Facilitating experiences such as this are just part of the IMBA mandate. Photo courtesy IMBA
It's an interesting time in the world of mountain bike trail advocacy. Aside from the usual struggles to open and maintain access for traditional fat tire riders, and the job of recognizing Model Trails, new issues and bike types such as e-bikes and fatbikes have raised their own set of questions. In search of some answers, Mtbr sat down for an extended chat with Mark Eller, communications director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Here is the edited transcript of that wide-ranging conversation, which took place during the recently completed IMBA World Summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It's a long but important read.
Mtbr: Let's start with an easy question. For the uninitiated what is the IMBA World Summit all about?
Mark Eller: It's something we do every other year. The main goal is just to get the tribe together, share info, ride bikes, drink beer. Each year we've kept raising the bar and turned it into a polished thing that we are pretty proud of. This time we had about 400 paid delegates, plus another 100 people between staff and media and so on. The main goal is information sharing. We've realized over years that there is huge value in getting mountain bikers together to talk about how they build trails, how they care for trails, how they foster relationships with land managers, and so on. Comparing notes is a really valuable exercise. People tend to fall into patterns in their home area, so it's enlightening to see how other people do things.
Mtbr: So what's a good example of that enlightenment?
Mark Eller: Well, a lot of people will say, our soil is different or what we do in our area is unique. But then when you compare notes you often see that it's not so unique. There are lots of places out there that have similar things going on. It can be really reassuring to find out that there are some common ways to build trails and tackle trail building issues.
Mtbr: Let's address some of those issues. Where does IMBA stand regarding e-bikes on trails?
Mark Eller: Yeah, e-bikes is at the top of a short list. We have defined mountain biking as a purely human powered experience. But honestly we think it may be a tempest in tea pot for North American riding right now. However, it's definitely a big issue in Europe right now. What we see there is that the Germans stand alone, saying they have solved this through engineering and have embraced pedal assist technology as a game changer. But the rest of Europe resides more of where we are at, saying if it has a motor than it is not a mountain bike. Our stance is that mountain biking is a purely human powered endeavor.
Fatbikes - and where they can and cannot be used - is another hot button topic within the halls of IMBA's Boulder, Colorado, world headquarters.
Mtbr: How about fatbikes? That's been another big topic of conversation lately.
Mark Eller: We see policy as a big issue there. In certain places snowmobiles have a longstanding well defined relationship with land managers to the point where there are a lot of trails signed snowmobile only, nobody else. That's become a bone of contention. For example, in Yellowstone National Park you will get ticketed for riding a fatbike, where you can take a snowmobile up the trail. Our main recommendation is that purpose built trail for fatbiking is where it's at. If you have snow on the ground to justify that level of effort, it's pretty cool. It's similar to flow trail design, high banks are fun, gentle grades work best, keeping trail grades not overly steep.
Mtbr: What else is at the top of that short list?
Mark Eller: Another discussion is the question of whether IMBA has gone away from advocacy in favor of building trails and promoting model trails, and doing less advocacy work then we've long been associated with in the past. I would put out there that that's not the case. In terms of presence in Washington, D.C., and political savvy, and the ability to influence wilderness proposals, we are stronger than ever. The key for any non profit to succeed is to stick to the mission. Our mission is to build, create and enhance great mountain biking experiences. You can't do that if you are always in a defensive posture. If your idea of advocacy is always putting out fires and pleading for access, then you are always in a defensive posture. By expanding into things like trail building and the instructor certification program, we're doing advocacy on a more pro-active level. If there is a local group succeeding in building trails and getting people on rides, they are succeeding in advocacy. But if the group is just having battles with land managers and other trail users, then you are probably failing to some degree.
Continue to Page 2 to hear Eller's take on the sometimes contentious debate surrounding the new chapter program and revenue sharing »
Much of the behind-the-scenes work that IMBA and its local bike advocates do involves planning sessions with land managers and other important partners. Photo courtesy IMBA
Mtbr: Another big discussion topic both at the Summit and beyond is how IMBA has changed its business model, specifically regarding the burgeoning chapter program where revenue is shared at the local organization and national level. Talk about that and where things stand.
Mark Eller: The last couple years have seen a complete re-jiggering of the IMBA business model. We long faced a problem where mountain bikers felt like they had to choose between joining a local group or supporting a national advocacy program that is IMBA. So with the chapter program, we try to solve this by saying we are going to share members and share revenue. When someone joins, they join both their local organization and IMBA at once. Obviously there has been a lot of working through the business and psychology of that. It can be hard to get those groups to totally get their heads around it.
Mtbr: So how many chapters does IMBA have now and what are the economics of that system?
Mark Eller: Right now we have 162 chapters, along with another 300-400 supporting organizations, which we used to call clubs. A lot of those clubs are mulling over when/if it's time to switch to chapter status. Chapter status is defined by the membership share, where when you become a member of a local advocacy group, you also become an IMBA member. We then split that membership money 60-40 in IMBA's favor. Not surprisingly at the Summit there was a lot of discussion of that revenue split. We feel like it's really more of a 40-40-20 split, 40 to local group, 40 to IMBA, 20 to administer whole chapter program. But it's been contentious for sure, and we totally get it. Mountain bikers are independent people with a lot of pride in figuring things out themselves, and all singletrack is local, and people will always care about the trails in their backyards the most. So the idea that I'm going to write check and I'm not confident that it will come back to where I live and ride is a valid concern.
Mtbr: So how do you alleviate that concern?
Mark Eller: We have found the best way to show the value of the chapter program is to show that those 162 chapters are thriving and succeeding in part because we are able to support them with things like reminding their members to keep their memberships current. The other big thing is that the chapter program supports paid IMBA staff around the country on a regional basis via what we call region directors and associate region directors. Those people are directly hired by the chapter and IMBA. When you have a paid professional advocate who can go to a meeting with a land manager on a Wednesday at 2 p.m. when all the volunteers are at work at their regular job, that makes a huge difference. What we are seeing now is that local groups are joining the chapter program when they see the success of other chapters that have access to the regional director. In the end we can talk all we want, but the results speak for themselves.
IMBA's fee-based trail building program, Trail Solutions, has global reach and experience. Here, trail specialist Chris Kehmeier (at right) oversees a bike park project in China. Photo courtesy IMBATake a Kid Mountain Biking Day</a> in October. You can register for free, and we'll send a bunch of Clif product. That's great and it exposes people to the sport. And of course donations are good, too. We take cash, check and credit card.
Mtbr: Let's wrap it up with this: In the past IMBA has been characterized as the uncool uncle of the mountain bike world, the trail cops. But I'm guessing you would like to paint a different picture.
Mark Eller: We will never get away from that totally because there will always be some mountain bikers who feel that the cool trail is the trail that is illegally built by hand under the cover of darkness. That is a sexy image. It's the outlaw thing. But on the other hand, the organization that wants to build trails in partnership with their land managers and all the goody-two-shoes stuff, at the end of the day we get a lot more done and we fell good about that. Look at what gets built and maintained and makes a positive contribution to people's riding experience. We are building a lot of great trail right now.