Ride and Prejudice – how mountain bikers became the bad boys of the outdoors

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Recently I wrote about how most of the UK’s outdoor access laws favour users who don’t happen to be mountain bikers. Sadly, that’s just part of the picture. There are deep-set cultural biases at work too. Collectively I’d term these “YSBH”, or You Shouldn’t Be Here, and I’d argue that these play almost as much of a role in where we can and can’t ride.

As old as dirt

Riding bicycles off-road is nothing new. In fact Thomas Stevens rode a penny farthing around the world more than a decade before the invention of tarmac. As roads improved and car ownership mushroomed, folk like the Rough Stuff Fellowship kept taking bicycles to places that would be considered a proper day out on a mountain bike even today. Yet they never did this in such numbers that it became “normal”. Cycle speedway and then BMX took the UK by storm, but were mostly confined to purpose-built tracks in towns and cities.

When the mountain bike boom hit the UK in 1980s, we were seen by other countryside users as the new kid on the block. Mountain biking was a bright, brash American import that drew in a younger crowd. The speed of bikes, the fluorescent clothes, and even the expressions of concentration that mountain bikers wore as they picked their way through challenging terrain were all cited as evidence that mountain bikers didn’t belong. Letter-writers to the Ramblers magazine complained that walkers were terrified of “being knocked down by some speed-crazed biker”, and that the new-fangled machines “quickly turn paths into a quagmire”. It probably didn’t help that some of the earliest adopters of mountain bikes were cycle couriers in London, creating suspicions that boorish city folk were descending en masse to ravage the countryside.

So mountain bikers quickly became a folk demon and a target for anyone with a chip on their shoulder. Landowners had no idea how to manage this new sport, other than trying to restrict the areas where it could take place. It might seem unthinkable now, but mountain bike bans were proposed in areas like Cannock Chase, the Quantock Hills and Forest of Dean – all places where MTBers now make up a sizeable percentage of the users. Despite the efforts of mountain bikers to organise themselves through fledgling associations like the British Mountain Bike Federation, we lacked the volume of other user groups. It wasn’t until the trail centre revolution of the mid-1990s that many land managers, who might previously have been previously sceptical, realised that we were desirable visitors in our own right.

Nature for who?

From the start, mountain bikes seemed destined to collide head on with distinctly British attitudes to the countryside. Rural areas used to be thought of as working landscapes, full of early death and grinding poverty, unless you were lucky enough to inherit a country estate. Climbing mountains for fun was unheard of. Then in the 19th century the countryside was rediscovered and romanticised. We started to value the outdoors again, but we also developed the view that it should be kept unspoiled and natural – a problematic concept when there’s virtually no landscape in the UK that hasn’t had some type of human influence.

climbing, canoeing, and mountain biking never made it into romantic poetry or landscape paintings

As a result, in England there’s a surprisingly narrow range of country pursuits that meet with widespread acceptance. Horse riding, walking and farming all tend to be seen as traditional and respectable, but climbing, canoeing, and mountain biking never made it into romantic poetry or landscape paintings. This narrow definition of outdoor activities has also helped create a huge problem with representation and inclusivity. If you talk about “enjoying the countryside”, the first activity that springs to mind for many people is probably a group of middle-aged walkers with rucksacks and flasks. If you’re poor, young, female, non-white, or working class then you are much less likely to be out in the hills, and mountain biking is no exception to this, shrinking its potential participant base even further.

Paths for the people?

There’s also a tendency for existing users of the countryside to act as gatekeepers, telling people what level of risk is and isn’t acceptable (For an example of this, just look at the comments under almost any article about a mountain rescue callout.) Some outdoor enthusiasts love to portray the countryside as a dangerous place, and adrenalin sports like mountain biking, where accepting a bit of additional risk is part of the fun, can attract extra ire as a result.

Older and wiser?

As time has gone on and the shock of the new has worn off, attitudes towards mountain biking are improving, but the initial misconceptions still persist. There’s an assumption that mountain bikers cause more soil erosion than walkers, despite multiple scientific studies that show otherwise. There’s also a tendency to blame all mountain bikers for inconsiderate behaviour by a few, which is typical of what happens when people belong to an “out-group” (In Belfast, the local council even invoked a pedestrian death on a road in London to support a proposed restriction on mountain biking.) And in many places, bans and bylaws enacted or dusted off during the moral panic of the 1980s are still in force.

For some riders, being part of a sport with a bit of an image problem adds to the excitement. But mountain biking’s wild teenage years are long behind it. It’s become older, more affluent, more respectable and arguably more exclusive. It’s a good time to start undoing some of the misconceptions of the past and make it easier for future generations to get involved.

So I’d like to end this piece with a rallying call to riders: get involved. Look after the places you ride. Talk to other trail users and landowners. Write that email to your council or your MP. Dig up the scientific evidence that says we’re no more harmful to nature than anyone else. Go along to your local access meetings. Wherever decisions about the outdoors are being made, there are often empty seats waiting to be filled. Represent mountain biking, and other people won’t be able to fall back on tired stereotypes of yobs on wheels. Nothing will improve if we keep skulking in the woods and moaning about how everyone hates us, even if it’s partially true.

Comments (19)

    Many protest movements have started and succeeded by breaking the law which many at times is an ass.

    I like this article as I like many others have said hello and engaged with ramblers to try and show we are not a bunch of yobos. However it does feel like you can sense the loathing from the ramblers when you come across them. Many times at our local woods at Erlstoke we have to remove obstacles that can only have been put there on purpose. I hate the attitude that ramblers can perceive to portray that they are the only people allowed to use and enjoy the outdoors.

    Hmmm…not sure your retroscope is focussing properly.

    stevemcqueen, a serious question: if mountain bikers stuck religiously to bridleways and byways, and never built any trails, do you think we would end up with more places to ride?

    Responsible riding and legal trail construction are great messages to put out, but your comments are oversimplifying the issues massively.

    I think it’s very easy to highlight incidents of conflict that often happen in isolation. I’m not saying there isn’t trail conflict, there clearly is, but in my experience it rends to happen rarely. Maybe I’m fortunate, but in the (…ahem) 30 years I’ve been doing this I can recall perhaps the 2 or 3 times I’ve been challenged by some-one actively hostile to my presence in the country-side, and the last one was a decade or more ago. Sure, there are some folk who dislike MTBs but for that one person, there are 10, 20, 30 folk who couldn’t give a monkey’s that you’re on a bike and in fact are largely ignorant (or more likely; don’t care) about access rights. I think for some of us who’ve been doing this a long time, the attitude of “punk” that came came with the first imported mountain bikes is still there, and we’re always primed for conflict because that’s what we’ve been told awaits us every time we ride our bikes, but in reality never really seems to materialise more than once every few years by some mad old bat with no more rights to the countryside that we have, just willing enough to break the oh-so English social construct to “have a Go”

    As long as I’ve been doing these sorts of “adventure” sports, be that kayak, scrambling, MTB, climbing, there have been folk to tell us that we’re just about to loose our “rights” to use that path, or this moorland, or the pitch. Or that the ever mysterious and present “They” are going to ban our sport…

    Hasn’t happen yet…

    I was in the Dales the last couple of days, where I did much of my early MTBing almost 30 years ago. Encountered and exchanged pleasantries with a number of walkers, and stopped for a chat with three old boys on their way to a bit of cave digging. No hostility, no tension, no problems. But I don’t ride as part of a mob, and I treat people as I would like to be treated. Apologies if that doesn’t fit the militant narrative.

    I used to ride the fells to the east of the Corney Fell Road, between Devoke Water and the Duddon. There was one bridleway out of Brigert Mire, for the rest there were tracks on the ground, but hardly any other marked rights of way at all.

    I was challenged there by a walker once, along the lines of your, ‘you should not be here’, and it gave me infinite joy to reply, ‘you and me both mate, there are no footpaths, so you should not be here either’. The idiot made no response.

    In general though, I think things seem to be a little friendlier out there towards us. I’m nearly always alone, and I try to be polite and allow other users precedence, even if they are thoughtlessly frustrating my need to do the descent/climb in one go.

    Mountain bikes aren’t motorbikes, and most trail centres were built in places where there were already unofficial trails. There are a variety of responses to riders building illegally, and providing sanctioned trails (or negotiating some kind of agreement with the trail builders which lets them do their thing officially) is actually pretty common.

    On the subject of access, in some areas of the country the bridleway network is good enough to attract mountain bikers specifically to ride there. But in other areas it isn’t. And please remember that the right to walk on your local footpaths didn’t just spring into existence – it came about thanks to long term campaigning, including civil disobedience, violent scuffles, and another round of mass trespass in the 1990s to secure the Right to Roam.
    https://www.ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/past-campaigns/right-to-roam-crow.aspx

    Policing the rights of way stevemcqueen? How dare you.

    If I’m out walking the dog on a footpath and a cyclist rides past, I congratulate them on their pioneering spirit.
    Suggest you do same!

    Oh, Steve… Let me spell this out for you, as clearly as I can.

    If you rode your moto past me on a mountain bike trail, that would be a criminal offence, and a matter for the police. The level of response varies, but there have been multiple police operations around the UK which have ended with offenders’ bikes being confiscated and crushed.

    https://www.adventurebikerider.com/police-crack-down-illegal-off-road-motorcycling/

    If I rode my mountain bike past you on a footpath, that would almost certainly be a civil tort, and a matter between me and the landowner. The police would not be interested, and nobody’s bike would be confiscated and crushed.

    https://singletrackworld.com/2011/04/access-all-areas-a-rights-of-way-officers-view-part-1/

    In addition, if the landowner was concerned about you riding motorbikes on his land, he could put physical measures in place that might stand a reasonable chance of keeping you out. If mountain bikes were the problem, it would be much harder to physically exclude them, as pretty much anyone can lift a push bike over a fence or stile.

    So not only is the legal position different, but completely different management approaches are required. But in both cases, standing at the side of the trail and tutting are highly unlikely to be effective.

    You appear to believe in some sort of mountain bike Santa Claus, who punishes bad bikers and rewards good ones with better trails and access. I think the truth is a bit more nuanced.

    It’s covered by Section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

    Picture at the top of the page: Pennine Way … Do I win owt?

    I got told off in Coniston for cycling on a shared cycle/footpath out of the town. The attitude from walkers on paths is the saem as drivers on the roads. They believe they have sole entitlement and I think it will be very difficult to show them otherwise.

    A sizeable minority of ramblers and dog walkers are just miserable old gits who hate sharing ‘their’ walk with anyone. Add in to that the fact that most mountain bike riders actually add insult to injury by looking like they are enjoying themselves (how DARE they), and you are bound to get some aggro.

    Also, simple maths means that the population density in England specifically means that people per square km are higher. Assuming the arsehole ratio remains constant between countries (being charitable to us English), the arsehole per square kilometre (A / Sq K) ratio is naturally higher.

    Also, for the record, I’m totally non-confrontational with walkers who disapprove. More often than not, I’m positively polite and courteous, which just seems to wind the really aggro ones up even more. I’m not sure people like this are able to be genuinely happy at all, ever, about anything.

    Vast majority of folk are great. I fell off in a comedy tumble on Sunday about 15m away from a bloke walking his dog. I looked at him, he looked at me and we both started chuckling. Not much else to say, really.

    Motor bikes do more damage than horses which in turn do more damage than bicycles which do more/as much damage as walkers. There is a sliding scale. Your tolerance doesn’t seem to have a sliding scale to match.

    well i just follow my nose and ride where i want so ner. have never looked at a map when out riding.

    bridleway, footpath, muddy rut? just a track to me… nobody has ever educated me on the ways of access rights etc? i didnt even know it was a thing until i read about on here! never had any grief either…

    blissful ignorance ftw!

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