Off-Road Mountain Biking: A profile of participants, setting and preferences, by Gordan Cessford, 1995
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6. DISCUSSION OF KEY FINDINGS

This section discusses the key findings which can be drawn from this study, and makes recommendations for management attention and research needs. These discussions are organised according to the original objectives of this study, which were to:

- provide a profile of mountain bike rider characteristics;

- describe their preferences for recreation settings and experiences; and

- determine their attitudes towards key management issues.

The key findings (in bold italics) are generalised conclusions from the research results, and are presented with the expectation that they may be tested by future research. They are presented in no particular order of importance, and are accompanied by discussion of any implications for management or research. The main recommendations for management and research are presented in Section 7.

6.1 Profile of Rider Characteristics

- At present, off-road mountain bike riders display age, gender, and occupation features which are characteristic of `active' outdoor recreationists, in contrast to the more `passive' types of recreationists they are most likely to encounter in those settings where most riding takes place.

Riders in this study included a high proportion of males, of ages between 20 and 40, and of `professional' occupations. Other samples of mountain bike riders have displayed similar characteristics (e.g., Ruff and Mellors 1991; Coughlan 1994; Horn 1994). In general, these types of features are more characteristic of `active' outdoor recreationists (e.g., backcountry trampers, climbers, hunters), than they are of the more `passive' recreationists they are most likely to encounter (e.g., casual walkers, sightseers). These different `types' of recreation groups are usually well seperated as a result of the different settings that they use. In many sites where mountain biking takes place, riders may represent `active' users of predominantly `passive' settings. This could underlie many of the conflict perceptions which arise. Development of more `passive' styles of riding appearance and behaviour may reduce such perceptions. Managers may find it useful to consult with riders and other users to determine what these `passive' features may be.

In a study of scenic urban cycleways (Gobster 1993), the distinctive rider characteristics as found in this study were less pronounced. This was also the case for the beginner riders in this study. These types of less experienced riders, and those using the more `developed' types of riding settings (e.g., cycleways), were more similar in profile characteristics and activity preferences to the types of walkers most likely to be encountered. It is possible that in these situations, the greater apparent similarities may reduce conflict perceptions. Walkers may view a family group of cyclists differently from a group comprising fit young riders.

Identification of how walkers form their perceptions of mountain biking will be useful. This may only require a targeted review of conflict research and participant consultation, rather than further specific field research. With such information, managers would be better able to advise and regulate riders to minimise any key `impact' features, and would also be able to better define those more `impact-susceptible' users. Better knowledge in this area may be the key to decisions on whether mountain biking at physically capable sites will also be socially acceptable or not.

- Women represented only 15 percent of the overall sample, but a high degree of womans' interest in riding is indicated by them comprising 42% of beginner riders in this study.

While representing only 7 percent of expert riders, women did comprise 42 percent of beginner riders. This difference may indicate that women riders generally drop out of the activity more often, rather than continuing to higher experience levels. Or, it could indicate that women are getting involved in this recently available activity, but have been doing so more gradually than the men. Whatever option is considered, the high proportion of beginner women does suggest a high degree of interest in riding.

Some support for the latter interpretation is apparent from the experience characteristics of women (Appendix 2). A higher proportion of women had less than one year of riding experience, suggesting more recent recruitment to the activity. However, the overall pattern of experience, in years, was otherwise similar to that of the men. If women were dropping out, the proportions with many years experience could be expected to be much lower than that of the men. This represents an obvious area for research. Should the very low proportion of women riders grow, the increase in overall numbers of riders would be great. This has implications for managers when considering the current levels of mountain biking use. Managers should assume that current mountain biking use-levels will increase, and that a considerable part of any increase will represent a gradual growth in the proportions of women participating. This is likely to be most pronounced in areas currently more popular with less experienced riders.

- Mountain biking is a very recent addition to the range of outdoor recreation opportunities, and it is unlikely that the rider characteristics and preferences will remain in the patterns they currently display.

Only 10 percent of riders had been active in off-road riding for more than 5 years. It is possible that with time, the activity will `mature' and stabilise into different patterns of use and user than are described in this study. For example, the proportion of women may increase, current riders may continue their involvement into older age-groups, more `passive' styles of riding may develop, and more children and family involvement may occur. The advent of mountain biking has presented an `socially acceptable' (trendy) and more physically practical means by which the high level of involvement by young people in cycling can be continued. Research into the current use-patterns and aspirations of women, and the developing patterns of current riders as they age, would be useful in the long term.

The very recent advent of mountain biking thus suggests the possibility that the participant characteristics, attitudes and behaviour may be evolving as the activity becomes more established. In a similar fashion, the attitudes and behaviour of other users in relation to mountain biking may also be evolving. Riders gaining more experience of riding and of encounters with other users may change in their attitudes and behaviour toward safer and more responsible riding (e.g., voluntary codes of behaviour). This process may also apply to the other users, who, upon gaining more experience and familiarity with encountering mountain bikes, may also change their attitudes and behaviour towards them. Some suggestion of this type of process was made in Banister et. al. (1992), where the negative attitudes of other users towards cyclists on canal towpaths did not appear to increase over time, despite large increases in rider numbers. Greater familiarity may result in reduced conflict perception.

Managers should recognise that these types of changes are likely to occur, and that it may result in future resource demands for riding, and patterns of conflict perception, which differ from those evident in this study. Clearly these areas represent important topics for longitudinal monitoring and research.

6.2 Recreation Setting and Experience Preferences

- Some features of settings and experiences are consistently important to mountain bike riders of all experience levels, and would thus appear to be essential components of any mountain biking opportunities which may be provided or allowed for.

The riding features considered equally important by most ridrs included the opportunities for exploring new areas; appreciation of scenery, views and nature; experiencing some speed, excitement and risk; and socialising with others. Specific setting preferences included native forest settings, undulating routes, ride durations of between 2-3 hours, and good scenery. These results indicate that these features represent the basis of most satisfying riding experiences.

Should managers be considering a variety of tracks for potential mountain biking opportunities, those including most or all of these features should be given greater weight in allocation decisions. However, other results indicate that the relative importance of these, and other rider preferences does vary with experience. Managers may also need to consider the types of riders they wish to provide opportunities for in each case.

- As riders become more experienced, the balance of their setting and experience preferences shifts from an emphasis on more generalised passive types of riding experiences, toward more active types of features, which are more specific to the mountain biking activity.

Beginner riders tended to emphasise more `passive' features of riding experiences, characteristic of preference for easier riding conditions (e.g., socialising; appreciating scenery, views and nature; easier and relaxed riding; few obstructions on the track/track not too difficult; uphills which were gradual/gentle/easy; track surface which was smooth/easy/open; ride duration of between 1-2 hours; downhills which were slow/gentle/easy; and riding on sealed roads).

By contrast, more experienced riders emphasised preferences for more `active' features characteristic of difficulty and challenge in riding (e.g., technical and physical challenge; speed and excitement; racing; single-track which is tight/narrow/winding; some technical difficulty/challenge; downhills which are fast/technical/tight; uphills which are long/steep/smooth; track surface which is dry/hard; track surface which is rough/technical/fast; and rides which include a mixture of single-track and other route types).

These changes in rider setting and experience preferences as experience levels develop suggest that the principles of the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) should be applied to mountain biking opportunities. Managers using the ROS to aid decision-making on allocations of recreation opportunities, can assess each of the opportunity classes they are using to identify what different opportunities may exist for mountain biking. For example, riding optins in opportunity classes associated with `wilderness' would be unlikely given the lack of tracks. However, in `remote experience' classes, options for expert riders may be possible on the rough tracks predominating in this opportunity class. In more `developed' opportunity classes such as `backcountry drive-in', riding routes accessible to less experienced riders would become more available. This type of process would encourage provision for a range of mountain biking preferences, and would also provide a means for limiting the access of mountain bikes to some areas. Any such process for provision of riding access would remain subject to other management requirements such as physical and social impact concerns, as well as any statutory limitations that apply to mountain bikes.

- Rider preference for route types shifts strongly toward riding on single-track with experience.

Beginner riders showed greater preference for riding on more developed routes such as sealed and gravel roads, and 4WD tracks. But preference for single-track riding increased with experience to become the most preferred route type (e.g., narrow walking-type tracks). This suggests that provision of mountain biking opportunities would have to include access to some walking-type tracks if mountain bike rider demand was to be best satisfied. Provision of access to formed roads or retired road tracks may only cater for the less experienced riders. These riders may be unrepresentative of those rider types actually present in most off-road track settings. Provision of opportunities for single-track riding routes should be considered a priority where possible.

Rider preference for single-track riding raises the potential for conflict perceptions from other users of such tracks, particularly walkers. While most riders consider that these uses are compatible, other research indicates that many walkers would disagree.

- With increasing experience, riders have greater preference for tight and rough tracks, and have greater preference and tolerance for various types of track difficulties and obstructions.

Associated with their preference for single-track riding, the more experienced riders also had greater preference for riding challenges in general, and greater tolerance for track difficulties and obstructions (e.g., roots; rocks; steps; culverts; overhanging branches and foliage; wet muddy areas; and river crossings). The main exception to this was the strong aversion by all riders to unconsolidated surfaces such as sand and loose rocks.

Some tolerance for track difficulty by all riders was apparent from the proportion prepared to push or carry their bikes over rough sections. This indicated that many riders were prepared to ride up to, and occasionally over, the limits of their riding abilities. Just where this carrying or pushing would occur would vary for different riders, depending on their relative experience. A track where a beginner may push or carry may be easily ridden by an expert. Whatever the level of skill, few riders indicated they were prepared to carry of push their bikes for over 25% of a ride. This does indicate that where more than this percentage of a track is unrideable by most riders, almost none will be present.

Deliberate retention of rough track surfaces and/or location of maintenance features to maintain more difficult riding conditions could provide a `filter' mechanism. Using such specific `managed difficulty' would provide managers with some control of the numbers and types of riders present on different tracks, without the need to otherwise limit or ban mountain bikes altogether. Less experienced riders will be deterred by the more difficult riding tracks and conditions.

- The difficulty and amount of uphill riding required on tracks will provide an additional factor acting to limit riding use.

Preference and tolerance for riding long and difficult uphill sections increased with experience. This indicates that less experienced riders may be deterred by the degree of uphill difficulty. Experienced riders were more tolerant of difficult uphills, and if forced to push or carry, would be doing so in much rougher conditions than would be the case for less experienced riders.

Management of uphill gradients represents an additional means to reduce rider numbers and filter out the less experienced. If tracks do not require low gradients to meet the specific needs of different types of walkers (e.g., older walkers, families, disabled etc), then steep climbs and associated difficulty may be retained. Such an approach would be important in backcountry situations, as it would result in only the more experienced riders being present in settings. However, in more accessible areas with smoother and easier tracks, gradients are unlikely to be sufficient to provide any deterrent. They may still be important for management, as they present a different array of management issues when considered as downhills.

- Experiencing speed and excitement in riding is important to most riders apart from beginners, and increases in importance with experience, although the setting of these experiences changes.

Most riders indicated a preference for experiencing fast downhills, and most indicated these types of experiences were essential to their riding enjoyment. The proportion desiring this was lowest amongst beginners, and those that did desire this preferred to do so on more smooth and open tracks. With experience, the preference for speed and excitement increased, and the settings preferred for this emphasised rougher and more challenging tracks. Rider preference to mix speed with challenge was most pronounced amongst the experts, some of whom indicated preference for slow technical downhills. This suggested they were prepared to sacrifice the maximising of speed on downhills for a greater technical challenge.

These results indicate that in many situations, although not necessarily all cases, riders like to go fast at times during their rides. This should be recognised by managers in providing any riding opportunities. If speed-related experiences are inappropriate for sites being considered because of hazard potential (e.g., popular day walking tracks), management actions may be required. Such actions could include both rider education and track maintenance strategies (e.g. strategic location of waterbars, steps and other obstructions to limit speeds on blind corners, `managed' degree of riding difficulty to limit rider numbers). Also, specific efforts to make known the availability of alternative settings for speed-related experiences would help increase rider acceptance of limits to the riding use of some tracks.


- Racing is not an important motivating factor for most mountain bike riders, including most of those who have at some time actually entered a race.

Despite this sample of riders having been drawn from race-entry lists, only 19 percent included racing and race training in their top three preferred riding features. It was the first priority choice for only 9 percent of the riders. An increased preference was apparent with higher experience levels, although this was anticipated due to the greater racing commitment which would be expected of race-entrants at the higher levels. It was apparent that a distinction between `racer' and `non-racer' expert riders was present (refer Appendix 2 for details). This distinction suggested that racing was the means by which `racers' focus the development of their advanced skills and experience, whereas for `non-racers', that focus comes more from applying and challenging their technical abilities. It is likely that managers will be dealing much more with recreational riders rather than those with strong focus on racing, particularly in settings removed from urban areas which would be less amenable to regular training rides. Actual racing on lands managed for conservation would not be permitted without agency consents.

- Many experienced riders have some experience of overnight riding trips, suggesting that this aspect of riding behaviour will become more important in some settings and areas.

Riders indicated a strong interest in multi-day riding opportunities, though these comprised only a small part of their riding effort. Although most previous multi-day rides had been road-based, their interest in future trips appeared to be for off-road riding.

Riders specified a variety of areas they would like to do off-road multi-day trips. Given that mountain biking has only recently developed in New Zealand, it is likely that one of the major factors limiting rider interest in off-road trips has been lack of knowledge. As more riders become experienced, and information exchange increases, it is likely that more sites will be visited, and that some will become distinctly more prominent as preferred locations. This already appears the case with the Heaphy and Queen Charlotte tracks (due to high natural attractiveness, transport connections, rideable with weight and baggage). However, these are remote from the home locations of most riders, and it is unlikely that rider numbers doing such trips will be high. Managers should recognise that these types of riding opportunities in certain key sites will be important to riders on a national basis. This may be an important consideration in decisions on access allocations, particularly if Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) concepts are applied.


6.3 Rider Attitudes Towards Management Issues

The overall findings summarised in Table 5.1 present a view from riders that the potential social and physical impacts on the environment and other users by mountain biking are not as bad as some may believe. They seem to be suggesting that if riders are responsible, and other users are better informed about the activity through information and increased familiarity, impact perceptions would be reduced and the banning of bikes would be unnecessary. However, they did recognise that in some cases, there would be the need for limitations to their access.

- Riders believe that riding should be possible on most walking tracks, but do acknowledge that there will be some exceptions because of possible track damage and conflict with walkers.

This acknowledgement by riders is useful for managers, as it represents a recognition that use of some tracks would not be appropriate in all situations. However, there was an expectation by riders that these limitations would be the exceptions rather than the rule.

- Riders believe that perceptions of damage and safety hazard from mountain biking are over-estimated, and that a combination of some irresponsible riding behaviour, and a lack of knowledge by walkers, contributes to these perceptions.

While acknowledging that mountain biking may be inappropriate in some situations, mountain bike riders generally considered that the activity was compatible with other use of walking tracks. The implication for managers is that any limitations placed on mountain bikes resulting only from manager response to the perceptions of other users, are likely to be considered by riders to be an over-reaction. Conflict may develop between managers and riders where riders believe limits are being unfairly applied. Given the acknowledgement by riders that some situations will require limitations, it would appear that they would generally accept any reasonable limitations, especially when consultation was undertaken on general access opportunities, and the justifications for the specific management actions were outlined. The same consultation process could also be used for discussions with other users, where management decisions make provision for some riding access.

- Self-regulation of riding behaviour and attitude was seen by riders as being an important part of management to reduce any use-conflicts.

Voluntary codes of behaviour such as `low-impact' riding and self-regulation of behaviour were considered more useful management options than were separate times or zones for mountain biking. However, given the high proportion of riders involved in clubs, and the number who have done races, it would appear that convenient mechanisms to promote voluntary self-regulation are available. Any management strategy dealing with mountain bike issues should ideally address this option through consultation with riders and others before any regulatory site management actions are applied. This approach may represent a more long-term process than an immediate management action, and it will depend on the degree to which rider behaviour conforms to the desired states. Some short-term regulatory approaches may be necessary in some situations, although the option for reviewing these should be available if initial conflict and impact problems subside.

Riders were evenly divided on whether most riders would stick to specifically designated mountain biking tracks. This suggests that many riders believe that any tracks designated for riding use will generally not reflect their setting and experience needs, or not be readily accessible.

- Riders identified views, scenery and nature experiences as important components in their recreation opportunities.

In most of the data collected on setting and experience preferences, and from specific questions, a strong expression of rider interest in undertaking rides in attractive natural settings was apparent. Settings in farmland or pine forest environments were accepted as being tolerable, but strongest preference was exhibited for natural forested areas. In a similar way, farm tracks and 4WD tracks were acceptable, but very much secondary in preference to single-tracks in natural forest settings.

This has implications for managers when considering potential tracks which could be used to provide for mountain biking. Tracks with attractive natural settings would appear to be as important to mountain bike riders as they are to other track users. If the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) system is applied, ridng opportunities with these features should be provided for.

- Speed and excitement are important components of mountain bike riders' recreational opportunities.

In data collected on rider experience preferences, and from a specific question, a strong expression of rider interest in experiencing some speed, risk and excitement in their riding was apparent. This has implications for management when considering potential tracks which could be used to provide for mountain biking. This rider preference does represent a key area of potential user conflict and hazard if uncontrolled. In many cases, and particularly amongst more experienced riders, pure speed is not the objective. Rather, it is associated with the technical challenge of travelling quickly but in control over rough surfaces and terrain. In these situations, the actual speeds reached may not be high.

Rider education to ride safely, and track design to limit speed where potential hazard does exist are two possible options. Riders do indicate a strong interest in self-regulation, and management actions such as strategically located obstructions (e.g., culverts, steps) have been proposed.


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