By Wendy Booher
MADRID (BRAIN) — The International Mountain Bicycling Association Europe welcomed 11 new nation members to its ranks on March 29 at the first official General Assembly since its creation in 2012. The General Assembly was the first order of business at IMBA Europe's third annual summit, which drew 52 participants from 18 countries to bring their distinct perspectives to bear on the future of mountain biking in Europe.
Denmark, Spain, France, Slovenia, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Slovakia and the United Kingdom joined Norway and the Netherlands to strengthen IMBA Europe's objective to get more people on mountain bikes. Despite its wording, the objective is far from simple and involves collaborating with various governments and influential lobbies, recruiting corporate support and new members, and improving brand awareness in the marketplace.
"We especially have to convince the European bicycle industry that advocacy has economic value," said Mark Torsius, director of IMBA Europe. "I think there's a tight connection between market position and research and monitoring; we have to show that we are relevant to the industry."
The increased membership is not without growing pains, as opinions about e-bike use on mountain bike trails collided. Heiko Mittelstädt of the Deutsche Initiative Mountain Bike cited Germany's specific law regarding pedal-assisted electric bikes, which places pedelecs in the same category as bicycles, subject to the same trail rules as non-pedelecs. For Mittelstädt this was a benefit since a slower rider atop an electric mountain bike wouldn't tether him to a reduced speed and together they could enjoy the same trails. This perspective ran counter to several members, who are keeping close watch on the e-bike trend.
"I see a future for electric bikes when it comes to leisure cycling on paved roads," said Beppe Salerno, Italy's IMBA representative. "Of course there are bike parks where e-bikes could be considered when people aren't fit enough to climb, but there are trails without a lot of elevation gain, so I don't see the need for them; it could get out of hand. We are monitoring the situation, but I don't think that e-bikes are mountain bikes at all."
Mike Van Abel, president and executive director of IMBA U.S. as well as treasurer of IMBA Europe until his three-year term is up in 2015, has witnessed this conversation before and contributed IMBA U.S.'s stance on e-bikes to the debate.
"Our position is based on a really important framework for land management that allows non-motorized use of natural resources and trails," Van Abel said. "Motorized use has great impact, there's just no getting around that. The spirit of the sport of mountain biking — the essence of it — is human-powered. It's pedaling under your own power and the challenge that comes with that. We want mountain biking to be equated with human-powered activity with no power-assist at all."
Following the General Assembly, the doors were opened to the public to join the conversation and participate in presentations and breakout sessions on diverse topics including how to solicit European Union grants for cycling; plans for long-distance European mountain bike routes; best practices on lobbying and campaigning for trail access; how to engage women and local retailers; and the need for certified mountain bike guides.
In his presentation "MTB Guiding Programs: From Swiss Thoroughness Toward EU Guidelines?" Claude Balsiger, head of the Swiss MTB guide program, demonstrated the value and benefit to federally certified mountain bike guides in his native Switzerland. Currently there is no recognized certification for Swiss mountain bike guides, which poses a threat to tourism because of low levels of professionalism and poor risk management in the event of injury or even death to tourists. Balsiger argued the merits of mountain bike guide certification based on a need for a nationwide quality standard, legal responsibility, and because clients are willing to pay for professional guide services.
"There are several target markets. Of course it's beginners for whom you can make the entry into mountain biking much easier — women as well, but the people who mostly use guides are between 30 and 50 years old," Balsiger said. "They are very sporty and want to experience something they couldn't do on their own and, of course, they have the money to do it."
Summit participants got to exercise their networking powers a couple times throughout the weekend, either through guided mountain bike rides on bikes provided by Orbea in the nearby Sierra de Guadarrama National Park or later at a Basque-style barbecue, complete with Bizkaiko Txakolina wine and grilled lamb, also hosted by Orbea.