Can Mountain Biking Save the World?

Peak District MTB committee member Jim Cherrington, a lecturer and researcher at Sheffield Hallam Uni, ponders the interplay between the natural world and mountain biking…

It may sound a little far-fetched, but bear with me on this one.

Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time speaking with trail builders, mountain bikers and mountain bike advocates, and the one thing that has stood out from these conversations is the positive relationship that the mountain biking community has with nature and the lived environment.

These are confusing and worrying times. In the last 200 years, human beings have made an irreversible mark on the landscapes of Earth, and there is no doubt that mountain bikers have had a small role to play in this. As a result of intense agriculture, industrialisation, population growth, mass urbanisation (and of course, outdoor recreation) every corner of the globe, and every layer of the earth’s crust, now bears the scars of human activity.

But at the same time, I believe that mountain biking can warn us about the long-term effects of climate change. For example, riders learn of how the touch (sticky, heavy, loamy), smell (peaty, earthy), sound (of tyres grabbing or shralping), and granularity (thick, thin or sandy) of dirt can help or hinder the quality, or character, of their ride. Trail builders also develop a keen ‘sense’ for the kinds of dirt that will, or will not, allow them to do things at certain times and in certain locations, and this becomes more of an issue when an unusual period of rainfall make their trails thick with mud, or an extra-ordinary heatwave bakes the dirt to dust.

Mountain biking exposes people to wider ecological issues such as pollution, habitat loss and the destruction of biodiversity. Despite what anti-mountain bike sentiment would have us believe, I have encountered hundreds of mountain bikers who painstakingly select their routes in order to protect and preserve the local environment – avoiding wet, muddy trails during the winter and certain tourist ‘hot spots’ in summer – and I have seen enough evidence of this mentality of this in the UK to confidently say that this is the concern of the majority, rather than a minority, of riders. Anyone involved in establishing new trails (such as Elmin Pitts Farm) or maintaining established ones (such as the Cut Gate Path) will also know that important decisions regarding the protection of flowers, plant life, animal habitats, and historical artefacts loom large at every stage of the decision-making process.

Though it may still feel as if it is just a select few mountain bike advocates banging this drum, this is certainly not the case. At a recent workshop on ‘Cycling and Trauma’ that was run by the ‘Cycling and Society Research Group’ at Lancaster University, I was fortunate enough to listen to a talk by Clare Nattress – a researcher from Leeds Beckett University – who suggests that mountain biking allows riders to sense and report poor air quality in ways that scientific studies might not. Alice McNeil – a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam – is also in the process of analysing how backpacking can serve to deepen environmental awareness, whilst facilitating more eco-centric attitudes and behaviours.

So, as a mountain biker who rides in or around the Peak District National Park, what can you do to help? The first thing to do is to acknowledge the importance of climate in your experience of riding and spend more time paying attention to where you ride. In doing this, you will develop deeper connections with your local riding spot(s), which will eventually lead to a greater urgency to protect and look after those spaces. If you are able, the next thing to do is to speak to an advocacy group about how and where you can connect these local concerns with wider political issues relating to our sport, including things such as climate change, the lack of access, and the use of technology in the outdoors. Here at Peak District MTB we are continually striving to explore these connections, whilst proactively engaging with land managers and policy makers to help address environmental concerns and conflicts, but there is still plenty more to do! Finally, we need a long-term plan for changing perceptions and campaigning for future access, which works with, rather than against the interests of other user groups.

If you have any input into how we can achieve these aims, please get in touch.

Jim Cherrington, Peak District MTB

Some useful info here regarding sustainability and responsible riding: 

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30 May 2022