What is mountain biking worth?

Words: Tom Stuessy, Executive Director – Vermont Mountain Bike Association
Photos: Ryan Thibault, unless noted

Ask anyone to describe riding in Vermont and you’ll immediately see a smile and what appears to be a small daydream of the person’s last adventure. When you get their attention again, you typically hear about the camaraderie, groups they ride with, epic rides, sweet trails or a vibrant chapter event they recently attended. Mountain biking is worth a great deal to us in Vermont. After rides we flock to our favorite watering holes and shops all season long… and the tourists are following us.

A few weeks ago, I carved out the time to ride in Stowe. When I pulled into the overflowing parking area at the base of Cady Hill Forest, out of state license plates out numbered Vermont plates by 2 to 1. Breathe easy… this is a good thing. It means our VMBA/chapter membership bases grow, and our shops, pubs, hotels, restaurants and gas stations are all realizing the benefits of riding in Vermont.

As more riders arrive, it is incumbent on Vermont residents to unite and collectively send a clear message to each other and those visiting: “If you ride it – you support it.” There are a variety of ways to accomplish our goal. The best way is a smile, say hello and be friendly. There’s no harm in asking a fellow rider which VMBA chapter they’re from or highlighting how hard “our chapter worked on these trails” (don’t forget to smile). If they’re not affiliated anywhere, introduce yourself and make a friend.

Given how popular riding in Vermont has become, obtaining the level of support mountain biking requires means chapters, VMBA, and individual riders are encouraging each other and visitors to spend 1% of their annual riding budget on membership and 1 day a season participating in a trail day. Unlike ski areas, VMBA and chapters rely on riders independently recognizing their role in supporting trail construction and maintenance. It’s simple, the worth of riding in Vermont is best illustrated by our collective willingness to invest in keeping it healthy.

A recent UVM study concluded that there are 49,000 people mountain biking in Vermont each year. Let’s say only 25% (12,250) of this number represents regularly active riders. Chapter and VMBA membership totals less than 3000 riders…. Do you know one of those 9,250 riders? Regardless of how you cut the numbers, a fraction of our rider base is paying for 100% of the bill. 12,000+ riders on trails supported by 3000 riders is not sustainable. I checked in with trail builder Brooke Scatchard who confirmed trail costs between $5-6 a foot to build; it’s expensive. This doesn’t even touch ongoing maintenance or response to increases in major weather events.

There is a major confluence of significant forces taking shape in Vermont. It’s not bad news and there is no doom and gloom warning scenario. Instead, opportunity will fill our path going forward. Better trails, bigger events, growing member benefits, and expanding access are all within our grasp. The best part – these sweet outcomes are almost exclusively up to our ability to unite as a riding community. If we all contribute – we all get more. It’s that simple. The danger is that we can steal this progress from ourselves just as easily. Determining the worth of mountain biking in Vermont takes on two distinct complexions. One is how we support its value as a riding community. The other is the extent to which we can measure dollars.

So what about the money… what is it all worth to Vermont? VMBA has embarked on identifying the dollar value describing our collective influence on Vermont’s economy. Here’s a snap shot of the pilot data and a description of our plans going forward. At this year’s festival a survey was collected from 105 riders – thank you if you filled one out:

  • 45% of the respondents traveled more than 150 miles to attend the fest
  • 44% of participants were female
  • Only 35% of the fest participants were from Vermont
  • 76% of respondents paid for lodging
  • 96% of respondents indicated they travel to Vermont to ride 5 or more times a year

This is some very telling data. When combined with day rate area ticket sales, our numbers are in the millions annually if lodging, gas, food and shop visits are incorporated. In order to achieve empirical numbers to support this assumption, VMBA has broadened its research scope. Trail counters have been placed in strategic locations this fall. In only three weeks of counting, our numbers are in the thousands of rider days (a chunk of these are Vermonters in weekday PM rides…). Ideally this fall’s pilot study will lead to an opportunity to further expand the study into multiple areas in 2014. This research will profoundly enhance chapters’ grant proposals and further inform our relationship with public land managers.

VMBA is growing in many important ways. Chapters are more refined today than ever before, which has led to better trails, events, and member benefits. The state and federal representatives clearly recognize the value of riding and are excited to work with a strong partner supported by a proactive user base that understands long range value. Riding is great here and it’s only going to get better.

If you ride it – you support it. www.vmba.org/membership

Tom Stuessy
Executive Director

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