Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in High Country
News last September. While the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association and
Whistler Mountain Bike Park have, through proactive environmental and
educational programs, avoided many of the conflicts that have taken place in
the western United States, the political lessons may be useful.
By Patrick Farrell
High Country News
Gary Sprung, who worked as the International Mountain Bicycling
Association’s communications director and national policy director until 2005,
and IMBA have long fought to dispel the perception that bikes are
"motorcycles without engines," saying that mountain bikers are more
like "backpackers with wheels." In 2000, when the U.S. Bureau of Land
Management released a draft of a new National Off-Highway Vehicle Management
Strategy that lumped cyclists with motorized users, IMBA mobilized its troops.
Over 10,000 letters flooded BLM offices from mountain bikers concerned that
they might lose trail access. Ultimately, the BLM removed bikes from the plan.
But freeriding, with its requisite body armor and full-face
helmets, makes mountain biking look a lot like motorcycling. And some of the
sport’s most stalwart supporters wonder if the industry is putting bikers’
hard-won trail access at risk by flaunting freeriding and downhilling in videos
"We sold freeriding in its most extreme form, then developed
bicycles that enabled less-than-talented riders to ride over their heads,"
wrote Richard Cunningham, editor of Mountain Bike Action, in 2003. "Freeriding
puts mountain bike access groups in an indefensible position," he wrote.
"All this comes at a time when we are poised to gain the most — and
suddenly we could lose everything."
And even as bikers convinced the BLM that bikes were different
from off-road vehicles, a handful of mountain bike groups are increasingly
adopting the motorheads’ tactics. In places, they even joined forces in their
fight to keep trails open.
"IMBA likes to play nice and they got screwed all the
way," says Chris Vargas, president of the Warrior Society, a small
mountain-biking group in Southern California. The Warrior Society partnered
with the BlueRibbon Coalition, the nation’s leading off-road vehicle access
group, because its members felt that IMBA had failed to defend some of their
favorite trails in the Cleveland National Forest, which was part of a
wilderness proposal put forward by
California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2003.