Bespoken Word – Everybody loves a rebel alliance, but is UK mountain biking playing into the Empire’s hands again?

Princess Levo
There are no words (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Hollywood loves a Rebel Alliance. Way before Luke Skywalker started talking to pensioners in canyons and set off questing against an evil empire armed only with a strip light, the 'handful of heroes' format was a sure-fire winner. Countless cowboy movies such as The Magnificent Seven, and war films like The Dirty Dozen, in fact pretty much every adventure film follows the rag-tag underdog gang against the megacorp / evil empire / ridiculous odds trope. Cinema was just following on the heels of similar tales from the very start of recorded history too. Most of the Greek legends are about the triumphs of humble heroes against ridiculous odds and Celtic, Norse, Hindu, Muslim, Celtic, and Christian writings nearly all follow the same outnumbered but somehow ultimately triumphant underdog / hero format.

Even mountain biking has always followed the ‘rebel heroes’ narrative. Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Scot Nicol, Joe Breeze et al started the craze by escaping into the hills to get away from "Cars. Cops. Concrete." and the over-officious world of road racing. Any intervention into our sport but bigger governing bodies has been viewed with deep suspicion too. And often with good cause if you see how EWS and DH are ‘developing’ since the Warner Brothers / Discovery media Star Destroyer blotted out the sky. Even our brand landscape has way more small ‘have a go hero’ companies who somehow eke out a living between the mega brands than you see with most other sports. We’ve even created a globally successful sport by often conveniently overlooking official access and trail-building rights.

However as – let’s say unsanctioned because people get antsy if I say illegal – trails become an ever bigger part of our sport, and rider numbers grow as outdoor awareness reduces, that’s potentially becoming a real time bomb. As a result, we’ve seen several new groups trying to gather together disparate diggers to form a single body to go forward and talk to major landowners and other outdoor stakeholders. Whether it’s the UK Trails Project, DMBINS (and now DMBINW) or the Reframing Mountain Biking folks, Cycling UK, or even British Cycling, they’ve all got slightly different agendas. So while there’s no shortage of photographs of shaken hands and smiling faces at shared meetings, things are far from smoothly synced behind the scenes. Perhaps unavoidably, these more official groups that are trying to sit round a table with our traditional National Parks and Forest Enterprise ‘enemies’ are viewed with some suspicion too. Even though in the case of DMBINS, what they’ve done in the Tweed Valley area of Scotland has been an incredibly successful template for transformative thinking.

UK MTB Trail Alliance logo and woman digging trails

UK MTB Trail Alliance have already got over 130 different trail groups, bike parts and other mountain bike shakers and earth movers working together (Image credit: UK MTB Trail Alliance)

That’s potentially the advantage of the newly announced UK MTB Trail Alliance. Because rather than being an ‘officially licensed’ fresh start-up, it’s actually been in covert existence for a while. I’ve been in touch with founder Robin Grant for nearly two years while he’s quietly and carefully tried to coax various trail builders, bike park operators and other guerrilla groups out of hiding in the woods and into monthly Zoom meetings. These have become a resource to share experiences, approaches and lessons learned in how to move forward. It’s currently only open to people actively involved in advocacy and trail building too. Whether that’s pay-to-play park businesses, or solitary snipers, covertly carving singletrack into their local woods. In other words, it’s very much do–ers rather than being diluted with do–gooders who’ve never blistered their hands on a trail hoe. 

So far the message is very much a coalition of independents, rather than a corporate ‘wrap everyone up in a big coat and stick a hat on top’ to pretend they’re one single entity vibe. More like the Ewoks winning the forest battle on Endor rather than the Rebel Alliance getting blown to pieces in a set-piece battle on Hoth if you want to continue the Star Wars analogy. They’re hoping to get crowd-funded to cover their costs rather than being supported by SRAM like the UK Trails Project. I really like the way Robin and other trustees really got some momentum going by contacting and linking over 100 different groups before even breaking cover too, rather than raising the flag and then going looking for an army. 

DMBinS UK Trail team

DMBINS have already created an incredibly successful template for transformative thinking around MTB, with SRAM and their UK Trails Project following a lot of their cues (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

People's Front of Judea?

There’s no escaping the fact that there is a big issue with all this disparity. Yet again people are trying to push mountain biking forward to a more recognised, sustainable position to negotiate with those who can grant us more access, funding, facilities and legal legitimacy without a single voice. In fact the more people who do the same thing slightly differently, the more confusing it becomes. Like a mountain bike version of the famous Monty Python People’s Front of Judea scene

If I’m honest even I’ve given up trying to follow and support the various initiatives physically – after attending a bunch of meetings where mostly the same people said the same things and then did the same a year later without seeming to make much progress. And I’m someone who’s always wanted these ideas and organizations to work. Because I genuinely think – and again DMBINS / Tweed Valley supports this view – that while getting fully into bed with government organizations and ‘big farmer’ is worrying, at least coming to some agreement about sleeping arrangements is vital to keeping mountain biking sustainable. 

But what if you’re a forester, councilor, or civil servant who already views mountain bikers as an irritating infestation carrying all sorts of liability and other user conflict issues with them? Even if you set out trying to establish some sort of pest control dialogue, it’s surely going to be really frustrating if you find out you have to deal with loads of different groups who seem to be the same thing but actually aren’t. And if you’ve ever shared a table at an access / route planning meeting with reps from the British Horse Society or the Ramblers Association, you’ll soon realize why we’re so far behind in terms of representation. Surely even mountain bike brands like SRAM, who’ve invested a serious amount of cash in creating the UK Trails Project for the next three years, or Trek who have a long history of advocacy support since the early days of IMBA, are going to be discouraged from digging into their pockets again, if there are more outstretched hands than coins?

And no I don’t have an answer for this, or even a witty pun to tie it all up with. Because I’ve been reporting on these kind of stories for nearly thirty years and nothing seems to have fundamentally changed. Plus, whether it was footpath damage, 'North Shore' skinnies, schralping rare orchids, or the rise of e–MTBs that’s been ‘about to get us canceled’, it hasn’t happened yet. So I’m just going to grab a bag of otter's noses [another Life of Brian reference – Ed], make a donation to the UK MTB Trail Alliance fighting fund and watch how it all plays out so I can keep you up to date on here. 

Guy Kesteven

Guy Kesteven has been working on Bike Perfect since its launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. He’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and he reviews MTBs over on YouTube.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg