COVID-19 brings Comox Valley mountain biking to a standstill

Justin Waddell / April 9, 2020

Cumberland’s trails can take you to beautiful scenic views. But COVID-19 has forced a near shut down of the trail network.
(Justin Waddell / BCIT)

With COVID-19 advancing and forcing businesses to shut down for protection, people living in the Comox Valley and around Vancouver Island were heading out, recreating and enjoying one of the famous sports found on the Island – mountain biking. Specifically, in Cumberland, B.C., known as Vancouver Island’s unofficial mountain biking epicentre. After an estimated 2,000 riders were counted on the weekend of March 21st and 22nd, a decision had to be made: mountain biking had to be slowed down and people had to be encouraged not to ride.

“It was a pretty big surprise to learn that no one had listened to the advice to stay in their community and it was pretty problematic that we had so many people congregating in one area.” – Dougal Browne, Executive Director United Riders of Cumberland (UROC)

Decisions

Decreased trail access along with the closure of many popular businesses has turned the bustling village of Cumberland, a mountain biking tourist destination, into a quiet community where you wouldn’t think anything is happening.

Cumberland in its normal state, without a pandemic.
(Province of BC / Flickr)

The decision to discourage mountain biking was made by the Village of Cumberland, various land owners and the United Riders of Cumberland (UROC) with recommendation of local physicians. While injuries sustained riding are low, they can take up many staff and resources at a hospital. With every patient needing to be treated as though they have COVID-19, the resources are too great to risk during a pandemic. UROC Executive Director Dougal Browne has more on the subject.

Dougal Browne riding back in February 2019, pre-COVID-19 pandemic.
(Dougal Browne)

“Every single person that was being entered into the medical system through the hospital, through the doctors, that were being physically seen at the hospital or at the doctors surgery at that time was regarded as a COVID patient.” Dougal Browne, Executive Director UROC

After Mount Washington Alpine Resort closed because of the virus, people were looking for different ways to recreate. COVID-19 wasn’t a provincial health emergency at that time and provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was encouraging people to go outdoors. Going for a bike ride in the Comox Valley often means getting on your mountain bike and riding some potentially dangerous trails. This carries greater risk than riding around your neighbourhood.

Many people were travelling not just from within the Comox Valley, but from other places further away from Cumberland, like Campbell River and Nanaimo. As cross-community transmission is difficult for doctors to track, the amount of riders accessing the trails needed to be contained.

Cumberland, riding and local industry

Owners of Comox Bike Co. with Craig Harris bottom left.
(Comox Bike Co.)

Local businesses who’ve had to shut down are feeling the loss as well. Because a lot of the tourism in the Comox Valley is mountain bike driven, the closures and loss of riding has put a lot a businesses in difficult times. Restaurants like Riders Pizza, and hostels like The Riding Fool, are all feeling the loss of industry and customers because of the virus. Bed and breakfasts and other vacation rentals have lost the vast majority of their bookings.

Bike shops have also had to take a different approach when it comes to business. With doors closed to the public, sales of clothing and other merchandise have dropped. They’re still accepting bikes for repairs and bike sales are still possible, but the pandemic will likely take a toll on these local shops.

“Any sales we’re trying to do we’re sort of doing it through our side door so that customers won’t have to enter through the side of the shop. So that’s been a bit of a challenge.” – Craig Harris, Co-Owner of Comox Bike Co.

Going forward

Mountain biking is expected to return to normal once social distancing measures have been lifted. While this will bring a boost of tourists, it’s uncertain of when the local businesses will be allowed to reopen. Dougal Browne is sure that once they’re allowed to reopen, the community will be able to help them get back to normal.

Video: A rider checks out a new feature before the pandemic called for the riding to be slowed down.

Until COVID-19 decreases in risk, tourists and riders won’t be out to send the trails hopefully for the better.