Over the past few years, mountain biking has been the main way my family spend our free time. We love the fresh air, the views and being outside in nature; my husband finds it great stress relief; my 13 year old daughter finds it empowering and my 11 year old son likes the buzz of air time and going downhill fast.
The sport has so many benefits that I’m sure the world would be a better place if everyone rode an off road bike on a regular basis. Scotland agrees. Its new six year strategy for mountain biking seeks to embed the sport into the country’s lifestyle and culture, using it to boost the economy – through tourism and innovation – to improve mental and physical health through grassroots participation; support its elite riders to get podiums and generally create national pride through elite success and world class trails. Another aim, which is outlined in the strategy as being intangible, but just as important, is “simply making people happier.”
Mountain biking is already big business in Scotland, contributing £105m of Gross Value Add (GVA) to the economy in 2015. With the right stewardship, it is estimated it could be worth £158m (GVA) by 2025. The global market for bike products is expected to be $65bn by 2025, with the e-bike market alone having the potential to be worth $25bn.
These figures have caught the attention of the Scottish government, which is backing the strategy and providing funding for the next three years for further development of the sport and to fund the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland, an innovation project hosted by Edinburgh Napier University, as well as Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), which is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the strategy.
Cabinet secretary for culture, tourism and external affairs Fiona Hyslop says: “Mountain biking is a key pillar of the adventure tourism market and here in Scotland we’re in a unique position. We have purpose-built and natural trails available, free of charge, through our land access legislation and we have the well-established Mountain Biking Consortium, which brings together members of the industry and the public sector who have been responsible for the development of this strategy.”
Tourism, participation, podiums
The strategy has three main aims. One is to boost the economic contribution of mountain biking: increasing visits to the Scottish outdoors on a mountain bike by 33 per cent to two million and to increase mountain biking’s annual total economic GVA contribution to £158m by 2025. Secondly, there’s a target to create a world champion or series winner in every mountain bike discipline and thirdly, to boost participation at grassroots level.
Graeme McLean, head of Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, says the aim is to do more than simply offer the best riding, but for Scotland to be recognised as the leader of European mountain biking across the board, through innovative product development, tourism, grassroots participation, and winning podiums at elite level.
The latest strategy is the third one in nine years. The first was instigated by the Forestry Commission Scotland – which had created many of the trails – in 2010, and brought together all the different stakeholders to work together. The second, in 2016, built on this foundation, but the 2019 strategy is by far the most specific and ambitious.
“We know that Scotland is on people’s radar internationally and we now need to look at how we can join it all up for our visitors and continue to create a world class trail network,” says McLean. “This is what some of the European ski resorts are doing well.”
McLean says there are five main growth areas anticipated in mountain biking over the next six years: creating a destination bike park experience, as well as extending the opportunities for family holidays, enduro riding, e-bike trails and adventure tourism, such as bikepacking and gravel riding.
Destinations have been segmented for strategic development. The Tweed Valley and Fort William are the premier destinations, and already enjoy a high profile, but this will be further built on. The Tweed Valley, which is only 45 minutes from Edinburgh airport, has been cited as the location for the new bike park, as well as for an extended innovation centre, which supports businesses involved in cycling (see The mountain bike centre of Scotland, p72).
Fort William already has a strong reputation on the UCI World Cup downhill circuit: in 2017 this attracted 23,000 spectators, generating £3.5m for the local economy. In 2023, the town will host the UCI World Champs, with 13 cycling world championships in two weeks, which will be a massive showcase, but will also be a driver for change.
Priority destinations, in which DMBinS will work with local partners to get investment in trails, include Dumfries & Galloway, Perthshire, the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands. While Glasgow and Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park and Aberdeenshire have been identified as emerging destinations. “With this framework in place, the challenge is to build Scotland’s profile generally and awareness of our key destinations specifically,” says McLean.
There are a number of urban areas which are less likely to benefit from tourism, but could see investment in facilities to boost grass roots participation. McLean explains that £5.5m has already been invested in trails near urban areas, which has really helped boost grassroots participation.
“Nothing makes me happier than when I go to a city park and see kids with tracky bottoms and bikes from Halfords getting into the sport on pump tracks and making it their place,” he says. “This extends the sport away from the traditional base and brings in different demographics, who will be our future customers.”
While building pump tracks and urban trails boosts participation, McLean says there is still more work to be done to drive participation, and engage children who don’t have the equipment, through offering coaching programmes, with access to well maintained bikes and helmets.
This is all part of the aim to get mountain biking firmly embedded into the culture and lifestyle of Scotland, so that it’s seen as accessible rather than a niche sport, and can be widely used to support mental and physical wellbeing.
To get a UCI World Champion or series winner in every category is setting the bar high, but for a small country, Scotland has already made a large impact on the world mountain bike scene, with a number of high performing elite athletes. McLean says that thanks to the work and investment from Scottish Cycling to create a pathway, there is a great pipeline of youth riders coming up the ranks, particularly in cross country, which receives more funding as it is a Commonwealth and Olympic discipline.
Going forward this will continue, with Scottish Cycling also launching a four year strategy, Developing a Nation of Cyclists, which looks at broadening opportunities to participate, develop, compete and succeed. The organisation is particularly looking to bring more female and youth participants into the sport, by incentivising MTB leaders and coaches, providing accessible to places to ride and supporting the development of purpose-built facilities.
“There is definitely an energy around mountain biking in Scotland now,” says McLean. “DMBinS is helping to feed the scene, but much of the activity has been driven by community and entrepreneurs. From our point of view, it’s great to have acceptance within Scottish government and other national agencies, so that everyone can work together rather than in silos. The funding from government, Scottish Cycling and sportscotland is giving us momentum, but this will not be secure forever, so the next stage will be making the support for Scottish mountain biking sustainable.”