This article originally appeared in the 20th Anniversary issue of Singletrack World magazine.
If the last 20 years have brought anything into focus, it’s the impact that we as humans are having on the planet, and each other. And the mountain bike world isn’t an exception to this. There are questions hanging over where and how we ride, the materials that go into our bikes and clothes, the manufacturing practices that bring them to us, and what we can do as MTBers to reduce the impacts on the places we ride, and continue to enjoy the trails for years to come.
We spoke to a generous handful of advocates, activists, advisers and innovators from the mountain biking sphere, and asked them where they saw the sport heading, what the challenges facing it were, and what needs to change if we want to keep mountain biking sustainable and ethical in the 21st century.
Pamela Barclay is the co-founder, product and marketing director of Scottish-based cycling apparel company Endura.
Dom Ferris is the mastermind behind Trash Free Trails, a grassroots trail stewardship organisation which aims to reduce plastic pollution on mountain bike trails by 75% by 2025.
Julia Hobson is a mountain bike guide operating in the UK and France, and a Trash Free Trails and Juliana bikes ambassador.
Chris Maloney is a member of Peak District MTB, an advocacy group that works in the Peak District National Park to improve access and conditions for mountain bikers.
Isla Rowntree is a former national Cyclocross and MTB champion and is the founder and head of design for Islabikes, best known for their range of children’s mountain bikes.
Mark Torsius is the director of IMBA Europe, the European branch of the International Mountain Biking Association.
Tommy Wilkinson is a UK race organiser with a land management background, and a director of DWACO, a bike and outdoor industry marketing agency.
Back at the dawn of mountain biking, it was a niche sport where enthusiasts upcycled clunker frames into downhill racers using spare parts bins and engineering ingenuity. Now it’s a billion-dollar industry that spans the globe, not just in terms of participants, but also its manufacturing and supply chains. The environmental impacts of mountain biking used to be framed in terms of riders skidding on trails: nowadays there’s a growing awareness that our sport could be making a small but significant contribution to the global pressures which are slowly tipping earth’s natural systems out of balance.
For Lian Van Leeuwen of Shift Cycling Culture, the cycling industry is both the perpetrator and the victim of environmental damage.
“It might still seem a challenge for the future, but the natural environment we use as our playground is already being affected on many levels: mountainous areas experience more frequent landslides and rockfall due to receding snowlines and extreme weather, destroying trails and posing direct threats to riders. Increased heat and drought cause extreme bushfires in many areas in the world. Not to mention excessive downpour and flooding that will happen even more frequently in coming decades.”
It’s hard not to feel that as riders who demand high-performance equipment and exert a heavy toll on it, we’re less environmentally sound than a human-powered sport could be. Anyone who rides regularly will know the regularity with which parts wear out, break, or get swapped out for upgrades. This unease only intensifies when the marketing practices of the bike industry are examined, with some of them boiling down to what Lian terms “fast fashion”:
“The cycling industry is continuously promoting the newest, latest, fastest innovations and models. And in general, we as consumers still buy into that with our N+1 gospel. The next decades will need to see a change in fast consumerism.”
For Shift Cycling Culture, like their name suggests, the solutions start with a change in perspective. They’ve organised gear swap parties, trail cleans and “Clunkers Rides” where your old shed bike is cleaned up and brought out to play. As Lian says:
“We do not need an N+1 bike, we do not need a new kit every year. If bikes and components would be more standardized, there would at least be a choice to reuse and recycle older types. Not everyone needs marginal gains to enjoy riding a bike! And we as cyclists should realize we have a say in that. If we favour brands that work on reducing their impact, if we buy less and better, we will pressure the industry to take steps.”
For other advocates, putting the focus on the bike industry is less appealing. Dom from Trash Free Trails comes from a campaigning background, having started out working for Surfers Against Sewage, but his plans for TFT don’t include lobbying bike manufacturers to clean up their act.
“Our aim is more to give communities a toolkit that they can use. I couldn’t go to Trek, for example, and tell them how to become more sustainable. I just don’t have that expertise.”
He goes on to tell the story of a “greener brands” non-profit activist who went to give a presentation at a multinational brewery, and realised immediately that their sustainability practices were way more sophisticated that he was expecting. “He felt foolish because he was saying do x, y and z, and they were able to say ‘yes, we’re already doing those’.”
Endura are one of the brands in mountain biking which put their environmental credentials upfront, and their brand director Pamela Barclay is clear where their priorities lie:
“There are so many things that companies and individuals can do to reduce their footprint but not all have equal weight or positive impact. It’s incredibly difficult to cut through to the points that really will make a difference. The narrative ends up conflated with superficial issues like plastic straws or paper cups, when the most important in our opinion is urgently addressing the climate so that the world can stay under that 2°C global temperature threshold and avoid catastrophic events unravelling. So Endura has focused on that.
“We have just planted over one million trees and have committed to repeating that every year with the expectation of being carbon negative by 2024. Not only does this sequester enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere (similar levels per hectare as tropical rainforest), but it also reinstates watercourses, revives fish stocks, provides employment which funds kids’ education.”
This type of large-scale carbon offsetting initiative is becoming more common in the mountain bike industry. Naughty Northumbrian race organiser Tommy Wilkinson was able to play matchmaker with Santa Cruz, Specialized and a local sheep farmer, brokering an agreement to create 700 acres of woodland on marginal land as part of a carbon credit trade scheme.
“I know there’s some justifiable cynicism about carbon trading but as a farmer, you’ll earn more money from carbon credits than you will from subsidies. A couple of years ago he was contacted by the government and asked if wanted to put this into a higher level countryside stewardship scheme. His reply was basically “piss off” – it wasn’t worth his while from a financial point of view. It’s a slow process – it’ll be 12 months before we even get a tree in the ground – but without this model then that land wouldn’t be restored. And one thing I genuinely believe is that if people don’t have money then they don’t give a shit about the environment.”
Whether planting trees is enough to offset the impact of a bike industry that actively encourages riders to view the world as their playground, or change their bikes every year just because they can, is another question. The perceived clash between a sustainable bike industry and a successful one is at the heart of the debate, summed up by Tommy:
“Brands like Specialized and Santa Cruz are doing really good things on the sustainability front, but not shouting about them. Santa Cruz make quality products that should last a really long time. The problem is they then bring out a new model every couple of years, which incentivises consumers to buy a new bike. It’s the tension between the social and environmental side of things. ”
One bike brand which is determined to move away from planned obsolescence is Islabikes, which started in 2006 and went on to establish a market for kids’ bikes that put durability and quality over fashion. Isla Rowntree sets out their philosophy:
“The industry is very tech forward. I’m a tech geek, I love all that stuff. But if people are cycling in their local area they don’t necessarily need a particularly technological bike. People have spent this year discovering what’s on their doorstep, and I think some of that will stick. A rigid-forked bike without too many gears isn’t just less maintenance, it’s also more suitable for a lot of people’s local terrain in the UK. The pushback against technology also links to sustainability, as people are increasingly making environmentally-motivated purchasing decisions.And longevity and maintenance will only become more important.”
Isla also believes that the bike industry will rethink its supply chains as environmental and economic circumstances change:
“This year has been one example, but there are all sorts of things going on globally that will lead to more onshoring of manufacturing. It’s more environmentally friendly, obviously, because you’re not transporting goods around the world. Global shipping is also becoming more of a challenge. We have higher environmental standards in Europe, but in terms of what we need to do to take on global heating, we’re just scratching around the edges.”
Islabikes are invariably passed through multiple owners, but for Isla this wasn’t enough, and in 2018 the company launched a new line of bikes that were made in the UK and would theoretically never become obsolete:
“The Imagine Project was our idea of applying circular economy principles to bicycles. Our approach was to make the bicycle out of materials that have already been used, and that will be reused at the end of their lives. In the conventional economy, the manufacturer makes a product to sell to a consumer, who then does whatever they want with it, including potentially disposing of it at the end of its life. In the circular economy, one approach a manufacturer can take is to retain ownership of the product and therefore responsibility for what happens to the materials at the end of its life. This provides an incentive to design a product that lasts as long as possible.”
But even with Isla’s expertise, the project soon ran into some huge obstacles:
“We got some bikes out there, in very small numbers, but we’ve now mothballed the project. The thing that finally stopped us was the upfront cashflow needed to scale the project, as you don’t get a return on this for a very long time. We knew this from the outset and were prepared to finance it ourselves but the manufacturing costs were higher than we’d initially estimated, putting it beyond our means. For an investor, the circular economy remains potentially very profitable. But for a company that has to turn a profit at the end of a financial year, it’s a big issue. There has been some funding available for similar projects through the European Union, but if you remember what happened in 2016…So we financed it all ourselves. We’re proud of what we achieved, but it was still kind of a failure. If we want to change the trajectory that we’re on, to make a difference, we need to legislate for that to happen. It’ll take concerted effort and political courage.”
Access and Advocacy
When talking about the future of mountain biking, growth is often mentioned as a goal and an inevitability. So the last 12 months, which saw an unprecedented influx of people into the outdoor world, gave us a glimpse into the opportunities and challenges this could present in the future. Mark Torsius from IMBA Europe believes that mountain bikers have work to do to secure our place amongst other outdoor sports:
“Last year has been a blessing and a curse. It’s been great because loads of people have started mountain biking and the core of IMBA is getting people on bikes. But we also saw a lot of flaws. Trail access is fragile in a lot of European countries. This puts us in a vulnerable position when things are going a bit wrong. Local advocates are also having to do more work to protect access and less on developing trails. We have to look at the impacts and manage them but also get much better at working with other agencies.”
Mark is careful to point out that it’s not just pressure of use: more land worldwide is becoming protected, which may affect our ability to ride on it.
“The adoption of biodiversity laws across Europe means land managers will have to regulate activity on their land more strictly. The number of national parks will also increase – in fact the way we’re heading, over the next decade nearly all of Europe will have some sort of environmental protection. This means we’ll need to build really good relationships with the relevant agencies”
Chris Maloney is a spokesperson for Peak District MTB, a group whose focus is very much on local advocacy rather than the international picture, but he echoes Mark’s call for partnerships and engagement:
“We’ve also spent lots of time building relationships with horse riders, climbers, and so on. The “Be nice, say hi” campaign really helped. We need to get away from tribalism and get ourselves all pulling in the same direction. We’re very proud that we’ve managed to get provision for mountain biking written into the long-term strategies of major land managers. Opinions are changing and people are more willing to talk to us as we build an evidence base.”
While repping for MTB and creating new places to ride couldn’t be further from most people’s idea of a day job, Mark sees this changing:
“Volunteers will always be super important – they are the best advocates, and it’s also a really fun thing to do. But the future of trail development will be more professional because it’s a very complex process. It’s got elements of spatial planning, environmental engineering, impact surveys: a whole bunch of different disciplines.
“We’re currently in the middle of DIRTT, an EU-funded 36-month programme which we’re working on with partners including Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland. There are six partners in different countries: we have a civil engineering school in Norway, a trail design company in Switzerland, and a partner in Portugal where we can put trail building techniques into practice. Every partner has its own national reference group which includes trail builders, sporting bodies and so on. It’s primarily an educational programme, and the idea is to develop a uniform quality of experience. Not in the sense of making every trail the same – it’s more about creating challenging trails that also don’t impact the environment.”
Mark is also very much in favour of bringing mountain biking to the people, via urban trails and pump tracks:
“Urban trails make the sport much more visible – you’re not spread out in the countryside any more. They also really help increase diversity and get away from the tendency for mountain bikers to be mostly middle-aged guys like us.”
Reform to access systems is also on many advocates’ wishlists, as guide Julia Hobson sets out:
“Access rights in England are archaic, confusing, and not fit for purpose. Trail surface doesn’t determine the suitability of use, historic designation does. How can it be ok to churn along a muddy bridleway creating a deep rut, but not to ride along a rocky footpath where a tyre track will cause far less impact? It needs a complete rethink, but I can’t see this happening, certainly under the current government, who only seem determined to further restrict freedoms and right to access the land. There are too many landowners against it, and too much public perception of mountain bikers as people who tear up trails and don’t care for the environment.”
Mountain biking’s do-it-yourself ethos to creating places to ride may also be more of a hindrance than a help. As Chris Maloney puts it:
“When we get into the same room as a land manager, unsanctioned trail building always gets thrown back at us. Often the message we’re trying to get across is “Leave off the digging here, and we can do some good stuff”.
As an ex-downhill racer from a farming family, Tommy Wilkinson sees both sides of the argument:
“MTB has what I call the pendulum thing: because we’ve been excluded for so long we don’t want to be involved in access discussions. With the events of this year, we have a bit of a “tragedy of the commons” situation where there’s a lot more pressure on places to ride. We have to become assets to local land managers – not only in terms of maintenance, but also from a financial point of view. And it seems counterintuitive to go to a landowner and ask for illegal trails to be adopted, but that’s what we have to do.
“There’s an argument for just getting on with it and doing what we’re doing. But as we see conservation groups emerge with increasingly powerful voices, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of things.”
The solution might lie not just in building partnerships, but in a shift in the relationship between land managers and mountain bikers, as Tommy suggests:
“I sit on my Local Access Forum and it’s easy to demand that Farmer X put a bridleway across his land. But the farmer’s perception is that this would involve financial cost and hassle, so we have to ask how we make it worth his while. Should we be showing community groups how to tap into funding that can then be used to create trails? There’s also the proposed ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) subsidy which could pay landowners a price per metre to put in permissive paths.
“There’s also a perception that landowners don’t care if people don’t like them. But if they see the public responding well they can get a kick out of that, and it makes them more inclined to open up access further. Rights of access and new trails can also come after rewilding and community ownership initiatives, but that’s a hard sell for a lot of mountain bikers.”
Mountain biking is also a powerful tool to help people appreciate the world around them, which could work in our favour when it comes to being accepted. In Dom Ferris’s words, “We’re nature connectors first, environmentalists second.” Mark Torsius gives the example of MTB Utrechtse Heuvelrug, a group in the Netherlands who’ve expanded their remit from putting in trails to funding conservation projects and even building badger tunnels. Chris from Peak District MTB outlines a similar philosophy:
“We help with bridleway maintenance, litter picks and other things that don’t directly benefit mountain bikers. We’re not just doing this stuff because it looks good, we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do”
If mountain biking is going to happily ride out the next 20 years, we’ll need to be welcome on the trails and in touch with the natural environment. But who are the mountain bikers of the future? One consensus is that mountain biking’s base is going to broaden with a wider range of participants. In the words of guide Julia Hobson: “There are more kids getting into it with decent bikes at an earlier age and parents who are keen to encourage their children, which can only be a good thing.”
Isla Rowntree is also optimistic about the future:
“I think there’s going to be an influx of young adults off the back of what’s happened this year, and definitely more women. To date the mountain bike industry has largely been made up of straight white males aged 25-40 – a very narrow definition of what a mountain biker is.”
For some riders, the image of the sport needs to change even more drastically. Chris Maloney feels that mountain biking marketing isn’t doing us any favours: “I’ll turn the page in a mountain bike magazine and there will be someone blasting through a massive berm, or pictures of Rampage. It’s not what most mountain bikers are doing and it feels out of kilter. The image we’ve created is one of mountain biker tear-arsing around trails and it’s hard to know how to address it.”
Others, such as Dom from Trash Free Trails, feel that negative perceptions can’t be improved by criticism: “I’ve been a mountain biker since 1990.We used to be the counter-culture, now we’re the establishment. We need to be careful we don’t fall into the same trap that some of the Ramblers have fallen into, where they’re wagging their fingers at other outdoor users but they’re also of an age where they might have taken part in the Kinder Trespass.”
Some are questioning whether we’ll even recognise mountain biking in 20 years, as technology plays more of a role. Yet as the sport changes, the essence remains the same. As Mark Torsius puts it: “It’s hard to predict how far the technological side of things will go. Are we going to make things easier or push ourselves? But for every new trend, there’s a movement against it. People will be looking for adventure with minimal technology.”