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Life Lessons from the Trail #27: People With Purpose Can Do More Than Those with Formal Mandates

A random bridge in disrepair in the Nerang Mountain Bike Park. I don't know who built it, nor do I know who maintained it - because a few rides later, someone had come out and just fixed it.

Mountain biking is one of those sports which on the surface appears to be centred around a very individual pursuit of accomplishment. For a start, generally speaking, you can't fit more than one person on a bike. As part of a riding group, other than stopping every now and then for a chat while recovering from an intense section, riding a trail is really a solo endeavour. And when it comes to competition, most events are based on individual performance rather than being team based.

The trails that we ride on are a very interesting part of mountain bike riding, in so much as a lot of people probably don't give much of a second though as to where they came from, or how they are largely maintained. They're just there - available for people to ride in many cases at no cost. But, at least on the Gold Coast, if you think they were constructed by some large formal organisation trying to increase mountain biking participation, you would be mostly wrong.

In fact, most of the original trails in Nerang's 70km plus trail network were hand dug by an assortment of individuals working together informally to create something that they and others could enjoy. And while some of the more recent trails have been coordinated through formal agencies, the ongoing maintenance of the trails largely happens to be conducted by a mysterious group of beings known as Trail Fairies.

There is in fact a formal volunteer trail maintenance organisation, the Nerang Trail Care Alliance, which holds "dig days" to perform trail maintenance once a month. But the truth is, there are a number of people who may or may not be a part of the formal trail care organisation, that work on maintaining trails well and truly in excess of the once a month. These Trail Fairies more often that not operate in small groups or even individually. However, they share something in common - a passion for the sport to the extent that they want to make sure that other riders are able to enjoy it.

This sense of purpose drives the individuals or groups of Trail Fairies to work beyond the formally mandated Trail Care maintenance sessions. Giving up their own free time for no reward other than the satisfaction of what they accomplish, the Trail Fairies often work covertly, choosing to do their work when there is little to no traffic on a particular trail so as not to interrupt the enjoyment of other riders. Often the only evidence that a Trail Fairy was recently present is when upon riding a trail you'll notice that something on the trail that was less than ideal has been repaired.

Before and after. Repairing this trail makes it easier for the beginner riders in which this trail is for, but also keeps people to the centre of the trail rather than further widening it which can impact the local surrounds.

Trail Fairies don't just repair trails to improve the riding experience for mountain bikers though. Damaged trails tend to divert riders around the issues, impacting and potentially causing additional damage to the area immediately around the trail. Through maintaining and repairing trails, Trail Fairies keep mountain bikers on the original trails, minimising our footprint in the natural ecosystem that houses a variety of flora and fauna that most riders enjoy and appreciate.

Despite not necessarily having a formal mandate or coordination of the activities that they perform, Trail Fairies seem to be able to work together without the need for formal communication to address parts of the trails that need repair, making it safer for riders while helping to protect the local environment. And while the existence of larger, formal organisations that are able to facilitate major works is helpful for a trail network, the humble and purposeful Trail Fairy really forms the backbone of mountain bike trail upkeep. Through regular and disciplined work they're able to accomplish routinely what larger organisations can sometimes struggle with - continuous improvement.

The trails aren't the only place members of the Mountain Biking Community come together with purpose to achieve an outcome. A few years ago a friend of mine mentioned that she was volunteering for an organisation that provided assistance to victims of domestic violence - Friends with Dignity. Having recently met a few people that had suffered through domestic violence, both physically and emotionally, I offered to help by organising a ride to raise some funds from the organisation. It was really just a token gesture, given that on my own I was limited to the number of people I could guide on a ride safely. But, I figured doing something was better than nothing.

The group that joined me on the fund raising ride for Friends with Dignity. More money was raised by other group rides as well who informally joined the cause that weekend.

The particular fund raising ride wasn't something that I had marketed extensively - I literally just put a post on my Facebook page a few weeks before the ride, with an offer to accept other donations. What happened next was completely unexpected. Without any formal discussion or communication, other groups joined the fund raising effort, asking people to donate for the cause on the rides occurring on that weekend. By the time the weekend was over, several thousand dollars and a few bikes donated by Giant Nerang had been raised by the informal and uncoordinated efforts of those in the mountain bike community that felt strongly enough about the purpose for which the fund raiser was for.

I'll be honest, supporting causes and organisations that help others on a more regular basis has been something that's been on my list of things to do for a while now. But with the success of the first one I "didn't" organise, I thought that if I took a more formal approach and engaged other groups a fund raising activity could have an even greater impact.

Except that it hasn't. Because the exercise of organising such an activity became so large in my head that I just figured with my normal life commitments, I just don't have the time. And yet, the last time I did it on a whim, albeit a purposeful one, I was able to help accomplish far more than what I thought was possible. Certainly far more than procrastinating and doing nothing.

My tool of choice in the background to repair some of the trail damage caused by six months of wild weather - a ridiculously small shovel. But it does fold into something that fits into my pack!

There is a simple satisfaction to be gained in focusing on purpose, the reason why we're doing something. Beyond financial rewards or even being recognised for something that you're doing, purpose can often surpass the formal structures and bureaucracy that can exist in day-to-day life activities. Because purpose can and often does serve to bind people together towards a cause or outcome that can be achieved far more effectively than any formal mandate. It doesn't require any grand gestures or extensively organised events with big, hairy audacious goals. It can be as simple as picking up a foldable, midget shovel and repairing a single meter of trail (just take that analogy to any aspect of your working or personal life).

It's not something that I expected to learn from riding a mountain bike. But hey, that's what Life Lessons from the Trails is about. And I guess I should organise another fund raising ride soon...

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Rob Burns
Rob Burns
Aug 12, 2022

Count me in for the next fundraiser

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