I’m going to start this piece by biting the hand that feeds me. Not hard, maybe just a gentle nip. But there’s a tendency in the mountain bike industry that I think needs to be talked about. Every day, magazines, websites and social media bring us news of another new bike launch, a gleaming new bit of kit, or a must-have product.
But what about the other half of the equation – the places we actually ride? Sure, we get videos and magazine articles of riders whizzing through exotic destinations, and every new bike launch gets accompanied by a video of a sponsored rider ragging the bejesus out of said machine on some gnarly terrain. But the stories about new bikes and products far outnumber the ones about new trails or riding venues. Pick a mountain bike website at random (or just click on the front page of this one), and over half the stories will probably be about kit. There’s so much attention given to what we’re riding, that where we’re riding can seem like an afterthought.
Now I recognise that this isn’t some dark conspiracy by mountain bike journos that results in them getting bulging brown envelopes of cash from the back of a bike industry Rolls Royce. On the reader side, too, there is clearly a fascination with collections of shiny tubes. Bike tech stories are consistently the most popular ones on the web, and a picture of a bicycle leaning against a garage door is just as likely to rack up the Instagram likes as a sweet trail shot. There are several things at work here, and I’m going to try to unpick a couple of them.
One is the way in which mountain biking developed. Mountain bikes have always had an innate novelty factor, going back to the very first clunkers. Constructed from 1950s frames decked out with bodged-together parts, they still look arresting today. These bikes were mostly used for bombing down fire roads. The tracks at Repack might have been fast and fun, but they were basically borrowed from the logging industry, and they didn’t represent anything new. And so trails became secondary to what we were actually riding them on.
(No video? Try this link).
Fast forward a few years, and mountain bikers had started building trails specifically for riding. But if the trails had evolved, bikes, thanks to some input from the motocross industry, had gone fully, completely, fly-in-the-teleporter mutant. A design that had stayed the same for years – basically, two triangles stuck together – suddenly diverged into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes. Suspension might have taken a while to get right, but it changed mountain biking forever. And today, most of us are now riding around on bikes that use a lot of the same technology as their two-stroke cousins, but are light enough to lift onto your roof rack. Throw in some materials and manufacturing techniques from the aerospace and defence industries, add some shiny anodised parts, and you’ve got something that would pique the interest of even the most curmudgeonly retrogrouch – or at least horrify them to a point where it would be amusing for any onlookers.
That’s the good bit. But there’s another reason for the emphasis on kit. Despite being nearly 40 years old, mountain bikes are still struggling to be accepted in the outdoors. Some parts of the world are bursting with places to ride, yet in others you might as well try to waterski at the swimming baths. Here in England, most public trails are still out of bounds to us, in theory at least (insert knowing wink). Trails are often a shadowy black market commodity, popping up unofficially and disappearing again once they get too popular. Many commercial mountain biking venues are run by riders doing it for the love, and can go out of business if an insurer decides to put their premium up. And apparently, in terms of having places to ride, we’re one of the better countries. So rather than depressing us with stories of tracks being closed, or dull but incredibly important advocacy news, we turn to shiny things for comfort.
Given that without trails to ride, they wouldn’t have a product to sell, you’d expect the mountain bike industry to be throwing its full weight behind trail development and advocacy. Some companies do just that – take a bow Salsa, Specialized, SRAM, and Cotic and Hope in the UK. But there are also companies that actively make things harder. Whether it’s putting out adverts which publicise riding spots that might be better off kept low-key, or promoting the idea that you’re not riding properly unless you’re chucking handfuls of the trail surface around like cake at a toddler’s tea party, there are plenty of things that the bike industry could do better.
I know that there’s a relatively modest amount of income in the cycling industry, of which marketing budgets are just a fraction, and that bike companies want the best bang for their buck. And there’s definitely more money knocking around in selling bike bits than developing trails. But when you factor in the economic benefit of mountain biking – some studies estimate a spend of £20 a day per rider, if you include costs like accommodation – there’s a few quid in them there hills too. Maybe the industry should be looking to team up with tourist boards, forward-thinking landowners or local authorities to make riding developments happen, so everyone wins.
I don’t want to see the balance go completely the other way. After all, everyone loves shiny stuff. But I’d like to see it tipped slightly, so it does more to recognise the contribution of trail associations, local communities, or enterprising venues and landowners, to the sport we all love.