by Antony de Heveningham
October 13, 2015
Why don’t more people go mountain biking? It’s something I’ve often pondered. On paper it seems brilliant – as competitive as you want it be, free facilities, and a whole range of experiences from ambient countryside rambling to white-knuckle terror – yet there are loads of mountain bikes in garages and sheds across the land whose wheels probably only touch dirt at Center Parcs. If we’ve only scratched the surface of mountain biking’s potential, is it because it’s an intimidating, gnarly, granite edifice? I reckon there’s a lot more that we could be doing to encourage the beginners.
Local trails are key
Mountain biking is still overwhelmingly marketed as something that needs a mountain. This is nonsense.
It needs quick loops that you can bash out in a lunchtime or after work, as well as epic yomps across bog with only a couple of sheep to keep you company. Driving to ride obviously opens up your options, but it also adds planning, cost, time and faff, as well as making things hard work for the many people in the UK who don’t own a car. So let’s start thinking of mountain bike facilities in the same way as skateparks or football pitches: a fun, low-cost way of getting people into sport, without necessarily involving a five-hour trip to a part of the UK that looks like Mordor. That can come a bit further along the line.
1 – Councils: chances are your town is already well-stocked with facilities for pitch sports. Not everyone wants to do exercise which is mainly based around hitting balls or giving yourself shin splints though, so how about building some pump tracks, BMX tracks, and urban loops? If you’ve already got some, make quiet, low-traffic ways to get there by bike (take a bow, Port Talbot). And for crying out loud, stop banning cycling in parks. They are essential for recreation, enjoyment and health, not decorative flecks of AstroTurf on your moribund, grey, car-choked conurbation.
2 – Clubs, take a look at yourselves. Are you welcoming to new riders, or are they just fleshy lumps who are periodically lowered into your piranha tank of testosterone-fuelled savagery, then cast aside? If you don’t have a ride aimed at beginners, where is your new intake coming from? And what happens when your existing members start having families, move away, or lose interest?
3 – Event and race series organisers, you’re doing a bang up job. Keep doing what you do. Everyone who moans about event organisers, try organising your own. You don’t have to set up a rival to Mountain Mayhem, it could just be as simple as signing up to MTB Meetup and organising a group ride.
4 – Local shops, remember that the investment needed for an individual to take up this sport is no small thing, even if whiny customers remind you of this fact all the time. Try putting your best value bike in the window, instead of the latest unattainable wonder machine. Second-hand kit is a great way into the sport, especially with everyone currently in the grip of new standards-induced upgrade fever, so try carrying some of it, or hosting a bike jumble. If it’s good enough for Steve Peat…
5 – Manufacturers, make decent starter machines. Stop speccing crap twangy suspension forks that make bikes slower on smooth trails and unrideable on technical ones. A solid, basic, adaptable bike with spares available years down the line will sell well, and function as a great rolling advert for your brand when it’s still being ridden in ten years time.
6 – Marketing men (and I bet most of you are men), here is a wake-up call: 50% of the population couldn’t give a stuff about mountain biking. You need to engage women, and the consensus is you haven’t cracked this yet. The wider fitness industry (particularly running) can give you some good pointers, but you can also water the grass roots by supporting women in events, or stumping up for some decent prizes in female race categories.
7 – Journos, have a big round of applause for all of you who review cheap kit, and gush about good value bikes. But what’s with the tendency to homogenise your photo shoots? Why do you always seem to put riders in a certain type of clothing, on a certain type of bike? If you must do this, please also show ‘real world’ mountain biking – the bloke on the URT museum piece having the time of his life. The more standardised things are, the more predictable and dull they become – look at your average UK high street for a cautionary example – so showcase the unusual, as well as the fashionable.
8 – Rights of Way officers: publicise good natural riding, and hassle landowners to improve the quagmires, the jungles and the awful signage. Conservation and nature charities, stop saying things like ‘we welcome visits by bike’, and then doing bugger all to actually facilitate this. Recognise the yawning gulf between the way mountain biking is marketed – dudes plummeting off cliffs – and the reality: happy, healthier than average people, enjoying and appreciating the countryside.This is a scary time for our relationship with the natural world, with many people engaging with it only through a tiny square of glass, and you are in the front line.
9 – Mountain bike advocates, you’ve had a rough ride. It’s easy (and unfair) for people to write you off as ineffective when you’re fighting over every small concession and footpath upgrade. Still though, I’d like to see some of the big names put their weight behind a vigorous campaign for Scottish-style access reform. There are signs that Wales may follow Scotland at some point, and then either England will be shamed into following suit, or at least we’ll all be able to move to somewhere with sensible access laws and affordable housing.
Finally, if you’re filled with horror at the thought of more people taking up mountain biking, look at running again. The success of events like the Color Run – stuff that seems pretty lame, even to a non-runner like myself – has not impacted the availability of much tougher events. If anything it’s had the opposite effect. We can raise the levels for mountain biking in the UK, but only if we broaden the base.