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Dig In: Sport Vs. Activity: Does MTBing Face an Image Challenge?

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a webinar titled "Why Women are Essential to the Future of Bicycling" presented by the League of American Bicyclists. It centered around findings from a recent participation survey that the D.C.-based organization partnered on. One of the conclusions that stuck out to me was this: "The bike industry projects cycling as a 'sport,' but women mostly see it as an 'activity.'" They were insinuating that this disconnect it a big problem when it comes to luring new people to cycling.

I’m going to dust off my Miriam Webster college dictionary and start with some basic definitions, just for jollies:

  • SPORT (noun): a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other; a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment.
  • ACTIVITY (noun): something that is done as work or for a particular purpose; something that is done for pleasure and that usually involves a group of people; a form of organized, supervised, often extracurricular recreation

Those actually aren’t all that different. But semantics based on personal perceptions are relevant, and we at IMBA often avoid calling mountain biking a "sport," preferring to use “activity” and "experience" and "pursuit" when describing our mission and advocacy work. I will hazard a guess that what the survey and its respondents meant was that cycling is often portrayed as competitive, hardcore, exclusive and intensive; whereas many women perhaps see it as social, healthy, fun and casual.

The question that came to my mind about all of this is: Does mountain biking have an image challenge?

I don’t want to say image "problem," because I’m not wanting to imply that what the cycling media portrays is "wrong" in any way. I appreciate and salivate over the aspirational stories of expensive, far-flung travel to ride mountain bikes in exotic places, and the Pinkbike photo epics of internationally-acclaimed enduro races, neither of which I’ll ever achieve participation in. I like the gritty ethos of Dirt Rag: dig, swear, drink beer, play bikes like a little kid and never leave your friends behind; and the often-pedantic, sometimes-aloof attitude of Bike magazine, its pages filled with truly exceptional adventures, people and photography.

No, I don’t think any of that is wrong. Just because you can’t do exactly what you see on those glossy pages or on your computer screen doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired or be a part. But it can be hard for those of us in the industry to step back, because so much of our identities are wrapped up in mountain biking. It’s equal parts passion and livelihood. So sometimes we forget that a lot of mountain bikers do other things, have other interests, don’t have time to ride every day (actually, I definitely don’t…) and might not have their entire sense of self wrapped around those two, knobby tires.

But there's inspiration for the existing rider, then there's invitation for the aspiring rider, and the bulk of stories and advertisements still feature essentially the same thing. Are they at all inviting to anyone other than the most committed, culturally assimilated rider?

What are you not seeing that you wish you saw? What stories aren’t being told? Can you see yourself in the current cycling media?

When I think about this issue, I often turn to the magazine Runner’s World, which has an even split between the genders in its readership (and, I've heard, possibly more women than men). Purists often scoff at the rag because it seems like every other issue is the same thing while serious runners protest that it’s too basic, but dig through the pages and you’ll notice a heavy focus on inspirational stories of the everyday man and woman whose lives have been changed by running, rather than focusing primarily on professionals (most of which are unknown to all but the most dedicated, serious runners).

The average person who wants to enter a running race to get healthy, tackle a personal challenge or better themselves is wholly celebrated. And I don’t mean "average" as someone who spent lots of time and money to travel to a beautiful destination for a running adventure and brings back stunning photos and an adroit narrative. I mean Jane Doe, 45, from Midwest Town, USA, who woke up one morning not wanting to be overweight and fatigued anymore, so she started run-walking the half-mile around her block until she could enter a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon, and who couldn’t be happier with her new life.

I’ve heard and read several stories now of women who took up mountain biking on a whim and had their lives changed by it; (here's one in the LA Times; here's another on the League of American Bicyclists blog). Whether they were going through a divorce or a job loss or just a natural bout of low self-esteem, they ventured into riding bikes on trails and it gave them a new sense of confidence, a new and exciting experience, and a new identity. But I’ve only found those stories on small blogs or local newspaper websites. Those stories don’t make the magazines. Those people don’t become the lauded superstars of the industry.

So, what do you think? Does it matter to you that so few women are portrayed, or that so few "real" people/women are featured in mountain bike media, marketing and whanot? Do we need to "sell" mountain biking differently to expand its audience? Does it matter at all?

— Katherine Fuller

+ Comment On This Post


Yes, it matters

I am passionate about getting people off the couch and into the great outdoors, especially women and children. Most people I've met who know nothing about mountain biking except what they see in pictures think it is dangerous to do and think it would be dangerous to meet a biker on a trail. This is especially disturbing when I talk to someone behind a desk about why their trail isn't open to mountain biking. This is also especially true when I talk to women and mention I do mountain biking. Maybe people doing stunts on outrageous rocks sells bikes and gear to young men, but it definately does not invite most of the general public into off road riding. Advertisers have to do what they have to do, but advocy groups should have a wider perspective. I'd like to see pictures of families picknicking beside a beautiful wilderness stream with bikes and a nice smooth trail in the background. The greatest thing to my mind about mountain biking is getting away from cars, noise and busyness and deep into the quiet beauty of the wilderness, burning calories, building mucles and being with people I love. OK, rolling down a flowing trail with the wind on my face and the trees flashing by is fun too.