Opinion: Quit Your MTB Proselytizing

proselytize — verb: to try to persuade people to join a religion, cause, or group.

I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon in the world of mountain biking that I honestly don’t think I’ve seen in any other sport else, at least to this degree. That phenomenon is this: the average mountain biker seems to think that we need to go out and recruit more people to be mountain bikers. And if they meet someone who’s not a mountain biker, one of their first responses is, “oh, you should try mountain biking, we need to get you out on a bike!”

And my question is: “Why?”

Why do we need more mountain bikers? Is there a reason that we must attempt to recruit every person we meet to join this great sport of ours?

Now I’ll admit: mountain biking is just about the greatest lifestyle there is. I’ve even argued as much in this article. But even though we’re unabashedly the most fanatical, that doesn’t mean that we need to convert everyone that we meet over to singletrack riding.

Gratuitous action photo showcasing MTB awesomeness and fanaticism. Photo: Trevor Warne
Gratuitous action photo showcasing MTB awesomeness and fanaticism. Photo: Trevor Warne

This is a hard concept to wrap my head around, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. And the truth is, there are many people out there that probably won’t enjoy mountain biking.

Do we need to try to convert such people to our cause, rallying them to the two-wheeled banner? Heck no! If they wouldn’t enjoy it (or know from experience that they don’t enjoy it), then why do they need to ride bikes? Is there a reason? Not as far as I can tell.

However, there’s another group of people out there, and that group could learn to enjoy biking. They might find the athleticism enjoyable, enjoy the exploration, and enjoy the challenge. But maybe one of these people you know who might enjoy mountain biking already does a bunch of other sports. Maybe they rock climb, or backpack, or heck even trail run… and maybe they just don’t have time to do anything else. Is there anything wrong with them not mountain biking? Is there any reason that we must convert them to our way of thinking?

I’ve recently become more and more comfortable with the fact that I’m a mountain biker, and that other people may not be. That may mean I don’t have much in common with them, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less of a person or a human being. It doesn’t mean that I need to convince them with my astounding rhetoric of the error of their non-pedaling ways. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace our differences, and actually listen to why they love what they do in their free time, instead of breaking in and telling them what they should be doing, and why.

“But more riders will be good for the sport.”

Time and time again I’ve heard this sentence bandied around as a piece of proven wisdom–that more riders will be good for the sport and for the industry. But from where I’m sitting, the only people I see benefiting from a larger number of riders are companies who have something to sell. It stands to reason that if you’re a brand who sells mountain bikes, more mountain bikers means more sales.

But for everyone else, I urge you to consider: will recruiting folks off the street to join your mountain biking tribe really help you?

Some people think that having more riders will increase our advocacy clout. But that’s simply not the case. In communities where there’s already an MTB advocacy club, the mountain biking advocacy is generally one of the most well-organized in the community. Granted, we have an issue with mountain bike advocacy on the national and international level: with only 30,000 riders registered as IMBA members, that’s a woefully-small percentage of the tens of millions of riders around the globe. But as those numbers indicate, we don’t have a constituency issue. Rather, we have an organization issue: if we could simply organize and coordinate the strength of our existing force of riders, we could solve almost any advocacy issue. Of course, I’ve heard some people argue that we need a different advocacy organization altogether… but that’s neither here nor there in this argument. Regardless of who’s actually doing the advocacy, expanding our ranks isn’t the solution.

Let’s step back and examine my personal bias for a minute, shall we? As a professional mountain bike journalist I could naturally have something to gain from recruiting folks to the mountain biking fold. Perhaps our publication could make more money… and perhaps my ego would be fed by having hundreds of millions of people reading my writing instead of “just” several million. But if getting an ego boost is really my only motivation behind recruiting folks to this sport, that seems like a poor motivation indeed. This is just one more reason that I don’t actively go out of my way to recruit more mountain bikers.

What I am not saying

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t help and encourage beginner mountain bikers: this sport is open to anyone who’s interested! In fact, we here on Singletracks spend a lot of time writing and sharing content designed primarily to help beginners learn. We’re firm believers in teaching and learning in turn, and also not thinking we have the corner on knowledge. So I think we should most definitely help new riders learn, teach them the ropes, show them the trails, and help them out in any way we can!

But instead of trying to convince non-riders to try our sport, I think they should come of their own accord. I think we can share our experiences with them, share our love for the sport and why we enjoy it. And if that piques their curiosity and they want to give it a shot, then boom! get them on a bike, slap a helmet on their head, and get them riding.

I think having new riders who want to try riding and want to push themselves is a much more natural, sustainable path into the sport. Goading people into riding, pressuring someone to try the sport, or pestering someone until they join you on a ride will never go over well long-term. If they want it, then they’ll come and get it.

Yeah, this could indeed mean that our sport does grow. This could mean that we will indeed add millions more riders over the coming years. And if that happens, and it happens in an organic, authentic way then that’s great: I’ll welcome it with open arms!

But we don’t need it to happen. We’re doing just fine and accomplishing great things right now! Heck, as I said in this interview, I think we’re currently in the golden age of trail building.

So let’s not force it. Let’s not charge forward trying to recruit everyone in sight or try to force the industry to go. Instead, let’s keep on being awesome, and encouraging other people to join us when they express interest in checking out the awesomeness of mountain biking for themselves.

Your turn: Do you try to recruit new riders? Why or why not?