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Interview with Dominic Martin from Dirt World Action Sports

Interview with Dominic Martin from Dirt World Action Sports

In late October, Helen Harris caught up with Dominic Martin from Dirt World Action Sports to find out more about the company's aim to bring a new off-road facility to the Northamptonshire and East Anglian region.

Helen: The Dirt World project has been an ongoing labour of love for you for over five years now. Where did it all begin?

Dominic: When I was younger I used to do a lot of mountain biking and off road motorcycling. My business partner and I would regularly go to Elsworth Moto Park which was run by a guy called Andy Lee. By the time we were going Andy was in his late 70's and had been running the site for 25yrs. You'd see him there all the time, walking the site with a massive smile, socialising and feeding off the energy of making people happy doing something they love and I thought I'd love to do something like that myself. My friends and I would often get involved with site maintenance under Andy's guidance and help with the running of events by undertaking marshalling duties. Andy kept the facility going until he was in his mid 80's and I think he'd still be running it now if his health still allowed! He's been a huge help to me on this project and it's been great to draw on his experience.

Too young to progress anything due to the investment needed I pursued an engineering career working in motorsport and consumer electronics amongst other things. But the burning desire to run my own off road centre never left me.  It wasn't until around 2010 that I could really take it forward, when I started to work hard on it. I prepared my business plan and reviewed all the figures with my accountant and all was good, apart from one slight problem: no land to implement it on! Undeterred by this small hiccup, I spent the next year searching for a site. I drove up to Newcastle, down to Basildon, over to Lancashire and placed adverts in various farming publications looking for any land that might be suitable, with very little success. A friend of mine then told me about a site they knew of close to Peterborough. Following up on that lead I tracked down the owner's details and wrote to them about my proposal. Rather weirdly I was in Peterborough on the day the owner contacted me asking if I was available to meet. So happy to have heard back I dropped what I was doing to go and have that meeting! The owner was supportive of my proposal and I came away from the meeting with a gentlemen's agreement for use of the land and the land owners permission to seek planning consent for the facility on the understanding that once everything was in place a formal agreement would be arranged.

Helen: That must have been a really exciting step for you! What did you do next?

Dominic: I can't tell you how happy I was at that stage! One of the first things I did was engage the services of Jonny Douglas Hamilton, a world-renowned expert in motorsport track design to come and assess the site. He came all the way from Edinburgh for the job, walking the site with me, taking soil samples and digging trial holes as we went. And then he went quiet not really saying much for the rest of the site visit which put me on edge a little! Later that evening I got an email from Jonny saying that if the site was planned out correctly then there's no reason why we couldn't build one of the best practice facilities in the country, it was just a case of clarifying the budget and a few other details. On a high from this email, I began contacting a number of consultants and specialists to help pull together the ecology, topographical and noise surveys I'd need to support the planning application. I was fortunate to find the ecologist that had worked on the site for the last 20 years and He'd been sad to see what had happened to the site up to now; the site had been run as a quarry previously.

On the ecologist's advice I set up a meeting with the Wildlife Trust for East Northants to discuss my proposal and they gave me their assurances that if I adhered to it they would support the planning application subject to their strict regulations and conditions. A planning application can be stopped instantly on ecological grounds so hearing this was a massive step forward for the project.

Helen: That must have been very reassuring for you. Did it spur you on?

Dominic: It did for sure, but progress wasn't as fast as I'd have liked as I needed to finance all the surveys, etc myself. Unlike a large company with a huge pot of money at their disposal I had to tackle each planning obstacle one at a time rather than all at once so I focused on what I considered to be the most critical ones first, commissioning them as and when funds were available. Having already incurred a significant amount of expense so far and the costs escalating rapidly beyond the outline budget; due to the array of landform types within the site and other aspects virtually every quote I asked for 2-3 times higher than anticipated! Realising I'd been naive investing so much without any formal agreement in place it was at this point I decided to request a lease. 

I employed a solicitor and after a further 12 months of negotiating and more expense later I now had an Agreement for Lease and an agreed form of Lease to be entered in to once planning consent was achieved. With this security in place I was comfortable continuing to invest in the required surveys to obtain that. This took more time.  With the ecology report done, the initial noise level report now approved and the Wildlife and topographical surveys underway things were progressing, just slowly.

I now had a business partner on board and the services of a chartered surveyor to handle the planning application with the topographical surveyor completing the architectural drawings for me. However, on reaching version 40 of the site plans and after some discussions with my business partner we decided to draught these ourselves. Not as crazy as it sounds as my background is in design. After relearning AutoCAD I drew up the site layouts exactly as we wanted them and wondered why we hadn't just done that before, but you live and learn!

By November 2015 we were ready to make the submission for planning consent but were advised to withdraw due to a lack oflandscape visual impact assessment and land contamination report. Undeterred and keen to show we would comply with whatever was necessary to get formal approval we arranged for the reports to be done even though it felt like a pointless tick box exercise at the time.

Resubmitting the application in early 2016 no concerns were raised regarding the visual impact or land contamination of the development plan and to begin with it was going very well.  However the case officer had raised concerns over sustainability in terms of public transport, employment and dust management on site, a site that was not so long ago a functioning quarry! And of course a recurring issue around the noise. Not wanting the application to be rejected, we withdrew again and set about addressing these new and old concerns covering all bases.

During this time I contacted several other facilities of the same nature that had successfully obtained planning consent, including South Tees MX Park in Middlesbrough, Fly Up 417 project in Gloucester, Revolution Bike Park in Llangynog and various B1ke locations none of which had any concerns raised on sustainability. This did strike me as odd as all were located in comparable rural locations to the ride Yarwell site.

One of the items in the draft committee report had stated that there was insufficient local support for the facility despite over 750 letters to the contrary, the majority of which were from Peterborough, the nearest city just outside of Yarwell. This time around we've made a concerted effort to get as much support locally as we can and we've currently received nearly 1500 letters if support most of which are from locations within a 15 mile radius of the site. Ok there are also some from as far afield as South Africa, but that just shows the breadth of the support out there.

We also revisited the highways plans redesigning the entrance and exit layout, repositioning gates and installing rumble strips along the exit road to shake excess mud from vehicles so this wouldn't deposit on the village roads. We redrafted the Design Access Statement which covers the needs of the facility breaking it down for each of the target user groups so it was crystal clear the level of activity and frequency through the year each would have, including the traffic volumes associated with each in order to remove any room for assumptions. Some of the bigger one off events would also increase the demand for overnight accommodation so we researched the locations and capacity of all the nearby camping facilities. We found 1292 pitches close to the site,  including 150 at Yarwell Mill only 1 mile from the site which should be sufficient for anything we'd want to host though!

Despite feedback back from Ian Warby of B1ke confirming"to date we have not had any any issues in regard to public transport with our planning applications", we reassessed all means of transport to the site identifying public transport links and restrictions to use. Unsurprisingly buses don't allow bikes or soiled clothing on board, particularly not the call and collect bus service operating in the village! This isn't as much of an obstacle as it seems as the facility will have showers, changing rooms and bike hire available for those that need them.

Through my work with CTC I was involved with a number of similar projects and don't recall public transport being brought up. The majority of planning committees have understood that the point of a bike park is to get the people riding which meant they would ride to site if they had no access to other means of transport to the site. Even the bigger properties such as Redbridge Cycle Circuit didn't have any issues with transport to the site, however they did have lots of parking provision. Going on feedback from the mountain bikers based locally such as Wakerley Wheelers and Peterborough Mountain Bike Riders who have all suggested they'd cycle to the site so we took a belt and braces approach and made sure all the bridleways, cycle routes and off-road routes to the site have been highlighted.

This proactive approach seems to have helped because so far every consultee to the application has given us the green light which is very reassuring. Some of those approvals have been subject to some fairly strict restrictions but nothing we're not happy to comply with.

Helen: That's a huge amount of work and attention to detail not to mention financial commitment. What's been the biggest hurdle so far?

Dominic: The noise! Always the noise! With it being a multi sport venue, some of that motorised, there's a big misunderstanding about the noise generated by that kind of thing. We've been working hard to satisfy all queries on this. In 2014 I had noise tests completed on two separate days under different wind conditions whilst the site was in use. On one of the days the wind was blowing towards the village giving us the worst case test conditions. The tests involved people I knew from the motocross industry and had a number of bikes representative of those typical to an event riding around the site again to replicate a worst case scenario. But this came under criticism for not covering a long enough period. So earlier this year along with all the other reassessments I decided I'd have a more in depth noise assessment done and employed three specialists to help, setting up sensors all around the village collecting background noise data over a longer period for a more thorough analysis and report. One of the assessors, Andy Watson is highly respected in the industry with an OBE for his work. Ed Clarke is also well thought of with a wealth of experience in the motor industry. Their experience and input was worth the hefty price tag their services carry!

Helen: Do you think you're facing more resistance to this because it's a village location that's become accustomed to less noise since the quarry closed in recent years?

Dominic: Oh definitely. And there's a misconception that motorsports enthusiasts are like hell's angels whereas that couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone I've ever met through motorsports has been, well just really nice and couldn't be more willing to help me.

Helen: You've had a huge amount of support from the motorsport sector but not so much from the mountain biking community. Why do you think that is?

Dominic: I think the biggest problem with the site is it's size. Because it's not massive, well it is in terms the acreage, it's a 44 acre site, but I think the perception is that it can't provide enough interest or fun for mountain bikers. But with it being a former quarry there's lots of elevation change throughout, lots of grades of soil providing different ride surfaces including limestone rocks. So there's a lot there. The advantage we'll have is that the machinery will be on site all the time so we can continuously maintain, adapt and change the trails throughout the year keeping them at optimal riding conditions in exactly the same way we will for the motocross and 4x4 courses. 

Helen: So let's talk about the facilities and routes that you're going to be providing for the mountain bikers. What sort of circuits and routes will you include?

Dominic: We're building permanent mountain bike courses. There'll be 4x and dual slalom which we plan to hold regular race events on. If the larger race series organisers don't come onboard for that then we'll still host our own independent events. We'll be building a pump track and dirt jumps.

Helen: Will those be progressive jumps to cater to all abilities so riders can build up skills and confidence before moving on to the trickier gap jumps?

Dominic: The drawings we've put forward there are small tabletops, moving on to step up jumps and on to the bigger, longer jumps. We're trying to cater to anyone from beginner through to expert level riders.

The bit that I'm most excited about is the cross country trail. Each time we open we'll have marked out a totally different course within the zones agreed during the wildlife surveys and in accordance with planning conditions. So that will give a lot of variety through the year.

Event organisers Mud, Sweat and Gears have shown a strong interest in hosting their cross country race at the site. We'd plan to host one cycle race per month and the great thing about the site is that it remains really rideable even in the winter, you won't get absolutely filthy riding around like you would at other centres.

In addition, the site will be fully staffed with marshals, all fully trained in first aid andcontactable by radio as well as an on site paramedic at all time. So if you do fall off and hurt yourself, which unfortunately does happen, you'll have that support. I know from personal experience of dislocating and breaking my shoulder at Wakerley that's not fun when there's no-one there to help. Another advantage is as a site user you'll be insured through our policy giving you liability cover which you don't get from other centres.

Helen: That's an awful lot to keep most mountain bikers happy then. With all sports, it's important to have grass roots support, what services will your site offer for the budding mountain biker, young or old?

Dominic: I've been in touch with B1ke, who provide mountain bike coaching to offer that service on site. We'll be putting on a number of days where you can come along and do training days, such as jump practice. We'd like to offer airbag days, building a big jump for the occasion so riders can experience the run up and clearance of a big ramp landing safely on the airbag.We'd like to get someone like pro rider Matt Jones to help with promotional work on that

Helen: With the coaching side of things would be looking to offer concessions to the junior riders coming in to the sport at a young age?

Dominic: The pricing structure will be such that the adults will pay full price with a reduction for youth riders. We're trying to encourage young children to be active in sport so the coaching available will also be at a reduced rate. 

Helen: Fantastic. What other facilities will be available?

Dominic: In terms of ancillary facilities, there'll be a bike wash area with jet wash and a general pressured hose for cleaning up after riding, around 10-15 bays for that. We'll have toilets, changing rooms and showers available in the future and an old English style café concessionserving hearty, healthy homemade food. The café will have a log burner for a real cozy feel and TV screens showing live footage from the cameras that will be positioned around the trails for riders to watch whilst they relax and unwind. 

We're hoping to work very closely with local bike shop Terry Wright Cycles who are looking to do launch days on site and possibly and sale of essential bike spares. We've discussed the potential for bike hire too but that will all be subject to consent.

For staff we'll provide secure bike storage and sign up to the bike for work scheme to encourage sustainable transport.

Helen: That's a pretty comprehensive set up. With all the hoops you've had to jump through so far, which you've had to tackle in sequence rather than simultaneously drawing the process out, what's kept you going?

Dominic: Stubbornness! But really? That email from Jonny Douglas Hamilton, I read that and it reminds me what I'm working towards. And forgetting the financial side of things, I think of Andy and how happy he was and how much enjoyment it gave him. I want that. I also want to be part of bringing a great facility, on par with the Belgian facilities I've been to, to the area, to the UK. In America they have training camps. I'd love to see that here, where riders both mountain and motocross, come to train with sports coaches so they can come along in the morning, do some gym work, then a bicycle training route whether that be endurance training on the road or technical skills within the park. I've got so much out of the motocross and mountain biking sports through the years, I've met some incredible people as a result. I just want to give something back, something for everyone from beginner to professional. And I've got that much passion that I know I can make it good!

My business partner Tom has been a massive support too, if he'd not been around there have been times that I might have walked away. We've balanced each other out well. And through the whole process, we've not fallen out once which is saying something.

Helen: So very exciting times ahead and a decision looming soon!

But that doesn't mean Dirt World is home and dry. There's still time for our readers to demonstrate their support for this enterprise.

This part of the UK could definitely use another trail centre, especially one with aspirations to provide a top class experience and facility, and who better to run it than a man so enthusiastic and passionate about it? Some things are worth being a keyboard warrior about and this is one

Nearly 1400 people have submitted their support for the project via the Brighter Cyclist website, follow the link to show your support: http://www.thebrightercyclist.co.uk/dirt-world-action-sports 

Author: Helen Harris 

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Foel Gasnach DH Park

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Rutland Cycling mountain bike demo day 2016