Guy Kesteven has already run through his MTB gear of the year (as well as a road/gravel gear of the year (opens in new tab) over on our sister site Cyclingnews), but what are the other things that made a challenging year more positive?
Pandemics, ecological threat, politics, lockdowns, health issues, deaths, disruption, uncertainty, the continuing bike boom causing supply, overcrowding and trail problems... You don’t need me to tell you that 2021 has been a tough year for a whole load of reasons, from globally significant to personal problems, like not being able to get the bike you want or the spares you need.
As is often the case though, it’s working around problems and issues that create real positives, and what’s been awesome to see created, curated and proved this year makes me really excited and hopeful for 2022 and the future.
Riding a bike is really good for your head and health
Whether it’s our own experience, talking to mates or looking on social media. In times of stress, restriction and uncertainty, bikes are a brilliant way to find whatever release/freedom/escape/nature exposure you need to feel a lot better. It’s not just those of us who have known that for decades having this reinforced either, the benefits of mountain biking and cycling in general are being discovered by a whole new world of people, especially after a lot of other options have been locked down over the past couple of years.
While cycling and mountain biking is still an embarrassingly white male-dominated population, we’re definitely seeing more and more conversations and action towards making it a more inclusive world on all gender, race and social status levels. While it’s still early days there’s definitely been an increase in women riding the trails. I’m talking to more women in the industry than ever before and I’ve got more media colleagues who aren’t white middle-class blokes too. MBR even rolled out a historic women's issue this year and brands, race organizers and bros on trails alike are increasingly getting called out for the kind of unacceptable sexism that most sports sorted decades ago.
Trash Free Trails Summit
The increasing momentum behind the growth of diversity was just part of the reason I came away from this year's Trash Free Trails Summit absolutely euphoric about the possible future of mountain biking. Dom and his team are also creating an increasingly well-supported surge towards proving mountain bikers can be a really positive impact on the landscape, not a problem. Whether that’s by something as simple as picking up litter and reporting in clean-up stats to engaging with landowners and forming trail groups to manage conflict. I saw some incredible people making presentations on projects that are really growing both on a local level and global engagement to make a real difference.
The Trash Free Trail Summit was also where I properly heard about the awesome Trash Mob project where disadvantaged kids were taken out mountain biking and trail cleaning as part of a personal growth program. Hearing how kids who we’d probably be nervous about if we saw at a trail center car park, were finding a whole new sense of purpose, happiness, freedom and self-respect was incredible and a real perception changer. The work Jo and her team have done provides further proof of the mental health gains seen in MTB therapy programs set up by the Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland group in conjunction with local universities. Again establishing bikes as a damn good thing for your mind as well as your body and providing further impetus for trial programs of cycling as a genuinely prescribed ‘medicine’ for all sorts of physical and psychological issues.
The advance of advocacy
While advocacy group OpenMTB unfortunately shut down in England last month, the way groups like Trash Free Trails, Mountain Biking in Scotland, Ride Sheffield, Tweed Valley Trail Association, and Dean Trail Volunteers are making gradual but definite progress is a really positive sign. The excellent ‘Trails on Trial’ film is a great way to get up to speed on how we can be more responsible and work towards being recognized as the increasingly significant and valuable outdoor user group we are now. It’s definitely a lot more thought-provoking way to spend 30 minutes than the latest ‘shreddit’ and will hopefully inspire you to get involved yourself.
While it’s definitely not a new thing for 2021, the part some brands are playing in moving mountain biking forward to a better place are getting pushed higher up the marketing and importance agenda. Trail stewardship support schemes include Santa Cruz Pay Dirt, Specialized Soil Searching, Trek's and Bosch's support of Trash Free Trails, and other groups on the global player level. The local work being done with Ride Sheffield and Trash Mob by Cotic as well as profit percentage schemes, sponsorships and other initiatives are all hopefully helping the biking boom be a benefit to our future, not an overuse burden.
While Cycling UK might not be the first name in MTB organizations it is the leading powerhouse pushing for better off-road access and contrary to its traditional cycle touring background, it's not shy about pushing the boundaries to get results. One of the best examples of this came when I drove straight from the Trash Free Trails summit in Anglesey down to Penzance to write and video the guide for the new Cycling UK West Kernow Way route. Not only is this lap of west Cornwall designed to bring gravel riders into a very economically deprived area outside of the short summer season, but the route also contains some deliberately provocative ‘missing link’ sections to challenge incorrectly assigned rights of way and get them accepted and restored for bike use. This is something you can get involved with yourself through its online map (opens in new tab) or by supporting other Cycling UK campaigns like ‘Trails for Wales’ access changes and ‘Beyond the Green Belt’ initiative.
It’s not just the behind the scenes hard work that’s been a big positive for biking this year, there have been some racing moments that have really lifted the profile of mucking about on bikes to a household level.
The success of Beth Shriever, Kye Whyte and Charlotte Worthington might have been on smaller wheels and harder surfaces than we’re used to, but the awesome BMX medal success in Tokyo definitely boosted the profile of the whole ‘extreme bicycling’ vibe.
Tom Pidcock’s total domination of the caricature XCO course was front page and first feature news in places MTB never normally gets a mention too. While it wasn’t as high profile outside of cycling as Olympic gold, Evie Richard’s superb World Championships XCO win was a total joy to watch. In fact, the whole season of XCO racing seemed to really grab the attention of more general riders than before as, despite (or maybe because of) increasingly trail/downcountry style bikes, they realized that it takes freakish skill as well as freakish fitness to win on the increasingly wild courses
Pidcock again proved that UK riders can be contenders in CX at the highest level too when he steezed his way to victory over the final bunny hop barriers of the Rucphen World Cup.
And for those of us more concerned about getting close to pension age than patriotism, Greg Minaar’s amazing run to his 4th DH World Championship at 40 years old was a GOAT rider confirmation that we could all get behind.
While there’s undoubtedly still a whole lot of challenges waiting for us when the calendars roll over into next year, as riders we’re damn lucky to be in a comparatively very positive position. So whether you’re the resolving kind or not, let’s all try and help the push to a broader, richer, better represented and resourced mountain biking world and hopefully watch even more awesome racing from riders young and old too.