Started at the beginning of 2013 as a way of collating and sharing updates on trail conditions in the Peak District, the Keeper of the Peak account on Twitter was an instant hit – and has now amassed more than 1,800 followers.
Up until now the identity of the “Keeper” has been a not-very-closely guarded secret, but the man behind this deceptively simple and very effective idea has decided to discard his virtual Zorro mask to speak to OpenMTB about his biking history, the Peak District, MTB advocacy, Cut Gate and plenty more.
Without further ado, I give you Chris Maloney…
Hi Chris, would you like to start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got into mountain biking?
I’m a mountain biker and dad of two, living in Sheffield with a great view of the moors. I’ve been riding a bike since I was three, building jumps on bricks, mucking about in woods and generally enjoying riding bikes off road for as long as I can remember.
I remember venturing off, each ride that little bit further than the last one – just enjoying riding my bike with my mates. It’s pretty much what I’m still doing these days.
And how did you get into the advocacy side of things?
I just want to get as many people out on bikes, having a good time, in nice places, as possible. Trouble is, the more people get out there, the more people want to stop us riding! There’s bound to be conflict. It just needs to be tackled. I guess at the root of it is frustration that the anti-biking arguments aren’t based in any kind of fact really; it’s more perception. And that perception can be changed with dialogue, education and just talking to people.
I guess there’s a number of things I’ve done that just became advocacy. I run social group rides in the Peak. It’s all about including people; there’s a rule: nobody is at the back. It attracts a nice group of people, including some familiar advocacy faces. But it was about getting a group of like-minded people together and thinking where to ride.
Of course, getting a ton of people out, you want to know the weather and almost every week there’s a “what’re the conditions in the Peak like” post online.
KoftheP fitted the bill for answering that easily, and I was then invited to join Peak District MTB. Like I say, I just want to get as many people out on bikes as possible. Sometimes you need to argue a bit with people about why that’s a good thing.
Where did the idea for Keeper of the Peak come from?
People are always asking about conditions in the Peak District. On Facebook, forums, all over the place. I guess I just thought how useful it would be to have that information in one place. Twitter seemed ideal; a way of harvesting conditions updates from riders and sharing them with others almost instantly. It’s been called the biking community’s ‘premier retweet service’, which isn’t too far from the truth, but it works. I see it more as AA Roadwatch for mountain bikers.
The name’s a bit of joke by the way. I was on a forum and posted to suggest that Cut Gate might be a bog after heavy rain. “Who died and made you keeper of the peak?” came the not-unfair reply. I figured I’d use it for the common good.
Why did you pick Twitter as opposed to Facebook – which is probably more popular for MTB-based groups?
Really it’s about that 140 character limit. It forces the info to be focused, precise, quick check stuff. Now you can tag photos in Twitter without losing characters so it’s even better; people can send in a pic and an update for that even-richer information to help other followers. I have thought about Facebook for it before and Instagram, but to be honest – it would just be more to manage. And I’d have to log my personal account out on my phone every time.
How quickly did it take off and how did you get the word out?
It took off pretty quickly. Getting word out was all about asking a few mates to drop hints here and there, but that was really just giving a snowball a little push at the top of a slope – it’s just grown and grown. There was no real need to give it a big marketing push, but support from magazines like Singletrack and MBR certainly helps.
The thing that really made it take off though was Derbyshire County Council. KoftheP was the first to raise the alarm about their shocking resurfacing work on Rushup Edge. It grew hugely then. That was also when I started working more closely with Peak District MTB too.
Did the function of the account evolve from what you’d originally conceived, as people got involved?
I’d say it’s stayed pretty close to what I intended. Every day I get about four or five updates on the conditions of the trails in the Peak District. Every day I share those with the nearly 1900 people following who get a good indication of where’s good to ride. Of course, it has evolved. I never expected to be at the centre of the various campaigns I’m involved in – things like Rushup and Cut Gate. But when updates come in from a number of people about say, the mess a county council has made of something, there are two constants in that; one; the country council, and two; me.
People raised a concern with me, asked me what was going on and so I looked into it, asked the question and saw KoftheP evolve from a simple conditions update feed to a representative voice for the MTB community in the Peak. Well, 1,900 of them anyway.
It’s a funny position to be in, but it does feel like something of a mandate or at least a responsibility to put the point across on our behalf. The most simple example of it evolving though is that it sprang a website, kofthep.com.
What kind of response has the account had from the National Park and other authorities?
Fantastic. It’s had really good support and encouragement from the National Park. KoftheP is all about promoting responsible riding, good relations with other users; thinking about the place you ride. It fits with exactly what they are promoting in their approach to cycling in the Peak so we work very well together.
The conversations we have and projects we’re now working on together are very rewarding. We’ve got some really exciting stuff coming up with them too in the coming months and it’s great to have a good open dialogue with them on all things bike.
Can I say the same for other authorities? Well Sheffield City Council have been great and we talk regularly about how we can mutually support what we’re trying to achieve – they’ve been brilliant in driving forward access and helping to promote the reputation of the mountain biking community. And they’ve offered support in helping KoftheP and others position themselves.
Derbyshire County Council…. I wouldn’t say we’ve had quite the relationship I’ve enjoyed with PDNPA and SCC. Of course, it wouldn’t take much for them to come to the table, talk to us properly and work out what riders actually want. DCC seem to see the benefit of mountain bike access, looking at the work they’re doing in Glapwell with renowned trail designers Bike Track; but then you look at their really quite bizarre approach to consulting with groups up on Rushup Edge and you end up worrying that you’re just wasting your time.
Are you aware of anyone else being inspired to do the same thing elsewhere?
Yes! It’s great to see similar things kicking off elsewhere and even more rewarding to be suggested as inspiration for those groups. Up in Calderdale, @Calderdaletrail is doing the KoftheP thing on the fantastic network of trails they have there.
The work they’re doing building relationships with local authorities, rangers and of course riders in the area is brilliant. They were even kind enough to ask my advice; though I’m not sure how much help I can be!
In the other direction, on Sherwood Pines’ trails @redroutereport are doing the same, building the responsible riding ‘ethos’ in the forest. It’s great to see.
Then just this week as well I’ve been talking to riders in the Holme Valley who are looking to start a group. When that comes into being we’ll have a continuous ‘coverage’ of active mountain bike advocacy from the midlands up towards the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a really exciting prospect and one which in future can only mean good things for riders.
Do you share info on footpaths? If so, has that proved contentious at all?
This is an interesting question. I’m not naïve. Mountain bikers ride footpaths. But I’m also acutely aware that there are people who follow KoftheP (or who are aware that it is a source of information about mountain biking), who look for any way they can have a go at us. I’ve made a conscious decision not to share info on footpaths as I fear it would be used to undermine any advocacy I’m working on.
That said, there are thousands of footpaths out there that should be looked at to bring into the rideable network. There’s a strong argument to put forward. But that’s what advocacy is all about I guess. Contentious? The thought I’ve just put into this answer would suggest so.
It offers a useful service for riders, do you feel it’s also played a part in making them aware of their responsibilities?
I hope so, but it’s a fine balance. I want to share where’s good to ride, why it’s good to exercise responsibility, but I don’t want to come across as the fun police. There’s also the echo chamber thing; the kind of people who would be aware of or follow KoftheP would be the kind of people who would understand and exercise responsible riding anyway. Am I preaching to the converted? Maybe so. The real challenge is getting the message to those who, perhaps through no fault of their own, don’t ‘get it’.
So, short answer – yes I do, but it’s complex. I guess the website’s sprung up to give me a way of getting the message into the areas where awareness is perhaps not as high as on twitter. I can drop a link in to a group or a forum post and maybe spread the word a bit more.
I know you were also one of the people behind the Cut Gate Path report, which I know was the result of a project started by Ride Sheffield which developed into a collaboration with PDMTB. Tell us about that.
Yep I’ve had a few late, red wine-powered nights working on that document. It came from sinking in the bog. Seeing the bog get wider, and wider, and wider and bike tracks being in that widening path. Seeing “what’s Cut Gate like?” come up every week on KoftheP.
Something needed doing – I cobbled together the document with Ride Sheffield and PDMTB and it’s become… something.
It was quite well-received by stakeholders wasn’t it?
Yes. It’s been quite well received. Sheffield City Council, The Outdoor City, the Peak District National Park, Peak District MTB, Ride Sheffield and Peak Horsepower (the biggest local horse rider group) have all put their name to it.
Have there been any further developments on that front?
Yes. It was also spotted by the British Mountaineering Council (BMC). I’m not meant to say much more about it just yet, but there have been some really exciting developments on the back of it. All from people saying it’s a bit boggy on a twitter feed. Stay tuned – very soon we’ll be sharing more.
It’s been really great working with Si from 18 Bikes on this and the backing of Ride Sheffield and PDMTB really helps.
You’re also on the committee for the Peak District MTB group and liaise with Ride Sheffield, two groups which have a bit of overlap. How would you describe their respective approaches?
I am. Both groups have moved mountain biking forward so much in recent years and I’m proud to be involved in both of them. Look at what Ride Sheffield has achieved: from campaigning against the downgrading of a bridleway to leading proponents of mountain biking advocacy in so many different shades, they’ve done (and continue to do) a great job.
And things like Steel City DH, Lady Cannings and Greno are world class.
But they’ve only been able to do that by being able to build strong relationships. You can’t underestimate how vital that is. Which is why it’s really good to see what Peak District MTB are doing too. Relationship building has been key to what they’ve been able to do so far and seeing what they’re achieving in places like the Roaches and Ladybower is encouraging.
How would I describe their respective approaches? Subtly different, but always in the same direction. You have two groups of people committed to increasing mountain bike access and opportunities. I’m sure PDMTB can learn things from Ride Sheffield, and vice versa. But everyone can follow what they are doing and see how they are improving things for riders. We just need more of it.
Do you have any plans to further develop KoftheP?
More followers. Maybe franchise it… Could I be Keeper of the Downs? Keeper of the Lakes? I don’t know – local knowledge has been such a huge help; but theoretically it could go more national. I’d like to get some funding going through it somehow – it’s never going to be a livelihood, but despite our best efforts, you do need hard cash to get stuff done so maybe there’ll be some merchandise or something in future.
For now though I’ll keep plugging away with the twitter feed and the campaigning and hoping that we keep on building the support we’ve been able to get so far. But what could be the best development for Keeper of the Peak? That he actually gets to ride his bike a bit more. Now that would be something.