Letter to every IMBA member from The Angry Singlespeeder

The message: Alleged voice of mountain bikers must listen to mountain bikers

Bull Run Trail, Moab. Photo by James Adamson – dropmedia.tv

Bull Run Trail, Moab (click to enlarge). Photo by James Adamson – dropmedia.tv

Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You may submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.

Dear Mountain Bikers,

If you are an individual member or part of a local International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) affiliated chapter, please read this and share it with all your fellow members and friends, for I believe this message is important.

After more than 25 years of being a leader in mountain bike advocacy, IMBA has chosen not to listen to a growing voice in the mountain bike community who desire fair and equal human-powered access to public lands. Instead of working to regain rightful access to federally protected Wilderness – a land designation that originally allowed for bicycles – I believe that IMBA has chosen to side with the likes of the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, organizations that continually work hard to designate new Wilderness, forever shutting out bicycle access.

Although the word “Angry” is in my moniker, after sitting in on a recent IMBA press conference that laid out their 2016 Advocacy Position on Land Protection and Trail Access, I came away more confused and dismayed than angry. Why? Because no matter how much IMBA tries to spin it, the truth remains that IMBA chooses not to listen to an increasing number of mountain bikers who realize that the topic of Wilderness is one of the most important advocacy issues that faces our sport going forward. It’s really unfortunate too, because I inherently want to support IMBA, but not if they can’t get behind this seemingly no-brainer issue.

According to a recent poll conducted by Singletracks.com of nearly 3,700 North American mountain bikers, an overwhelming 96 percent of respondents said they believe at least some Wilderness trails should be open to bikes. When presented this data on the Q&A portion of the press conference, IMBA president Mike Van Abel said he was not surprised at all by the results.

“We know the aspirations that mountain bikers have and the experiences that they want,” he said. “And what better experience than a wilderness or wilderness-like experience, being in a landscape that gives us as mountain bikers, the solitude, adventure, the sense of freedom – all those benefits that most of us know quite well. So I was not at all surprised by the response that you got.”

But here is a surprise – IMBA has never polled its own member base about the same question. Not once in 25 years. How hard is it to put together an online survey and send every IMBA member an email asking for a response? The reason is because they already know the answer, but don’t want to draw attention to it.

Even more disheartening was a recent press release issued by The Wilderness Society not only filled with numerous wild untruths tied to bicycle access in Wilderness and their lies about “collaboration” with the mountain bike community, but also their inclusion of IMBA’s statement to not support regaining bicycle access in Wilderness. I expected the vehement anti-mountain bike spin machine from the Wilderness Society, but seeing IMBA praised in that same press release for not supporting efforts to fair access was a double stab in the back.

Why is this issue so critical to the future of our sport? Although IMBA tries to play the problem off by saying designated Wilderness only makes up 2.9 percent of public land in the lower 49 United States, they’re spinning it to make it seem like a non-issue. The reality is that 110 million acres of land are designated Wilderness – an area the size of California – most of it concentrated in the West, by far the most desirable region for low-impact, human-powered recreation. And the bigger problem is that there are always new Wilderness designations that will continue to shut out bicycle access to some of the most valued backcountry in America.

IMBA’s solution to this is to continue their “piecemeal” negotiation tactic, asking to redraw massive swaths of Wilderness to preserve a handful of miles in trail. While this is a workable last-ditch solution, I believe this is absolutely the wrong long-term strategy. IMBA needs to look at the heart of the matter here – with the current blanket ban on bikes in Wilderness in place, many mountain bikers are inherently at odds with Wilderness designation, making them involuntary anti-conservationists. And without reasonable access to Wilderness, mountain bike advocates are forever on the defensive.

Ridge Trail at the foot of Mount Timpanogos. Photo by John Shafer – www.photo-john.net

Ridge Trail at the foot of Mount Timpanogos (click to enlarge). Photo by John Shafer – www.photo-john.net

Mountain bikers want to preserve land just as much as hikers or equestrians, but not at the cost of their rightful access. The mountain bike community shouldn’t be at odds with the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club; we share many of the same ideals. Our true enemy is exploitation and pollution of land by private interests. And the only way to resolve this conflict is by reinstating case-by-case access to Wilderness so mountain bikers can be a vocal supporter of the conservation movement; an approach that IMBA refuses to get behind.

When asked why IMBA doesn’t support re-opening access to bikes in Wilderness, their reaction is always the same; it’s an extremely complicated matter that’s highly political.

“Amending the 1964 Wilderness Act is an unnecessary means to achieve our mission,” said Van Abel. “There are downstream negative and unintended consequences that make such an effort politically unviable. IMBA will not expend its hard-earned political capital on such a risky and unnecessary endeavor…”

But when pressed for details, IMBA doesn’t elaborate on the complications beyond stating that organizations like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club are far more powerful and well-funded, making it nearly impossible to gain Wilderness access for bikes. But has IMBA ever even tried? No. And they continue not to try.

It’s one thing not to try, but it’s a completely different matter when you don’t support colleagues who want to try. By now you’ve probably heard about the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), an organization working to regain case-by-case human-powered access to designated Wilderness with their Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act. At last week’s press conference, IMBA specifically stated they would not publicly support the efforts of the STC or Its bill.

Wastatch Crest Trail. Photo by James Adamson – dropmedia.tv

Wastatch Crest Trail (click to enlarge). Photo by James Adamson – dropmedia.tv

I would let this issue rest if mountain bikes were somehow detrimental to the environment or didn’t fit within the original intent of the Wilderness Act. But any reasonable person who reads the Wilderness Act of 1964 would likely conclude it isn’t so. The ban on bikes in Wilderness has nothing to do with science or anything rational whatsoever. It’s a pure and simple special interest-driven case of bigotry against a low-impact, human-powered user group. And the fact that IMBA continues to display an advocacy Stockholm syndrome towards the organizations that try and uphold the blanket ban on bikes is deeply troubling for our sport.

I believe the blanket ban on bikes in Wilderness is downright wrong and has absolutely no valid argument to rely on, as can clearly be seen in the rambling Wilderness Society press release filled with erroneous fear mongering. But you don’t need to be right when nobody challenges you. No matter how powerful the opponents to modifying the ban are, at some point the fight must be waged.

So what can we the public do? Well, for starters, if you are either an individual or IMBA chapter member, it’s time to start demanding the organization listen to the will of the people, after all, without IMBA chapters and members, there is no IMBA. This is an issue that will not go away, and with the growing conservation movement, will only become more prominent.

If you agree that continuing to outlaw bikes from all Wilderness is wrong, write IMBA President Mike Van Abel, requesting the organization either change its position or at least support the efforts of the STC. And if IMBA does not comply, suspend your membership or chapter status until they do. Despite their efforts to play off the importance of access to Wilderness, this is one of the most important advocacy issues our community will face over the next several decades.

It’s time the organization that claims to represent the voice of mountain bikers start practicing what it preaches. But only we as a collective voice of mountain bikers can force them to do it.

Kurt Gensheimer / The Angry Singlespeeder

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.

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  • Scotch Hennesy says:

    Anything listed as an “association” these days reeks of potential corruption and political red-tape. The key is for members to just withdraw their membership if they feel IMBA isn’t holding up to their end of the bargain. No funds = No IMBA…simple really, when you step back.

    • Mr. P says:

      And in turn = no local trail advocacy group (if it is an IMBA chapter).

      If you have a problem with IMBA, fine, but do not devalue your local advocacy group, as they work directly for you. Give them a direct donation of support instead of going through IMBA.

      • Mr. P says:

        My comment above is in response to Scotch Hennesy’s comments, not the article.

        Sorry, this comment format is unpredictable and sucks.

  • AC says:

    One more thing people can be doing – ask your bike shop and brands you purchase whether they support STC, and if not, why not. Support brands that support this effort (and boycott ebike manufacturers…but that’s another issue).

  • DWK says:

    I would hardly call this a no-brainer issue. There are lots of valid arguments for keeping bikes out of Wilderness areas – just because you disagree with them doesn’t make them invalid or “erroneous fear mongering”.

    There are lot of cyclists who are opposed to opening up Wilderness to more user groups, which includes opening Wilderness up to bikes. I include myself in that group. So framing this as an issue that all cyclists do, or should, agree with you is disingenuous. Why not just say it like it is – for selfish reasons you want to be able to bike in wilderness areas and you think anyone who disagrees with you should shut up and get out of your way.

    • MikeMac says:

      DWK, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of cyclists (at least those living in the west that have seen their access severely marginalized over the past three decades and see no end in sight to that trend) disagree with you.

      I don’t want access for me and my bike everywhere. But I also don’t want to be banned from more trails for nothing more than an emotional objection from the hiking lobby. Further, there are select past injustices (Boulder White Clouds and the re-route of the CO Trail among them) that deserve redress.

      This lone small concession (allowing local land managers to decide appropriate use) would transform existing mountain biking Wilderness opponents into ardent supporters. It’s a two-point swing, one that when realized will result in MORE Wilderness, not less.

    • duder says:

      What exactly are these “lots of valid arguments” DWK???

      Keep up the good work ASS. IMBA is a sad lot these days.

  • Another MTBer says:

    If you think Mike Van Abel is going take any action that isn’t based in self-preservation, you don’t know Mike Van Abel.

    IMBA’s actions regarding STC are the predictable result of a management style where employees who voice concerns are forced out of IMBA so often that it’s an inside joke. If you’ve ever met an IMBA employee who you thought really understood grassroots advocacy or took to heart the concerns of members, ask yourself if they are still at IMBA. Those who remain do the best they can knowing they could be next on the chopping block at any time.

    Maybe it’s time IMBA was led by someone who has a passion for mountain bike advocacy, respect its constituents, and doesn’t believe in strongarming staff, clubs, and members into agreement. Instead of writing letters to someone who has already heard and ignored those concerns, how about writing letters to IMBA’s Board asking if Mike Van Abel is the right person to be steering this ship?

  • Hmm says:

    I think criticizing individual members for not speaking up for what YOU believe in, which may or may not be what THEY believe in, is the wrong tactic. “Another MTBer” is right — if you have this big of an issue with the leadership and direction of IMBA, take it to IMBA’s board. Don’t beat up on the grassroots advocates doing most of the work to keep mountain biking alive and thriving in your backyard. I have been a mountain biker, volunteer and IMBA member for going on 7 years.

    I’ve also lost faith that our cycling media can look at this issue objectively when most of the journalists are coming at this with an agenda. This is not a zero-sum game. We need both organizations. IMBA is by no means perfect and has been stagnant for a while, I believe, but I don’t think this one issue discounts everything else the organization has done and is doing and is not worth its demise. Change is needed, but not death.

    This is not a zero sum game. There’s room for both STC and IMBA. They have totally different missions. Why can’t we accept that?

  • Steve says:

    If you want to go to the wilderness then walk. It’s not all about you and your desire to ride there, it’s about preserving an ecosystem for our children. Hooray for IMBA and their bigger picture view of this.
    I’ve been a mountain biker since 1982 and have seen trail closures galore. I try not to bemoan the injustice of it all and just go ride.
    Now if you want to work on getting the horses out of wilderness…….

  • MarkOnMTB says:

    I have this mountain bike, and I HAVE THE RIGHT TO TRAVEL UNMOLESTED ON PUBLIC LAND. I will pledge my respect to trails of historic value and not touch them with my MTB if it is not authorized.

    However, free people of America, once YOUR(lol) trail is built in our modern times in OUR PUBLIC SPACES, my bike and I are going to explore it, just as our ancestors explored. As I would have if I were on horseback during the frontier days, or on foot with a LARGE group of hikers today. I just don’t feel like taking the time to travel 30 miles by myself on foot, or having a horse leave obstacles behind for others to have their feet molested by. The horse is also too slow and more dangerous to have around people on a multi-use trails. I would also have to weight my bike and drag it on wet trails to do what a group of hikers or a single horse can do to a wet trail.

    The real problem with this issue of access, as most all issues of access in the United States, is about some group wanting to restrict another group of people from an event or place without looking at compromise. Which seems to be an anomalous problem the US has when comparing the US with other developed countries.

  • gregon2whls says:

    The largest problem is the crap that is also in these bills that are marked as wilderness protection. Which muddies up the conversation. For example most all of that wilderness area was defined as such to keep mineral rights from being distributed. Because we all know that is where the real money is. So the problem is how the wilderness bill defines use. I think the equipment users continue to develop for a greater outdoor experience will continue to evolve. The problem is that our Bills aren’t written to allow the evolution of exploration and wilderness use. So you can be right but so can IMBA in their stand. The bill should probably be amended or rewritten but the problem is everybody is scared to death of the consequences.

  • Patrick Day says:

    Thanks ASS, one of your best articles. I will stop funding IMBA and start funding STC. Perhaps if more people pulled their membership and support from IMBA and put it towards a group that’s really advocating towards their members best interest, they would listen.

  • Badger says:

    In my view, the writing was on the wall when a month or two again the former president of IMBA posted an article here invoking ‘climate change’ alarmist arguments to support their position (several times in fact). If it hadn’t already been painfully obvious, this laid bare how politicized this organization has become. I want to live in synergy with nature as much as the next guy, but invoking this alarmist political buzzword was going to far. They will get none of my money.

  • Mark says:

    As a mountain biker for twenty plus years, I agree that public lands are for all America to enjoy. The issue is if we don’t designate certain areas as Wilderness these area will open the door to negative consequences that will affect all user experiences. If we open select trails in the Wilderness areas for mountain biking other special interest groups will want their access also. ie. ATVs, 4wheelers, rockcrawlers, snowmobilers to name few, potentially ruining the area for all. It is a tough issue but we need protect some areas for future generations to enjoy — not just us.

  • Paul Lindsay says:

    It would seem that the IMBA has forgotten who it represents and believes it is part of the the Sierra Club. I have no interest in paying taxes to support massive tracts of land that can only be enjoyed hikers or equestrians. I’m afraid that the mountain biking community may need another group to represent them or face the loss of it’s best potential riding areas.

  • Elvis says:

    Many people are missing the point. The argument that allowing mountain biking in some wilderness areas would open the door to motorized vehicles is moot inasmuch as mountainbikes (any more than track bikes, road bikes, or unicycles) are not motorized!

    The intent of the wilderness act as I’ve understood it (correct me if I’m wrong) was to preserve the wilderness. But why? Not just as a Kantian imperative, or as some botanical museum for future scientists to study, but for future (and current) generations of citizens to use for recreation and enjoyment of the outdoors. So ask yourself, as more areas of the U.,S. get closed off to non-motorized, simple human use — bicycles in this case –who will be left to appreciate all that wilderness? What is the point of preserving it if only a handful of outdoor user groups have access? I do not want to see these lands built up with Starbucks or high rises, nor strip mined or overtaken by motorized contraptions. I bike and sometimes hike. They are not mutually exclusive. Which cuts both ways.

    Yes the status quo allows some of the more strident environmentalist groups, and some of the more unwilling to share hikers or horse riders, to stay happy. But mountain bikers are also a large outdoor user group. Why should we get less consideration?

    I have been personally turned off by much of what I see from the environmental movement. So much of it is elitist and exclusive and alienates me — and I am not the only one as this article indicates. Ask yourself if instead of some far off trail somewhere, the trail at issue was where your ride every week. The one you might want your son or daughter to ride one day. Or grandkids. Yes, they could hike, but why limit their ability to appreciate the outdoors? I started biking as a mountainbiker a as teen. I am now in my thirties and a roadie who is slowly becoming a roadie and a mtb’er again. The metamorphosis was forced upon me when my local trails were closed by a county government in a secret deal made by unelected gov’t employees. Only recently thanks to the work of local riders did the county finally quietly take the no bike signs down. National access or lack thereof may not be conducted in the same underhanded way but I say if you want people to support protecting nature you also have to be willing to let them use it.
    And please don’t say because a mountain bike has wheels it’d be opening access to atvs or half tracks. Again, bicycles are nonmotorized.

    I for one have ceased supporting any preservation moves — i vote no on every local open space initiative and ignore any environmental sounding “help our cause” emails. I would have a much different approach if I didn’t feel each and every one of these people was not only treating me, because i bicycle, as if i don’t count, but as if I am worthy of contempt because i ride.

    I guess the question is, whose land is it? Ours,and future generations. So, do you want them to ever be able to see it close up? Or from outside a fence? (and yes, I know if they conceding to abandoning their bikes they might be allowed to hike in, but that isn’t the point. Most bikes sold at shops are mtb’s. anything that hurts mountainbiking hurts cycling. And I am pretty sure cycling in all it’s forms contributes to a net benefit for nature — certainly for humanity. Or would you rather I drove to the store every day?

    Someone said something about IMBA seeing “the big picture”. I don;t think excluding any human powered user groups is seeing the big picture. Sure maybe the current approach will preserve more wilderness — government never seems to get smaller, after all, that probably includes its acerage. But you and I, as cyclists, will never see it.
    And I say nuts to that.

    If people want to screw us and our future over, they are welcome to try, but I will no longer be a beggar to my own demise or that of an experience I find meaningful.

  • Elvis says:

    Also, for what it’s worth, I have never been able to wrap my mind around the propensity some people have for wanting to tell others how to live their lives — I have enough trouble managing my own. I suspect many of the core agitators against cyclists are motivated more by self righteous know-it-all-ness than legit concerns for nature, even if they don’t know it or won’t admit it. On my bike, when I see a hiker, I don’t think “darn he’s in my way” — “I think, cool, another person is enjoying the outdoors!” Would that it was reciprocated, right?

  • Willie says:

    Please remove your shoes & belts, take your laptops out of the carrying case and proceed towards the body scanner.

  • James Scarlett-Lyon says:

    One point I’d like to add to this thread, and this is particularly in reference to Tim Krueger’s original response. My favorite kind of riding is all day epics deep into the back country. I have done this kind of riding all over the West. I would say that for the generation coming up that has grown up with mountain bikes the attitude toward wilderness access is somewhat modified. Many of this generation hike, backpack, mtn bike, ski and see little conflict between these different modes. I have run into a large number of younger backpackers deep in the wilderness, (not official Wilderness Areas mind you), who don’t seem the least bit bothered to find me out there on a bike. We chat, exchange experiences and more often than not they tell me the downhill coming up on the other side of some steep saddle push is going to be awesome. They do not apparently begrudge me my presence out there.

    Another point that I would make is, in many deep back country areas I frequent aside from some popular, high traffic areas, there are a lot of trails literally disappearing from lack of use and no regular upkeep. Large tracts of wild areas are getting very little use and a few bikes traversing those routes is a great way to help keep the trails alive.

    I am a big proponent of the “wilderness corridor” approach that some have suggested as a compromise where bikes can traverse a Wilderness Area but need to stay on certain trails. It might be a least a starting point.

  • S says:

    Many of the closures are absurd. For instance, the wilderness designation on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has been interpreted to mean no wheels at all…No strollers, no wheelbarrows, and no canoe carriers for portages. Yet, there are roads in portions of this wilderness, still used daily, but only for official use.


  • Tom says:

    IMBA’s approach has always been go along, get along. I used to support that.

    But after the recent trail grabs in MT and ID — of trails that had been legally ridden by mtbs for decades — I said enough.

    I’ll keep supporting IMBA a bit, but STC now has my heart and my wallet!

  • Elvis says:

    I have to agree with James Scarlett-Lyon, when I encounter hikers they never have a problem with me. I think the anti-bike animosity comes from certain quarters, beyond the regular joe you might meet on the trail.

    That said, if IMBA refuses to challenge default prohibition they aren’t really doing anything to safeguard mountain biking.

    and to all those people who say wilderness preservation is more important than bike access: Who said it has to be either or? By making that false choice you are buying into what the anti-bike folks want. They’ll just keep taking from you and you’ll let them. If that’s your choice fine but don’t pretend to speak for all riders nor that your view is the only rational one on the issue. I find that many times those who claim to see “the big picture” can’t see the forest for, ahem, the trees (or trail).

    If the goal is to preserve the wilderness for people to enjoy, you run the risk of using circular logic unless at some point you actually let them enjoy it and have access to it!

    Given that the original wilderness act didn’t even ban bikes I find it hard to believe we are even having this debate. It illustrates why it is all the more important that these decisions be made above-board, with citizen input, and no monkey business behind the scenes.

  • Elvis says:

    Ultimately that is the issue. The wilderness act was passed by elected representatives of congress who we at least have some (alleged) control over via elections. The anti-bike interpretation was made by bureaucracy — gov’t employees who we the citizens have no say with.

    Perhaps more than IMBA’s stance one way or the other, the controversy over bikes in the wilderness is an indication of the perils of allowing laws to be essentially made or modified by people at a level of government without accountability, oversight, or input from the people they would regulate.

    But I fear if we cannot solve the IMBA issue, reforming the method of government by fiat that colors so many land use and other issues is not something we will soon resolve.

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