In June 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. In this article, I reflect on day two of the Summit, which was all about contemporary challenges and developments.
The day began in the best possible way, with a journey on the highest train line in Europe – the Bernina Express – followed by a 2000M descent. After an early start, 90 (!) of the Summit’s delegates loaded their bikes on to one of the dedicated bike carriages at the back of the train and then enjoyed the breath-taking 45-minute trip to the top of the mountain. I am always in awe of the quality of cycling infrastructure in Europe, but this really was on another level. As I sat there, I wondered how we continue to get this so wrong in the UK, and what needs to change for us to have better cycling storage on public transport? Something only half as good as this between Manchester and the Peak District would likely have an immeasurable impact on cycling participation in our National Park.
Then it was my turn! I was here to deliver my keynote lecture on the social cultural, and political implications of mountain biking and to promote my new book that is due out in December. Here, I reflected on the importance of not seeing mountain bikers as being one and the same thing, and of the difficulties of representing the many different factions of the mountain bike community. This was followed by two fantastic presentations by Patagonia and Specialized Bikes, who also talked about the importance of developing trends and (sub) cultural affiliations. I was particularly interested to hear from April Marschke at Specialized, who presented some mind-boggling stats on the rise of e-mtb. Did you know, for example, that e-bikes in Germany now account for 70% of the market share! And that they are now making an e-bike with on-board storage for skiis? This reminded me of a recent conversation with the lead researcher on the Sport England project on e-mtb (Leslie Ingram-Sills) who told me that one of the most bizarre, but interesting, uses of ebikes by participants was by farmers looking for a quieter and more efficient vehicle for herding sheep in the countryside.
To finish the Summit, there was an afternoon of presentations and films dedicated to equality and diversity in mountain biking. As a sociologist, this was right up my street. Fiona Spotwood, who’s work I have followed from afar, presented some initial findings from her study on the role of marketing in the promotion and growth of women’s mountain biking. The message here was that though women’s mountain biking is growing, the majority of women do not recognise themselves as ‘proper’ mountain bikers (Cotic were seen as an exception here and given multiple shout-outs) since most brands are excluding them from their marketing and promotion materials (i.e magazines, billboards in-store promotion, Youtube, sponsorship brand ambassadors etc). Worryingly, these findings were then reinforced by Anita Gehrig (ex EWS racer) and other female members of the audience, who indicated that despite massive changes in attitude they are often expected to be ‘one of the lads’.
In terms of diversity, however, all is not lost. Over a few beers and some delicious local cuisine delegates were treated to a recent film by Patagonia called ‘Monte’ about a Black cyclist with the same name, who as a high schooler in the public-housing projects of Virginia’s East End, experienced social and economic mobility through mountain biking. Though mountain bikes are by no means the answer to social exclusion and deprivation, and can still be expensive to purchase, there is no doubt that they can be part of the solution to a range of inequalities relating to health, climate change, and social deprivation. We just need to figure out how this might work.
What are your thoughts on this? Would better cycling infrastructure help to improve cycling in the Peak District National Park? Would this be a worry in terms of the lack of access to rideable trails? And what can we do to help excluded groups feel more included in our sport?