We Get the Scoop on the Future of IMBA from Executive Director, Dave Wiens [Podcast #103]

On this Episode

With radical changes taking place within IMBA, many people are wondering: where does IMBA go from here? What’s IMBA’s current stance on controversial topics like ebikes and Wilderness? What will IMBA do to remain relevant?

We decided to get some answers so we went to the source: Dave Wiens, IMBA’s new Executive Director. Scroll to the bottom of this page read the full transcript.

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Greg Heil: Hey everybody, welcome to a very special edition of the Singletracks podcast! My name is Greg, and today we’re taking the Singletracks podcast on the road to Gunnison, Colorado. Here in Gunnison, I met up with Dave Wiens, who was just hired as the executive director of IMBA in February, 2017.

We met up a few hours ago for a quick ride at Hartman Rocks, and I had the dubious pleasure of chasing the wheel of one of the fastest racers in the world, and I was going to say failing miserably, but Dave definitely throttled back to let me keep up so thanks for that, Dave. Appreciate that.

In case you aren’t familiar, let me catch you up on who Dave Wiens is. For one, he’s in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, having been inducted in the year 2000. Dave was the US National Cross Country champion in 1993, and the US National Marathon champion in ’04. In the advocacy realm, Dave founded Gunnison Trails in ’06, which has had a major impact on mountain bike access and trail building in the Gunnison Valley. However, Dave might be best known for winning the Leadville 100 every year from 2003 to 2008, six times in a row, including beating Floyd Landis in ’07 and Lance Armstrong in ’08, and in 2009, he finished in second place to Lance Armstrong.

So Dave, this is the question I’ve actually been wanting to ask you for awhile now. Does that mean that you actually won Leadville seven years in a row and not six?

Dave Wiens: No, just six. You can check the Leadville record book.

Greg Heil: What else are you known for that I haven’t touched on already? You’ve had a very storied career.

Dave Wiens: I guess that’s what I’m known for around here. I’m known, I guess as dad and husband. I’ve lived in Gunnison for a long time, but certainly the mountain biking thing follows me around, and I was just very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and have ridden bikes all my life.

I grew up riding bikes around the suburban Denver area. It was my freedom. It was my way to get out and explore, and when the mountain biking thing came along, I happened to be going to school up here in Gunnison, where certainly a lot of mountain biking was happening early on. I jumped aboard and never really looked back. I feel really fortunate to have been involved in the sport from a pretty early time.

Greg Heil: I mean, Dave has been riding mountain bikes longer than I’ve been alive, so a lot to learn right here. Maybe that’s pegging my age, I don’t know.

But the main reason we’re chatting today is to catch up about Dave’s most recent role as the new executive director of IMBA. Dave joins IMBA at what’s possibly a tumultuous time, with IMBA having lost their Subaru Sponsorship in 2016. Mike Van Abel resigned as the executive director [in August, 2016], and several staff positions having been eliminated at the regional and nation levels. However, that’s accompanied a big change in the organization and a big transition.

Dave, this might be a loaded question, but how have the first few months in your new job gone?

Dave Wiens: There’s no doubt they’ve challenging, and it isn’t as if I pondered being the executive director of IMBA for a long time, and it suddenly it happened for me, and I was able to have thought about it. It was very quick. I [first] joined the board of the directors which is my initial foray into the IMBA world.

The IMBA board invited four people to participate in strategic planning in June of 2015, and they invited me to be one of those four, so that was really my first time I was exposed to the staff and the IMBA Board of Directors, and it was a good experience. I’m very interested in advocacy, and I was honored to be invited and make the trek up to Park City and participated in that, and offered my experience and my viewpoint from riding mountain bikes for a long time and also being involved in advocacy in this part of the world.

Then conversations continued and I was invited to join the board of directors beginning in 2016. I accepted that position, and I certainly never had any intention of leading. I just thought that I could help in the conversation. Anytime there’s a board, it’s a large group and there’s decisions that are made, there’s discussions that happen, the staff is involved, and I just wanted to be a part of that.

Anytime, at least for me, when I get on a board, I don’t just enter that board … The term limit for an IMBA board member is nine years, and that’s a pretty long run if you were to take your term to its extent. So that gives you a year or two to get your feet under you to learn the different issues and be exposed to the players. That’s certainly the position I was in.

Board meeting in February. Another board meeting in June. Then that’s when the changes started to happen. We were told about the loss of the Subaru Sponsorship in June. Mike Van Abel resigned. Shortly after that, board meeting in November, and that’s when I became board chair, and I even resisted that due to lack of experience in a position like that, but I embraced that role. Started working closely with staff right away, November, December, January, and then the switch to executive director came at our February board meeting but no, the last couple of months [have ben] exciting and scary and all those things because it’s much different than leading a small organization like Gunnison Trails.

There’s certainly parallels that we can draw and that I can learn from, but advocacy in Gunnison, Colorado certainly doesn’t define advocacy across the nation so I’m … Drinking out of the fire hose has been a term used to describe what it’s like, and I’m still doing that, and I’m going to be … Because I believe that that’s the way we should always be. We should always be learning as we go.

With 200-plus chapters and mountain bikers all across this country, which doesn’t even speak to the “I” in the International Mountain Biking Association, there’s a lot to learn. No two places are the same. There’s a lot of different impacts and regional nuances and just the sport isn’t the same everywhere you go, so it’s a big challenge. I’m still in the middle of that, getting up to speed and learning and just trying to help guide the organization in the most positive direction I can.

Greg Heil: It sounds like a massive role and thanks for taking that on. Here’s maybe a very basic question which we were discussing at a staff meeting recently. Many nonprofit organizations have a board but the board basically functions as a fundraising entity, and some others have a board of advisors that sort of direct the flow of the organization. Which is the IMBA board, or is it a combination of the two?

Dave Wiens: The IMBA board would be a combination of the two. There’s certainly a fundraising component of being on the board, but in addition, it’s all mountain bikers that are on the board. They come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are just enthusiasts who have business backgrounds, others come from the bicycle industry, but overall it’s a fairly balanced board. It would be a combination of what you described.

Greg Heil: Right on. Before we jump into a ton of questions, do you just want to share with us your vision for all of us being mountain bikers and starting from there first?

Dave Wiens: Sure. One of the reasons I was interested in joining the board in 2016 is because, you know, it wasn’t that long ago, and I saw the wilderness issue, and I saw the e-bike issue, and it felt to me like it was really dividing mountain bikers. I don’t think that that’s a healthy way for a community to be. So that was really the reason, a couple of the reasons that I wanted to be involved in the conversation.

It certainly wasn’t that I had any solutions to either of those topics, but I thought that I can at least contribute to the conversation. At this point, nothing has really changed. Those two topics are very divisive and very prominent. They’re front and center in a lot of discussions that mountain bikers are having, and what I’d like to do is drop down, if you will, from those tough questions, and I just feel like if we could unite as mountain bikers first, if we could all come together and agree that we all love this sport and we love mountain biking and all of its different iterations, then I think that’s really important too.

When I first started, there was pretty much cross-country riding, and then there was a little bit of downhill and since then, mountain biking’s gone off in a lot of different directions. Some of them very specialized and specific, but all of them are good, and all of us, we all have our favorite kinds of riding. Some of us do more kinds of riding in different areas, but we’re all basically into riding our bikes and pedaling our bikes in rocks and dirt and roots. If we can just feel that on the most basic level, whether it’s a talented rider who’s been riding for years and loves the super challenging terrain or someone maybe my age who just got his first mountain bike and barely can even ride it but just has a huge grin on his face, right down to children and women and the whole spectrum, if we could all just agree that we’re mountain bikers first and unite around that? Then as we start to go up to more challenging and more difficult and more controversial decisions, we’re going to diverge and we’re going to disagree.

We’re not going to get everybody on the same page on Wilderness. We’re not going to get everybody on the same page on ebikes. But if we could just all fall back to, “hey, we’re mountain bikers and we need to be united so that we are a stronger group” … We’re not a huge group anyway. If you look at it, you know, IMBA is the one group that gathers the most mountain bikers together, and we’re in that 30,000 plus or minus range, we’re not a huge population or a huge block that has that much influence.

If we can unite and grow that, then we do become more of an influence on some big decisions that could be taking place. That’s really what I’m working toward and something that I hope for is that, “hey, let’s be mountain bikers first.” Let’s agree on that, and then we can start talking about the tougher decisions, but lets always come back down to that base level and be brothers and sisters on that level.

Greg Heil: So once we agree we’re mountain bikers, we’re still going to ask Dave some tough questions. Partially because I surveyed you guys, our readers and listeners, via social media and the Singletracks forums, and I’m going to rely heavily on your own questions for this interview because you guys had a lot of questions for IMBA, and I think there are a lot of things out there that are going to be great to talk about. So Dave, hopefully you could still answer some questions on e-bikes.

So to begin, Singletracks member Zoso asks, “What exactly is your stance and plan for ebikes in America?” Rather, that’s ‘Murica with a apostrophe. By that, I take him to mean, “does IMBA intend to advocate either for or against ebikes?” Like do you have, does IMBA have a position currently on ebikes?

Dave Wiens: We do have a current position on ebikes, and it was a position that was created some time ago in 2015, and there’s been a lot of discussion around updating that position, and it’s something that we may accomplish in a board meeting coming up in June.

But that position, our current position is that e-mountain bikes are motorized and they should be treated as a motor vehicle, which is directly in the line with current BLM and Forest Service, the way they treat ebikes. They just treat them as a motorized vehicle, and they’re managed as such.

Now, today, you and I rode out in Hartman Rocks, and Hartman Rocks is open to motorized and its phenomenal mountain biking, and Hartman Rocks is not unique. There’s a lot of places around the country where ebikes are perfectly acceptable and legal to ride. But it’s certainly a hot topic, and there’s a lot of people … We hear that there are a lot of e-mountain bikes coming, and I don’t know that we’ve really realized the big numbers that perhaps the industry expects to see, if it’s happened yet, if it’s going to happen. In Europe, we hear about a lot of e-mountain bike use over there. So it’s certainly something that we need to be aware of because to the casual person that sees an e-mountain bike or a mountain bike go by, they’re not really going to know the difference. You have to have at least a trained eye to pick out the ebike.

But what we’re concerned about, obviously, is we’ve worked really hard for access to trails in a lot of places around the country and [it’s] taken years and years to earn some of the access that we now have, and what we don’t want to do is jeopardize current mountain bike access because of ebike use. So we want to very careful with that.

Certainly, I don’t believe IMBA will ever come out and make a position stating that they either think that ebikes should be allowed on non-motorized trails or not allowed on all non-motorized trails. It’s really going to be a discussion that needs to happen locally because every locale has their own situation, their own details, and it should be a local decision, so local land managers, local mountain bikers, and other stake holders need to get into a room and see what the situation is.

I believe there are places in the country where e-mountain bikes on non-motorized trails are going to be acceptable and other places where they’re not. As far as IMBA’s position on that, right now, again, we’re considering them motorized vehicles, but we’re going to take a look at that.

I know there’s a lot of arguments for ebikes as well. Older riders, some riders with physical disabilities, more access to the sport. People might start e-mountain biking because it’s a little easier, a little more accessible to them, and then they may start pedaling the traditional mountain bike. So there’s a lot of positives to e-mountain bikes for sure and of course, I think that we all think the ebike for commuting and transportation and getting people out of cars is a real positive of ebikes as well, but certainly there’s some potential things that we want to be careful of, and I think that’s where IMBA is right now is we’re just cautious with the e-mountain bikes.

Greg Heil: I attended the ebike panel at Interbike a couple of years ago where IMBA and Bosch released preliminary findings from your environmental study, and Bosch was the sponsor on that study. To paraphrase possibly a couple of incendiary questions we got into something less so, the general question from a few of our readers is, “can IMBA be bought by a sponsor because due to losing Subaru?” “It looks like IMBA’s looking for money. Can they be bought by a company like Bosch and will that affect your policy?” How do sponsorships influence the decisions you make?

Dave Wiens: Speaking as the executive director, IMBA’s not going to be bought by a sponsor in any way. We want partners or sponsors that want to support us because of the work that we do. That’s part of the way that I’m going to lead, and that’s part of who I am, and I think that we can create am IMBA where we have partners lining up to support the work that we’re doing on the ground because of the work that we’re doing on the ground.

Greg Heil: Excellent. I think that puts that to bed. The next general topic deals with Wilderness access issues for mountain biking and specifically the Sustainable Trails Coalition. This next question comes from long-time Singletracks member and contributor John Fisch. He asks, “Why do you not include reasonable bike access and wilderness as part of your advocacy?” And then he goes on to say, “Why do you continue to not support but rather actively attempt to thwart this?” I think his question might deal a little bit with Luther Propst’s comments in an article recently published, who is an IMBA board member, so that might be long question but can you speak to that at all?

Dave Wiens: Yeah. There’s a lot in there for sure. I guess IMBA is focused on mountain biking in a lot of places. I believe in the US, the wilderness makes up 2% of the total land, and that includes everything in the Lower 48. So IMBA focuses on the other 96, 98% of the lands, and we’ve done an admirable job over the years, I think, of gaining access and working towards trails. There’s never been more better places to ride mountain bikes than right now. The Wilderness has never been a priority for us.

It’s certainly something that’s been on the … I mean, people have been talking about riding bikes in the Wilderness since day one in mountain biking, there’s no doubt about that, but since IMBA is an organization that deals with a myriad of different topics and issues as opposed to the STC which really only works on one particular topic, it doesn’t rise to the top of what we do. We’re working in a lot of different directions so it’s just another topic that comes up often and everybody has an opinion on it, there’s no doubt about that, but we really focus on the areas that are out of Wilderness and then on the Wilderness topic in particular, we have a different approach, a different strategy than the STC, and it’s working the edges. It’s trying to be involved in Wilderness proposals as they happen. I know right now, this has nothing to do with my role at IMBA, this has to do with my role at Gunnison Trails.

For the last four years, I’ve been part of the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative, and it’s a collection of mountain bikers, sportsmen which are the hunters, winter motorized, some are motorized, and quiet winter sports. It’s got just this great collection of stake holders for the public lands, and we’re going through Gunnison County, and this is a piece of legislation that our senator, Senator Michael Bennet, is hoping to create and get into the pipeline where we went through the entire basin and we looked at land designations.

We’re not looking at trails. We’re looking at land designations and we’re trying to decide okay, is this appropriate for Wilderness, and maybe motos or the mountain bikers said, “No, we’ve actually got some trails in here,” or, “In the future, we hope to develop some trails in there,” so we need to see a different level of protection on that and in those areas, we’re looking at special management areas or some other sort of protection that would allow for other uses, and those uses could be motorized or they could be just mountain biking.

I think the point there is that IMBA only has so many resources to jump around the country, and they certainly don’t have local knowledge. This even came up at our process where suddenly we were talking about land down around Lake City, which is southwest of here by about 50 miles, and nobody in the room knew that area, and none of us felt comfortable trying to say, “Hey, we think that that’s fine for Wilderness down there because I don’t ride my bike there,” but we didn’t know a thing about it.

That local knowledge is so important, and that’s what we’re trying to do at IMBA, and we’ll do more of in the future is work with our locals who know the landscape. They know the trails. They know the areas where they might want future trails to be, and if we can assist with those conversations and be a part of it, then that’s what we’re trying to do. Part of that, too, is even redrawing some Wilderness boundaries so that we can maybe capture some trails that are just inside the Wilderness or maybe they’re just dodging the Wilderness system enough to where we’re not able to use that trail any longer. We have a much different strategy than what the STC is trying to do.

I know Ted Stroll. I’ve talked to Jackson Ratcliffe on the phone. I’ve talked to Kurt, can’t even remember his last name, the Angry Singlespeeder. These are passionate mountain bikers. They’re no different than us, and I have nothing but respect for these guys and the passion they have for the sport and what they’re trying to do. It’s just that IMBA has a different mission and a different strategy when it comes to Wilderness.

Did I get it all?

Greg Heil: I think so. I think the next sort of part of that question, which Edward Reyes mentioned explicitly. So I think we understand that IMBA and the STC have very, very different missions, and they’re doing different things, and they’re trying to accomplish things a different way. But last year, you guys released joint statements saying that despite the fact that you might not be working together to accomplish these aims, you were just going to let each other go your separate ways.

But within the past few months, it hasn’t sounded that way, at least to a lot of people listening. So Edward Reyes says, “Why did you spend time and resources opposing the STC while publicly stating that you supported the STC,” which I’m not entirely sure if that’s correct, ” …and why did you continue to oppose STC when IMBA members overwhelmingly approve of the STC?”

First, can you fact-check that, and second, respond to it?

Dave Wiens: Yeah, no, the IMBA members have never been asked specifically about the STC, to my knowledge, so I don’t know that there’s anything to answer there. Also, going back to us, we’re not working to undermine the STC, to my knowledge. Now, Luther Propst, our board member was quoted in the Jackson Hole News talking about the bill. He never mentioned the words STC. The words STC were never in there.

Granted, it was their bill, and Luther, he’s just passionate about public lands, and that’s certainly a concern that people have is that especially with our new administration, that the public lands are in jeopardy right now, and some people think “gee, I don’t even want to think about bikes in the Wilderness.” Well, I want to think about saving the BLM lands, for example, are ones that seem high on the block as far as being privatized and maybe sold off to the highest bidders, and I guarantee that the states will not be the highest bidders. The extraction companies, the oil and gas folks will be the highest bidders.

We’re talking about places like Moab and Hartman Rocks where we rode today, all the riding around Grand Junction, that’s all BLM. There’s a lot great riding [in] BLM lands. Sandy Ridge up in Oregon, that’s a huge concern. I think that a lot of advocates have pivoted, at least for now, away from Wilderness because there’s some more dire things potentially coming down the pipe. Chaffetz had released a bill that had a bunch of public land in it that was up for sale, including 300 acres right here in Gunnison County. I never could find out where those 300 acres were.

So there’s a lot roled up into that, but to my knowledge, IMBA is not purposefully spending time or resources trying to undermine the work of the STC. It just isn’t true unless there’s some secret thing going on, and I don’t think there is. I know the organization pretty well. We don’t outwardly support it, but that’s the extent of it.

Greg Heil: Thank you for clarifying that, Dave. Can you tell us a little bit about IMBA’s involvement in the Outdoor Alliance? We were just chatting at lunch about this a little bit, and I think that could be an interesting topic that maybe many mountain bikers aren’t aware of.

Dave Wiens: Yeah, and I’m just becoming more knowledgeable about this too. However many years ago, maybe it was five or six, a group formed called the Outdoor Alliance, and those founding members were IMBA, the Access Fund, which is climbers, Winter Wildlands, which is winter quiet use, backcountry skiing and whatnot, American Whitewater Association, and American Canoe and Kayak Association. So the human-powered quiet outdoor mountain-y type sports came together, I think it was sort of an adjunct to. . .the Outdoor Industry Association. So instead of the industry, it was more of the advocacy of organizations coming together, and as the ED of IMBA, that puts me as a board of director on that, the OA board, the Outdoor Alliance board.

I went to my first board meeting in Washington, DC a little over a week ago, and that was an interesting experience. Right now we’re very interested in what’s happening in Washington as far as the way that the BLM seems like they’ve completely changed, how much funding BLM and Forest Service are going to get, some of the rolling back in the EPA and other areas, it seems like there’s a lot of salt on public lands right now and rivers and climbing areas and mountain biking and backcountry skiing. Public lands are central to all those activities, and I’m sure they’re central to the listeners of this podcast.

I know I live in a place that’s surrounded by public lands, and if I have to rank the things that are important in my life, I think it would be my family and my friends, and then public lands would be right up there in the top five because that’s where I mountain bike, that’s where I ski, that’s where I do all the things. There’s so many passionate people out there that love those activities, and to start to hear about rolling back of the protections of public lands is really frightening to a lot of us. Here’s something that we can unite on.

We had a meeting here, again, this isn’t IMBA, this is Gunnison Trails, but we have a new trail proposal. We were in a meeting, and we were in a room that was 50/50 in support of the new trail system, and 50% against this new trail system. It was primarily hunters, they were concerned about wildlife issues, and we feel like we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s on the wildlife, having seasonal closures, and it was mainly big-game winter range, but what struck me was this room that was completely divided. If the topic had been public lands heist? We would have been united. We would have been holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

So it’s interesting that some of these issues are going to be bringing some strange bed fellows together because together we’re going to be a lot stronger. Mountain bikers are a small part of that, but as [we] talk about public lands and protecting our public spaces, it is going to be really important to unite and reach out to other communities, including the motorized community.

I know a lot of moto riders up here, and they love the mountains and the trails for the same reasons that mountain bikers do. They travel with a different mode and sure they’re noisy and they’re loud, but there’s a lot of trails up here in the Gunnison Valley that are open to motos, and those guys love the public lands and the wide-open spaces and the views just as much we do and just choose to experience them in a different way. So that’s another part of it is just expanding our vision a little bit. It takes something like a new administration with some different values to come into power to really open a lot of our eyes to, “Wow, maybe there are some possibilities here to get with some of these other user groups and form some alliances,” so it’s an important time for us all to pay attention and to come together, I feel.

Greg Heil: So now I’m going off script, so bear with me guys. Dave, can you just give us a brief overview of the advocacy work that IMBA itself does in Washington, because I feel like a lot of people might not really be aware of exactly what things you guys do.

Dave Wiens: Well, truth be told, I’ve been on the job two months and when I went to Washington, I certainly didn’t do any advocacy work there. It was a couple of meetings, but we’ve got, our advocacy staff right now is Aaron Clark, and he’s the main guy that would do any of the work that takes place in DC or in other areas, but really, it’s trying to get those relationships with the Forest Service and the BLM, and it does include having relationships in the conservation world. If it’s something I learned around here doing advocacy is you want to have good relationships everywhere you go, and some of those people are going to be allies of what you’re trying to do, some people are going to be neutral, and some people are going to be foes, but having those relationships is really key in being able to contact those people and hopefully have a civil conversation.

I wish I could tell you exactly what we’re doing but I don’t have that download and that knowledge in my head. I know we’ve got a spreadsheet that’s mind boggling of the things that we’re working on all across the country. Certainly some of those decisions are made in Washington but lots more of them are … The important aspects of them happen locally as well. There’s a Wilderness proposal right now in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, and that bill would be signed in Washington but a lot of what actually happens out there will happen locally.

It’s certainly our goal with IMBA to strengthen everything we do at the national level, because advocacy has changed in the last 30 years. Local organizations have never been stronger, so where IMBA may have had a larger role in helping local advocates, 5, 10, 15 years ago, the local organizations, our chapters, there are non-affiliated organization and there are clubs that are more effective than they’ve ever been. I don’t think it’s the wisest use of our resources to continue to try to help organizations do what they can already do well. Granted, there are some clubs that still need the basics, but even the network of chapters and clubs that is out there, I think we can take advantage of those to help raise the effectiveness of all of the clubs.

So it just makes sense that IMBA needs to really get involved nationally, and we’re looking at redefining how we look at our access and policy and our government relations. So just like every other part of IMBA, that part of it is essentially under the microscope and open to review and open to revision and change.

My goals are that we be as effective as we can with what we do in Washington and at the national level. Are we there right now? No. Can we get there? Absolutely. It’s certainly one of the primary pillars of IMBA: national level advocacy and being an effective and strong voice. A big part of that is how many people we come to the table with, because that’s the first question we’ll be asked is, “Well, who do you represent?”

Well we represent the mountain bikers.

“Well, how many do you represent? What’s your membership?”

If we say 30,000, we might get a little nod, but if we say 60,000, 90,000, 150,000, those are game changers and something that we should look towards.

Certainly a goal of ours is to try and become relevant to mountain bikers to where they see that we’re doing great work in that landscape and support what we’re doing, but are we there now? No. Are we going to get there? Absolutely.

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