Riding along on a trail made for two…

Mountain bikers have a problem, an image problem. While we see ourselves as a bunch of fun-loving free spirits, much of the rest of the outdoor community see us as gung-ho idiots who aren’t happy unless we’re mowing down senior citizens. Now, some of you might not give a monkey’s about having an image problem, but it’s fair to say that coming across as Attila the Hun on two wheels means that in the future we’ll have less trails to ride, not more. Confused? I’ll explain.

In the strange world of Rights of Way legislation the opinion of the countryside’s second largest user group, mountain bikers, is worth diddly squat. When the Countryside Act 1968 granted cyclists the right to use bridleways it also placed those on two-wheels at the bottom of the pecking order. There is no legal obligation to facilitate the use of a bridleway by a cyclist and the interests of cyclists will always be subservient to those of walkers and horse riders.

This situation flies in the face of logic and causes a number of problems. The Ramblers, who speak for the walking community, are one of the most effective campaigning bodies in the country and generally resist the upgrading of footpaths to bridleway status with enthusiasm. Horsey folk are also adept at punching well above their weight. Far be it from me to generalise, but many horse-riders are well heeled and well connected and tend to be listened to by local authorities and rights of way departments. Both of these groups generally detest mountain bikers. Whether that enmity is warranted is an open question, but let’s just say that there’s about as much chance of me executing a back-flip tail-whip as there is of a horse rider or walker arguing for greater access for mountain bikers.

And us? While there are groups campaigning for greater access, they are hamstrung by the lack of any clout with the powers that be and the image problem from which we clearly suffer. Those of a nervous disposition look away now, because I’m going to say nasty things about mountain bikers.

I’ve seen people scare the hell out of pedestrians. I’ve seen riders pass walkers on narrow paths at high speed, ignoring the look of terror as they pass. Some riders seem to think it’s a little badge of honour to leave a rambler rigid with fear, to spook a horse, to pass a group of walkers without a friendly word or backwards glance. Well, time to wake up boys and girls because annoying these people makes the work of those campaigning on your behalf harder and the chances of new trails becoming available almost nil.

Before I end up being lynched, let’s make the case for the defence. To suggest that all mountain bikers are irresponsible is like suggesting that all walkers take dogs with them – dogs being public enemy number one for both wildlife and shit bespattered mountain bikers. Ask those involved in conservation and they’ll tell you just how damaging a dog’s presence can be during bird nesting season. Equally, I’m sure that not all walkers are so worried about getting their feet wet that they prefer to widen paths in our National Parks until you can see them from space. Generalisations are dangerous on all sides. Walkers and horse riders would have you believe that they are zero impact on the environment, but that’s simply not true. Conversely, mountain bikers are routinely painted as eco-vandals, but what causes more disturbance to wildlife, an enormous group of walkers and dogs wending their leisurely way through a nature reserve or bikers who are gone in a flash?

None of this however, absolves mountain bikers from doing the best they can to mend fences with other trail users. Riding yesterday in the Peak District, me and the missus passed a number of enormous walking groups. We let them know we were coming, chatted amicably with them as we passed and left them with the indelible impression that mountain bikers are reasonable people out enjoying the countryside in a responsible manner, not monosyllabic adrenaline junkies who communicate by grunting. Needless to say, as soon as we rounded the next corner we went back to riding like loons, but the point had been made. What annoys me more than anything else is that we’re winning the debate. Most of the ramblers I stop and talk to end up telling me about a son/daughter/grandchild/partner who rides mountain bikes. It’s probably stretching the point, but if we can convince other trail users that we’re civilised human beings then, one day, we could see logic prevail and the enlightened Scottish model of universal trail use spread to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Conversely, if mountain bikers continue to alienate walkers and horse riders, we make that an even more distant prospect. We’re second class citizens in spite of the fact that mountain bikes are already one of the main methods by which people are introduced to the joys of the great outdoors. Try taking a teenager for a walk and see how far you get before they start moaning. Put them on a bike and they’re often off in the distance before you’ve saddled up. The powers that be, the Department of Health, the National Parks, tourist boards, environmental bodies and the rest ignore the growth in mountain biking at their peril because it is introducing more people to the wilderness than all their efforts combined. But if they’re going to take us seriously as a responsible, environmentally aware user group, it’s up to us to act the part. Being right nice to a rambler might be just the start.

John Horscroft

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