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Our Beautiful Yet Broken Sport & How We Fix It

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OpenMTB the MTB representative body for England and Wales representing mountain bikers announced in winter 2021 that they were closing. I’m guessing many of you haven’t heard of them which is fair enough but that's likely part of the problem. Is our sport broken, maybe just starting to break, maybe not is the question I pose? And, if it is how do you and I fix it?

So who is or more were OpenMTB. Well, they came about as an organization to battle for our rights politically in England and Wales. For the last 6 years they have persevered to represent us and most notably joined forces with Cycling UK to push the Trails 4 Wales campaigns which campaigned for a) making more rights of way multi-use (think footpaths) and b) the expansion of access rights on Countryside and Rights access land for different uses in addition to walking. The report interestingly has literally just been published and unfortunately, it kicks the problem back to the government with options, not clear recommendations (lacks some teeth). So valuable work yes, but it is not yet there for us. In simple terms, this would have opened up far more natural XC riding for mountain bikers.

The UK has strong local and regional networks of trail associations. Unlike DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) or the IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association outside of the UK) who are powerful influencers politically for riders rights, England and Wales just aren’t represented to protect our rights nationally. So whereas regional and local trail associations work with local landowners, community groups, and local councils, it is the national bodies that influence governments. We have no national representation.

IMBA had a UK branch but again didn’t sustain and appears to have merged into Cycling UK. Cycling UK is a powerful, effective organisation but the road community is their core purpose and although they are definitely active in off-road cycling campaigning this seems mainly to be mainly focussed on access to natural trail riding and making the countryside more open to all the public. This is brilliant work but when thinking about trail building, bike parks, wild trails, downhill, dirt jumps and pump tracks etc this is covered by nobody nationally and doesn't come across as their bag.

So why care? Black Friday and Christmas come and go and we spend a fortune on bike bits. Also, we have so many trails to ride and the proliferation of bike parks, trail centers, urban spots, new blues, new blacks, new reds, new uplifts, pump tracks, (not to mention the likely larger growing wild trail network that is underground or more very not underground) and so on seems endless (oh thank you oh bike God!). So why worry?

The thing is, all this means, is our presence in the countryside or urban spots has exploded in the last few years. Literally exponential growth and there are breaking bumps and folks on bikes overtaking me with revs every weekend, to prove it. 

On top of our natural growth (which I celebrate for the avoidance of doubt) Covid-19 lockdowns and open-air pastimes led all the other humans to the great outdoors. Local trail building (mostly unsanctioned, unregulated, unprotected) has exploded, creating ever more conflict as demand goes unregulated and unfocussed. These wild trails are a consequence of the sport's progression and a lack of organised maintenance (build a trail, the trail gets trashed, build a new trail, repeat) but needs to be managed and official. On top of this is technology creating access. The growth of eMTB is amazing but not only does it put more pressure on the land but it opens the doors to even more demographics and new users. The increased focus on mental health, in society with the positive association of the outdoors, is another reason for the explosive growth of MTB. Again don’t get me wrong this is all brilliant. I want more folk to ride, not less. It's an awesome past time/obsession/hobby/ blah blah blah!. But we are ever more noticeable, our impact ever more evident, we don't have many friends and we are not protected politically by anybody. I also question whether local trail associations however brilliant will be able to cope with the demands mentioned above, the exponential growth with very limited funding and a volunteer base.

National bodies are to all intents and purposes politically protecting our rights and keeping us viable and safe (mainly from ourselves). They are political lobbying groups and size matters. We need a new model that is likely one that is funded properly by riders in a UK trail levy and is made up of the bike industry who are mostly, inactive, in all this and could do more.

So, imagine, a UK-wide political MTB organisation driving the regulated development of trail centers, wild trails, urban ride spots, and our right to roam (which we don't have outside of Scotland for the record). It would ensure community cohesion and sustainability (with environmental and economical blueprints) are built-in towards our future. It would work alongside the Forestry Commission, Natural Resources Wales, and DMBinS. It would put driving mental, emotional, and physical health for a diverse inclusive community for all at its center. It would encourage mountain biking for youth and more for under-represented groups from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds (for what is still a white, affluence-dominated sport). This type of body would create government funding and bike industry funding on a national scale to drive the above trail and MTB sport development. Its presence would be self-sustaining.

What can we do? How do we fix it? I don't have all the answers but I feel we need a national and in my view a UK-wide body. DMBinS could maybe spread beyond its national boundaries but sense that is outside its remit? Should Cycling UK grow some dirt movement in its soul and go wider than just access? The bike industry could set up sustainable funds for a national body? or maybe a new volunteer body needs to rise and try again working with regional Trail associations. Still, need to understand why the last one failed first? For now, given Cycling UK is active in petitioning for off-road access I encourage you to head over and join them and their campaign activity. Maybe if more of us join them they will expand their MTB credentials. If they don't take the challenge then I may just set up a national organisation myself. Who would be in?

OpenMTB you created hope, nurtured a seed. You have been amazing! Thank you. 

Good video here but misses some important points and doesn't state the urgency well. Still, joining your local trail association its core message is brilliant advice.

Published: 21/11//2021

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