Mountain bike brands could learn a thing or two about symbiotic relationships from Sir Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Bees make food from flower nectar, and their hairy bodies spread pollen to other flowers. Crocodiles allow defenseless birds to eat the leeches that cling to their gums. Bike brands need trails in order to sell their gear, so they pay builders to create the tracks that their products are designed for. Well — that last example is not entirely accurate. Not yet, at least.
While a few mountain bike brands do host programs and events that help raise funds for various trail organizations, most are reluctant to pay full-time staff and allocate significant budgets for trail development and maintenance. Over the past couple of years, Fanie Kok at Specialized has been growing a new branch of the company to highlight the hard work of unsung trail heroes around the world, hooking them up with gear, raising substantial funding for new trails, and throwing inspiring dig-parties.
Kok kicked off his bike industry career by working in small local shops in his home country of South Africa. He recently recounted the moment when he knew he wanted to work with Specialized. “One of the bike shops sold Specialized. One day I saw the rep walked in with a pearl white and fluo red S-Works HT Stumpy frame. The same frame Ned Overend won many a World Cup race on. The rep had a shirt on that said ‘RIDE FIRST. WORK LATER’. Right there I thought, I want to work for that brand one day.” He started off running demos and events for the brand’s regional branch. During that time he convinced Specialized to support two of the area’s most prolific trail builders by giving them the bikes and gear they needed to do their jobs well. The South African Specialized branch also paid the builders to dig trails near their main office for all of the locals to shred.
This initial bout of builder support provided the “lightbulb moment” that a Soil Searching sapling grew from. One day, the local trail builders contacted Kok, asking for help completing a two-meter long wooden bridge on a trail that was set to open the following day. The bridge construction lasted the entire day and took all the energy the volunteers had to give. For Kok and the rest of the South African Specialized team, this experience demonstrated that trails require a massive amount of work to create and maintain. There are no magic trail fairies that sprinkle singletrack across the forests. The team at Specialized was not only humbled but inspired to do more digging.
After nearly five years of working demo days and dealer training sessions, a position opened up at Specialized HQ, in Morgan Hill, California, that provided the nebulous space Kok would need to start a program intended to support trail builders. The management team at Specialized knew that they wanted to have someone conducting market research, and figuring out how to better connect the brand with the folks who love mountain biking. They also knew that Kok was someone who could stoke a community on riding and building trails, while coordinating logistics and reporting back on what he learned in the field.
Without hesitation, Kok told his colleagues at Specialized that the best way to get connected with mountain bike communities was to support the heart and soul of the sport: the trail builders. The folks in charge were immediately on board and gave Kok free reign to create the position and the program that he knew would benefit builders most.
His first move in the new role was to take a trip to Marin County, to see the birthplace of mountain biking. Kok had a picture in his head of bikes lining the streets, shuttles everywhere, and nearly everyone riding knobby tires. Marin’s legacy of trail access struggles was the second lightbulb moment for Kok, helping form a clearer idea of the needs that Soil Searching could address.
The third significant moment that helped steer the Soil Searching vessel on its current course came up while Kok was working on a trail with a family in South Lake Tahoe, California. The local builders’ nine-year-old son enthusiastically told Kok that he wants to be a trail builder when he grows up. That kid’s hopeful desire has become the Soil Searching mission statement. Put simply, the organization aims to make trail building a profession for folks who are stoked on shaping dirt, and to find ways for them to be compensated appropriately. While Soil Searching is still a bit of a work in progress, its intentions and roots are clearly seated. As Kok put it, “we should be able to pay trail builders the same way we pay our professional athletes.”
Over the last couple of years, Kok has traveled around the world meeting with trail builders and advocacy groups to lean what Soil Searching can do to assist them with their work. He has helped to create some fantastic films showcasing the efforts of different trail builders, hooked builders up with gear and bikes, organized bike raffles to raise money for trail organizations, and organized dig-days like the recent weekend at Italy’s Paganella Bike Park.
Kok has created connections with IMBA Europe, raising money for the winners of the organization’s annual “Take Care of Your Trails” initiative. Soil Searching has also paired up with the Enduro World Series to recognize and fund the folks who dig those amazing tracks. Part of that partnership includes the Specialized Trail of the Year Award. “Designed to recognize and celebrate the work of trail builders, the award is voted on by riders, team managers and the media who have been at every EWS round that season. All the nominated trails receive a customized Trail Boss tool, but as the builders of the winning trail, World Trail, will also be gifted £2000 to donate to a trail association or charity of their choice.” Kok has also organized dig days in a few EWS race locations to help keep things in tip-top shape after the events.
Moving forward, Kok hopes to create a system where builders and advocacy groups can contact Soil Searching for support and dig-party promotion. In the meantime, you can keep up with the trail building side of Soil Searching by checking their web calendar and Raisley site for work parties. The future for kids who want to be trail builders when they grow up is in the works.
Check out this artful celebration of a South African trail builder.