The Future of Mountain Biking Isn’t in the Mountains

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I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the future of mountain biking, and what it might look like. There will undoubtedly be more technical innovations that make bikes faster and more fun, as well as more complicated and expensive. And naturally, those pesky e-MTBs will continue to spread, gradually eroding the core values of mountain biking by letting people ride further and enjoy themselves more.

But the most surprising thing isn’t how we’re riding, it’s where. The future of mountain biking isn’t in the mountains.

kona hei hei dl wil lady cannings shockwiz fox shimano bontrager wtb mountain biking
Lady Cannings Plantation – a great trail just four miles from the centre of Sheffield.

Back when I started riding, it used to be quite a seasonal activity. Some people would stick their bikes in the shed for the winter, only bringing them out when it was nearly summer and the trails had dried out. But as the nineties gave way to the noughties, things started to change. Trails that were purpose-built for mountain biking, with proper surfacing and drainage, began to pop up around the UK. We did road trips to Wales and Scotland to ride as many of them as we could. And our local woods, which had previously been a sort of uncharted Narnia (albeit with more fly-tipping and discarded grot mags) were also turned into a destination of sorts, complete with shiny signposts and a tourist-friendly website.

We might have felt a bit ambivalent about this at the time. The numbers of people using the trail mushroomed and families, folk on hire bikes and kids from the nearby estates became a common sight. But what we were witnessing was the progress of mountain biking, from a semi-secret society into a normal leisure activity that anyone could have a go at, without having to learn the lifestyle sports equivalent of a Masonic handshake.

Close to home

Urban mountain bike trails seem to get a dismissive sneer from a lot of riders. The words conjure up visions of overgrown, rubbish-strewn pockets of crumbling aggregate sadness, used for a few months and then abandoned. But in the grand scheme of this pastime of ours, they’re pretty damn important.

One reason for this is accessibility. Loading up the car and driving miles to a forest or a mountain has become noticeably more expensive and difficult over the past few years. In general, if you can ride from your door, you’ll ride more. And up here in West Yorkshire, we’re comparatively fortunate to have proper hills all over the place, threaded with brilliant biking.

But if you’re not lucky enough to live somewhere with amenable geography, your mid-week rides probably depend on one of these urban spots. And most people in the UK don’t live in a rural idyll – we’re overwhelmingly a built-up nation, with 80-90% of our population in urban areas. If we keep promoting mountain biking purely as a sport which requires a trip to a National Park, it’ll limit its growth, and have some negative impacts too. There are plenty of places where the sheer number of visitors is making them less pleasant to visit, and a lot of these are mountain bike hotspots too. So if mountain biking grows, the pressure on these places increases. That’s not an ideal situation.

But there’s an even more persuasive argument for bringing mountain biking closer to people, instead of bringing people closer to mountain biking, and it can be summed up in one question: where is the next generation of riders going to come from?

leeds bike park mountain biking singletrack magazine
Fun for all ages and wheel sizes.

Big things come from small trails

We’ve already established that getting out to the hills, for most people, involves a bit of a journey. Fine if you’re an adult with time on your hands and a driving licence, not so great if you’re reliant on your parents to give you a lift. So a short singletrack loop tucked away in a city park is much more likely to get kids actually riding than yet another epic video of someone rattling their way down a massive, gnarly mountain.

While a trail in the park might not have the aesthetic qualities of a majestic natural landscape, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t proper mountain biking. At its heart, riding off road is a set of fundamental techniques – braking, cornering, weighting and unweighting – that remain exactly the same, whether you’re on an alpine ridge or within sight of a Sainsbury’s.

And while there are some extra skills and knowledge involved in riding through remote places, giving kids a certain amount of independence can often help foster these. For example, there’s evidence that children who make journeys on their own develop better navigational skills. Creating convenient places to ride near where they live can equip them with the skills to head off over the horizon.

(Can’t see the video? Click here)

As a society, Britain has a slightly confused attitude to young people. We don’t want them causing trouble, so we systematically remove things for them to do, then we wonder why they end up hanging around in large, menacing groups in places that were never designed for them. Riding is an antidote to this. It takes time and persistence to become good at it,  and it can open the door to lots of other experiences, whether it’s a lifelong love of riding, travelling the world on two wheels, or just getting the fitness and the confidence to make everyday journeys by bike.

(Watch on YouTube)

It’s not just a case of “build it and they will come”. Urban trails need to be designed and constructed to high standards, and that applies if they’re a state-of-the-art pump track costing tens of thousands, or a shady set of jumps in a quiet corner of a wood. It also helps to create some kind of community around the trails, whether it’s a club that has coaching sessions there, or just a couple of riders organising an occasional jam. Get the formula right though, and a trail can become a real asset to a community.

So I’ll finish this piece with a suggestion: if you don’t currently have anywhere to ride a mountain bike or a BMX near you, go for a wander round where you live, find a couple of spots that might be able to accommodate a pump track, a set of jumps, or a short loop of trail, and start pestering people. You might start something much bigger than you imagine.

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Antony was a latecomer to the joys of riding off-road, and he’s continued to be a late adopter of many of his favourite things, including full suspension, dropper posts, 29ers, and adult responsibility. At some point he decided to compensate for his lack of natural riding talent by organising maintenance days on his local trails. This led, inadvertently, to writing for Singletrack, after one of his online rants about lazy, spoilt mountain bikers who never fix trails was spotted and reprinted on this website during a particularly slow news week. Now based just up the road from the magazine in West Yorkshire, he’s expanded his remit to include reviews and features as well as rants. He’s also moved on from filling holes in the woods to campaigning for changes to the UK’s antiquated land access laws, and probing the relationship between mountain biking and the places we ride. He’s a firm believer in bringing mountain biking to the people, whether that’s through affordable bikes, accessible trails, enabling technology, or supportive networks. He’s also studied sustainable transport, and will happily explain to anyone who’ll listen why the UK is a terrible place for everyday utility cycling, even though it shouldn’t be. If that all sounds a bit worthy, he’s also happy to share tales of rides gone awry, or delicate bike parts burst asunder by ham-fisted maintenance. Because ultimately, there are enough talented professionals in mountain bike journalism, and it needs more rank amateurs.

More posts from Antony

Comments (17)

    Excellent case in point, Leeds Urban Bike Park, a real gem appreciated by many.

    … and the whole problem is generated by the fact that access to the land in England is extremly outdated, contradicting and convoluted.
    In continental Europe, at least in the part I’m from, there is no such mind boggling things like divide between footpath, bridleway, byway and so on…

    There is a path, it is not restricted area, you can ride it. Just don’t be a dick.

    Other issue is that UK as a whole got third smallest forested area of land mass in Europe at measly 12% (2010 data, so I apprecate it might be slightly different today) only “bested” by Ireland and Netherlands.

    That is not really helping.

    Again, my personal example. Living in urban area, only lest than 2 miles from the city center I can get into the woodlands by making less than 500 meters walk/ride and spend whole day playing without repeting single trail.

    It is good to see that comunity is trying to catter to the needs of riders with available resources, but finally amending silly, outdated land access right should be also high on your agenda…

    Just saying…

    I got radio silence when I contacted our local council about the possibility of getting a pump track or some trails built. Meh. We’ve started building our own stuff locally and just taking what we want instead of waiting to be given it.

    Fantastic article and great comments. Straight forward access to places to ride for all folks on any budget is a solid vision.

    “Just don’t be a dick.”


    And then we read:

    “We’ve started building our own stuff locally and just taking what we want instead of waiting to be given it.”

    You’re the **** problem, Kayla.

    “You’re the **** problem, Kayla.”

    It’s just paths in the woods, nobody really cares.

    Maybe I’m just lucky – I have some of the best riding I could wish for on my doorstep(s) (Ballaugh, Isle of Man and Platsa, Greece) and never get any hassle from anyone. I can go pretty much anywhere I wish. Sometimes, I’m sure, I take it all for granted…

    I don’t think I am the problem, the problem is the dull, grey men who run the majority or our town councils. They’re happy to give over what could be lovely green spaces to developer to build retail parks and other crap we don’t need. People need stuff to do, not more places to spend money. And it is only paths through the woods, it’s not like we’re mass trespassing on Kinder Scout or anything but you have start somewhere…

    I should add as well that we do live by rule #1. What we’re doing isn’t affecting anyone, it’s out of sight, we’re quiet and we don’t litter. It’s also being (sensibly) added to by others so it’s obviously being used, which is nice :)

    Kayla1 you may think it’s just paths in the woods but do you properly understand those woods? What flora and fauna might you be damaging? There’s a lot more to to it than just paths through the woods.

    The wood (roughly rectangular 200m x 60m area, non-native species) were planted when the houses around it were built in the 60s, it’s not like it’s ancient forest full of (insert name of really rare animal) and (insert name of really rare plant) or anything. It is, literally, just some paths through some woods so I’ll suggest that you get off your high horses and wind your necks in unless you know the area better than me, thanks awfully.

    i do enjoy the leeds urban bike park and more recently the oakenshaw mtb loop, but nothing beats open moorland or local woods

    i just wish the future generations learnt a few things
    1, how to keep litter in their bags or pockets and take it home with them.
    2, not to block the route, and allow the person on track priority
    3, avoid pushing back up the track around the jump line on blind corners.

    i tend to ride 8am-10am to avoid the worst..

    Hey Antony, reading this reminds me nostalgically of the Beastway Race Series that used to happen after work every Wednesday evening in the summer, a couple of easily rideable miles from the City of London in the early noughties. It was the first mountain bike race I ever did, held as it was at the Eastway Cycle Circuit, a reclaimed landfill site. I absolutely loved it. Sadly the venue got bull-dozed to make way for the London Olympics village, and relocated to a site further out of town and not quite as accessible to so many. Perhaps urban mountain biking is less a new ‘thing’ but more an evolved ‘thing’, with established roots (think Bristol Bike Fest too, etc), and hence a right to be here, loved and campaigned for. I do believe the societal benefits will take care of themselves as long as we keep using these facilities, organising ourselves, and campaigning for their development and on-going maintainance. The more visible urban mountain biking is, the less of a crime it’ll seem to the nay-sayers and newspaper letters contributors too. At least that’s my idealistic hope! :0) Eloise

    Mountain biking is about riding offroad away from towns, cars, people, get out in the hills, forest woods, yes pump tracks are great but by no means the future, theres so many skate park, indoor parks, standing idle as riders get fed up with the same old place to ride, Mountain bikers love to explore, look for places they have not ridden before. So laying out a man made track does have its place but its no way the future for mountain biking.

    As for cutting in new trails, following animal trails is a tried and tested way to develop the best trails out there, that or just kick something in but don’t build anything. I put in most of the trails around Cranham and that was just a case of kicking it in.

    slamman69, when I rode Cranham we went straight from a local’s house. And when I interviewed the lad who’s organised most of the building at North Nibley in recent years, he said he started riding there because he was to young to drive to ride, then didn’t want to.

    I wouldn’t call them urban trails but the principle is exactly the same – it’s much easier to get into mountain biking if you’ve got somewhere on your doorstep. I deliberately didn’t talk about indoor parks or pay-to-ride venues in the article because that’s a whole other debate.

    Oh and thanks for providing a textbook example of the sort of sneery attitude I mentioned in the article.

    Bloody hell people, this isn’t a Brexit discussion, be nice to each other!

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