"The great outdoors is for everyone - and we all have an impact"
Riding a mountain bike can sometimes be a challenging business because a proportion of other users make myriad assumptions about us. They dislike mountain bikers and don’t accept that in fact the biking community is as diverse as any other.
I was once on a ride, spotted a couple of walkers and pulled in to let them pass. Hearing bird song, I said, “Wow, long-tailed tits!”
Now, I’m absolutely certain the lady was about to berate me for, um, parking my bike beside a footpath, but she was dumbstruck. A mountain biker, (a mountain biker?!) had recognised a flock of birds purely from their song?!
Her reaction was slightly worrying, like a robot fed dodgy code. Her mouth opened and closed, her eyes revolved. She was unable to compute a mountain biker would know anything about wildlife, a classic example of a diminishing elitist minority making wild assumptions and unable to accept that things are beginning to change.
And that change makes absolute sense. Mountain bikers now form the second largest group in the outdoor community and deserve to be treated with respect. Bridleways are severely limited in parts of the country, particularly in the Peak District and many lack continuity, often delivering mountain bikers onto busy roads. So we sometimes use footpaths.
The economic effect is marked. Studies done in both Wales and the Scottish Borders prove bikers are a significant benefit to economically challenged rural areas. Scotland has changed its access laws so that walkers and mountain bikers have equal rights.
Another significant factor is that mountain biking introduces a whole new demographic to the wonders of the great outdoors. That is crucial in the fight to protect our countryside.
Contrary to the opinions of some, mountain bikes have virtually no effect on wildlife, vegetation and the outdoors. We are linear, we ride the paths, we don’t stray and we pass through rapidly without upsetting the crucial and often endangered wildlife.
By comparison, other groups who also enjoy our wonderful landscapes have a massive effect. Walkers, over years, have radically changed the Peak District and Lake District. Once upon a time, paths on Kinder and Bleaklow could be seen from space. Large areas were denuded of heather and bilberry thereby increasing erosion of the peat. Millions of pounds have been spent to flag those paths and, fortunately, mother nature slowly recovered.
The same is true in the Lake District. Lockdown saw paths eroded by a massive number of people discovering the joys of the hills and dales. Potentially, vast sums of money will have to be spent to repair those paths. I have pointed this out to walkers and they dismissed it – apparently walkers have rights of access no matter the damage.
During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in footfall. Road verges have been obliterated by car parking. Many paths have gone from a foot wide to four foot wide. Ground-nesting birds are often seriously affected by dog walkers. Many runners, regardless of ground conditions, will race where they want, when they want.
My reason for explaining this is not to vilify other user groups but to highlight we all have an impact. As far as I’m concerned, the great outdoors is for everyone and it is only by increasing access we can build the determination to protect these wild spaces. We need to understand we all have an effect.
Education is everything. Some land managers firmly believe that vilifying people is misguided. By alienating a user group, you push them to the fringes and risk provoking a bunker mentality – if you pull them into the fold you have the chance to influence how they conduct themselves.
Ride Sheffield has a brilliant working relationship with land managers and conservationists. From its inception, we were determined to engage with those who protect the local landscape. We joined stakeholder groups, offered to help out with maintenance of local trails and learnt a great deal on conservation.
We’ve done massive amounts of maintenance work on bridleways but also on footpaths we know mountain bikers use. Occasionally, we’ve been joined by other users, but it’s rare. We’ve raised money from local firms and crowd-funded to purchase materials and hire equipment. We’re currently creating trail-maintenance crews and will train and equip them thanks in large part to bike firms helping us out.
And it’s not just us. Peak District MTB carry out maintenance work in the national park. Nationally, mountain bikers help maintain rights of way.
Can other user groups make the same claim? It’s inevitable putting the word out to a bunch of mountain bikers for a trail maintenance day is more productive but involving other groups would be a massive positive.
And that is true because we have much more in common than it would appear. Currently, we all have access to seven per cent of our land mass. Much of the remainder is owned by the rich determined to keep it to themselves. Runners, walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers should work together to right this wrong.
I recently rode the same footpath mentioned earlier and came across numerous walkers and a runner. Not one objected to my passing. I got involved in some lovely chats. It enhanced my ride. I feel there is a growing majority who enjoy sharing the great outdoors and a sad minority determined to be confrontational.