I subscribe to mountain bike coach Gene Hamilton’s BetterRide.net email newsletter (excellent and free) and noticed last week that he had a blog post titled, Has IMBA Lost its Soul?
His criticisms seemed off-base to me and I thought about responding with comments to his post. But being relatively new to the sport (2.5 years), I thought I’d first try to engage some of my fellow mountain bikers in discussion about the issues he raises with a post to the MORC Forum. After several days of discussion (90+ comments thus far), and some email exchanges with IMBA staff and other mountain bikers I respect, here’s my take.
Hamilton on IMBA’s trail building style:
they … create predictable and boring trails! They have also dumbed down quite a few trails that I once greatly enjoyed. I realize some of this was done to make the trails more sustainable (which is good) but often it seemed like it was done to feed someone’s ego as the great “Trail Dictator”.
Having seen some of the expert/pro-level trails at Copper Harbor and Spirit Mountain that were designed and/or created by IMBA Trail Solutions, I don’t understand why Hamilton would make such a broad criticism. The thing that’s appealing at these parks is the range of trails: intermediate, advanced, expert, pro. I see IMBA participating in and maybe even leading this ‘progression’ movement, both by its educational efforts and its trail building.
If there’s only one XC/single track trail in a large geographic area, I can see the rationale for making it safer/more rideable (“dumbed down”) for a wide range of abilities rather than just expert, because it could be argued that that’s better for the sport overall. That should be just a temporary fix, however. The beauty of what we have here in Minnesota is the increasing range of trails for all ability levels, often within a single park/trail system.
If a local club wants to keep a trail feature, and the land manager wants it tamed down but the club won’t do it, the land manager has every right to hire a trail builder/contractor to do it. But then the trail builder should not be blamed. The land managers ultimately dictate/decide what happens to an existing trail or what type of new trails get created. IMBA doesn’t own the lands. The lands are in public hands.
I’m guessing in some of the instances that Hamilton is irritated about, the local clubs haven’t concentrated on developing close relationships with their local land managers like has been done here in Minnesota.
Hamilton on trail-building decision making:
“We know how to build great trails and what people like!”, seems to be their motto, but, I and thousands of other riders were not consulted and they obviously don’t know what I like! There are two things I really enjoy, flow and challenge and many IMBA created or fixed trails lack both of these (many SORBA and MORE trails do have both, props to the local chapters!).
Again, mountain bikers are most effective when they organize themselves into clubs and chapters and then try to work with/influence the land managers to get the kinds of trails that they think best. IMBA need not be part of that process but part of IMBA’s mission is to help clubs and chapters become more effective when dealing with land managers. And if thousands of riders were not consulted, that’s the fault of the clubs and/or land managers, not IMBA.
Hamilton on the importance of purpose-built trails and parks:
Development of trails and parks expressly for the purpose of mountain biking is cool, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that such development is crucial to mountain biking. Mountain biking can be done across the land with no trail, it can be done on animal tracks, and can be done on hiking trails as well as jeep roads. Much of the beauty of mountain biking is that one can traverse the land under their own power.
Sure, trails “can be done” on the types of terrain he cites but I’d argue that if that’s all the sport offered, its appeal would be extremely limited. I tried mountain biking many years ago when my three boys were teenagers. We quickly tired of riding on fire roads, hiking trails, and XC ski trails and quit riding. My world changed once I discovered Cuyuna Lakes and Lebanon Hills in the summer of 2011 and how different the trails were from what I had experienced. I’d argue strongly that purpose-built mountain bike trails are crucial to the growth of the sport.
I’d also argue that Hamilton wouldn’t likely have a successful coaching business if the only type of mountain biking available was on hiking trails and jeep roads. A large percentage of riders new to the sport want to ride the new purpose-built trails and as they progress in their skills, they’re more likely to want to upgrade their skills even more with coaching services like his company offers.
Also, the regulatory landscape for trail building has changed in recent years. I stumbled on this BLM Powerpoint presentation on IMBA’s site titled Overcoming Regulations and Roadblocks in Trail Projects. The document’s intent:
Provide essential advice for solving the bureaucratic and permitting challenges nearly all trail projects encounter. Topics include: storm water and environmental permits, NEPA compliance, invasive species regulations, archeological issues, management reviews and more.
Many (most?) of those regulations didn’t exist (or if they did, they weren’t enforced) when some of old-style trails Hamilton laments were built. But they do/are now. IMBA didn’t create them, we citizens and our elected representatives and our government staffers did. And that’s probably both good and not-so-good. So IMBA’s job in part is to help clubs and land managers negotiate that thicket of regulations so that mountain bikers end up with a Sandy Ridge. That doesn’t mean IMBA has lost its soul. The world has changed.
Hamilton on IMBA’s MTB Project partnership:
Now IMBA has started a trails website with a database of mountain bike trails! There are already a few great for profit sites that do this and do it well. Also as friend pointed out many local shops get a lot of their business from selling maps…
I think IMBA’s partnership with MTB Project is designed to meet a need for mountain bikers that no one else is doing. It’s a map database, but it has crowdsourcing, i.e., everyone can contribute and their staff acts as editors to ensure quality. But the real advantage is that you can embed a map on your own website, just like embedding a YouTube video. But regardless, no one has to use the site. If competitors arise who do it better, that’s market forces at work. As for the argument that offering mountain bike trail maps via the web or phone apps will hurt the LBS that sells print maps, I don’t think that should be a concern. Both serve the needs of mountain bikers. More choice seems a good thing in this case.
Hamilton on IMBA’s Trail Solutions:
Slowly over the last 10 years they have been acting more like a for profit business by straying from trail advocacy and using their considerable clout to compete with private businesses. They started straying by marketing themselves as trail builders and competing with for profit trail builders.
I emailed IMBA’s Communication Director Mark Eller and asked him if IMBA Trail Solutions was a for-profit division of IMBA. Eller wrote:
Trail Solutions is a fee-for-service arm of IMBA, but just because they charge fees does not make them a for-profit entity. The IRS considers TS to be part of our 501 3 c organization.
It’s true that Trail Solutions often charges fees for their trail building services, which sometimes confuses people. In fact, many nonprofits collect fees and offer revenue-generating activities. So long as those activities fit with the nonprofit’s mission, there is no problem with collecting fees. IMBA’s mission is to create, enhance and protect great mountain bike experiences. If you read the Trail Solutions blog for even a few minutes you will find dozens of examples that show that their work fits perfectly with IMBA’s mission.
Why not have a bid system for trail projects where all the trail building companies can bid on the project?… Why not let the trail builders build and IMBA be the advocacy group. There is a huge conflict of interest here, as a friend said, “It’s like the places out here in California that’ll smog check your car- there’s a reason they aren’t allowed to perform the repair.”
Not quite. Smog certification checks are required by law so a consumer doesn’t have a choice. They need some protection from unscrupulous service stations who are trying to make a quick buck.
If you go into a service station and ask them to check the wear on your tires, there is a financial incentive for them to say you need new tires regardless and to try to sell you some immediately. But they know you have a choice of when and where to buy your tires. So they also have a financial incentive to be truthful because they want you as a long term customer, not just for tires but for other future repairs. And they want the benefits of word-of-mouth positive marketing if you’re a happy customer. Those incentives aren’t nearly as strong for the slam-bam world of smog certification.
Likewise, IMBA has a strong long-term incentive to give its best advice to land managers, regardless of whether or not IMBA Trail Solutions ultimately performs the trail work. Land managers can hire whoever they want to build trails and if the land manager is a public body, they must to go out for bid if the job is over a certain amount. If a local mountain bike club has raised money on their own, they can hire whoever they want or they can put it out for bid.
I checked with a midwest trail system that’s used the planning/consulting arm of IMBA Trail Solutions (TS)and was told that the TS staffer they hired was very careful to let them know that there were many trail builder companies available, that TS didn’t push their own trail-building capabilities at all. That’s an anecdote, of course, just like Hamilton’s anecdotes, and as we all know, the plural of anecdotes is not data. So it’s best to look at the incentives in place (see above) and the overall long term results. Given the growth of IMBA Solutions, it would appear that land managers are increasingly comfortable with their services.
According to COGGS (here), “IMBA Trail Solutions has helped create a Master Plan for mountain biking at Spirit Mountain.” And according to the employee in this video, Flowline Trail Design of Colorado was brought to Duluth as “one of IMBA’s preferred trail-building companies.” The pump park in Steamboat Springs, CO is another example of a land manager (the city), a local mtb club (Routt County Riders), IMBA Trail Solutions, and a private trail builder (Flowline) all working on the project. This project manager role for IMBA Trail Solutions seems to be what’s needed when the project gets big/complex and there doesn’t seem to be any other organization in North America qualified to provide this.
IMBA’s Communication Director Mark Eller also emailed me this:
Many of the detractors are not willing to acknowledge how much IMBA and Trail Solutions has done to enhance the trail building profession:
- IMBA’s books, Trail Solutions and Managing Mountain Biking, have a huge influence of land managers, helping them see the value of bike-friendly trail designs and construction carried out by trained volunteers and professional builders.
- Our in-development book about bike parks strongly emphasizes the value of hiring professional bike park designers and builders.
- Trail Solutions has built excellent examples of shared-use and bike-specific singletrack trails all over the nation, and indeed the world, providing land managers and the public with real-world examples of trails that enhance public lands. This has encouraged land managers to hire professional trail builders instead of relying on their in-house resources.
- IMBA has successfully lobbied for legislation that enhances the professional trail building community, most notably the federal Recreational Trails Program which provides millions of dollars of funding for trails in all 50 U.S. states. The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Act is another example of a bill that IMBA lobbied for successfully and has had a positive impact on the trail building industry.
If IMBA didn’t do these things, who would? There are many more examples of IMBA’s work that benefits professional trail builders.
I would find it objectionable if IMBA’s publications never featured a trail that wasn’t built by IMBA Trail Solutions or if they were somehow using unfair tactics to compete. But as far as I can tell from here in the midwest, that hasn’t happened. And Hamilton doesn’t cite any examples of them using their “considerable clout” that were unethical.
Looking at the Trails Solutions-related comments to Hamilton’s blog post, there are some accusations that they’re too expensive and conversely, other accusations that as a nonprofit, they can afford to lowball their bids. There’s also an accusation that they encourage public land managers to keep their trail building projects under a certain dollar amount so that they’re not required by whatever law to go out for bid.
It’s certainly possible that lowballing and consulting to stay under threshold have happened but again, the incentives seem to be in place for this not to be a pattern, ie, 1) market forces (IMBA needs Trail Solutions to be a profitable program so the money can be used to help fund its other initiatives); and 2) IMBA’s long term reputation with land managers is crucial to their long term financial success. It doesn’t take long for a pattern of unethical behavior to become known.
My conflicts of interest
In case anyone’s wondering about my motives in this issue:
- Anyone who reads my blog will see that I’ve often blogged about IMBA Midwest regional Hansi Johnson and that I recently met IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel.
- This summer, I applied for the MORC/IMBA executive director position. Alas, I didn’t get past the first round. Now I’m seriously considering applying for a MORC board position for 2014.
- I’ve also blogged about a trail builder who has hired me (with my Wigley and Associates consulting business hat on) to help him with his website
- I’ve got some ideas (again, with my business hat on) for how I could help IMBA with their online communications/social media.
So I have several of conflicts of interest, some of them conflicting.
What’s next? More conversation
I’m new to the issue and I’m eager to learn more. Conversation is a good way to do it so feel free to attach a comment to this blog post with your reactions, pro and con.
Use your real first and last name when you submit a comment. Hamilton allows anonymous comments on his blog post and I don’t find it constructive when there’s controversy. Stand behind your comments.
Also, I have a high bar for civility, including: no sarcasm or other subtle put-downs. It’s okay to be angry, just be straight about it.