Why an instructor left academia to take a job building mountain bike trails

Penny Deck leads teams of volunteers that build and maintain mountain biking trail networks for the Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association.

Four years ago, Penny Deck walked out of the university classroom where she taught nutrition, health, and physiology and into a forest to build mountain bike trails full time.

“It's definitely my dream job,” she said.

As operations manager for the Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association, Deck works with volunteers to build, plan, and maintain the mountain bike trails that criss-cross the Fraser Valley wilderness. Though she has been mountain biking for 30 years—and helping build trails for almost half that time—she never planned to have a career in the sport she loves.

FVC: Why did you start mountain biking?

I moved to Vancouver in 1994, and I had friends that mountain bike, and they took me riding on the north shore. And it was really fun. So I kind of got hooked and have been doing it ever since.

FVC: Did you ever race competitively?

I did some cross-country racing when I first started out. Most of them were sort of local, grassroots races at that time. So that was a good way to meet people and learn the trails and travel through BC and see different trail networks. But it was always just for fun, to push my skills, get a little faster, and mostly just for the social environment too.

The social environment continues to be a big part of mountain biking, even as the sport continues to grow and change, Deck said. Small grassroots races are part of the social aspect, but so are social rides where mountain bikers get together and go for a ride without formally competing. The community present in the sport remains one of Deck’s favourite parts of riding.

FVC: Do you have a favourite part of a mountain bike ride?

One of the things that I like most about mountain biking overall is that it can take you to some pretty cool places. Your bike can take you to really cool viewpoints… and it's something you can do solo, you can go for a bike ride by yourself. But you can also go with a group of friends and it can be really social. Whether it's a race or whether it's just a group of friends hanging out, it can be really great.

FVC: So it isn’t all about break-neck downhill racing?

That’s one part of it! But it’s not the only part of it. For some people, that's the most important part. And the downhill for me is where the fun is at. But I don't feel any need to go super fast. It’s about enjoying the trail and enjoying the friends I'm riding with and pushing my skills and trying something new and just enjoying the forest.

FVC: Did you ever plan on building a career around this sport?

I've been in this position for four years now. If you'd asked me maybe seven years ago what I thought I'd be doing seven years from then, I would have never thought that I'd be in this position.

I taught at SFU for many, many years. And that was what I thought I would keep doing. But then the pandemic came and now I'm doing this. It's a great job. I get to be outside half of the time, looking after the trails. I also spend a bit of time at my desk, writing grants for funding to make sure that we can run our trails year-round, working on other projects, and getting permission to do all the work that we do.

FVC: What did you teach at SFU?

I was in the biomedical physiology and kinesiology department. And I taught nutrition, health and physiology.

FVC: What was the change like, for you to go from an academic position like that into something so different?

I had been volunteering as a trail builder for 12 years. Maybe more than that. And I learned to trail-build with some builders and their friends, and I looked after several trails on the north shore.

Today, Deck’s job involves organizing squads for the type of volunteer work that she used to do. While the social community is a big part of the fun of mountain biking, the community surrounding the sport is also the only way sizeable mountain biking trail networks—like the ones in the Fraser Valley— can be built and maintained. They depend on hours of volunteer work every year.

Building mountain bike trails takes time and muscle. 📷️ Submitted.

We invite the community and the public to come out to a trail day. We have a lot of trails, whether it's here in the Fraser Valley or other trail networks throughout the province. There's way more trails than what any trail association can actually look after with paid employees. So we rely on volunteers a lot to come out and do work. But you also need someone who knows what they're doing to guide that work.

FVC: Are there a lot of women involved in mountain biking these days? What about building the trails?

It’s really dependent on the local community…I definitely love to see more women in the sport. It’s certainly one thing that's changed over the last 20 years that I've been riding— there are a lot more women out on the trails than there used to be. Unfortunately, I don't think marketing and mountain biking has caught up to that.

With regard to the trail-building side of things, there’s definitely not as many women that are involved in that, which is also something that I'm working on. I've got a few projects this fall or next spring that hopefully will encourage more women to get out and help with trail building as well.

FVC: How does it feel, a few years into this job, to work doing something you have loved for so long?

It's definitely my dream job. It's really rewarding. I'm very blessed to be in this position. I have a fantastic crew that I work with on trails. But the community is really incredible as well. It's nice to know that the work that we do is enjoyed by everybody that uses the trails. It's not just the mountain bikers—whether people are on a bike, whether they're out for a walk with their dog or they’re trail running—it’s nice to know that everybody appreciates the work.

The FVMBA maintains hundreds of kilometres of mountain biking trails in networks from Maple Ridge to Chilliwack.

Deck has several suggestions for anyone interested in starting out in mountain biking. The most beginner-friendly series of trails is in the Chilliwack Community Forest. Most of the riding areas also have some easier trails, but she suggests two intermediate trails for a new rider's next steps: Squidline Trail at Sumas Mountain or Superbear at Bear Mountain. 

There are also local riding groups that new bikers can connect with through their local bike shops, and the FVMBA association runs social rides throughout the summer.

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