Words: Matt Wragg
A French court has prosecuted organisers of Verbier eBike Festival for causing damage to a nature reserve during their 2020 event, the eTour du Mont Blanc.
The CEO of the event organiser, Nicholas Hale-Wood, was sentenced to three months’ suspended prison sentence, a €1,000 criminal fine, a €15,000 civil fine and a one-year ban from organising events in France. The event organisation, Bike Freeride, was sentenced to a €1,000 criminal fine, a €50,000 civil fine and a one year ban from organising events in France.
During the 2020 Verbier eBike Festival, their marquee race, the eMTB Tour of Mont Blanc, passed through the Contamines-Montjoie nature reserve, and during this passage two peat bogs were damaged and trees permanently marked by course directions.
Although Verbier is in Switzerland, the eTour du Mont Blanc crosses the border between Switzerland and France as it traverses the mountain. The Contamines-Montjoie area is designated a nature reserve, specifically containing peat bogs that are home to the rare, carnivorous droséra
flower. In two places during the race, riders left the marked trail and rode through this peat bog, damaging them and the flowers that grow there. Race markings painted on trees proved to be permanent, damaging the trees.
The court in Bonneville found the organisers guilty on all charges. The prosecutor asked for six months suspended sentence and a two year organisation ban, but the sentence handed down was a suspended sentence of three months and a single year organisation ban.
The race organisers do not dispute the facts of the damage, but are appealing the sentence as they feel it is not proportionate to the offense.
Here is the full text of the decision translated by me from French:
Justice: A historique decision for the nature reserves of Haute Savoie.
In summer 2020, an eMTB race, the eTour du Mont Blanc, was organised in Haute Savoie with the authorisation from the prefect and traversed the national nature reserve Contamines-Montjoie.
The racers, in teams of two high-level athletes, passed through the heart of two rare and protected peat bogs, destroying the roots of a delicate carnivorous plant, the protected and emblematic: the round-leafed droséra.
The management team of the nature reserve (Aster, Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels de Haute Savoie) discovered significant and probably irreversible damage in the area and drew up a dossier on the organiser.
At the end of the preliminary investigation, the state prosecutor decided to press charges against the event organiser and its representative.
Asters-CEN74, as managing agency for the reserve, also filed civil charges with the court, alongside a landowner whose property the race crossed without notification and where several trees were damaged with indelible paint.
The Bonneville court delivered its judgement 21 November 2022. The event organiser and their representative were sentenced with:
The legal representative:
- 3 months’ suspended prison sentence
- €15,000 damages and €1,000 criminal fine
- Banned from organising events in France for one year
The event organiser:
€50,000 damages and €1,000 criminal fine
Banned from organising events in France for one year
In terms of damages, as manager of the nature reserve, Asters-CEN74 will be compensated for damage caused to the peat bogs and protected species in the Contamines-Montjoie nature reserve.
The defendants were also ordered to compensate the landowner whose property was used by the race without his agreement.
This ruling sets an example for cases in protected natural areas with very high heritage value. It is part of Bonneville public prosecutor's office firm stance against attacks on the environment.
The message is clear: organising a sporting event in a nature reserve is possible with proper consultation and authorisation to avoid irreparable damage to nature, as was unfortunately the case in 2020.
You can see the full text in French
You ever hear the comedy bit by Louis CK about giving up his 1st class plane seat to army personnel? Worth a listen, as it’s pretty funny, and is true of all of us, which is why it’s funny I guess
Just sitting here trying hard to envision a French hunter…..
Enclosed tree stand, fully heated, sitting on the removable seat from his 2CV, baguette and Pinot noir in hand, complaining about the government’s inability to lead the people, while planning a strike with his industrious friends.
Based on the evidence of the photos here, assuming that this is the sum-total of all the damages in the event, the penalty seems a little harsh to me. Seems more of a strong political warning, to others. Yes, it indicates a level of disrespect on the part of the organiser (perhaps unintended, we just don't know) - but we have all ridden on trails that exhibit way worse damage than shown in these photos, just through day to day use (or storm damage, forestry work, etc). I'd bet the fact that this was specifically in a designated nature reserve, is the main reason for the large fine.
There's no definitive study that I am aware of, but it makes logical sense that a thousand or more "locals" tyres down a trail over a whole season, does more damage than 200 tyres down the same trail in once day (due to an event).
In fact, it's usually other compounding factors that really erode a trail (race, or no race) such as storms (water damage) and other weather-related events. But its easier to blame a race, and ban it, since that's a much easier "solution" to implement to make ourselves feel better (whilst still getting to ride these trails for ourselves and avoiding the larger issue that our own tyres are contributing to the very same problem).
On the whole though, I have concluded after 20+ years in this game that some trails are just 'politically' unsuitable to race (by that I mean environmentally, local politics, trail sharing, etc) whereas they are, in my opinion, still suitable to enjoy responsibly and sustainably on an MTB (outside of a race-specific scenario). There is a difference, there's just no getting away from it.
This was the primary motivation for our decision to retire the Trans-Savoie Enduro (in its race-format guise). The bottom line is that I'd rather continue to enjoy the experience of guiding 7 to 14 clients per week along the route all summer, than have the satisfaction of putting 80-or-so riders through in one go in a race (but at the risk of giving extra fuel to the anti-MTB lobby).
Obviously it is so much easier for trail builders to maintain and repair trails at a respective pace to normal local use, but to go out and destroy it all at once just for the sake of “race day” seems silly.
Organizers in B.C. have always given back to the trail organizations that are stewards of the areas where races are being held and worked with them. From the few races that I have attended the trails that are used for racing, are or have been upgraded to standards that can take the abuse from a weekend of racing, e-bikes or analog bikes.
Someone dropped the ball here. Either the organisers, the landowners, other officials who are supposed to regulate these events or all groups concerned.
Second, I don't care about blaming, penalties and fines. Unless the money of the fine is actually being used to fix the damage. Then the fine isn't really a fine but could be considered a consequence. What I do care about though is fixing what's broken, learning and finding ways to prevent it from happening again. I mentioned this in my previous post and if you disagree with what I said there, I'd be glad to hear what you think is wrong about that.
As for the "logical sense" part, my logical sense works differently. Just like organisms, the soil has the ability to repair itself if you give it time. If my body receives half the cuts, stings, scrapes and bruises on a single day of what I would otherwise collect in a year, it would heavily affect my function and my ability to recover even though it usually isn't all that bad if all these are spread out over a year. Same with the trail. A good pounding on a single day will do more damage than a multiple of that spread out over the year. Plus of course, because racers like to overtake for some reason, trails widen. Which happens more if you have more people on a single trail simultaneously and especially if they like to be ahead of each other.
Yes, water does erode trails. But again, this is also because tires (when they don't rip the trail apart) compact the terrain. So they create both a gully (local lowest point or line) of which the base is less permeable for water. So instead of being absorbed by the soil it indeed runs down the trail causing damage. But the water does that because of the compacting by riders. Unlike my previous point though, I don't think this happens more because of racing than of regular trail use so I wouldn't use it as an argument against races perse. Except for riding in the wet of course. An organized event where people have paid and traveled for, people will be more likely to continue than a spontaneous ride. As for my source of my theory about compacting, I'll have to look it up. If you're subscribed to Cranked magazine (cranked.cc) it was in one of the earlier issues. But they have their own sources which I can't cite off the top of my head.
Just to be clear again, I'm not blaming anyone. Riders are just as responsible for how, when and where they ride as much as the organizers are to make sure that the trail maintains or quickly returns to the stage is was like before the event. If you all want that race, then all need to make sure it is done properly. Organizers and competitors alike. I think you are making wise decisions there though, choosing to ride multiple times with smaller groups rather than once with a very big group.
We've heard promises of trail funds etc but nothing substantial has ever happened.
Don't throw a bunch of sh*t around on the internet.
It's a political warning targeting the smaller groups of people rather than the larger more detrimental companies/groups.
People on bikes, having fun, yes we collectively take and can't give back enough to offset our damage to the planet but Seb was a great example last year showing we all need to change our mindset to help slow/reduce damage, it's impossible to live in a positive world but we can decrease the negative but not by slapping one of the least damaging sports with a fine.
I wish it wasn't the case but people like you making BS comments like this 1) has zero to do w/ bikes 2) zero to do w/ the topic in this article, 3) has zero productive or positive value and 4) is just more anonymous trolling that makes the internet suck when I'll bet that if we met while riding, we'd prob get along just fine. PB comments and the internet don't have to suck but comments like yours are what makes it open sewage. Congratulations on your behind-the-screen warrior status.
I'm guilty of being off topic & sniping but I try to keep it bikes here. I'm not a French basher and though I've not been yet, I generally think of French as pretty cool: such a vast history vs. the US and the horrors that go well beyond gun culture here (killing off the native Americans then dissing them 500 years), slavery, and a lonnnnng list of wrongs). Anyway - bikes, bikes, bikes. Lets bond on our passions about it I say.
99% of riders don’t want to damage anything and they mean well so I am more perplexed that there's still no top-down process for agencies & organizations, public/private funders, trail building communities (etc). The process still ignores 99% of these wild, awesome natural resources and it mostly abides by the bare minimum "regulatory" requirements (established by transient politicians). Most of those resources, though often key / critical featueres, are often decaces out of date anyway in terms of actual conservation laws - and their protection varies by agency, department or by state / province (etc). IE - There’s no coherent process to consider natural resources across the board in trails - and thats a lame situation.
But to put it in a positive light, trails go directly thru and use up “natural capital” - cool natural opportunities, amenities, centerpieces, features and wild living things that can often be easily be incorporated into trails, and I know this because I’ve been doing this three decades (for all kinds of impacts). There is no zero-impact trail or development, but with even just a few simple stock guidelines and ideas, massive damage can be prevented regardless of the ecoystem type (ie, desert, forest, woodland, etc).
Instead - tons of resources get mashed, bashed and left behind as unknown casualties just because there's not top-down system (yet!) in the trail planning / building community to incorporate them (except for features to ride on). There are some great exceptions to this, and every system I have been involved with goes above & beyond the bureaucratic minimum, because its easy to do - it just takes a little extra time & forethought.
That being said - this seems like a super harsh penalty, damn!
Humble serious question to a professional ecologist: the tyre marks in the mud in the image in this article, does that kind of ”abuse” cause any damage at all to a nature reserve? Wont that spot just be overgrown by grass next year? I understand that it looks a bit messy right now but does any trees or plants actually take permanent damage of a bike race like this, and if so, how? (Im not saying it doesnt, I just fail to understand how, and want to learn)
In my experience and knowledge (Bachelor's in Ecology): Yes, that abuse causes significant damage, though the lasting impact depends on what was there in the picture before it was ridden over. That image does not display one of the peat bogs, it displays a depression in the ground where water collects (looks like it was a trail prior to this race). Riding through saturated soil creates muddy conditions, and disturbed ground like this could take 1-5 years of zero further disturbance to return to form. The damage is not "permanent" per se but each successive biker/hiker adds time or even resets the recovery process (depending on scale). If all that was there was grass, it'd be on the lower end of that time range.
What's extra problematic in that specific image: you can see a lot of people going to the side of the mud puddle given the bare roots on the left and right side. People (bikers, hikers, etc.) tend to avoid puddles, and therefore usually go around. In going around, they often damage or destroy whatever was on the side, creating more bare soil in the process. Repeated enough times (doesn't take much) and over a couple years, and the puddle will capture that bare soil as it gets weighed down. Over time, this widens the puddle, and widens the trail - that's damaging. I've had local hiking trails that have tripled in width due to expanding puddles over the past 10 years. That's why even on non-groomed trails, good drainage is important.
I wanna def say I love riding & ride guilt free but I also am intimately aware of where I am: habitat types, geology, plants - but theres no way to know what ill-thought impacts may have already happened most of the time unless I was on foot & did a serious analysis, which I rarely do unless I see some serious problem - but even then, trail clubs / builders are often great about addressing these of approached positively vs bombing them w/ attitude (even if Im upset). I just think its better to consider as many of these parameters ahead of time vs later
The recovery of bogs does take much longer than normal upland forest floor. Also in my part of the world, the upland forest floor accumulates about 1" of material a year through leaf litter decomposition. The "leaf litter" is mostly made up of conifer needles, twigs, branches, etc (not just leaves). So long story short is there is something to putting mtb trails in the correct location and planning races around sustainable trails.
I’m not totally sure but I think in Europe there can also be sloping peat bogs, especially if the terrain is not all that steep - but these may technically be seeps or poor fens. I have heard it said repeatedly that Fort William is mostly peat bogs & gravel has to be repeatedly brought in but that might just be vernacular/local lingo for what are actually seeps & not true peat bogs…
It's interesting because in places like Fort William, peat bogs are a dime a dozen and so common that they aren't perceived as important to protect, but in areas where they are far and few between they become a bigger deal for protection.
Fun Fact: the PNW also has a carnivorous plant found in bogs. It's a sun dew. Super tiny and looks almost like a venus fly trap. It eats insects by absorbing them.
Our Blue Ridge peat is all mineral seeps vs. being true bogs (high elevation) but the true bogs w/ Sphagnum in lower elevations are just too small where they are left - having been 99% nuked for cows, taters and bog-haters (a true loss that most people have no memory or knowledge of now). We also have sundews (2 species), bladderworts & pitcher plants that all live / thrive on that peat like yours - and like you say, not as big a deal where peat bogs dominate the landscape like Ft William, but where they are miniscule - probably less than 1 / 1,000,000th (or less) of the total landforms - they are among the rarest & most imperiled habitats. So naturally - moto & ATV thugs love them... they have no clue what they're ripping apart, they just need raw mud & a cold bud.
Also se. Asia is another of the "arcto-tertiary" temperate forest relicts that used to literally be part of the same mass-scalle PNW & east coast (N. America) forest maybe 250-300m years ago and all these plants had speciated by then, then again after the continents split apart and the Great Plains split PNW and east coast forests (then the continent rotated 90 degress to the east). Plants be ancient MF's.
An let's be clear here : this is not a case of MTBikers or e-MTBikers against the rest of the world. There are other famous races that go through the Contamines Réserve Naturelle (MB Race, UTMB). Just poor event management.
Corporations are obliterating entire mountain sides, flattening thousands of acres of trees and polluting or blocking off water courses and it's all good so long as someone's making profit. Hunters are shooting the shit out of all kinds of creatures including occasional dogs and mountain bikers and then lose the plot over some bikes passing through the forest on principal. (experience from Euro-side) There's the need to control deer populations etc okay, but being real, a lot of hunting is 'sport' i.e. for fun and involves, you know... directly putting holes in the animals. Completely laughable they turn around from smoking an innocent creature and then point the finger at a mountain biker as a destroyer of nature.
IMO the bad look for biking isn't helped by a few highly hypocritical MTBers who are too lazy and/or wouldn't want to get caught with a shovel and are happy to condemn those that do, but are still super stoked to ride illegal trails. Although it's heavily dependant on where in the world you are from, there are riders smashing out the laps, no questions asked RE legitimacy, then getting back to their computer to comment how no one should ever build without permission.
On the scheme of things, mountain bikes and mountain bike trails are a microscopic problem facing wild areas. In fact is the impact of MTB not a hugely net positive effect on forest areas because it keeps people connected and interested in nature through their sport?
This from the country that nukes atolls non stop and still burns forests for power.
Complaining about the "bog" is equally lame.
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