We went to the Biggest MTB Summit in the World (IMBA Summit 2023). But What Did We Learn? – Part 1

In part 1 of 3, Peak District MTB committee member Jim Cherrington reports on the IMBA Summit 2023.

Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Annual Summit in Valpashiavo (Switzerland), which was based around the dual themes of sustainability and diversity. I had been invited to present material from my new book Mountain Biking, Culture, and Society. In IMBA’s promotional material, the Summit’s aim this year was articulated as follows:

“To challenge the preconceived ideas of what mountain biking is and for whom. It’s rethinking our relationships with nature and how we use the word ‘sustainability’ in everything we do – from trails, to tourism, rural development, the way we travel to participation and behaviour. It’s about reflecting upon the level of use that an area can receive without suffering negative impacts to its environmental resources or the visitor experience”.

Despite a late flight, and very little sleep the night before, I arrived at the Summit excited about the prospect of two days of riding hand-built trails (no use of machinery to build trails here!), talking about current policy and practice, and reflecting upon the future of mountain biking both at home and abroad. Having read the pre-amble and put the finishing touches to my own presentation, I was already beginning (in my wife’s own words) to feel ‘like a pig in shit’. Suffice it to say, the Summit did not disappoint.

Day one got started with Matt Harrington from the Warburton MTB Project in Tasmania. As well as having an aspiration to build one of the biggest purpose built bike parks in Australia, Matt provided some interesting insights into their approach to building trails and engaging with the local community. Here, he pointed out what many at the Summit were keen to stress, which was that despite misconceptions from landowners that trail builders (and riders) want to bulldoze trees and wildlife, they have evidence to the contrary which suggests that looking after tree roots, protecting local waterways, and building long lasting trails is now central to the trail building ethos. This was echoed in the following talk by The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (no less!), who recognised that, when driven by an ethic of care and responsibility, mountain biking can play an important role in growing local economies, protecting the environment, and fostering community participation. This was the first of many things at this Summit that made me feel good about where MTB is heading.

Next up, Tom Campbell and Martin Wyttenbach presented two different takes on the notion of ‘sustainable’ trail building. Echoing my own views, Tom started by suggesting that mountain bikers are constantly on the ‘back foot’ regarding their use (and supposed abuse) of natural space. Yet, he stressed that research on ‘damage/erosion’ is usually limited by a lack of long-term evidence and no consideration for human behaviour. As such, as well as recognising the inevitable short-term damage that our mountain bikes might do, Tom was also keen to point out that we are also part of a ‘holistic’ solution is of benefit to people, places, and economies. A more localised (albeit controversial) solution to addressing our ecological footprint was then presented by Martin Wynttenbach, who introduced us to findings from a pilot scheme in Switzerland that limited (off-piste) mountain biking to particular ‘corridors’ of activity within a popular forest. Doing this, he suggested, introduced established rules and waymarked trails, the upshot of which was a more ecologically friendly form of riding, and a show of willingness on behalf of the mountain bike community to be proactive in their protection of certain environments. This seems very similar to what one of our own members, Dave Finch, has been trailing in Macc Forest to good effect, and I wondered whether lessons could be learned from both such projects.

The final session of day one was more practically orientated, allowing delegates to take the knowledge from the morning sessions (how to grow our sport sustainably and responsibly) and apply these in the beautiful foot hills of the Livigno Alps. At this point, I got the chance to have a go on a fascinating new app which has been designed to facilitate and track trail inspections /maintenance. As well as the obvious benefits to trail builders (I thought of our resident trail sprucer James Irwin and the unenviable task of tracking the work he does over the many ,and disparate, parts of the Peak District National Park), I wondered whether such an app might help PDMTB to log what we do on a regular basis and present this ‘quantifiable’ evidence to land owners, other advocacy groups and UK councils etc to evidence the important role that we play in outdoor spaces. But then again, maybe data doesn’t tell the whole story?

What do you think? Can mountain bikers play a wider role in society (i.e tourism, nature protection, addressing climate change etc.)? Are riding corridors a useful way to limit our impact on the environment? And can GPS and data tracking help us to evidence play more of a role in mountain bike advocacy?

Let us know: info@peakdistrictmtb.org

Stay tuned for the next part.

29 June 2023