We’re Not The Problem….
Riding a mountain bike can sometimes be a challenging business because a proportion of other users make myriad assumptions about us. They dislike mountain bikers and don’t accept that in fact the biking community is as diverse as any other community.
I was once on a ride, spotted a couple of walkers approaching and pulled into the side to let them pass in spite of the footpath being as wide as a bridleway. Hearing bird song above, peep-peep-peep, I said, “Wow, long-tailed tits!”
Now, I’m absolutely certain that the lady was about to berate me for, um, parking my bike beside a footpath, but she was dumbstruck. A mountain biker, (a mountain biker?!) had recognised a flock of birds purely from their song?!
Her reaction was slightly worrying, like a robot fed dodgy code. Her mouth opened and closed, her eyes revolved at speed. She was unable to compute that a mountain biker would know anything about wildlife, a classic example of a diminishing elitist minority making wild assumptions and unable to accept that things are beginning to change.
And that change makes absolute sense. Mountain bikers now form the second largest group in the outdoor community and therefore deserve to be treated with respect. Bridleways are severely limited in parts of the country, particularly in the Peak District and many lack continuity, often delivering mountain bikers onto busy roads. Hence we sometimes use footpaths.
The economic effect is marked. Studies done in both Wales and the Scottish Borders prove that bikers are a significant benefit to economically challenged rural areas. Scotland has changed its access laws so that walkers and mountain bikers have equal rights. Wales is considering doing the same thing.
Another significant factor is that mountain biking introduces a whole new demographic to the wonders of the great outdoors. That is absolutely crucial in the fight to protect our countryside.
Contrary to the opinions of some user groups, mountain bikes have virtually no effect on wildlife, vegetation and the great outdoors in general. We are linear, we ride the paths, we don’t stray and we pass through rapidly without upsetting the crucial and often endangered wildlife that exists in this country.
By comparison, other groups who also enjoy our wonderful landscapes have a massive effect. Walkers, over the years, have radically changed the Peak District, Lake District and the rest. Once upon a time, paths on Kinder and Bleaklow could be seen from space. Large areas were denuded of heather and bilberry thereby increasing erosion of the peat. As a result, millions of pounds have been spent to flag those paths and, fortunately, mother nature has slowly recovered and vegetation has re-established.
The same is true in the Lake District. Lockdown has seen paths eroded by a massive number of people who have discovered the joys of the hills and dales. Potentially, vast sums of money will have to be spent to repair those paths. I have pointed this out to walkers and their response has been to dismiss it – apparently walkers have rights of access no matter what damage they cause.
During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in footfall. Road verges have been obliterated by car parking. Many paths have gone from a foot wide to four foot wide thanks to groups walking two or three abreast. Ground-nesting birds are often seriously affected by dog walkers. My local woods had large areas that were resplendent with wood anemones and bluebells in the spring which have now been trampled to oblivion. Many runners, regardless of ground conditions, will race where they want, when they want.
My reason for explaining this is not to vilify other user groups but to highlight that we all have an impact. As far as I’m concerned, the great outdoors is for everyone and it is only by increasing access that we can build the determination to protect these wild spaces. We need to understand that we all have an effect.
Education is everything. Some land managers firmly believe that vilifying people is misguided. By alienating a user group, you push them to the fringes and risk provoking a bunker mentality – if you pull them into the fold, treat them as equals, you have the chance to influence how they conduct themselves.
Ride Sheffield has a brilliant working relationship with a number of land managers and conservationists. I was tempted to slip the word ‘lucky’ in there but it’s important to stress that luck had nothing to do with it. From its inception, we were determined to engage with those who protect the local landscape. We joined stakeholder groups, offered to help out with maintenance of local trails and learnt a great deal about the conservation process from those with whom we co-operated .
We’ve done massive amounts of maintenance work on bridleways but also on footpaths that we know mountain bikers use. Occasionally, we’ve been joined by other users, but it’s a rare thing. We’ve raised money from local firms and crowd-funded in order to be able to purchase materials and hire equipment. We’re currently creating trail-maintenance crews and will train them and equip them thanks in large part to bike firms that are helping us out.
And it’s not just us. Peak District MTB carry out maintenance work in the national park. In Scotland, the Tweed Valley Trails Association do sterling work. All over the country, mountain bikers help to maintain the rights of way network.
Can other user groups make the same claim? Do runners dig in? Do walkers grab a spade? Should mountain bikers be reaching out to other user groups to form alliances? It’s inevitable that simply putting the word out to a bunch of mountain bikers for a trail maintenance day is more productive but we’re aware that involving other user groups would be a massive positive.
And that is true because, contrary to the opinions of some users, we have much more in common than it would appear. Currently, we all have access to approximately 7% of our land mass. Much of the remainder is owned by the rich who are determined to keep it to themselves. Runners, walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers should be working together in order to right this historical wrong, because this land is our land, not the preserve of a privileged few.
I recently rode the same footpath mentioned earlier. I came across numerous walkers, ones, twos, groups and a runner. Not one of them objected to my passing. Not one. I got involved in some lovely chats. It enhanced my ride. I feel that there is a growing majority who enjoy sharing the great outdoors and a sad minority who are determined to be confrontational. The latter should have a long, hard look at themselves.