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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Mid Atlantic Region Advocate

Much of the behind-the-scenes work that IMBA and its local bike advocates do involves planning sessions with land managers and other important partners. Photo courtesy IMBA

Mtbr: Another big discussion topic both at the Summit and beyond is how IMBA has changed its business model, specifically regarding the burgeoning chapter program where revenue is shared at the local organization and national level. Talk about that and where things stand.
Mark Eller: The last couple years have seen a complete re-jiggering of the IMBA business model. We long faced a problem where mountain bikers felt like they had to choose between joining a local group or supporting a national advocacy program that is IMBA. So with the chapter program, we try to solve this by saying we are going to share members and share revenue. When someone joins, they join both their local organization and IMBA at once. Obviously there has been a lot of working through the business and psychology of that. It can be hard to get those groups to totally get their heads around it.

Mtbr: So how many chapters does IMBA have now and what are the economics of that system?
Mark Eller: Right now we have 162 chapters, along with another 300-400 supporting organizations, which we used to call clubs. A lot of those clubs are mulling over when/if it’s time to switch to chapter status. Chapter status is defined by the membership share, where when you become a member of a local advocacy group, you also become an IMBA member. We then split that membership money 60-40 in IMBA’s favor. Not surprisingly at the Summit there was a lot of discussion of that revenue split. We feel like it’s really more of a 40-40-20 split, 40 to local group, 40 to IMBA, 20 to administer whole chapter program. But it’s been contentious for sure, and we totally get it. Mountain bikers are independent people with a lot of pride in figuring things out themselves, and all singletrack is local, and people will always care about the trails in their backyards the most. So the idea that I’m going to write check and I’m not confident that it will come back to where I live and ride is a valid concern.

Mtbr: So how do you alleviate that concern?
Mark Eller: We have found the best way to show the value of the chapter program is to show that those 162 chapters are thriving and succeeding in part because we are able to support them with things like reminding their members to keep their memberships current. The other big thing is that the chapter program supports paid IMBA staff around the country on a regional basis via what we call region directors and associate region directors. Those people are directly hired by the chapter and IMBA. When you have a paid professional advocate who can go to a meeting with a land manager on a Wednesday at 2 p.m. when all the volunteers are at work at their regular job, that makes a huge difference. What we are seeing now is that local groups are joining the chapter program when they see the success of other chapters that have access to the regional director. In the end we can talk all we want, but the results speak for themselves.

Trail Solutions in China

IMBA’s fee-based trail building program, Trail Solutions, has global reach and experience. Here, trail specialist Chris Kehmeier (at right) oversees a bike park project in China. Photo courtesy IMBAMtbr: Speaking of results, what would you advise someone on the individual level to do when they ask, how can I make a difference?
Mark Eller: There are really lots of options — and that is the key. Some people love to dig. Honestly, I think we have a good chunk of people who like to build trails as much or more as they like to ride trails. Another option is our Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day in October. You can register for free, and we’ll send a bunch of Clif product. That’s great and it exposes people to the sport. And of course donations are good, too. We take cash, check and credit card.

Mtbr: Let’s wrap it up with this: In the past IMBA has been characterized as the uncool uncle of the mountain bike world, the trail cops. But I’m guessing you would like to paint a different picture.
Mark Eller: We will never get away from that totally because there will always be some mountain bikers who feel that the cool trail is the trail that is illegally built by hand under the cover of darkness. That is a sexy image. It’s the outlaw thing. But on the other hand, the organization that wants to build trails in partnership with their land managers and all the goody-two-shoes stuff, at the end of the day we get a lot more done and we fell good about that. Look at what gets built and maintained and makes a positive contribution to people’s riding experience. We are building a lot of great trail right now.

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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