Interview: 10 (important) questions with IMBA communications director Mark Eller

E-bikes, fatbikes, revenue sharing, and more — it's all on the table

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Facilitating experiences such as this are just part of the IMBA mandate. Photo courtesy IMBA

It’s an interesting time in the world of mountain bike trail advocacy. Aside from the usual struggles to open and maintain access for traditional fat tire riders, and the job of recognizing Model Trails, new issues and bike types such as e-bikes and fatbikes have raised their own set of questions. In search of some answers, Mtbr sat down for an extended chat with Mark Eller, communications director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Here is the edited transcript of that wide-ranging conversation, which took place during the recently completed IMBA World Summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a long but important read.

Mtbr: Let’s start with an easy question. For the uninitiated what is the IMBA World Summit all about?
Mark Eller: It’s something we do every other year. The main goal is just to get the tribe together, share info, ride bikes, drink beer. Each year we’ve kept raising the bar and turned it into a polished thing that we are pretty proud of. This time we had about 400 paid delegates, plus another 100 people between staff and media and so on. The main goal is information sharing. We’ve realized over years that there is huge value in getting mountain bikers together to talk about how they build trails, how they care for trails, how they foster relationships with land managers, and so on. Comparing notes is a really valuable exercise. People tend to fall into patterns in their home area, so it’s enlightening to see how other people do things.

Mtbr: So what’s a good example of that enlightenment?
Mark Eller: Well, a lot of people will say, our soil is different or what we do in our area is unique. But then when you compare notes you often see that it’s not so unique. There are lots of places out there that have similar things going on. It can be really reassuring to find out that there are some common ways to build trails and tackle trail building issues.

Mtbr: Let’s address some of those issues. Where does IMBA stand regarding e-bikes on trails?
Mark Eller: Yeah, e-bikes is at the top of a short list. We have defined mountain biking as a purely human powered experience. But honestly we think it may be a tempest in tea pot for North American riding right now. However, it’s definitely a big issue in Europe right now. What we see there is that the Germans stand alone, saying they have solved this through engineering and have embraced pedal assist technology as a game changer. But the rest of Europe resides more of where we are at, saying if it has a motor than it is not a mountain bike. Our stance is that mountain biking is a purely human powered endeavor.


Fatbikes — and where they can and cannot be used – is another hot button topic within the halls of IMBA’s Boulder, Colorado, world headquarters.

Mtbr: How about fatbikes? That’s been another big topic of conversation lately.
Mark Eller: We see policy as a big issue there. In certain places snowmobiles have a longstanding well defined relationship with land managers to the point where there are a lot of trails signed snowmobile only, nobody else. That’s become a bone of contention. For example, in Yellowstone National Park you will get ticketed for riding a fatbike, where you can take a snowmobile up the trail. Our main recommendation is that purpose built trail for fatbiking is where it’s at. If you have snow on the ground to justify that level of effort, it’s pretty cool. It’s similar to flow trail design, high banks are fun, gentle grades work best, keeping trail grades not overly steep.

What else is at the top of that short list?
Mark Eller: Another discussion is the question of whether IMBA has gone away from advocacy in favor of building trails and promoting model trails, and doing less advocacy work then we’ve long been associated with in the past. I would put out there that that’s not the case. In terms of presence in Washington, D.C., and political savvy, and the ability to influence wilderness proposals, we are stronger than ever. The key for any non profit to succeed is to stick to the mission. Our mission is to build, create and enhance great mountain biking experiences. You can’t do that if you are always in a defensive posture. If your idea of advocacy is always putting out fires and pleading for access, then you are always in a defensive posture. By expanding into things like trail building and the instructor certification program, we’re doing advocacy on a more pro-active level. If there is a local group succeeding in building trails and getting people on rides, they are succeeding in advocacy. But if the group is just having battles with land managers and other trail users, then you are probably failing to some degree.

Continue to Page 2 to hear Eller’s take on the sometimes contentious debate surrounding the new chapter program and revenue sharing »

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • Petah says:

    Were the questions pre-screened before hand? Not very deep questions and not very detailed answers from an organization that is suppose to be oh so important. You could have asked any Joe on the trail these questions and got the same answers.

  • Mark E says:

    Petah, what’s the burning question you’d like to ask?

  • Aaron W. Hautala says:

    If not for IMBA, there would be no Cuyuna. If no Cuyuna, central Minnesota would certainly be a different place today. For IMBA’s past, present, and future work on Cuyuna and trails throughout the world, we’ll gladly see they retain 60 cents to every dollar of our shared membership dues.

    Together we win.

  • Jereme says:

    I support IMBA and appreciate the work they’ve done in places like Cuyuna. Cuyuna’s a ways from here, though, and my opinion is that it’s only a small number of pet Chapters that are really seeing the benefits of the program. Our club had 501(c)3 status, a pretty solid membership fulfillment system, awesome partnerships with local land managers and local businesses and good sources of income from events, so there wasn’t a pressing need to become a Chapter. We chose to do so anyway, partly to support IMBA and partly because we assumed it would mean stronger partnerships with the regional directors and better chances at getting trail crew visits. We also made the decision based on IMBA’s plan to shift the 60/40 split—which we thought was excessive (and still do)—to something more reasonable. A year and a half later, our Chapter has not benefited significantly from the regional director model, we were turned down for a trail care visit, and it seems IMBA is no longer talking about changing the 60/40 split. Again, I think IMBA has done great work in many areas of the country, but it seems to me that the Chapter program needs reworking in order for ALL Chapters to reap the benefits.

  • Mark Davis says:

    After almost a decade, 160 odd chapters is not an overwhelming success. Clubs seem to still dominate the structure. How about some appreciation about how difficult it is to have any organization in small rural areas. Chapters make the most sense for large urban areas with larger membership base. Small towns may never achieve this level. Are club as welcome as chapters? It does not seem so at times. We once had a good and successful club in Mammoth Lakes. The next level was impossible. We are a small town with a limited membership basis. The seasonal challenge is also a huge barrier. Yet we have access to immense public lands. How is one local to support the needs of 1000 visitors in the chapter structure? We have been trying to restart, but the Chapter vision seems overwhelming. Mammoth can’t be entirely unique, but we are an example of opportunity not achieved because of local limitations.

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