The mountain biking bubble
Durango bucks national decline in mountain biking

SideStory: Outside bestows Durango 'Best Mountain Biking' honors

A local mountain biker zips through Horse Gulch singletrack Monday evening. Mountain biking has been on a downward trend across the nation but still remains popular in Durango. Competitive mountain bike racing returns to Durango on Aug. 26 with the fourth annual MTB 100. /Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Mountain biking, as an industry and a spectator sport, has seen better days. Fueled partly by an Armstrong-inspired shift toward road riding, national fat tire outings have declined in recent years, and mountain bike racers are winning slimmer purses and enjoying less television time.

However, mountain biking is continuing to thrive in Durango. The health of local trails, riders and events tell a story in sharp contrast to the national trend.

The Outdoor Industry Foundation (OIF), recently released a new participation study with statistics on mountain biking. In the study, the group attempted to answer the questions, “How many people ride mountain bikes?” and “How popular is mountain biking compared to other recreational activities?” On the one hand, the findings revealed that cycling, including mountain and road, remains the most popular form of recreation in the nation, accounting for 38.2 percent of all recreation, including 85.8 million participants and 3.1 billion outings.

However, the OIF study also revealed a disturbing trend. Total mountain bike participation and outings dropped 11 percent between 2004 and 2005. The study goes on to show that mountain biking has lost 17.3 million participants since 2001.

“It’s fair to say that mountain biking is on a little bit of a downward trend in the United States,” commented Mark Eller, communications manager for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, a Boulder-based trails and conservation group.

However, there is more to the numbers and the trend than meet the eye, according to Eller. The OIF defines mountain bike relatively loosely, and the study encompasses everything from the Huffy purchased at a big box retailer to the high-end, several-thousand-dollar, full-suspension ride.

“The Outdoor Industry Foundation numbers are often looked at cynically within the industry,” Eller said. “There’s really not much they can do to differentiate between low-end bikes ridden on hard-surface trails versus high-end bikes used exclusively for serious singletrack riding.”

With this in mind, Eller pointed to a different trend – a movement toward riding singletrack over dirt or asphalt roads – which is up 1 percent since 2003. This trend has played neatly into IMBA’s hand, and the group is seeing increased membership from serious mountain bikers.

“We want more sophisticated, better riders on the trails,” he said. “By giving people opportunities to ride on great singletrack trails, we’re also enhancing the number of riders who will develop strong conservation ethics.”

Mary Monroe has worked as the executive director of Trails 2000, Durango’s trails advocacy group, since January. Prior to that, she spent 10 years on IMBA’s Board of Directors and served on the Bicycle Colorado Board of Directors. She began her career as the sports marketing director for Trek, Fisher, Klein, Bontrager and LeMond and was the chief marketing officer for USA Cycling. With this track record, she brings a privileged perspective on mountain biking to Durango.

“In the early 1990s, there was an obvious upswing in the popularity of mountain biking,” she said. “Once Lance Armstrong started winning the Tour de France, there was an upswing in the popularity of road biking.”

Monroe went on to explain, “I think it’s cyclical. There are times and trends when road biking is more popular than mountain biking, but I certainly wouldn’t classify mountain biking as something that’s going away.”

Monroe added that Trails 2000 has shared IMBA’s experience. There may be fewer overall people riding mountain bikes, but those who remain are more dedicated, discerning and conscientious riders.

“For Trails 2000, we’ve seen continual growth in membership and participation,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful thing that people recognize that the land they’re recreating on also needs to be taken care of. In Durango, we walk the talk. That’s great for Trails 2000 as well as other conservation organizations.”

Mountain bike racing returns to Durango on Aug. 26 with the fourth annual Durango MTB 100. Will Newcomer, founder of the race that offers 100-mile, 100-kilometer and 50-mile legs, said that participation in the grueling, high-altitude race remains strong.

“We always seem, for the MTB 100, to be right at the 100-competitor mark,” he said. “For the endurance races, there’s a steady core of athletes, and we certainly focus more on endurance riding than the shorter, cross-country style races.”

Like Monroe and Eller, Newcomer said that he sees stability in mountain biking, and particularly in Durango mountain biking. “I don’t think people are mountain biking any less,” he said. “People here love to ride whether they race or not. And for the racers, it seems like they’re just doing longer races or different kinds of races.”

Monroe agreed, concluding that regardless of racing, events or media coverage, mountain biking will always remain a core piece of the Durango community. “Mountain biking’s always been one of the namesakes of Durango,” she said. “Everyone knows there’s a great trails system here, and it all goes hand in hand. The power of open space and trails affects the makeup of the town. It’s bigger than the events. It’s the lifestyle.” •

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