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Mountain bikers: Environmentally aware, socially responsible, individually proactive

Delivered at the IMBA GLOBAL MOUNTAIN BIKE ADVOCACY SUMMIT, Haut-Lac Institute, Les Sciernes d'Albeuve, Switzerland, September 12, 1997.

By Jim Hausenauer

"I can't think of another recreational activity as focused on the needs of others. We must continue these efforts. They distinguish us."

In Peter Weir's great Australian film, The Last Wave, one scene pivots on a character's identity. Charlie, the aboriginal, spiritual leader interrogates the white, middle class lawyer with a chant, "Who are you? Who are you? Who are You?..." The rest of the movie's action hinges on the answer to that question. Our future as mountain bikers and the future of our sport depend on the same question. "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?"

This is the question that land managers and other trail users continually put to us. It is the question asked by the press, by politicians and sometimes by our friends and families. Those of us here at this Summit know who we are. We are environmentally aware, socially responsible and individually proactive mountain bikers. We are the opinion leaders of recreational mountain biking. We represent voluntary associations, racing federations, the press, the bicycle industry.

  photo: Biking on the Snake River National Recreation Trail
Biking on the Snake River National Recreation Trail

We feel comfortable that our sport is not only acceptable, it is desirable, but others are not so sure. It becomes our job to convince them.

We believe that mountain biking is good. Good for the environment, good for our health, good for the health of our communities, good for business. We have become passionate about cycling because it provides so much. It enables us to go out under our own power and experience nature's wonder, to come to know our local landscapes intimately. We treasure this. It enables us to relive the feeling of liberation of our first childhood bike rides. I can still remember the touch of my father's hand on the back of my saddle as he ran along behind me. Then that freedom! That exhilaration! That sense of fleetness! With that first ride, our range was immediately expanded. We began to explore. Now as adults, our bikes deliver that same sense of physical, mental and spiritual well being. On singletrack trails we sense fleetness. We are birdlike, deerlike. It is like dreaming of gravity free soaring.

You know all this, of course. This is why we're here talking among ourselves, but when we leave here, we must continue to construct our identity in the trail and environmental communities.

Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?

The mountain bike community is environmentally aware.

In 1995, Hollenhurst and others did a study of the attitudes of US mountain bike advocates. They verified what we already knew and what I'm sure is true around the globe. They found that these "mountain bike opinion leaders are overwhelmingly biocentric in their thinking, believing that nature has intrinsic value exclusive of what it does for humans, that humans do not have moral license to infringe on this right, and that many of our environmental problems are rooted in our societal tendency to dominate, control, and exploit nature. There was widespread support for the idea that there are indeed limits to growth and that a more sustainable form of society is needed. Mountain bikers generally see themselves as environmentally concerned with much of their lives organized around environmental issues. "

Our work and the perception of our work must always be seen as environmentally responsible.

You and I know that every ride is a field trip. That we crave and value our wildlife sightings. When we ride our regular trails, we appreciate the subtle changes of season, the familiar sights and the occasional surprise. When we ride new trails, we're alert to the discovery of new vistas, new topography, new flora. We wish to protect these wild places and most of us are active in doing so. Still, our adversaries have characterized us as selfish, destructive, hooligans who create environmental havoc. Their characterization must not prevail.

We shouldn't deny we have impact. All trail users do. Backcountry trails are constructed to place human impact in certain locations so that other areas can be protected from human intrusion. Our Rule of the Trail "Ride on open trails only" emphasizes our commitment to this. Trail wear is usually a sign of trail system health. The trail is popular. But wear requires maintenance and mountain bikers have been quick to volunteer to build, repair, maintain and even improve trails. We're famous for it. It's our responsibility to minimize our impacts. We stress the rule "Leave no trace." We must continue to learn to ride softly and some days not to ride at all. We must educate new cyclists in fundamental riding techniques: not to lock up brakes, to stay on trail, to be sensitive to weather conditions. The record shows that we have done this.

More data needs to be collected, but there is no scientific research which pinpoints mountain biking as environmentally unacceptable. In 1990, Joe Seney did a study of soil impacts. He compared hikers, cyclists, equestrians and motorcycles on two trails with different soils under both wet and dry conditions. He looked for impacts on a number of trail conditions. There was no significant difference between hikers and cyclists. Their impacts were minor. Horses and motorcycles had the worst impact depending on what was being measured. The Cessford Study for the New Zealand Department of Conservation reached a similar conclusion: "it is not established that mountain bikes have any greater impact on tracks than do any other non-motorised activities."

To my knowledge there have been no studies of mountain bikes and wildlife completed although I know of some that are underway. We'll report these, when we get them, but there's no reason to think that bikes will impact wildlife more than hikers, equestrians or other visitors. Because we stay on trails, there's reason to think our impacts will be less. Our rule "Don't scare animals" positions us as careful observers of wildlife. We need to be alert to bad science though and to criticize it. In two studies in the USA last year, it was charged that bikes cause soil damage by "compacting soil" and "removing leaf litter". Tthese are two things that we, in fact, any trail users do. In agricultural soil science, both would be problems, but they do not apply to recreational trails. Compaction and removal of leaf litter are exactly what separate the trail from the non-trail. Trail construction manuals discuss compaction and debris removal as necessary to keep a trail open and in good condition. We must not let bad science pass without our criticism.

The scientific study of mountain biking will continue and as new data comes in we should embrace it in our planning and educational efforts. We must continue to build alliances with environmental groups. We must work to assist our parks departments and other land managers in their efforts to preserve nature. Our sport's popularity has created a new constituency of committed and latent environmentalists. This is our strongest contribution to the environmental movement. As our organizations capture and direct this energy, we will help protect this planet's wild places.

The mountain bike community is socially responsible.

We take extraordinary steps to not be a hindrance to others. Mountain biking is safe. While all backcountry recreation has inherent risk, mountain biking has been proven to be extremely safe. The number of fatalities in the whole history of the sport is very low. The types and number of accidents in both competition and recreation are predictably mostly single rider affairs with relatively minor injuries. More important than the risk factors are the efforts mountain bike advocates have taken to heighten the personal responsibility of the rider. The IMBA Rules of the Trail "Control your bicycle" and "Be prepared" are fundamental. Our conversations and our literature emphasize riding within one's limits, proper equipment and maintenance, safety and survival gear, backcountry mechanical knowledge, and the like.

How to cooperate and interact with other users has been a theme of our sport's philosophy from the very beginning. Yielding to hikers and equestrians, working to resolve conflicts, contributing to educational programs at every level, creating volunteer trail patrols to assist land managers and other trail users. These are typical, everyday mountain biker behaviors, typical everyday club projects. I can't think of another recreational activity as focused on the needs of others. We must continue these efforts. They distinguish us.

The multiple use philosophy which has been a foundation stone of IMBA's efforts emphasizes a trail community of different types of users. We must work with other users because we need shared trails, not just "bike trails". From our earliest days, we realized that while there may be exceptions, in most cases cyclists should share the same trails with hikers and equestrians. Shared trails minimize new trail construction; they are most cost-effective in terms of signing and monitoring; they build community by emphasizing the common resource; and they provide the best opportunities for socializing new users. It is good thing for us to encounter other users on the trails. When we get to know each other, we are bound by our commonality, we learn to work through our differences. Separate trails breed ill will and selfishness. We would covet our neighbor's trail, and they would covet ours. There are local exceptions to a shared trail approach and you know what they are. It makes sense to separate users at crowded trailheads through separate feeder type trails. It makes sense to separate high speed racing and training from casual users. There need to be trails where children and the elderly can walk and not have to think about others users. We're willing to allow for these exceptions, because the trail community needs them. In general ,though we want to share and to be part of the community, not segregated and ostracized from it.

The mountain bike community is individually proactive.

In my experience, mountain bikers are not joiners. We ride in small groups not large ones. Our efforts are personal. It is a great challenge for our organizations to build membership given this mind set. Ultimately though, it is not important that riders are members of our organizations. It is more important that they do the right thing. We do. The examples of volunteerism I've already given demonstrate that when asked mountain bikers will show up to build trail, to escort children on rides, to meet with land managers. They will contribute time to organizations, because we have come to realize that we must. In many places in the US right now, local IMBA clubs are the most active volunteers that parks have.

A question for us at this summit is how do we get even more mountain bikers involved in these efforts? IMBA will be 10 years old next March. We were born out of conflict when closures proliferated, and cyclists, unorganized were unprepared to stop them. Those days are gone. Many of the trails closed to us early on have now been reopened. New trails are including us from the start. We have many challenges before us. The image of our sport as EXTREME-- high speed and risky is not true and does not serve us. There is not enough open space near the world's cities. There are not enough trails. The trails that are there are crowded. This intensifies impacts and user conflict. At this gathering, we can learn a lot from each other. Let's find out what we have that can help each other. Let's solidify a communication network so that any mountain biker in the world can get good useful information when they need it. I have spoken of what we know about ourselves as a community. Our biggest challenge will be taking this home and spreading the word.

Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?

Every mountain bike rider must be environmentally aware, socially responsible, individually proactive.... Every rider.

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