It's no secret that mountain bikers sometimes face conflict with other user groups and can be portrayed as reckless, inconsiderate, and hedonistic, but a recent study found, in contrast, that mountain bikers are largely driven by affective motives like appreciation for nature, and the vast majority say the sport has caused them to change their behavior to better take care of their environment.
The study, led by Tom Campbell of the Edinburgh Napier University and the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland and available in full here
, surveyed 3,780 European mountain bikers in several areas: demographics, riding styles, trail use and preferences, motivations for mountain bike participation, opinions and understandings around trail access, attitudes toward sustainable trails, and environmental behaviors. For the first time, a large-scale study assessed the myths about mountain bikers' attitudes and behaviors and pitted those myths against what those mountain bikers actually said.
The other authors behind the study are Lewis Kirkwood of the Edinburgh Napier University and The Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland, Graeme MacLean of Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), Mark Torsius of IMBA, and Geraint Florida-James of the Edinburgh Napier University and The Moutain Bike Centre of Scotland.
The survey included questions like, for example, the following:ResultsDemographics & Rider Characteristics
The respondents were European residents over the age of 16 and 60% male, 16% female, and 24% undisclosed gender. Most self-described as intermediate (50.2%) or advanced (43.2%), with 3.7% beginners and 2.9% professionals.
The largest age bracket was 36-45 (33.8%), followed by 26-35 (25.6%) and 46-55 (23%). 9.9% of respondents were under 25, with the remaining 7.8% over 55. The countries with the most respondents, with more than 300 each, were Denmark, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK. France, Germany, and the Netherlands were the next most-represented, with between 100 and 300 respondents each.Riding Styles
Trail (31.2%) and enduro (25.7%) riders unsurprisingly made up the bulk of the respondents, followed by cross country (15.1%), freeride/downhill (12.9%), pump track (8.2%), miscellaneous (4.1%), and dirt jump (2.8%).
When broken down by country, a few statistics stand out: The Netherlands and Denmark have significantly more cross country riders when compared with the rest of the countries, while France and Italy dominate in terms of enduro (unsurprising, considering the terrain of those countries). Switzerland and Italy have the most downhill and freeride enthusiasts, with Norway and Germany close behind.Motivations
The largest group of participants indicated exercise/health as their primary motivation (20.2%), closely followed by connection with nature (19.2%). Next on the list were play (17.4%) and challenge (17.3%), essentially tied, and escape/solitude (16.7%). Risk, accomplishment, culture, each received less than 3% of the responses.
Germans mountain bike for escape and solitude nearly four percentage points more than average, and the Danish don't ride for play nearly as much as most other countries - 12.8% compared with 17.4%. Brits seem less interested in connecting with nature than average (15.2% compared with 19.2%) and are more drawn to risk than most (5.5% compared with 3.5%).Attitudes Toward Trail Access
70.6% of mountain bikers surveyed believe they are clear on where they are allowed to ride, while nearly half (46.5%) believe mountain bike trails should be reserved for mountain bikers only. Fewer than 20% of respondents feel that mountain bikers should be limited to bike-specific trails, and 80% believe mountain bikers should have access to all trails including hiking and equestrian trails.Unauthorized Trail Use & Social Conflict
Most riders surveyed ride unauthorized trails from time to time, at least. 21.3% said they ride unauthorized trails often, 36.7% said they ride unauthorized trails occasionally, 26.3% said they never ride illegal trails, and the remaining 15.7% were unsure.
The most common rationale for riding unauthorized trails was insufficiency of legal trails (25.7%), followed closely by "it's harmless if done at quiet times" (24.8%). The desire for freedom and adventure ranked third with 18.2%, legal trails being unappealing ranked fourth with 15.5%, 'other' ranked fifth with 13.6%, and convenience took the remaining 2% of the vote.
Now, a few outliers: Germany, by far, had the most riders who ride unauthorized trails, with 53.6% riding them often and 34.1% riding them occasionally. Just 7.7% of German respondents stick only to the legal trails. Denmark riders, on the other end of the spectrum, tend to abide by the rules, with 44.9% never riding unsanctioned trails, 42.1% riding them occasionally, 7.2% unsure, and just 5.8% riding them often.
In terms of rationale, Germans were most likely to say there were insufficient legal trails with 35.8% of the responses. Norwegians were least likely to answer that their legal trails were unappealing, with just 3.5% of the responses - barely over one-fifth of the average. France ranked highest in wanting freedom or adventure, with 24.9%, beating the average by 6 percentage points.
The majority of respondents had experienced some social conflicts while riding unauthorized trails, with the most frequent form of conflict being other trail users making negative comments (64.5%). Over 60% who experienced those comments said those experiences happened either "very infrequently" or "now and again," as opposed to more frequently.Environmental Attitudes & Behaviors
Nearly 90% of riders surveyed ride on wet trails, particularly in the UK, where riders largely feel they don't have other options and where riders were also more likely than in other countries that they ride wet trails for enjoyment.
About 95% say that mountain biking has increased their appreciation of nature, while nearly that many say the sport has increased their willingness to protect trails. 90% have also taken direct action to protect nature.
98% of respondents said the sustainability of mountain bike trails is important to them and 75% said they believe they have a good understanding of what makes a trail sustainable. 60% of the riders said they feel a sense of ownership to their local trails, with just 10% answering that trail maintenance is the responsibility of the landowner. 91% of respondents believe mountain bikers should volunteer to maintain the trails.Perceptions of Sustainable Trail Characteristics
1552 respondents provided a free text response to the question of what they consider to be a sustainable trail, then those responses were analyzed and broken down by theme. The responses, in general, fell in two categories: sustainability of the trails themselves and their broader impact on their environments. The broader themes around the trails themselves were good drainage, little need for maintenance, natural materials, long-term durability, and all-weather durability. The themes that emerged from the broader environmental responses focused on minimizing the trails' impacts on the broader environment, minimizing erosion, and preventing damage to local flora and fauna. "We also learnt that mountain bikers consider a sustainable trail to encompass a range of social, economic and wider environmental elements which extend well beyond the construction and maintenance of the trail itself," Campbell wrote.Conclusions
The researchers concluded that mountain bikers, as a whole, care more about the natural environment and the sustainability of their trails than is often stereotyped. Similarly, they found that mountain bikers are motivated largely by the same factors as hikers and other trail users, rather than by "risk," despite mountain biking being often categorized as an "adrenaline sport."
Riders' self-reported attitudes and behaviors toward trail stewardship indicate that governing bodies and stakeholders can capitalize on this "goodwill," the researchers suggest, by providing more avenues for mountain bikers to support their trails, both financially and through volunteering.
The authors also concluded that there's a need for more research regarding illegal trail use and its impact on the environment. Thanks to a lack of systematic information, the article read, the sustainability implications of riding illegal trails remain unclear, and more research could be used to better inform decisions about trail advocacy and mountain bike access in the future.