Bike park land: A crash course in crippling adventure insurance

Big premiums can prove a barrier to an industry looking to expand to meet demand

Glencullen Adventure Park has 16 downhill mountain bike trails, with four more due to be opened.

Glencullen Adventure Park has 16 downhill mountain bike trails, with four more due to be opened.

 

From the mountains to the sea, they say we are blessed in this county to have so many sporting and leisurely amenities right on our own doorstep, and I skipped around the corner on Thursday afternoon to grab a takeaway coffee at a local favourite of mine.

Spanning more than 400 acres, not long ago home to rolling fairways and neatly cut greens, Glencullen Adventure Park – also known as The Gap – is now unmistakably bike park land (though complete with a designated walking trail that depending on the hour of the day or direction of the wind is also perfectly suitable for running.)

It’s easily viewed and seen from the city approach into Glencullen, the first of the seven glens that continue in near seamless succession deep into the Wicklow Mountains, on the short drop down into Dublin’s highest village, still just a 40-minute cycle back down to O’Connell Street (though it may take a bit longer to cycle up).

It’s also one of the few privately owned and operated bike parks in the country, with 16 downhill mountain bike trails, four more in near completion, ranging in increasing difficulty from intermediate to expert. Once the country fully reopens it will resume its full uplift service too, the five Ford Transit vans that carry riders and their bikes to two drop-off points at the top of the trails. For now you can pedal up the trails for just a fiver a day.

These include the Widow Maker, which starts on the edge of Ticknock Forest and cuts straight through the old ninth hole and jumps clear over what was once one of the short soft greens of Glencullen Golf Course, which after 20 years closed in the summer of 2015, despite the large catchment area of nearby Stepaside and Kilternan: the interest simply wasn’t there anymore.

There’s also the Witches Cauldron, the trail which comes down along one of the old fairways and then sweeps around with a perfect view out across Dublin Bay and the Sugarloaf. Plus the Death Grip, which corners the lake by the old fourth hole and from there races down to the large wooden clubhouse, the main piece of evidence that this place was indeed once a golf club – before it became The Gap.

It’s buzzing with activity on Thursday afternoon, in part because this time it was able to stay open throughout the Level 5 restrictions, given it’s essentially a park, and was also doing takeaway coffee from The Gap kitchen, which is run separately out of the old clubhouse, and now offers an expanded outdoor dining area just across from the main check-in and bike rental building, which formerly housed all the golf course maintenance equipment.

It’s outside here I ran into Matt Davy, the owner and all-round manager of the place, also a keen mountain biker in his own right. This tract of land has been in the family from years back (he grew up just a short way down the mountain in Ballyedmonduff) and within two years of closing the golf course, Davy had opened The Gap, the trails designed by the renowned Welsh mountain bike consultant Rowan Sorrell, the gentle gravity of the Dublin Mountains seemingly primed for a development like this (even though some people thought otherwise).

Now heading into his fifth summer of full operation, Davy tells me the biggest challenge and worry in post-pandemic times isn’t getting back to full business or indeed trying to attract any new bikers (worth of mouth alone takes care of that) but the enduring concern over the crippling insurance premiums. In that The Gap is certainly not alone.

He makes no secret of the fact they were spared any major investment in the first place: they had their (old golf) course, the club house, entrance and car park facilities; it essentially became a sort of modern adrenaline makeover. Had they needed to make the substantial investment, the soaring insurance premium might well have run them out of business already.

As it already has for some, Bike Park Ireland, in county Tipperary, closing in 2019 due to rising insurance costs, and while it’s still working on reopening, progress on the insurance front has been slow, if not stagnant. Plenty more adventure-type parks or facilities have also scaled back or closed their operations because of insurance costs alone.

Anyone using The Gap has to sign a waiver of liability and acceptance of all the risks that come with what is by definition and nature an extreme sport, but that doesn’t count for much when it comes to buying insurance (and especially the excess): “I really fear there are so many places that won’t be able to reopen post Covid, and that’s because of the cost of insurance, on top of the cost of everything else,” Davy tells me. “If we can keep rolling over the premium we have, we’d certainly be happy, but it’s a constant battle, we just about got there this year.

“The problem here is the awards are too big, the fraudulent claims aren’t being chased after, and the insurance companies have more or less said it’s not worth it here in Ireland anyway, when they can take their business to the UK, where the awards are four times less.

“It’s crippling a lot of businesses, not just adventure sports, but the pubs and the nightclubs, and to be honest I don’t know where the solution is. It’s not like the Government can say ‘you have to take this’. People know if they come up here and fall off their bike, then it’s an accident. But the insurance company is always thinking that’s a claim coming your way, there’s always somebody who will try to claim it’s not their fault, that’s always a worry.”

Ireland’s Association of Adventure Tourism (IAAT) has been seeking a sort of umbrella policy from insurance companies, the Alliance for Insurance Reform, still hopeful for major reform by this year, particularly around personal injuries assessment, saying recently that nothing the Government has done so far has applied any downward pressure on insurance premiums.

The underlying issue, it seems, is that general damages for minor injuries must be dramatically reduced to reflect international norms, and norms already established by the Court of Appeal; otherwise quotes for adventure insurance will remain over €50,000, and it’s not all about lack of competition either.

It the meantime the sport of mountain biking is quietly booming in the country, in the various guises from purely recreational to strictly competitive, including a rainbow jersey winner in World Junior downhill champion Oisín O’Callaghan, who learned his trade at the Ballyhoura public trails in Limerick. In post Covid-times, the benefits for mind, body and spirit can only become increasingly apparent.

For The Gap, too, there is also some comfort in the knowledge and experience that the vast majority of riders who use their mountain bike trails accept the responsibility of the joy ride that comes with it: after five years they’ve yet to have a single personal injury claim, their only previous one in fact coming when they operated as a golf course, after a golfer slipped somewhere out on the course, and there may or may not be a hidden message in there somewhere.

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