MTB group ride, Cuyuna Lakes

5 ways to make mountain biking more attractive to beginners

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)

sisters recreational mountain biking Woman mountain biking, Chattahoochee River, Atlanta, Georgia.

family recreational mountain biking double track - photo by Jim Davis, Globe Staff family recreational mountain biking 2

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

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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 postAlternative to a double track flow trail: A White trail with multiple Green B-lines

3. Introduce people to mountain biking with fat bikes

recreational fat biking - MethowValleyPhotography

fat-bike-beach-ride-1620

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.

fat biking in the city

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

MTB group ride, Cuyuna Lakes

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.

online community graphic

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.

Conclusion:

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.


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Griff Wigley, Mountain Bike Geezer


21 thoughts on “5 ways to make mountain biking more attractive to beginners”

  1. I found one article online that relates to some of the issues I’ve addressed in this post: Recreational Mountain Biking, published in 2012 by Slavko Desik. Slavko is from Skopje, Macedonia and his English is excellent!

    A fellow mountain biker in the Twin Cities, James Kauth, referred me to this recent article in the UK’s The Independent by Andy Waterman: When did it all start to go downhill for mountain biking? An excerpt:

    Since that time, the public image of mountain-biking has morphed into an extreme sport, all about young men throwing themselves off cliffs or down ravines. It’s a frustrating misrepresentation, when for most of us, a mountain-bike ride looks much the same as a road-ride – riding along with friends, talking and enjoying the countryside, but in the woods or on the Dales, away from the constant, dull threat of motorists. And the bike you need to do that really isn’t very complicated – a rigid frame with a suspension fork is the most economical entry point, and many will see little point progressing beyond that.

  2. Thanks for all your good thoughts on this topic Griff. As you know I am a converted all time fat biker. One bike for every ride. Yes, even road biking…. So to Gary Sjoquist’s “dorkey slow” I offer “lightning fat”. I would just add one thought to all you points. Be sure to make it fun however and whereever the biking is done. If it is fun mixed in with a little adventure, this kind of biking (whatever we call it) will draw riders of all ages in for more and more good rides.

  3. Some great ideas here Griff.

    I really like the idea of a focused website/blog. A lot of existing organizations or clubs could fill this role with a little effort.

    Nothing irks me more than rides advertised as “no drop”. And yet everyone is in lycra and clipped in, and no one is assigned to even ride with the new or slower riders. And no one even thinks about doing a sweep! Just BS, and false advertising, in my opinion. And then we wonder why they don’t come back next week!

    Starting riders on fat bikes just makes a ton of sense. Now that the prices are coming way down it even makes it more feasible.

    Though I like the idea, I think a recreational double track flow trail might not be realistic. The cost difference would be significant. But not a little more cost. I would think it would be a four-fold or more increase in cost. Building a trail that is flat and smooth enough for two people to ride comfortably side by side would be a huge trail. It would also by design be much more disruptive to the environment. XC ski trails get away with poor designs because they are grassy in the summer. A dirt trail would need to follow IMBA standards to be sustainable.

  4. John, when I was at Ray’s Indoor Bike park last year, there was a guy flying over the biggest jumps and table tops on a fat bike. I was stunned. I asked him about it and he said he just overinflates his tires a bit (I think he was on Surly Larry’s). So ‘lightning fat’ indeed!

  5. Chuck, you’re probably right about a doubletrack flow trail not being financially feasible, at least for small-medium size mtb trail systems.

    But what about for a large land manager and a large MTB club? For example, in the Twin Cities, Three Rivers Park District encompasses several counties and includes 20 parks, three of which include MORC mtb trails. They also have a dozen or so regional paved trails for hiking/biking.

    It seems like somewhere in their system there could be a demonstration doubletrack flow trail to test its appeal, maybe just a couple of miles. If there’s appeal, it could be lengthened. And maybe it would be enough to just have a couple of these for the entire metro area, so that eventually everyone in the local mtb world knew that these were the places to take pure beginners for recreational mountain biking, with the expectation that once people got the hang of it, X% would move on to the beginner singletrack trails at the other ten metro area mtb trails.

  6. Some good ideas Griff. I am sure it could make sense on a larger system, particularly as a demonstration as you say. Another point is that most singletrack trail systems do not have any trail that meets the IMBA standards for beginning trail. Just getting that done would be huge. By definition these would be a lot wider trails with gentler grades. Still singletrack, but no grades over 5%. You can ride closer and communicate at the lower exertion level ;-)

  7. A private email comment has prompted me to start think about which entities would be most appropriate to adopt one or more of the 5 ideas, eg, private industry, local clubs/chapters, land managers, IMBA, etc.

    I’m thinking. Chime in if you’ve got some thoughts about it.

  8. This article is dated, so I’m curious how more recent sales are trending, but it’s clear that road cycling (and even hybrid bikes) continues to rise in sales, while from 2009 to 2010 there was actually a DECLINE in mountain bike sales. So many different types of mountain bikes, so much magazine hype of big air and technical skills may likely be causing beginning riders to opt for an easier entry option and simply stay on pavement, which is really too bad.

    While these are UK figures, according to Google Trends, this is consistent with worldwide statistics.
    http://www.bikeradar.com/us/news/article/google-trends-points-to-rise-in-road-cycling-29037/

  9. James, IMBA just alerted people to this new article today on the Motley Fool site:

    What is Really Driving Bike Sales in the U.S.?
    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/05/07/what-is-really-driving-bike-sales-in-the-us.aspx

    The article addresses of all types of cycling so it’s a little confusing. Some excerpts:

    IMBA and many other state and local-level biking advocacy groups continue to convince governments at every level to open park trails that had previously been the domain of hikers and horseback riders only. This has allowed mountain biking to flourish, and it helps to explain why it has been the fastest-growing segment of cycling.


    what’s been driving bike sales in recent years is the growth of the bicycle enthusiast, a buyer more likely to own multiple bikes – say road racing, cross-country mountain, and a fat-tire bike for snowy winter riding – and more likely to reinvest more frequently as features and technology advance, either by way of parts upgrades or new bikes. These are also cyclists more likely to seek out new trails and new adventures – one of the reasons they own multiple bikes in the first place. They are also more likely to pay more for their bikes.

  10. Griff I love these ideas and hope to see them come to fruition. I especially like the ideas about the online community and the website/brochures. So many people ask me about how to get started in mountain biking, and I’m never sure where to steer them.

  11. Hey Griff!

    In my scenario all my family depends from my monetary efforts and having an injury and be unable to work is what stop me from doing mountain bike rides. But i would love to do it!

  12. Great to hear, Martha. I’d like to get working on a recreational mtb website and brochure ASAP so I’m fishing around to see what support there might be for it via grants, bike industry, sponsors, etc.

  13. Sun, do you ride bikes at all? On streets or paved bike paths?

    If you could be assured that beginner-level recreational mountain biking was as safe as biking on a bike path, would you be willing to try it?

  14. Hi Griff, we met this past Saturday at Carver Lake Park. I believe there are many aspects to the issue of getting people motivated to ride mountain bikes. With all of the trail offerings in the Twin Cities area, I feel we do have some trail options that are not too difficult for the beginning rider. Salem Hills, the beginner loop at Lebanon Hills, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and others offer less technical riding.

    The advent of the 29er and fatbikes makes it easier to roll over and through some of the obstacles found on the trail. The social aspect of mountain biking was very prevalent during the early days of the mid 80’s -- 90’s. Even the race days were more of a “community oriented” gathering of which the actual race was also a part. Riding in groups may not be conducive to off-road trails, but the gathering pre and post ride is where the social aspect comes in to play.

    Having worked at a few bike shops over the past 25 yrs, it is my experience that the riding “club” aspect is typically generated by individual(s) within the shop who have an interest and sustained by the club members. The shop is a business, the club is an organization; and their approaches can be quite different from each other.

    I’m wondering if perhaps a auxiliary organization that would provide opportunities for new riders with group rides led by experienced “teachers” that would work alongside the retail bike shop, trail groups (like MORC), and recreational land managers (city, county, and state) might be a good start? Sign me up!

  15. Hey Lee, good to meet you as well… and thanks for chiming in.

    You’re the second person to mention Lake Elmo Park Reserve as a possibility so I’m going to have to get there and see what they have.

    But my anecdotal experience is that most Green trails in MN (“not too difficult”) are still too hard for the pure beginner, ie, many who’ve never ridden off-road before. The Green trails may not have obstacles but width, grade and surface are the factors that still can provide too much of a challenge for many.
    https://www.imba.com/resources/maps/trail-difficulty-ratings

    And yet plain old flat cross country type ski trails (White) are boring and not a great way to get pure newcomers excited about mountain biking, either.

    I’m working on a new blog post about how an off-road White level trail could have a range of Green b-lines, so I’ll be interested in your thoughts about that.

    I like your idea of an auxiliary organization that could take on the responsibility for group rides, etc for beginners in a region. I’m taking the IMBA ICP Level 1 course in two weeks so if I pass, I’ll be able to be a certified ride leader but I’m not yet sure about insurance coverage, doing it as a freebie vs, charging for it, etc. I’ll email you about a time to get together for coffee or a beer… soon!

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