Off-Road Impacts of Mountain Bikes


When reviewing the findings of recreation conflict research, Manning (1986) concluded:

"The evidence reviewed above strongly suggests that motivations play an important role in determining recreation conflict and that conflicts may be alienated by grouping recreationists according to similar motivations." (Manning 1986: 92), and

"Closer definition of the relationship between motivations, settings and activities may enhance the degree to which outdoor recreation management can provide satisfying recreation experiences." (Manning 1986: 95)

Given the importance of understanding mountain bike riders and their demand characteristics, the lack of any research available which directly addresses their motivations and setting/experience preferences is important. No research been done which contrasts these factors with those of walkers. Managers have been required to consider resource allocation decisions without any research information on what types of settings and recreation experiences riders want.

The only past experience of providing cycling opportunities has been based upon urban-style cycleways, such as that described by Pederson (1992). This example in an Australian National Park was a 2.5m wide sealed path suitable for sharing by cyclists, walkers and other users (e.g., wheelchairs). Preferences for a natural setting, scenery and a well-paved surface were predominant for riders on an urban "parkland" bicycle trail studied by Gobster (1988), who also found that almost half the survey sample had driven by car to use the trail for riding, indicating the recreational use of the trail was as important as the commuting opportunity.

However, these expensive options were designed for high-use situations and a wide variety of riding and non-riding users. While the majority of mountain-bike riders do not venture off-road, those who do are likely to be looking for something more. Cessford (1995) and Horn (1994) in particular noted increased preference for challenging physical and technical riding amongst riders with greater experience. Riders in Cessford (1995) emphasised greatest preference for challenging riding in natural forested areas and on single-track routes. And for a proportion of riders interested in racing, a degree of competitiveness was also prominent amongst their most preferred riding experiences.

Through the interviews to identify conflict issues between walkers and mountain bike riders, Horn (1994) was able to summarise more generally the range of setting and experience preferences of off-road mountain bike riders. While noting that most walkers accepted that mountain biking was a valid outdoor recreation activity, Horn (1994) also noted that:

"Walkers often seemed to think that providing one or two tracks for bikers would be enough. The difficulty with this is that bikers, like walkers, have a wide range of tastes and preferences and, in general, like variety. For example, many respondents felt that four wheel drive tracks in open country are ideal for biking, while others expressed distaste at the thought of using such places. To them, bush, trees and intimate narrow tracks are important parts of the experience." (Horn 1994: 142) and,

"There is also a small group of more specialised bikers who travel long distances to get to good biking areas. For these people, the surroundings are much more important and it is unrealistic to expect them to use only tracks that motor vehicles can travel on or which run through exotic forested areas. Narrow bushed tracks provide a pleasant environment which challenges better riders." (Horn 1994: 143)

Preferences for riding in natural settings, and across a range of track types is apparent from these conclusions. Preferences for natural settings was also found amongst riders sampled by Ruff and Mellors (1933), of whom 51 percent favoured forest and woodland settings while only 8 percent favoured farmland. Bridleways were the most preferred track-type (65%), although being relatively wide and well-graded relative to walking-type tracks, they were perhaps less popular for more experienced riders. This type of pattern was apparent in Watson et al. (1991), where most riding was on wide trails that were once roads rather than the rough trails associated with hiking, which were less commonly used. These results do suggest that the proportion of riders likely to be using walking-type trails, particularly of the rougher and less-developed type, will be small. Rider preferences from Cessford (1995) indicated that riders preferring more difficult tracks will be those generally more experienced and committed. As noted by Grost (1989):

"Regulations aside, there are still some places mountain bikes simply can't go. Steep boulder-strewn mountain trails are still the domain of the horse and hiker. Deep sand is nearly impossible to negotiate on a bike, as are swamps, bogs and wet meadows." (Grost 1989: 53)

It is likely that the difficulty of the tracks will act as a filter of the type of mountain bike rider present. Keller (1990) cited a statement from CORBA :

"In the same way that experienced hikers may range further and travel more difficult routes than the inexperienced without risking environmental damage and their own and other's safety; so may experienced riders ride safely on trails that less experienced riders could not ride." They add that advising cyclists "about difficult terrain is self regulating in that riders avoid terrain which is unrideable or unsafe at their riding level. It isn't enjoyable." (Keller 1990: 16)

Mountain bike riders have indicated preference for a variety of riding conditions and settings. They would appear to be as diverse a group as are people who walk outdoors for pleasure. For example, in a relatively early report on mountain biking in New Zealand, Jenkins (1987) proposed four distinct categories of mountain bike riders. These included "City Bicyclists" who mostly commuted or travelled in town, "Bicycle Tourers" who did longer trips, "All-terrain Bicyclists" who ride off-road generally for fun, and "Trial Bicyclists" who challenge their technical skills in particular. It is generally considered in most commentaries, and from most relavent research questions asked, that most mountain bike owners are only "City Bicyclists", and not venture off-road. However, the remainder of off-road cycists will include combinations of characteristics from these generalised categories used by Jenkins (1987).

Cessford (1995) summarised the variable setting and experience preferences of riders by grouping them according to experience levels (e.g., "Novice/Beginner/Casual", "Experienced Off-Road", and "Expert Off-Road"). This illustrated how rider preferences changed as riding skill, abilities and interests developed (refer Appendix 1). However, to date there have been no more definitive profile categories proposed for mountain biking.

The findings noted in this section concerning rider preferences for settings and experiences, indicate that mountain biking is more diverse activity than it may be initially perceived. The message to managers committed to making some provision for mountain biking opportunities, is that a variety of settings and recreation experience types will need to be considered.