In an interesting piece in the UK’s Independent, Andy Waterman asks, 'When did it all start to go downhill for mountain biking?"
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

In it he charts the rise and fall of mountain biking in his home country and goes on to list a number of points he says were critical in its decline as a mass participation sport, including an increasing complexity in equipment choice and its portrayal as an extreme activity.

It's a pretty good analysis and could easily be applied to any number of nations where mountain biking was once a strong presence, the US and Australia included.

However, I think increasing complexity in equipment misses the mark. Advances in technology have made riding off road easier and cheaper than ever, and for those who like to keep their wheels on the ground the introduction of 29'ers are a revelation, allowing riders to coast smoothly over just about any terrain.

However the imagery often used to portray mountain biking is problematic, all big air and massive drop-off's over terrain more suited to Oreamnos americanus (look it up) than mom and pop out for a cruise on a Sunday afternoon.

"Since that time, the public image of mountain-biking has morphed into an extreme sport, all about young men throwing themselves off cliffs or down ravines. It's a frustrating misrepresentation, when for most of us, a mountain-bike ride looks much the same as a road-ride – riding along with friends, talking and enjoying the countryside, but in the woods or on the Dales, away from the constant, dull threat of motorists. And the bike you need to do that really isn't very complicated – a rigid frame with a suspension fork is the most economical entry point, and many will see little point progressing beyond that."

The sport does need to show off its dynamic and youthful side but not at the expense of turning off less capable riders. This imagery continues to exist despite the fact that for many bike shops the mountain bike to road bike split on the retail floor is pretty much 50-50, with the cheaper fat tyred machines hogging the bulk of sales at the entry level, not road bikes, which in Australia usually start at a price point north of $1000.

The industry and mountain bike media need to show more of people's actual lived experiences riding a mountain bike instead of an aspirational one they are unable to match.

This is how road cycling succeeded in shrugging off its 1980's grumpy, cheapskate with toe clips and wool shorts image in favour of one that real people could aspire to. A roll with your mates finished off with a chinwag and coffee afterwards.

Of course we know this also happens in mountain biking, but do potential entrants to mountain biking know that it's Ok to do a lazy 20km pancake flat dirt trail ride on a sub-$500 hardtail before having that cup of coffee with the family or friends? Are they actively encouraged to?

Still, there is no question that mountain biking is now on the way back, and as Waterman points out, tourism is the driver.

"...last year, Tourism Intelligence Scotland stated that mountain-biking visitors were worth £119m ($214m AUD) to the country in a tourist economy worth a total of £4.3bn ($7bn AUD). That's a significant sum, particularly to the rural communities mountain-bikers favour."

Here in Australia we are seeing several significant efforts to stimulate tourism through mountain biking. Victoria has Bike Buller and Far North Queensland has Ride Cairns, and both centers have spent significant sums in trail building and other infrastructure to good effect.

Cairns will be home to a UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in April then a World Championships in 2017, while Buller has been a mainstay in Australian mountain biking for years.

Additionally mountain bike endurance racing has become big business with a growing number of well established events themselves becoming destinations for riders keen on not only turning the pedals but also taking in the sights, sounds, food and wine of Australia, with race entries selling out almost as soon as they are opened.

Mountain biking as a mass participation sport was in the doldrums for over a decade, but the positives remain and those friendly to the sport are investing in them, however a few simple tweaks to peoples perceptions could bring the sport back to the highs we saw in the 80's and 90's.