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.
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.
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.