The discussions I’ve had (online and off) about my March series of blog posts examining some of the factors that discourage seniors from engaging in off-road cycling has led me to the conclusion that those factors are relevant for the general population of people who ride bicycles, not just seniors. That’s the bad news.
The good news? I’m convinced that there are some things that could be done to mitigate those factors and that it’s time to experiment to see what might work. A summary of the problematic factors:
- Mountain biking is most often portrayed as a sport, which implies that it’s an activity that you try to ‘get better at’ or compete in, and therefore becomes part of one’s identity. I am a mountain biker. This limits its appeal to those cyclists who could become interested in it as simply a recreational activity, just another form of riding a bike.
- Socializing is increasingly getting structured into clubs and group rides for cyclists but it’s seldom emphasized in mountain biking. People primarily see images of mountain bikers riding alone or in single file on XC trails and it looks isolating.
- The fear of injury while mountain biking is a significant deterrent to many of those who ride bikes for recreation or transportation, in part because they primarily see images of mountain bikers riding at high speeds close to trees on unstable surfaces.
- The clothing typically worn by avid mountain bikers and portrayed in the media is a deterrent for many. I’ve often heard it said: If Lycra is required, I want no part of it.
- Mountain biking appears to be a super strenuous activity to the recreationally-oriented cyclist. Most mountain bike magazine covers use images of riders straining on difficult terrain, riding dangerous obstacles, or out in the middle of nowhere on a long adventure ride are so prevalent.
- Mountain biking’s dominant demographic (male, white, young-to-middle aged) makes it difficult to attract those who don’t fit that demographic
- The online communities for mountain biking are dominated by riders at the advanced end of the skill/experience spectrum, are 90% male, and generally are not welcoming for inexperienced and recreational riders.
- Instructional classes that introduce people to mountain biking mostly assume that it has to be approached as a sport, that one must learn a significant set of basic skills in order to enjoy it recreationally.
What might be done to mitigate these problems?
1. Create a recreational mountain biking website and print brochure, targeted for a geographic area (e.g., Twin Cities metro area, all of Minnesota, all of IMBA’s Upper Midwest region)
The website and brochure would have many photos that portray a much broader demographic of people riding mountain bikes on beginner-level terrain, socializing during a ride, wearing casual clothing. Site videos would show similar scenes, plus include interviews with that broader demographic. Content would include information on the local trails that are best for recreational riders and where to find beginner-level group rides. There would need to be an educational outreach effort to inform local bike shops, community ed & rec programs, youth centers, senior centers, etc. about the web site and distribute the brochures. Of course, the website would be complemented with a social media presence (Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram and Pinterest, etc.)
2. Build more recreational double-track flow trails
One problem with recreational mountain biking is its association with existing hiking and XC ski trails, gravel roads, unpaved forest roads, logging trails, etc. like the one pictured above. While many of these allow for side-by-side riding (and thus, are more social), the fun factor that we now associate with purpose-built mountain biking flow trails just isn’t there. A beginner level double-track flow trail would provide recreational riders with a safe (no adjacent trees, obstacles or drop-offs), social (majority of the trail wide enough for side-by-side riding), and fun (smooth, gentle rollers and berms) experience. It would exist in that happy medium between a paved bike trail where riders aren’t focused at all on the physical act of riding a bike and a singletrack mountain bike trail where beginning riders are overwhelmed by the intensity of the physical act of riding. A double-track flow trail will likely cost most to construct than a beginner-level singletrack trail because the flow features would generally be have to be built from scratch rather than taking advantage of existing terrain.
May 13 update/new blog post: Alternative to a double track flow trail: A White trail with multiple Green B-lines
3. Introduce people to mountain biking with fat bikes
Fat bikes are much more stable than regular mountain bikes, especially at slow-to-moderate speeds on relatively flat terrain. The increased feeling of stability can mitigate much of the fear beginners have when turning and braking on dirt or snow for the first time.
Once the initial fears are overcome, the attraction of a ‘dorky slow’ (QBP’s Gary Sjoquist phrase) mountain bike that can be ridden year-round on any off-road terrain (including gravel roads) may be enough to induce more people into becoming mountain bikers.
In Minnesota, it’s also common now to see people riding fat bikes on paved bike paths and city streets, both for recreation and commuting. Their appeal as all-purpose bicycle could prove to be beneficial to mountain biking.
4. Make it easy for recreational mountain bikers to find each other
It’s often not enough to schedule and promote all-comers group rides at trail systems. If a recreational rider shows up in shorts, t-shirt and tennis shoes and everyone else is clipped in and wearing Lycra, they’re going to feel intimidated and likely not return. A region needs an online scheduling system (e.g., Meetup.com) that provides ways for recreational riders to meet and ride together at various times of the week at a variety of locations. Some of these can be led by an experienced or certified ride leader (I’m enrolled in the Level 1 IMBA Instructor Certification Program at the end of this month) and some can be self-organized. And the more that people can be encouraged to share photos and videos of these experiences via social media, the more likely these socially-oriented recreational rides will continue to draw ever larger numbers of participants.
5. Create an online community where the culture is supportive for beginners, women, and recreational mountain bikers.
It’s not that the online community can ONLY consist of beginners, women, and recreational mountain bikers. It’s that part of its mission should be to serve their needs. And that means that the social tone (culture) must be welcoming, and issues discussed with a spirit of inquiry. This can’t be left to chance. The community’s management must know how to create and maintain this type of online environment.
Like any project, these strategies should be implemented and then adapted quickly as it’s learned what doesn’t work. Some strategies might deserve a quick death. Better ideas may emerge. The project should have a blog and a discussion forum where people can find out what’s happening with it, offer feedback, and get involved. In the meantime, I’m eager for constructive criticism on any of this. Attach a comment to this post (best) or contact me.