MTB Trends and the Challenges for MTB Advocacy

In part 2 of the recent interview,  Dr Tom Campbell Chats with Jim Cherrington from Peak District MTB about the most important riding trends in mountain biking

Dr Tom Campbell BSc (Hons), PhD, FHEA, is a lecturer in sport and exercise science and academic at the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland. His applied work centres around innovation and enterprise across the mountain bike sector and the field of dual career athletes. Most recently, Tom led the project DIRTT: Developing Inter-European Resources for Trail-builder Training, which has received global attention. In the 2nd of 3 articles, Tom sits down with Peak District MTB committee member Jim Cherrington to discuss the most important riding trends in mountain biking. You can read part 1 here.

JC: A big part of that research was about user attitudes and mountain biker preferences. What do you think that the emerging trends are in the sport right now, and what do you think some of the challenges might be moving forward for advocacy groups and trail associations?

TC: As part of our DIRRT project we conducted a rider survey. The data from this survey shows that people are often going to ride what they want to ride and perhaps we need to accept this and start looking at the nuance underlying that and thinking about how we can capitalise on environmental attitudes that are fundamentally positive. Working out how you can reconcile that with a desire to ride steep natural trails that can potentially cause some degree of ecological, localized ecological, environmental damage.

Here in Scotland where we have some of the most progressive access laws in the world, allowing riders to access a lot of the countryside, provided they do so responsibly. And I guess wild or natural trails are the thing that people want to ride now. And I think that this is the biggest shift for me in what we’re seeing within mountain biking. Trying to work out why this has happened is interesting but for me the technology of the bikes has played a big role. The rate of change in the last 20 years means that you can ride stuff now that you could never ride before – innovation in mountain biking in this time has been astounding. You could still have ridden these trails in the past, but it maybe wouldn’t have been a super fun experience. This changes our competence and capability so that that people can ride steeper and more, I guess more, technically demanding stuff with a degree of safety that you couldn’t before. We also have the emergence of ebikes that allows people to get to trails and areas that they couldn’t previously get to, and that adds another layer of complication obviously. There is certainly a lot of enjoyment to be had in riding more technical stuff and pushing your boundaries a little bit and just seeing what you can do. I’ve witnessed much more of a move towards that enduro type stuff, for sure.

And this was one of the interesting things to come out of the research was the distinction between what people are riding and their motivations for doing so. We found that if you ask people what trails they ride the most they will probably say cross country or trail centre stuff. Cool, but is that because you want to ride that? No! That’s because it’s what’s there! And that’s where you potentially have an issue with people who say well that’s not what I want to ride so I’ll go and dig the stuff that I do want to ride, and I can see that, from an advocacy and trail association point of view, that that can become problematic. I think that comes back to this point about ‘let’s try and have a more mature conversation about this’.

I fully appreciate the complexity and the difficulty of that, especially for trial associations in terms of land ownership and all the other stakeholders and the conflict that that can bring with other groups. But I think it’s a case of engaging with them, or at least trying to explain by having conversations and saying ‘look actually we’re out there for pretty much the same reasons, we enjoy being in nature, walkers enjoy being in nature. I’m a mountain biker and on any given day I might be on the bike, or I might be out for a walk or out running, But I’m outside enjoying nature and our research showed that’s actually the main motivation for riders being there.

And then, in terms of the attitudes, we found that riders want to really look after the environment. I think it’s a powerful kind a message coming through in terms of just demonstrating that, actually, we are more similar to other users than we are dissimilar. So, I think it is important to understand that yes, we have these positive attitudes, but then for the trail associations the question is, how do you capitalize on that? How do you get people to go beyond just saying ‘Yes, I care for the environment, or I want to care for the environment but I also want to shred my bike and that’s possibly going to damage the trails.

So, the question is, how do we reconcile those two things? It’s arguably still controversial to accept that trails will get damaged by riders but I think that stems from looking at sustainability through a very narrow lens, focusing on erosion and localised damage. But then you’ve got to consider how does that trail fit within the wider trail network and the wider ecology. I think there is an argument for accepting that there may be a certain amount of erosion in a certain area but it might actually be good to keep people in that area, as you can therefore control it and manage it and minimize damage and it keeps people out of other more sensitive areas.

It needs this more holistic approach. What’s happening on one, localized, trail is something, but what’s the impact of that on other trails? Does it mean that they’re going to last much longer and kind of considering things from that broader perspective and being mindful of how it all ties in is, from a trail association or advocacy perspective, the way that I would like to see things going.

It’s difficult because any perceived damage occurring in any environment is a sensitive topic and it’s certainly the case that purely by being we are all having some impact on the environment, but minimizing it, controlling it, or being able to measure, plan, and intervene is important, and not just having this attitude that by being there and causing any erosion at any point in the environment is inherently terrible. So yeah, I don’t know, I think we need to try and get to that point where riders accept that if they want to use the environment, they should consider how they can also care for it.

Thanks to Dr Campbell for taking time out to talk to Jim about these interesting and sometimes challenging topics. Click here to read part 1 of this interview. Look out for the final part of this interview next week, and please let us know your thoughts on any of the topics discussed on our Facebook page.



25 September 2022