Mountain biking as a sport is now entering its middle age and depending on where you ask Google to look, you will discover mountain bikes first became available in the UK as a mainstream product from the mid 1980s onwards with some of our committee members riding their first MTBs in the late 1980s.
In 2023 mountain biking is mainstream. Warner Bros through their Discovery Channel will soon begin broadcasting world cup downhill, XC and enduro for the next 8 years. Most mainstream bike brands have an array of mountain bike makes and models to suit the requirement of most riders, and research from Tredz in 2022 showed that mountain biking appeared in three times as many internet searches as road biking. The same research also revealed that depending on where you live in the UK, between 10-15% of the population cite cycling as their favorite sport.
What could go wrong?
Here in the Peak District the prime challenge we face today remains around access to trails. Compared to the rest of the UK, the Peak District has around half the available paths to ride at just 11% of the rights of way network. The ‘we’ referred to is our estimated 1.5 to 2.25 million mountain bikers who live within 1 hour of the Peak District.
Looking ahead another 40 years to when mountain biking hits 80 years of age, the big question is what kind of experience will riders, walkers and horse riders face without increasing access to trails for all users?
There are a number of factors which are likely to see mountain biking continue to grow in popularity, some of which can also be applied to other trail users such as walkers and horse riders e.g. general population growth. This growth in trail users will however bring an increased risk of friction between trail users unless change is brought about that sees an equivalent growth in trail access over the next 40 years.
Put simply, continuing to restrict a growing number of mountain bikers and horse riders to use broadly the same number of trails as were available in the 1980s is simply not sustainable.
So what are the factors that are likely to influence a continued growth in mountain biking?
1 – Increasing UK population
The UK population has grown by 19% since the first mainstream MTBs were made available in the UK, with little evidence from recent years that the growth in the UK population is likely to ease. A similar growth in the next 40 years could see an additional 3.8 million people live within 1 hour of the Peak District, and up to 427,000 of these people take up the sport of mountain biking (assuming the percentage of people interested in the sport across the general population remains static).
2 – Increasing interest in mountain biking from the general population
The investment being made into Mountain Biking through Warner Bros / Discovery, the diversification in mountain biking into sub-genres to appeal to different consumers and the likely ongoing growth in online media (Pinkbike, Singletrack, EMTB / GMTB) will only further raise the profile of the sport across the general population.
3 – An aging population of mountain bikers, living longer with access to increasingly advanced and capable bikes
Despite recent small decreases in average life expectancy in recent years, average life expectancy in the UK has increased from 74 to 80+ in 2020 with ONS forecasts showing that this will continue to increase. As for the bikes, consumers now have access to bigger wheeled (creating less impact), more capable bikes, with an increasing number featuring pedal assistance through advances in e-bike technology.
Given these factors around a growing population, exposed to a sport with an expanding media profile, combined with an aging population, living longer, with greater access to more capable bikes, the onus on Peak District stakeholders, landowners and authorities to progressively and sensitively open up trail access has never been more critical.
The impact of the changing climate must also be factored into our thinking when considering trail access. We are already seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events here in the UK and around the world. Compared to the 1980s when our sport first started to develop, there are three times as many extreme climate events today as occurred 40 years ago. Our sport has a role to play in adapting our trails to these conditions, and supporting stakeholders to mitigate the impact of climate change through more projects such as Cut Gate, that deliver sustainable trail features that create the win win of improved trails, enhanced experience for users whilst mitigating the impact on climate change from peat erosion.
So what is the solution?
A progressive, sustainable and managed Increase in access for all trail users across the Peak District is essential. To deliver this change strong leadership, bold and creative thinking coupled with new investment will be required.
Programmes like the recently launched ‘Trail Pot’ concept will prove essential in delivering sustainable models for creating a professionally managed and developed network of trails that reduce pressure on honey pot locations, spreading the impact from all trail users and reducing potential for conflict between trail users (through spreading the load).
Failure to act now to sustainably grow the network of trails in the Peak District will be a loss for future generations of trail users. It will also be a missed chance for the Peak District National Park and their partners to use the opportunity that mountain biking as a sport and recreation provides to deliver on its aim of ‘diversifying and re-awakening public support and love of national parks’.