Bespoken Word – The mountain bike industry is dying, long live mountain biking!

Tahnee Seagrave riding a mountain bike
(Image credit: Nathan Hughes / Red Bull Content Pool)

If you’re hoping for festive fireside assurances that everything is going to be much rosier in 2024, then let me kick Santa back up the chimney and go full Grinch. Because I’ve had some really interesting, frank conversations with industry ‘deepers’ who can’t be named and we all think we’re going to see some big changes in the future of biking and a lot more casualties along the way. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a lot better for the health of mountain biking going forward though.

Let’s not beat around the holly bush here, wherever you look in mountain biking there are multiple examples of bikes, parts, shops, brands, people, media etc. that don’t really add much. They’re the empty calories that taste OK because we’re used to their comforting presence, but they just add fat around the middle like the Christmas chocolate you don’t even really like. They aren’t just a harmless indulgence either, they’re clogging up the arteries that could be giving life blood to the innovators and inspirers who could be making a really positive difference. 

Black Friday e-MTB deals image

Forget 'Black Friday' it's been a whole 'Black Year' and 2024 doesn't look much brighter yet (Image credit: Future)

The basic issue right now is that the industry is doing a great impression of the supermarket turkey aisle an hour before closing on Christmas Eve. Over-ordered, over-stocked and desperate to sell for a fraction of the true cost just to try and grab a bit of reckless investment back. Stories of millions of unwanted and sometimes un-paid for bikes being held in warehouses and docks in the far east at the start of the year are old news. Now the rumours are of containers worth of complete bikes just being landfilled or tipped into the sea because even if they ever sell, it’ll be for less than the price of keeping them in storage any longer. That’s a pretty disgusting thought in an industry that already has some questionable eco and sustainability skeletons in the cupboard behind all it’s fresh air, mental wellness and nature bathing hype.

Kona’s ‘buy one get one free’ offer might be grabbing headlines, but it’s actually pretty smart as it’s only a 50 percent cost drop in a landscape where 60-70 percent savings are becoming increasingly common and it gets another bike off their shelves. In fact, savvy brands like Specialized were offering half price bikes this time last year to clear the decks ready for rolling updates this winter and then fresh bikes in 2024.

Distributors are desperately trying to justify the extra margin they add between manufacturers and sales. Shops are wondering where all the Covid customers have gone while watching online prices plummet further and further past the sustainable level. Investor owned companies at all levels are praying that the money men won’t get bored of the bad news, like they did with Chain Reaction and Wiggle, and pull the plug that’s keeping the life support flickering. Well established indies with a loyal following are borrowing back the money they got off parents and pals twenty years ago to keep their dreams alive. Discovery / Warner Brothers are doing the maths on mountain bike race coverage and multiple sources showing the same things and the sums aren’t adding up. Magazines are getting thinner, advertisers fewer, race teams are dying by the day and online media and influencers are ditching dignity, integrity and editorial standards to spiral ever deeper into the click hole.

An enduro mountain biker manuals out of a dusty berm

Who brings more to the sport? A rider who pushes the envelope of skills and bike development or someone who makes a viral dance out of putting a helmet on?  (Image credit: UCI Mountain Bike World Series)

And as harsh as it sounds, we need exactly this kind of cull and I hope some of the people bleating about how bad things are actually read this and let it resonate.

If the only headlines your brand has made are based on the discount you offer and/or your last memorable innovation was last century, then you’re adding nothing to the mix. Is most of your warehouse or your shop shelving is buried in generic quantity over quality tat? Then I hope it chokes you. Do your customers genuinely get the best product for their needs? The one they’ll love and engage with enough to make them lifelong mountain bikers, or do you just sell them the one that makes you the most profit? Do you sweat over every detail of the geometry and the components on the bike you ‘design’ or the longevity and performance of the product you ‘create’? Or is it just out of date, quality uncontrolled ‘Catalogue Aided Design’ crap that you don’t care enough – or know enough – about?

Do you properly service that bike before you sell it? Strip down the suspension, degrease and re-lube the chain, burn in the brakes and give the customer a proper fit check and shock setup? Or do you just put the pedals on, straighten the bars and try and sell the poor schmuck the shock pump that came with the bike as an added cost? 

Have you created a genuine community you interact with personally or just paid for insta and Facebook clicks? Do you really encourage diversity and inclusion or would a minority rider feel like they’d walked into a redneck incel basement if they walked into your shop, joined your group ride or looked at your marketing?

Are you just puking up press releases verbatim, plagiarizing other people's product reviews and original content in a way that makes ChatGPT look like it has immaculate morals and a more genuine in depth knowledge of the subject? That light test you just published – did you pay enough (anything?) to actually check run times or measure real weights or was ‘claimed’ good enough? Have you started you bleating into the internet with all the other podcast sheep or creating and curating something really worth listening to? Did trending audio or reposted crash clips make your last reel or TikTok go viral or are your skills, insight or sense of humor getting you the likes?

Did you expose a long ridden under-the-radar spot by making a video on how rad it was as you chased social clicks? Was it then bulldozed by the previously cool but now irate landowner after the area was swamped with hordes of riders from afar jamming roads and access by parking in passing places, farm gates and forest roads?

Cotic in the bluebells

Small independent, deeply invested and passionately innovative brands like Cotic are the heart and soul of mountain biking.   (Image credit: The Marvellous Mr Baybutt / Cotic)

And sure, it’s a shame if a brand that you have an old sticker for on your '90s toolbox bites the dust. Or if that shop you had to explain to the roadie behind the counter that "no, I don’t want a bike without a cross bar and if you point me at the pink one you’ll need corrective surgery for your correctile dysfunction" doesn’t turn on the dim lights behind the dirty windows again. If the magazine you used to run to the newsagents for dwindles from a few page pamphlet to editorially extinct, or the algorithm suddenly sidelines your favorite vacuous scroll bait.

But if these life sucking, development drowning, lowest common denominator drains on mountain biking die, then they’ll give back the life and light our sport desperately needs. Vulture capitalists will inject their strangling ‘strings attached' money into the next ‘big thing’ instead so brands that deserve to survive on merit will grow slowly rather than bail out b*llshitters getting rich quick.

Frame builders might actually start making the frames for brands who’ve been promised them for months despite customers waiting, rather than presuming they’d cancel like everyone who over-ordered did and leaving the tubes untouched on pallets. Shops who really look after customers won’t have to end every two hour sales process by price-matching a fictional bike on a far away website. Events won’t be whored into unrideable shape in the hope of potential millions of ‘sports fans’. They’ll return to what makes them awesome to ride. Maybe we can dream that GCN+ will wake up in bed next to a grinning Rob Warner and we won’t have to wait for the tennis to finish to get our slice of World Cup stoke.

Racers will get contracts again rather than seeing that money spent on click bait accounts. Fat magazines worth reading, YouTubers worth watching and podcasts worth listening to will command a fat price from advertisers. Because there really is some value in supporting the deeper side of our culture and community, even if Facebook ads will always give the best immediate return in terms of ‘engagement’.

You’ll get the right product for your riding because someone took the time to really think about it at every stage from design, to manufacture and through marketing and media review. You’ll be genuinely inspired, educated and entertained by what you see, read and hear about this fantastic sport rather than feeling disappointed and diabetic on over sugared content candy.

But that’s only going to happen if we strip out the cholesterol that’s clogging our arteries and remember that the real ‘bottom line’ is making mountain biking better, not the ‘bottom line’ on a balance sheet.

So we need to all do our bit to properly kick MTB up its ass/arse (delete as appropriate) and there's no better time to start doing that than with a box fresh new year. Happy Christmas and see you in 2024!

Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since 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. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

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

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg