Downturn in economic cycle sees farmers turn to mountain bikes

Future Proof: Bike Park Ireland

Graham Kenny on  one of thetrails at the family farm near Roscrea

Graham Kenny on one of thetrails at the family farm near Roscrea

 

Mountain biking is gathering fans at speed in Ireland. One man who’s hoping to cash in on the trend is Graham Kenny, who has set up a bike park with six downhill trails at the 450-acre family farm near Roscrea, Co Tipperary.

It’s a canny move for a family-run business that has been tempting tourists to one of Ireland’s lesser-visited regions for many years, and also one borne out of necessity after the recession forced the family to diversify away from farming.

Fairymount Farm, which has been in the family since 1870, was once dominated by horse breeding, sheep farming and tillage. The family continues to breed national hunt horses which are sold as three- and four-year-olds for racing both here and in England. Over the years, however, it has also branched out into organic farming, forestry development and, of course, tourism.

“My mother and father, John and Linda, first started trying to get the tourists in about 25 years ago when they began converting cottages on the farm into self-catering units and established a number of nice walks on the grounds. We have an exceptionally lovely farm with great views of the Knochshegowna Hill, a lovely lake and native oak woods,” said Graham.

“Rather than going down the typical farming route of knocking down all the trees and hedgerows in order to expand fields, they took a different approach by opening up the place to the public and, while it took a bit of time to get known we’ve been attracting tourists here ever since.”

The farm is also now the location for one of Ireland’s first dedicated mountain bike parks. It has purpose-built trails for everyone from beginners to professionals that have been created by well-known biker, designer and trail builder Rowan Sorrell.

In addition to the tracks, bikers are transported up to the top of the trails on an army truck.

As Graham is the first to acknowledge, the decision to establish the bike park 2½ years ago came about by chance.

Ramblers

“We were also hit badly during the recession because it is very costly to produce national hunt horses and we found that it was difficult getting a good price for them. We felt we had no option other than to try something new, so when a local guy approached us and asked if we’d consider building a track because there was nothing like it in this part of the country, we decided we’d give it a go.”

At the time Graham and his wife Cassandra were also busy establishing a separate company called First Steps Forever that specialised in picture framing. Having secured €30,000 in investment from entrepreneur Gavin Duffy after appearing on Dragons’ Den, the family weren’t sure whether setting up a dedicated bike trail on the farm would amount to much, but were pleasantly surprised when it became popular.

“We started by building two tracks ourselves and advertising it primarily on Facebook. It attracted bikers straight away because, while it’s only taking off here in Ireland over the past year or two, it has been massively popular in places like Canada, Wales and mainland Europe, and so there was a real buzz about it.

“We tweaked things after getting feedback from bikers because, though we were new to it, we wanted to make sure we got it right.

“After a while we were advised that if we wanted to take it further we needed professionally-designed tracks, so we got in touch with Rowan Sorrell about setting up a proper bike park here a short while after we got going.

Six trails

He admits that the family has had to spend a lot to get the bike park established, particularly as it had to close down the farm for a number of months to facilitate its development. There will also need to be further investments in terms of marketing to get the park known, but the Kennys believe the business will prove to be a success.

“We’re getting a lot of repeat business and a lot of interest from companies looking to come down for away-days.

“We love the people we’re dealing with and I’m convinced that we’re going to do well.

“Ireland is at least 10 years behind the rest of Europe in seeing mountain biking as a good tourism draw, but I’m hoping that in being one of the first to market with Bike Park Ireland will see us setting the standard.”

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