Study: Mountain Biking is Growing, but not Among Core Riders

While overall mountain bike participation appears to have grown over the past five years, a report by the SFIA suggests that among core riders, enthusiasm may be waning.

Mountain biking has seen more ups and downs than a flow trail over the past five years. A pandemic-induced spike in bike sales and trail use sent mountain bike participation in the U.S. to levels unseen since the 1990s, with new riders saddling up for the first time, and former riders hitting the trail for the first time in a long time. While overall participation appears to have grown over the past five years, a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) suggests that among core riders, enthusiasm may be waning.

Nearly 9M in the U.S. biked off road in 2022

According to SFIA survey data, nearly nine million people in the United States rode a bicycle off-road at least once in 2022, far above the 6.9 million who reported doing so 15 years ago in 2007. It’s a big number to be sure, though to put that into perspective it represents about 2.9% of the US population over age six. The SFIA conducts its sports participation study each year, asking a representative sample of 18,000 individuals ages six and older which sports and activities they participated in during the previous year. The authors note that the data isn’t perfect, though many in the industry rely on the annual report to spot important trends.

The survey data shows mountain bike participation growing overall, a finding that matches what many of us have observed over the past few years. And while growth among casual riders is trending upward, according to the survey data, participation among those who report riding 13 or more times per year has been declining since 2018.

Data compiled from the 2022 and 2023 SFIA Topline Participation Reports.

On an average annual basis, the SFIA found that casual rider participation is up 2.4% over the past five years, and core participation is down 0.9%. Looking at the 1-year and 3-year trends, the difference is even more dramatic, with core ridership declining more steeply.

So what could be driving these trends? To get an idea, I reached out to several folks within the mountain bike industry to get their perspectives. I also looked at what’s been happening in the sport over the past five years.

New rider initiatives seem to be paying off

Overall mountain biking participation had been growing steadily over the past decade, and the COVID-19 pandemic added gasoline to the flames.

“It’s no surprise that growth in new riders is being documented because we know a bunch of that came from COVID,” said Ashley Korenblat, CEO of Western Spirit in Moab, UT and the Managing Director for Public Lands Solutions, a non-profit that helps communities incorporate outdoor recreation into their economic development strategies.

“But I would say that there’s another more sustainable group of new riders coming from these new trail systems in communities that haven’t been known for mountain bike trails.”

With more trails cropping in more places over the past five years, it’s easier for new riders to try the sport and casually participate without having to travel far from their homes.

Not only that, more ski resorts have added summer bike parks, giving visitors the opportunity to ride casually once or twice a year while on vacation even if they don’t mountain bike at home.

Just as trails have become more accessible, bikes have too. Gene Hamilton, mountain bike skills coach and founder of Better Ride, told me “bike geometry and bigger wheels have made mountain biking so much safer and easier.” Electric mountain bikes in particular allow riders to participate without having to devote as much time to riding and building fitness.

High school mountain bikers at a Georgia Cycling Association race in 2021.

More young riders

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) has introduced thousands of teenagers to mountain biking since its start in 2009. Former NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny told Singletracks in 2016, “NICA is in the business of creating the next generation of cyclists, not racers. I’d like to see us help foster a continuum of cycling, from the Stryder to the 14” mountain bike, to middle school cycling, high school, college, and beyond into their own parenting years.”

Today there are high school mountain bike leagues in more than 30 states, and for many the sport has become another seasonal sports activity, just like softball or baseball.

According to the researchers behind the SFIA report, new sport participants tend to come in at the casual level and some may decide they enjoy it enough to increase their level of participation in the future. However, some sports do a better job converting casual participants to core, and the researchers note the current trend is toward people spending a little bit of time in a number of activities, rather than devoting a lot of time to just one or two. It would seem that our collectively shortened attention spans are affecting sports too.

Where are core riders going?

This is a tough question to answer. Although some riders may be leaving the sport entirely, it’s more likely a number of core riders are simply riding less often. Hamilton thinks the same purpose-built trails that are attracting new, more casual mountain bikers could be causing more experienced riders to lose interest.

“If the amount of core riders is decreasing, I think it has to do with the lack of truly challenging trails being built,” said Hamilton. “Overcoming challenges is rewarding! If after a few years, you can ride every trail in your area well, it becomes boring,” he said.

Hamilton also talked about the representation of riders in media.

“I’ve never opened up a ski magazine or snowboard magazine and seen a shot of beginners on a beginner hill,” he said. “You know, it’s usually one of the best in the world doing something really cool. So we need to give people something to aspire to, and I do think that we’ve dropped the ball on that a little bit.”

Hamilton built his business around mountain bikers looking to take their riding to the next level, and in most cases going from casual to core requires an investment of both time and money. Joe McEwan, founder of UK bike brand Starling Cycles, also suggests that making the leap can be daunting.

“There’s very few youngsters, I suppose it’s just too expensive,” said McEwan. “The races in particular have many more riders in the older categories, but that might just be enduro.”

Indeed, some core participants may simply be aging out, or at the very least, riding less as they get older. Time will tell if high school athletes and pandemic riders stick with mountain biking and perhaps increase their participation levels, though to Korenblat, that’s beside the point.

“I don’t think there’s a direct connection between the number of core cyclists and the health of the industry,” she said. “I think there’s a huge marketplace of casual riders, and the nicer we are to them, and the more welcoming we are to them, the better off our industry is going to be.”

Still, if core ridership is indeed in decline, brands that cater to core riders will need to adapt.

“Core rider decline will have a big impact on Starling,” said McEwan. “As a niche brand, we do sell more to experienced riders.”

Given the recent high demand for his skills clinics, which tend to attract dedicated, core riders, Hamilton is skeptical that core ridership is actually decreasing. But if it is, he says it won’t be good for business.

Portrait of a core mountain biker

Most of the folks I spoke with are skeptical of the label “core” as a way of classifying and dividing riders. After all, riding once a week might sound like a lot to some folks, but not a lot to someone who races. In a recent survey of Singletracks readers, 90% of respondents reported riding at least once a week, which works out to 50+ times a year.

The SFIA, in contrast, defines a core mountain biker as someone who rides 13+ times per year off-road. For paved-surface (road) biking, the group defines core participation at 26+ times per year. In a sport like downhill snow skiing, there isn’t a distinction in the report; if you ski once, you’re a skier.

Survey authors note their method “provides a high degree of statistical accuracy” and that “a sport with a participation rate of five percent has a confidence interval of plus or minus 0.32 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.”

Mountain biking participation is well below five percent participation according to the report, so the data should be taken with a slightly larger grain of salt.

One thing that isn’t clear from the report is where gravel riding fits. The researchers note that respondents simply fill in the number of times they participated in an activity as listed in the survey. Given the choices “Bicycling (Mountain/Non-Paved Surface)” and “Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface),” it seems likely most respondents included gravel riding in the former category rather than the latter. With the growth of gravel biking events over the past few seasons, this suggests even the modest overall growth seen in mountain bike participation could itself be a mirage.

What the future holds

Seeing the number of mountain bikes sold during the pandemic and the still crowded trailhead parking lots, it’s hard to believe core mountain bike ridership is in decline, and there’s a chance it isn’t. Perhaps there are fewer core riders but they are riding more often. Perhaps the number of core, core riders — those who ride once a week or more — is increasing. Either way, core participation isn’t everything.

“If we really want to be effective politically, we need numbers, not enthusiasm,” said Korenblat. “It’s not about a small group of passionate people. What we want is a large group of people who care.”