Making Singletrack Legal: The Threat of 1,000€ Fines and The Politics of Barcelona’s Collserola Park

Photos: Will Bruce

The Parc Natural de Collserola, known simply as Collserola, is the largest urban park in Europe. It is composed of a mountain range separating the Mediterranean from the interior valleys of Catalunya with over 20,000 acres of parkland. It is the lungs of the Barcelona metro, holding over 3 million inhabitants. Within the park lies a labyrinth of interwoven gravel paths and singletrack whose futures are unknown due to the long-eroding legality of riding on anything narrower than three meters — ten feet — wide.

In the early 2000s, bicyclists were grouped with motorized vehicles, prohibiting them from riding almost all singletrack in Parques Naturales, or those designated as “natural parks” all around Spain. This policy was approved individually by Spain’s autonomous communities, with mountain bike enthusiasts in Valencia, Andalucia, and Madrid also finding trouble with the law over the years. The autonomous community of Catalunya, in which Collserola lies, approved this change as well. For roughly the past two decades, most park officials have looked the other way when it comes to pedal-powered bikes on singletrack, but with increasing park visitation among all user groups, this may be about to change. 

Collserola is managed by a consortium known as the Consorci del Parc Natural de la Serra de Collserola, hereby referred to as the park, made up of various stakeholders such as the nine municipalities that constitute the park. In the spring of 2019, the park drafted the Pla especial de protecció del medi natural i del paisatge (PEPNat), a new document with more stringent requirements and a ramped-up enforcement protocol. This plan not only outlaws mountain biking, but all activities on singletrack that could be considered “sports” including trail running and horseback riding. It was drafted before the pandemic started, but like many parks around the world, usage has only increased. The PEPNat officially passed in April 2021, but the battle for access is far from over.

When the park consortium was asked about park priorities and how they have evolved over the past decade, a representative stated their views on protecting habitat in response to a variety of factors.

“The knowledge we have about threats to protected natural areas has grown during the last 10 years, as has our awareness of their importance for people’s health (there are scientific studies which corroborate this fact), especially so during particularly difficult times such as that we’ve been through with the pandemic. This more precise information on what is known as global change (climate change, invasive species, biodiversity loss, wildfires, etc) has directed efforts aimed at conservation and protection of biodiversity and habitats towards more careful management practices, limiting and excluding activities that are more aggressive towards the environment.”

While it seems that the aforementioned environmental concerns are the primary driver for the latest singletrack prohibitions, there are also conflicts between user groups. Additionally, the park suggests that other users believe that mountain bikes cause more environmental damage.

“Our role [the park consortium] is to improve biodiversity and the practice of cycling on singletracks is totally contrary to this objective. Most other users see it this way, and in fact this is the main cause of the complaints that we receive: the lack of respect on the part of certain cyclists (we insist that these are a minority).”

While it seems that the park consortium is similar to other park systems around the world in terms of high levels of visitation with limited resources, the divergence seems to lie in the core of how mountain biking is defined in Spain. Local riders in the area have even started using the rallying cry and hashtags “#sinsendasnoesbtt” (Spanish) and “#sensecorriolsnoesbtt” (Catalan), which translates to “without singletrack, it’s not mountain biking.” From the park’s perspective, you can still mountain bike on gravel roads and paths greater than three meters or ten feet wide. 

Xavier Serret, one of these local riders and co-president of the mountain bike advocacy group, Collserola Sport Respeto Ciclismo (CSRC), bought a home in Collserola three years ago, just before he found out about the PEPNat. As an entrepreneur by profession and a mountain biker by passion, he and five others rallied to the defense of singletrack access and formalized the advocacy organization as a registered nonprofit. It now has 2,600 members, of which 15 are actively working to rectify this issue

“With this new law, there will be fines [for mountain biking],” said Serret. “You go there only to view, not touch, nature. Like a gated zoo.”

The CSRC has attempted to compromise with the park consortium, suggesting the closure of the more environmentally sensitive areas, like the two nature reserves in the park that have higher ecological value with diverse flora and fauna, in exchange for smaller zones with a modern, sustainable singletrack network. This was met with stiff opposition. 

“It was like the city didn’t want any dialogue to exist with us,” said Serret. “[The park consortium] basically told us that they will never negotiate with us. […] The park reads scientific research in Catalan and if there is no other option, in Spanish. Therefore, there is a real lack of knowledge about sustainable trail design.” 

The park said they are connected with IMBA, but did not mention any plans specific to mountain biking.

“We are in contact with IMBA via the National Institute of Physical Education of Catalonia, and a team from this institute is undertaking monitoring of park usage by visitors.”

IMBA Europe later added that the Institute has not been in contact with them regarding the issues in Collserola.

According to Serret, the park has only “doubled down on this attitude” to eliminate singletrack usage. On December 28, 2021, the CSRC filed their official legal claim against the PEPNat, within the 20-day window as required by the park. 

“Outdoor activities are a major part of life here” said Serret. “Not only that, local politicians underestimate the value of health, fitness, and economics that mountain bikes bring to Barcelona and surrounding areas.” 

Serret isn’t alone in this thinking. Lukasz Tolwinski, a Software Developer originally from Poland who works for a Barcelona-based startup, moved here specifically for mountain biking after having lived in the UK and visited places like Finale Ligure and Whistler. 

“I came to Catalunya once with my bike and thought to myself, ‘it’s like a small Finale Ligure.’ I could live here and ride year-round. So I moved.” Lukasz can now be found racing in the Enduro Copa Catalana. 

Local group ride leader, Roger Albors, sees Collserola as an essential part of the community as well as contributing to his mental health and his decision to continue living in the city.

“It’s a meeting point for the cycling community, whether it’s gravel, road or singletrack riding […] If it wasn’t for Collserola Natural Park, I would’ve gotten exhausted from Barcelona a long time ago, but nowadays it’s a must for my enjoyment of the city.”

Miguel Suárez, a certified Tour Guide of Catalunya (Guia Habilitado de Catalunya), however, sees why the city would want to limit access with the PEPNat due to the sheer amount of use the park sees. 

“There are approximately 3 million people in the AMB [Barcelona metro area] that could be potential visitors […] There are cyclists who understand the value of the environment and protect it, but a small percentage, regardless of recreation mode, abuse it.” 

The park echoed this sentiment. 

“Luckily there are many [mountain bikers], the majority, who follow the rules, although unfortunately there is a small proportion who do not accept the prohibition to use singletracks. With regard to other users (runners, horse riders, hikers, etc.) the perception is the same: the vast majority of users understand the rules and enjoy the park with respect, with regard to both the environment and other users.”

On the park’s website, it says, “In Collserola you will find a cycling network of more than 250 km. We invite you to discover and enjoy this natural space in a manner which is civil and compatible with the conservation of the Park.

Rules:

  • You may only use the Park Cycle Path Network. (3-meter-wide paths and tracks)
  • The speed limit is 20 km/h [12 mph]
  • You may not ride on footpaths. Downhill bikes are prohibited.

In response to the PEPNat, the CSRC started a crowdsourced fundraising campaign in mid-2021, which reached nearly 20,000 euros. This allowed the group to hire lawyers to challenge the PEPNat on the grounds that it was passed illegally, without sufficient public input. 

Serret remains optimistic that this will be successful. “We are not alone. There are others, like neighborhood groups, that are also filing against the PEPNat based on the lack of public engagement. In the end, people that live near the park want to be able to enjoy it.” 

The Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona (AMB) and the Barcelona City Council are two of the groups in favor of the PEPNat, supporting the prohibition of singletrack. Since the PEPNat was approved at a high level with the Generalitat de Catalunya, the autonomous community that composes the northeasternmost region of Spain, Serret expects this legal battle to be a slow, drawn-out process. 

We asked the park consortium what success looks like 10 years from now.

“The park must strengthen its role as a Natural Park and site belonging to the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, with all of the implications for the conservation of the ecosystems and species which live there, whilst allowing its enjoyment by people, and especially with regard to promoting those activities which imply quiet and healthy contact with nature without compromising its conservation value.”

On any of the numerous warm and sunny days that Barcelona has, you can still see droves of people on mountain bikes enjoying the park, but there is a dark cloud looming in the form of potential 1,000-euro fines for riding on singletrack. There are still looming questions as well. With so many people riding mountain bikes, will the park be capable of enforcing these limitations? If not, will the environmentally-sensitive areas be even more susceptible to damage due to uncontrolled use under a blanket ban? While stringent enforcement has not yet started, it is on the minds of many who recreate in the park.

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