Photo by Angel King / RTI Sports
Let’s be blunt—2016 was not a banner year for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (or IMBA). Mountain biking’s pre-eminent trail-access organization lost its 19-year sponsor, Subaru. In the wake of that announcement, IMBA laid-off several staff members and were forced to mothball the very popular and successful Trail Care Crew program. What’s more, the trail advocacy organization continued to take its lumps over its refusal to advocate for mountain biking in Wilderness areas.
It’s impossible to say whether all of this played into Mike Van Abel’s decision to resign after 12 years of leading IMBA. This much is clear, however: While IMBA never stopped doing important work on behalf of all mountain bikers, the organization now faces some hard questions.
For the first time in decades, even longtime members are asking:
Does IMBA deserve our support?
Has IMBA outlived its usefulness?
And, most importantly,
Can this organization turn its own ship around?
The answer may rest with Dave Wiens, the man IMBA recently named its new Executive Director.
Unlike some of IMBA’s past leaders, Dave Wiens is not a polished figurehead with years of experience running major non-profits. Wiens is, first and foremost, a rider and trail builder—that makes him an interesting choice to lead an organization that has been characterized as being too detached from the day-to-day realities of digging in the dirt and advocating for trails on the local level.
Wiens, however, might be just the leader this organization needs.
In addition to carving a long and impressive racing career that includes World Cup wins and six dominating victories in the Leadville 100, Wiens is the founder and Executive Director of Gunnison Trails, a grassroots, trail-access organization in Gunnison, Colorado.
In short, Dave Wiens, a Mountain Bike Hall of Famer with dirt under his fingernails, isn’t your typical suit-and-tie executive and that might be a good thing. But can he actually change things at IMBA? And what would he change? And why is he willing to take the hot seat at this difficult point in IMBA’s history?
To his credit, Wiens answered all these questions (and more) during this interview.
If I were to sum up a lot of people's reaction to your taking the lead at IMBA, it’d go something like this: “It’s cool that Wiens is leading IMBA…but why the hell is he doing it?”
You’ll never please everyone in a job like this. On top of that, the challenges of keeping IMBA relevant and successful have to be immense. So, why are you taking on the mantle?
IMBA has been there for mountain bikers from nearly the beginning, trying to give us mountain bikers more trails to ride. So for me, taking this job was…well, I don’t want to say it was a “no brainer”, because it really was a big decision—it’s a big job with a lot of responsibility—but it felt necessary. For a lot of us, mountain biking isn’t just a sport—it’s a part of our lives. It’s who we are. If you take mountain biking away from us, it’s like you're tearing our hearts out.
Photo by Angel King / RTI Sports
Knowing, as I’m sure you do, that many riders feel that IMBA could be a better organization, what made you willing to take the lead at this point? A lot of people would shy away from it.
Well, for a couple reasons. IMBA has been going through a transition lately. That’s true. Losing Subaru as a sponsor was a big deal. It’s in a tough spot right now. But look, mountain biking has been very good to me. I met my wife through mountain biking. Heck, everything good in my life has resulted from or somehow been connected to mountain biking. So it’d be hard for me to see an organization in need—an organization that has had such a positive impact on mountain biking—and not try to help. I can’t do that.
It’s going to be a challenge.
Yeah, it’s not going to be the easiest road. And I fully didn’t sleep a couple nights knowing that some people would probably say, ‘Oh, Wiens, he’s not a real mountain biker because we don’t agree on this issue or that issue.’
I’m not really a controversial guy. I’m not that outspoken. And now I’m going to step out of that comfort zone and it probably won’t be the most pleasant thing to have criticism aimed at me, but I know it’s going to happen and I believe I’m going to do the best thing I can for the sport.
It’s not as if I’m going to be some autocratic leader who’ll be making all these decisions in a bubble about mountain biking. I have an amazing staff and board of directors around me and I’ve got an amazing support network of mountain bikers. I think there are good ideas everywhere and I want to hear them.
Look, I know I’m not the guy with all the answers. I don’t even know if that person actually exists. I mean, IMBA could find a person who knows the non-profit world inside and out, but then perhaps they’re not a mountain biker. So I think I come to this job fairly qualified and I’m going to come in and put my head down and work and get better. We might make mistakes along the way, but we are also going to keep going because we’re trying to help make mountain biking as good as it can be and we’ll try and give as many mountain bikers as we can a voice so that this sport can continue to progress.
Photo by Andy Eyring / RTI Sports
How many members does IMBA currently have?
Around thirty thousand dues-paying members. There are shops and clubs and chapters... we have just over 700 corporate partners right now. But really, you’re still talking about 30,000 individual mountain bikers.
How do those membership numbers compare to IMBA enrollment numbers of the past? Is it level (constant), higher, lower?
Membership has been at that level for quite a while. There are fluctuations from time to time, but it’s been pretty constant for a while now.
And how many employees are there at IMBA?
There are 42. We’re split about half and half between Trail Solutions (Ed. IMBA’s trail-building operation
) and everybody else—the Boulder staff and the regional programs.
How international, actually, is IMBA? The word “International” is in the title, but the sense I get is often that the bulk of the organization’s work is centered in the United States….but that may be simply my perception as an American.
Today, IMBA is not very international. There are three licensing agreements that we have today with IMBA Canada, IMBA Argentina and IMBA Europe. Our Trail Solutions also does international trail work projects. But today and moving forward, we are very much focused on the USA because we have to be.
Wiens racing in the Vail Outlier Offroad XC race, 2015. Photo by Eddie Clark
What are IMBA’s strengths?
The IMBA brand, while not universally popular, is fairly strong with land managers and folks in agencies who often actually refer to a top-level trail as being built to “IMBA standards”. In short, we’ve created a huge bank of knowledge about how to create trail systems that work—about trail construction and design techniques as well as the bigger-picture planning process.
Then the other strength we are always going to have is that no one else is trying to speak specifically to improving mountain biking access and government relations on a local, regional and national level.
What are IMBA’s weaknesses?
Well, the one that jumps right out at me is just that our average member is 45 years old and male. It’s certainly a demographic profile that we’d like to diversify. We’d like to see younger riders, more women and more kids. We need to start speaking to and resonating with a wider variety of riders, so that we’re representing a wider range of riders and even viewpoints. We’d like to reach more mountain bikers and particularly more with younger riders.
IMBA has always attempted to bring different types of riders together. I guarantee you, there’s never been a time when that wasn’t IMBA’s goal, but in the past IMBA’s been hyperfocused, with their head down, on their mission and maybe hasn’t told that story or shown the world what it has accomplished as well as it could have.
We need to be more relevant to younger riders and progressive riders. It’s not that we’ve ignored that in the past, we have plenty of those kinds of riders on our own staff, but, moving forward, we have to do a better job of extending that.
IMBA is criticized at times for two things:
Criticism #1: IMBA is detached, out there in Boulder.
Criticism #2: IMBA, some argue, actively promotes the sanitation—the dumbing down—of trails.
How do you respond to those kinds of criticisms?
I’m just going to say that some of that impression of being detached is legitimate. No matter where IMBA is located, they are going to have a little bit of that effect from that geography. But we also have a lot of staff members in different parts of the country, so we do get a sense of what’s happening outside the Boulder Bubble.
I know IMBA gets criticized for sanitizing trails. Some it may be deserved and some of it isn’t. Speaking from personal experience now, at Gunnison Trails we’ve been accused of sanitizing trails too because we’ll have a trail that has eroded badly and we’ll fill it back up with dirt and add some waterbars or other water-diversion on it and suddenly a trail that was kind of hard to ride becomes easier. And you’ll see people on the forums saying, ‘Hey, man. I like those old-school, gnarly, steep and tough trails!’
Part of me gets it. You and I and a lot of your readers out there cut our teeth on trails like that. But we also know that those trails aren’t sustainable. A small rut becomes a big rut and pretty soon no one is riding that trail anymore or it gets closed completely. So part of it is that.
And then other part of it is that any time you are in a position of telling people, ‘Hey guys, this is how a trail should be built.’ You’re going to get slapped with that trail sanitizer label.
Really, a lot of this also comes down to having involvement in your local club from a wide range of different types of riders. If you feel like your trails are being sanitized, get involved. Get your friends involved. If you get involved in your local club, you can have some say in what your local trails will be like. If you learn to work with local land managers, you can truly have an impact. You can widen the spectrum of trails in your area. But it does
take being involved and doing the work. Criticizing from the sidelines? It’s an easy thing to do, but it doesn’t change anything. So, while I understand why people sometimes have that complaint, I don’t buy it entirely.
While IMBA is often saddled with the label of "trail sanitizer", the organization has built plenty of progressive parks and trails, including Devil's Racetrack in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Why do you think IMBA has struggled for so long with the reputation as the fun police—the organization bent on making trails boring?
As discerning riders, we’re really quick to judge the trails we ride. The skill level of the average mountain biker is so high these days and we’re looking for top-shelf trails every time. And that’s generally a good thing because it pushes the envelope for everybody. It raises the bar. I’m all for that.
But we still have to recognize that we have to build trails for everybody. There’s a spectrum of riders out there and we need a variety of trails that address that range of rider styles and abilities. There’s no single style of trail that’s going to do it for everyone. We can’t just build cross-country trails or, on the other hand, super-gnar trails. IMBA sometimes puts some fairly vanilla trails on the ground, sure, but sometimes those vanilla trails are actually called for. And we also put some very progressive, technical trails in because they’re also called for. I think the Devil's Race Track
that our Trail Solutions team created is a good example of that.
There’s a full spectrum of riders out there and IMBA needs to be relevant to all of them. The caveat to that is that IMBA is also always going to speak to the need to ride your bike responsibly. I know that message has earned IMBA a reputation as “the trail cops”. Any time you talk about responsibility, a certain amount of people are always going to say, ‘Don’t tell me about being responsible!’ but in the mountain biking world, being responsible does not have to mean being boring. It just means being sensible about where and how you ride. How you ride on a one-way downhill trail, for example, is going to be different than how you ride on a busy, two-way trail with blind spots on a Saturday afternoon. Are you riding in a bike park? You can do things in a bike park that you can’t do in most state parks. Being responsible simply means knowing the difference between those kinds of situations and riding accordingly.
At the end of the day, we have to talk about being responsible because when you are a mountain biker, you never represent just yourself. You represent all of us. People judge other mountain bikers, for example, by what they experience when they meet me on the trail. Whether or not we want to represent one another isn’t the question. We just do. That’s just a fact. So, we have to talk about riding responsibly because each one of us can help or hurt the next rider’s ability to ride his or her local trails. But, again, riding responsibly doesn’t mean not having fun. It means being sensible.
Dave Wiens leading Lance Armstrong in the Leadville 100...one of Wiens' six Leadville victories. Photo by Snagglepuss
How do you see IMBA evolving in the future?
I guess I’d sum it up as simplifying IMBA and what it does in terms of advocacy, policy and government relations.
You know, to me, it feels like IMBA has kind of gone off in a lot of different directions. We have a lot of programs and they are all worthy ones, but I feel like we are now at a point where we have to reel it in and focus on a few of those really big, critical pieces that we know we can do.
A lot of chapters are doing a very good job locally, but there’s still a critical need for mountain biking representation on a national level. That’s a world we are already in and it’s vital to mountain biking that someone is doing that, especially at the national level.
If you could focus on a few things and succeed in making them happen, what would they be?
Getting more trails on the ground is still IMBA’s top priority and while we riders often talk about great places to ride like Crested Butte or Moab, we can’t forget that the biggest need is making sure that you have a place to ride close to where we live. Most of us don’t get to go to Whistler all the time, but if we can create amazing trails that we can pedal to, or are just a short drive away from our jobs or homes, that’s a great, and necessary, thing.
Improving access to the sport for kids is also key. If you are my age or close to it, you probably remember your parents sending you out of the house and onto your bike to just…explore. That doesn’t happen as much anymore, for a lot of reasons. But that means that a lot of kids might never grow up to become riders. We need more and better trails near our communities. We need more programs like NICA
. So many towns I go to have a skate park somewhere. I’d like to see every town have a bike park and a trail system. Getting kids started young, getting them carving turns in dirt…those are good things and IMBA wants to be a part of that.
One thing that we need, in order to push things forward as a sport, is to get mountain bikers to identify—first and foremost—as mountain bikers instead of just pigeonholing themselves or one another as an XC racer or freerider or whatever. We’re all riders and if we remember that common point, we can achieve so much more together.
IMBA came at along at a time when the mountain biking world desperately needed a central organization that could speak for riders and serve as a clearinghouse for information and advice. But there are now several very strong regional organizations such as Evergreen in Washington State, COPMOBA in Colorado, NEMBA and SORBA back east, to name just a few. These regional groups do strong work in their own right.
Given that this is the case, some riders question whether we still need a large umbrella organization such as IMBA… Do we? Does the world still need IMBA the way it did, back when the organization was conceived?
Yeah, I think IMBA is still needed. Evergreen’s a great organization, for instance, but as powerful as it is, I don’t know if they are going to go to Washington DC to go to task for mountain bikers. I do believe we need that strong national voice politically. And then you also need that educational resource nationally. And that’s something I’d really like to see us develop more—both in print and online. That’s a huge opportunity for IMBA, to be a knowledge base for all organizations.
If a local or regional organization has it going on, that’s great. We’re here, however, to help out when they need it. If there’s a project that we can come in and help with at some point, we’d like to. We want to be at their service if a certain political issue or land management issue comes up that we’re experienced with. There are a lot of ways we can still help local trail access groups and we’re committed to that.
What we need to be focused on is being relevant and important to mountain biking nationally and I do believe there are still plenty of opportunities for IMBA to do that. Until we can cover this country with great mountain biking opportunities, from sea to sea, we’re not done.