“A truly great mountain bike course has to be designed and built from the rider’s perspective. Every decision we make when trail building is prefaced with the question; how would we feel about this if we were riding it? We could make life a lot easier for ourselves, but that would run counter to what we believe in, so we take the Kowalski way out. We want riders to go home and say to themselves — man that was the best event I’ve ever done.”
Spend time in the company of Self Propelled Enterprises’ Director Alan Vogt, and you just naturally start to itch to get out on a single track. This man has mountain biking and trail building in his genetic code, and it is infectious.
Ahead of the revered Kowalski Classic, we caught up with Alan to find out more about the event, his years as a trail builder, and why mountain biking will forever be part of his being.
“Mountain biking engages my inner kid. I’ve never gone for a ride and not come back with a big grin on my face.”
Alan is a born and bred Canberra local, and grew up riding dragsters and ‘God knows what else’ around the fire roads through Mt Ainslie and Mt Majura. In 1990 he managed the Australian MTB Championships, which were held on Mt Stromlo, where Alan had built several trails. It was his baptism of fire as an event manager and trail builder, and he hasn’t really stopped since.
Eighteen years (and plenty of trails later), Alan and David Edwards launched into event management when they took over the running of Mont 24, the longest-running 24h MTB race in Australia. Having participated in the event since almost day dot, Alan knew that if he and David didn’t take on its management, it would be unlikely to continue.
It was for the 2011 Mont 24 that really required Alan to step up his trail building. Plans to re-direct the Kings Highway through the old venue (Sparrow Hill) meant that the Mont had to find a new home (at East Kowen) and required the building of 20km of trails in next to no time – six months, in fact. They didn’t stop at 20km however — fast forward four years and East Kowen now boasts the biggest network of trails in the region. But that’s another story for another time – we’re here to talk Kowalskis and their signature Kowalski Classic race.
“There are no actual Kowalskis in our group (other than our fictional names) and we are not brothers. ‘Kowalski' was name of the first trail built by the crew and Jim Trail named it in reference to a bit-character in the Dirty Dozen. (Kowalski appears in many movies, not just war movies — he’s a good looking, tough as nails, straight shootin' son-of-a-gun. You’ve gotta have a Kowalski!). Youngsters might naturally assume we named ourselves after a penguin, but it goes way further back than that. The trail name stuck, then came Son of Kowalski, Ghost of Kowalski, then Kowlaski’s Beer Garden and on it went… ”
The Kowlaskis are probably best now described as a trail building movement. The name is so synonymous with Canberra’s trail building scene that Alan and his cohort now receive correspondence as far away as Perth, acknowledging the ‘legends’ and the work they’re doing for the MTB scene in general (which they think is kind of cool).
Alan can’t quite pinpoint when he and his fellow riders first started tooling dirt as a group. He thinks it probably started while someone was fixing a flat and someone else wandered into the forest and started kicking around some soil while they were waiting. That’s where they got their first taste of building trail. The addiction and obsessive disorders came later.
So that same posse began to not only ride and race on Canberra’s trails, but contribute significantly to their expansion. The Kowalski’s off-hand naming soon became indelibly intertwined with trail building and riding trail.
Back then Alan confesses they probably didn’t know a lot about trail building but their philosophy was there from day one, they wanted to surf the hillside. Since then – and many trails later – the Kowlaskis have honed their skill, travelled widely and come home inspired, they’ve welcomed trail builders from around the world, and they’ve become very good at what they do.
“What drives us as trail builders and motivates as course designers is to create a fundamentally new experience each and every time; a total redesign that feels completely unlike the previous year’s race.”
The Kowalski Brothers team are constantly dreaming up and working on new trails. They spy hillsides, walk through looking for features and desired lines well before putting tool to soil. It is all completely hands-on; at ground level; no studying of maps in rooms off-location. It’s this innate link to trail building and course development that gives Self Propelled Enterprises such a close connection to the races they organise.
“We’re so bonded to that area. I can’t imagine running a race where we’ve not played a fundamental role in the design and build. It’s hard-wired into us.”
It also means that anything Self Propelled touch is going to come packed with personality.
“There’s a certain Kowalski culture and personality inherent in the trails we build. You can be guaranteed challenges, but there’ll always be smiles at the end. And we love to surprise – we may fold in a dose of deliberate evilness to keep things interesting too [cue Bond villain laugh].”
It is all about the love of trail for the Kowalskis.
Sure, they work with existing fire roads etc, but the magic really comes into play when they get into the single track. Self Propelled Enterprises work on a formula of 70% single track for Kowalski Classic courses, which Alan confesses is often a pretty tricky thing to do. It means feathering in more passing opportunities to avoid congestion, but placing them at strategic points where racers would probably otherwise bunch up.
See also: The Dirty Dozen trails in Alpine VIC
But the course also needs to offer a little of something to everyone, as events will attract all shades of the racing and riding spectrum – from elites who just want to go out and crush each other, to youngsters just starting out in clubs up to 60 year old+ age groupers who are fit as Mallee Bulls, but not out to ruin themselves.
Then there’s the rush and the emotion.
The course needs to deliver breath-taking vistas and points of interest, then plunge the rider back into some exciting trail so their focus is back on the race.
And this is where we get to the annual Kowalski Classic, a race designed specifically to show off all the planning, passion and work that’s gone into building over 100km of trail.
“People are not going to believe what we’ve managed to squeeze into this year’s course. Even locals super familiar with the trails should come out of this race losing track of where they’ve been.”
There are two major new trails in this year’s Kowalski Classic, Romper Room designed by Kowalski Brother David Morgan, and Stairway to Heaven, which is Alan’s latest dirty baby. Get Alan talking about these two, and hear the man start to become very, very excited. He’s convinced this year’s Classic nails the ethos of Kowalski trail building. There’s plenty of challenges and plenty of cheekiness – the team has built these new trails right alongside a very well established ascent and descent – anyone who knows the area will be blown away with how they’ve managed to pull it off. And there’s now little links to other older trails, so riders who think they know these forests back-to-front are going to be kept on their toes the whole time, true to Kowalski form.
Make no mistakes – Alan is convinced this is going to be the best Kowalski Classic yet.
“When you have literally over 140 trails, it’s amazing how you can string this spaghetti in so many ways… The Kow is like Wow.”