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.
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?
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.
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.
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.