Fanie Kok on the Importance of Trail Building and Specialized Soil Searching

What’s mountain biking without trails? A whole lot of loose dirt, haphazard rocks, and meddling trees. In other words… chaos. Many would agree that trail builders are the unsung heroes of mountain biking and Specialized Soil Searching is a movement to recognize, celebrate, and support the trail builders who help shape the sport and stoke of mountain biking.

We caught up with Fanie Kok, Trail Advocate and Stoke Activist at Specialized, to dive deeper into the world of trail building, his personal journey with mountain biking, and how everyone can get hands on in supporting trail builders.

Kicking things off with a rather “loaded question,” we asked Fanie how his passion for mountain biking started and how his connection to the community has grown over the years.

“I grew up in a conservative town in South Africa called Pretoria, where rugby is like a religion. You play rugby, or any of the other traditional sports like cricket and tennis. No questions asked. Something like mountain biking was viewed as unconventional and alternative, like listening to punk rock music. When I found mountain biking, or when it found me, it was my ticket to freedom, independence, and expression. Little did I know that the bike was going to take me on a wild ride around the world! Even though mountain biking has grown exponentially, and evolved from a sport into a lifestyle in many places (even in Pretoria!), it’s still rooted. It’s become so much more inclusive and a profound way for people to connect to each other and their environment. I am fortunate enough to have met some incredible people through mountain biking. To have seen the direct positive impact it has had on communities is remarkable. The role that mountain biking will play in the health and future of our planet cannot be understated. All while still keeping it rock & roll at its core, naturally. Hah!”

Fanie’s love for mountain biking is clear, but as such a strong advocate for trail building, we wanted to know where that passion came from and why the support of trail builders is so vital to the sport.

“Trails are the soul of mountain biking. It goes without saying that without trails there is no mountain biking. It’s as simple as that. With the growth and explosion of mountain biking, it’s imperative that we don’t take those for granted whom we fundamentally depend on – the trail builders, advocates, and communities who are shaping the “soul” and future of our sport. Trail building is an art, a craft. Kids should be able to aspire to become trail craftsman, just as much as they can currently aspire to become professional athletes. We in the industry have got a critical role to play in making that a reality. And you know what, it’s bloody exciting!”

Bloody exciting in every sense of the word. Fanie continued on what the Soil Searching experience is like and gave us a sneak peek into the future where mountain biking and conservation intertwine.

“As the term suggests, Soil Searching is the search for the soul of mountain biking. It also just becomes a way for all of us, industry and riders, to reflect and acknowledge what connects us, and why we are so damn passionate about it. To put it plainly – it’s our connection to the trail. Practically, the Soil Searching program at Specialized currently consists of sponsoring trail builders as brand ambassadors, hosting or sponsoring dig days, bike fundraisers, trail grants and inspirational storytelling through short films about the builders, advocates and communities. We’re also taking a hands-on approach to the direct role that mountain biking can play in conservation, but that’s in the next chapter…”

You might be starting to feel impassioned at this point, feeling a sense of wonderment, and wanting to get out and help on your local trails. Us too. Knowing the mountain biking community is international, we asked Fanie how Dig Days might change around the world and what you should consider when working with various terrain.

“Honestly, the most important component to Dig Days is community. It becomes more about community building than trail building. The terrain and landscape obviously play key roles in any trail building endeavour. Some places may require crazy rock work, other places have to deal with sub-optimal soil. Things like drainage, access, flow, and a deep understanding and respect for the land you’re working on are universal. Having said that, you don’t need to be a professional trail builder, soil scientist, or geologist to join a Dig Day. We rely heavily on the local trail builder(s) to lead the Dig Days and determine where most of the impactful work can get done, especially when you’re dealing with a big group of people.”

If you’re wanting to get out there. Do it. No experience required. We were even given some tips on where to start.

“There are a number of Soil Searching Dig Days and fundraisers happening all over the world. Check out your local bike shop and Specialized facebook pages for any event updates. Other than that, find out who your local builders are and find out what beer they like. Get them a couple of cold ones, pull in for the next Dig Day, or if you are politically inclined, go to the next city council meeting to raise your voice for the trails.”

If you can’t make it out to your local Dig Day, or maybe there isn’t one near you, These Tires Build Trails is a campaign within the Specialized Soil Searching initiative that supports the trail building community in another way.

“We wanted to integrate the Soil Searching philosophy into our product. We already have the custom Soil Searching bikes which are only available to ambassadors and a few fundraisers, but we wanted to take it a level deeper. The only part of the bike that is in constant connection to the trail (unless you’re hiking or flying over the handlebars) are the tires. It felt like a natural move to incorporate Soil Searching into our tires, with a portion of tire sales going straight back to the trails, mostly in the form of sponsoring and hosting dig days. This allows more folks to pitch in who may not be able to make it out to dig days. And the tires just look freakin cool!”

Looking towards the future and how mountain biking can continue to grow in a sustainable way, Fanie wants to get the party started and we’re fully on board.

“I think each brand can and should come to the party. Actually, we’re all at the party already, the party is called mountain biking. Trail advocacy is just another way of saying – “Bring your own beers.” We need to make trail advocacy exciting and inspirational, rather than a hat-in-hand, pity party. Yes, there is the tedious side of lobbying and policy making, but it all comes together at the end of the trail when high fives are flying and stoke levels are blown through the roof.”

Make sure to get involved with the Specialized Soil Searching Initiative this summer during Crankworx Whistler. Get hands on with Freehub Trailworx presented by Soil Searching on Tuesday, August 9 and connect with local trail builders and riders.