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Going Big (part 2)

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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 and magazines.

"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.

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