on two wheels. Conveniently, this sport doesn't require long haul flights to participate.
As with many endeavours the premise was simple. He liked to ride and had access to land, so naturally he started to build trails. Fast forward a few years and the first bike park in the region opened to the public.
I started my New Zealand adventure in Wellington, and after riding many of the local spots it became clear jumping wasn't really a thing here. In a 50/01 NZ video was a bike park with features and a lot of jumps that looked like a lot of fun. After a little research I learned this was Dirt Farm, which was only an hour up the road! I had to go.
Dirt Farm wasn't officially open at the time I messaged but Tim saw, from my Facebook photo of Crabapple, that I was keen for some jumps and he kindly invited me over for a session.
I ended up staying for a couple of days before heading north and then, four months later, returned after Crankworx. Unfortunately the autumnal weather blocked my big air plans on Sky Burial, but I did find 30 minutes in this busy mans schedule to get the lowdown on Dirt Farm.
From my days on the farm it was clear that both building a bike park as well as running it as a business was no easy feat, especially while also working full time and being a husband and father. In truth I struggled to comprehend the time, stress and shear amount of work it took to work these two jobs, and doing so alongside a family life blew my mind.
I asked Tim why he opened a bike park, what it took, the crazy experiences he's had, lessons learned and what he hopes for the future.
Here's what he had to say about owning a bike park.
Photo: Lake Wanaka
‘I'd be up at 5 in the morning, worked through till 8, got to work then afterwards jumped back on - seven days a week.’
What is Dirt Farm?
At the moment Dirt Farm is a boutique mountain bike park. We have 13 trails from grade 1 through to grade 6 (beginner to pro level).
What we want it to be is a mountain bike and dirt riding training venue for any level of rider so you can get better and better until you're the best you can be - catering for everyone from beginners to pros and producing some of the worlds best riders.
Where did the idea come from to build a bike park?
It all came about because I wanted a digger and I rode mountain bikes. That was about it and from there things got out of control!
How did you get into mountain bikes then, because you were a snowboarder?
I was looking for another sport you could do that was more accessible that you can do all year round. And the nice thing about NZ is you can do it all year round.
We have some good boarding and skiing in New Zealand but it's never going to be on par with the Northern Hemisphere, whereas our mountain biking is, if not better in cases.
When did you start building tracks?
I began digging my first track bout 2 and a half years ago. It took us a wee while as I had no idea what I was doing. Finished off the first track, which was Toilet Bowel, and then had a few friends come up and from there Liam pitched in and before you know it we had dug another three trails and then a couple years later we ended up with the 13 trails we have at the moment.
You've had quite a few well known riders come through right?
Yeah we've had a few come through. I think the nice thing about Dirt Farm is, compared to many other places in New Zealand, we have a focus on jumps. We have singletrack too and some very technical tracks, but what we've become known for especially in the region of Wellington, which doesn't have much in the way of jump features, is a place to ride jumps. Given that we have both small and very large jumps, it attracts that higher level of rider.
When did you open?
Two and a half months ago, at the start of February 2019. At the moment we're just running ride sessions at the weekend but eventually we'd like to scale up and look at how we can support riders, like coaching sessions and group camps to introduce that social element to riding which is so important to becoming a better rider.
Has there been a local scene building up around Dirt Farm?
Yes, we're starting to get a bit more publicity. One of the things I under estimated was marketing and social media - how you get your name out there. But I think the longer we're open the more people we get people here enjoying riding bikes, and the more the word spreads and the more people we see coming through the gates.
What were the biggest challenges in setting up and opening a bike park?
Time and the amount of money. As an individual with no funding and having a full time job, I'd be up at 5 in the morning, worked through till 8, got to work then afterwards jumped back on - seven days a week.
It was two or two and a half years of constant work to be able to build a bike park. Money would probably solve that if you had someone writing cheques for you as you wouldn't have to work and could build during the day.
One of the biggest hurdles was trying to achieve what we wanted to achieve, which was more than just build and open a bike park, but being a place where people can come and hang out, and through that social interaction become better riders and generally enjoy their time more. So we tried to work out how to structure things so Dirt Farm was open to the public, in that way, but also able to sustain itself.
How did you stay motivated during all of that?
I have no idea. It was exhausting! I think my wife found it even more exhausting purely for having to support someone and be there and do all the organising, which was harder than just digging a trail. But at the end of the day when you have a dream you have to dig for it.
It's a family affair isn't it?
The land was originally bought by my parents, and then they sub divided it. Then me and my wife bought a house up here.
A lot of the work gets done by the whole family - the consenting process that goes through the council was done by my mum, the ground maintenance, planning and financial forecasting was done by my dad. Then we sit down and come up with the ideas and then Carina will be the one who implements those and hires them and makes sure the systems are in place for those people to get paid, and all I have to do is dig!
How did your family react when you first mentioned the idea (of opening a bike park)?
It didn't just happen over night. When you have a block of land the idea of having large numbers of people passing through is a little daunting, but if you want your home to be sustainable with a block of land as big as this you need some way of generating an income off of it.
So we've come to realise it's a necessity and now it's just a matter of making sure it works for us as a family and the people up here, and making sure what we're creating is in line with what the dream was.
Have things gone as expected since opening?
Yes, maybe not as busy... We're definitely no where near a sustainable level of people coming up here yet but we're getting there.
I think a lot of that came down to not having the experience and marketing and publicity but it's definitely grown, so we hope that over time it grows into what we need to be able to keep it open.
Must have been a big learning curve, what lessons have you learned?
Do it once and do it well!
This is one of the biggest things I've learned, because I didn't know how to build a mountain bike trail before here, so a lot of the work we've had is re-building things. So getting that right and gaining the skills behind building a trail right the first time has been a massive learning curve.
In terms of the bike park as a whole, making sure you get a plan clearly outlined before starting work, so you know what your requirements are from a legislative point of view - is very important.
We hit the ground digging, but we could have got a lot more support if we'd had a clearer idea from the start and communicated that more clearly. Especially to neighbours and the council, so they knew what we wanted to achieve before we started, that would have made our lives a lot easier.
Pro jump lines
Sky Burial, our big jump line, has been an ongoing project and always will be, as it takes constant tweaking to get it right and make sure it is evolving in a way that keeps people interested.
How did it that line come about?
Me and Liam were up here with the digger one day and we built a big jump, jumped it then built another big jump, jumped that and then we built another one and I was like 'I'm not jumping that jump' (laughs).
It took off from there and before you know it you have a trail that's a kilometre and a half long and has 17 seven metre plus jumps in it.
Where do you get inspiration for tracks and features?
Liam summed it up perfectly when he said 'we should make all our trails like video games, like 1980s video games like Mario Brothers, where there's something around every corner.'
So most of our trails are aimed for a beginner or intermediate rider, yet a pro level rider can ride down that same trail and have just as much fun. So it's a matter of yeah, always thinking like a video game.
Worst aspects of running a bike park?
Time. There's never enough time.
The idea that it takes two years to build a business, well with a mountain bike park the reality is it takes two years to build it and then two years to build the business.
That entire time you're basically working two very demanding jobs. That's the worst part because you don't personally get to enjoy your creation. But that said when you're here and you see people smiling and you're driving the (uplift) trucks and you see people having a good time it makes it worthwhile, and reminds you why you did it in the first place.
Have there been any surprising or unexpected outcomes?
Since we've opened the amount of support we've had has been amazing. From the get go we've had some very talented photographers and trail builders come here.
Dirt Farm isn't just about riding, it's about supporting creativity. It means you end up having things come out of people and you end up surrounded by creative people and creativity in general, cause everyone's got it within them - it comes out in lashings and that's a lovely thing.
Our local car dealership HMC Kapiti. The owners were kind enough to give us a car, which is amazing and you don't expect things like that to happen.
Having some of the better riders in the world come up here means you get to see that side you wouldn't normally see if you just went to a bike park anywhere else.
What are some of the craziest things you've seen here?
Oh there's been a few! A local rider tried to backflip one of our very large step ups (8-10 meters tall and 8-10 meters long). Seeing him trying that on a brakeless bike was um, interesting.
There's been some phenomenal riders here but one of the nicest things is when you see someone come up who's an intermediate rider and they ride a trail and come out the bottom saying 'ooh that's harder than I thought it would be, that one feature...' But by the end of the day they conquer way more than they ever thought they could.
A lot of that is to do with the social interaction from riding with others in small numbers and being pushed just that little bit. But also being encouraged to step back when you think you're outside of your comfort zone and being okay with that, that's quite nice - seeing that evolution in someones riding in just a day.
Have you found it inspiring being around top level riders?
Yes definitely. I think from my point of view the idea of seeing a pro rider and trying to work out what the evolution is for your beginner level rider - how do you get them to that point and how do you get them better.
That's the inspiration - seeing what's possible on a bike and then working out how you can help get others to that level, or just better.
So you've had some interesting media projects...
We've had a few - a couple of our own filmers, and some of the bigger bike teams have come through, as well as some internationally well known individuals come up and film.
We build things for them. They come up, tell us their dream line, then we build it and they film it. The process is interesting and fun to be a part of.
It's also in the spirit of what Dirt Farm is about - taking the creativity that's in everyone and creating a bike park that's full of all these ideas. A feature that's built by one person will be totally different than one built by someone else, but they're all in the same spot and ridable by everyone.
What are your future plans?
We're looking to see how we can take Dirt Farm and expand it and turn it into the training facility we want it to be. So we're seeing how we can get the money to develop the progressive features, things like air bags, and also filming technology, to help us put together a place that has the trails and features that will help people progress.
Also working out how to put together the systems to help people progress to whatever level they want to achieve. So creating the place, the features, the people and the technology to achieve that.
Lots of new tracks and features are planned, so there're heaps of new stuff on the go!
What advice would you give to someone opening a bike park?
I reckon find a sugar mummy or sugar daddy and do it that way - it would make it much easier!
We've had a few people in that position who have asked us that. The advice I give to them is first to find out what your requirements are for your block of land in regards to legislation and the council. If we'd known what we were gonna build we would have approached it different and would have got a lot more support early on.
Then deciding what kind of trails you want to build. By deciding that early you can plan it out and best utilise your block of land.
People! The more people you can get involved the easier it will be. Not just from a physical point of view but also from a thinking point of view. The more brains you have thinking over a problem or contributing to a trail, the more varied and fun and it will be, and the easier it's going to be for you to create.
The red tape, although it seems daunting and that you can short cut it - in reality it's there for a reason and by ticking it off foremost you know what you can and can't do. Because Dirt Farm evolved over time and originally it wasn't commercial, it meant that when we did make it commercial we had a lot of logistical problems. If we'd started with that in mind and clearly identified what we had waned to do, which isn't always possible and wasn't for us, then we would have known what these logistical problems were and dealt with them early on.
Oh god there were heaps! People crashing, people having a good laugh, there's tons.
Back when we first started and built our first trail, when we finally finished it - we decided that was the day we'd celebrate after a lot of hard work. That was a great memory because it was a good fun day and we got to sample what we'd been trying to create for so long.
And of course getting consent to operate as a business after going through the process for a year, getting that piece of paper was exciting.
It must have been good for your own progress as well, building features you were scared of?
Yeah, but this is the other thing. Originally I rode three hours a day but the reality of working and building a bike park is I haven't ridden a mountain bike for two years... That's the reality for anyone considering doing it.
From a progressive point of view, to realise what we want to create takes time, but you just have to persist with it to see it into fruition, and eventually you'll get a chance to ride the progressive features and it will benefit your own riding.
Has having a bike park changed your perception of mountain biking and the mountain bike scene?
It's made me look at where mountain biking is going and how the different genres within dirt riding tie in together.
Dirt jumping tends to be very focussed on giving before you receive, whereas in mountain biking it tends to be that there are a key few who do a lot of trail development and a lot more who ride, so I think it's about taking that dirt jumping mentality and bringing it into mountain biking.
At the end of the day it's (trail building) socially more rewarding, so if you can encourage people to actually be part of the digging...
At the same time if you look at dirt jumping it's quite exclusive, as you tend to ride and dig in a small crew, whereas with mountain biking because it doesn't have that there's more social interaction outside of your group.
So taking little bits from each genre and bringing them together to make dirt riding about giving a little to get a little back, and meeting more people - I think that's what I've taken out of it.
So you've made some good friends through all this?
Definitely. We've met some amazing people aye. I think that's a big bonus with having a place where people come and ride and can contribute.
It means that in our lives we always have new and wonderful people coming through and I'd say that's the nicest thing about having a mountain bike park. It's definitely a good way of meeting people!
Any big thanks and shoutouts?
Everyone who has helped us along the way, whether that's Liam originally, or Dirt Merchants - a shop in Wellington who gave us our first support by pointing people in our direction.
Monty Baxter who has gone above and beyond to create content for us and is the master mind behind some of the productions and edits we've put out.
HMC Kapiti for giving us a car! Support we've had from the council - some of the councillors and representatives have been amazing.
Local business owners who have leant us equipment and taught us skills we didn't know like fencing.
There have been so many people who have contributed in so many different ways as we've evolved.
Of course the family goes without saying for being there the whole way through this. Over the best part of two years they've been through a lot of ups and downs, so to still be here and working together is massive.
Has it brought you (the family) closer together?
At times (laughs), at other times further apart! I think like with everything.
We're building infrastructure and then building a business, and it's a stressful thing to be around so the fact we are still here and doing it as a team is quite amazing.