(Hopefully Not) Coming to a School Near You: Mountain Bike Racing

Mike Vandeman, Ph.D.


Mountain bikers and the mountain bike industry know that the future of their sport depends on recruiting young people into it. Consequently, they are actively promoting the creation of mountain bike racing teams in the nation's high schools. They will ask to use school facilities, the school's name, and the school's teachers as coaches. They will claim, using questionable logic, that mountain biking is fun, healthful, socially responsible, and environmentally beneficial. But don't be fooled! If you do your own investigation, as I have, you will find that exactly the opposite is true.


Of all the many high school sports, mountain bike racing is the only one that is actually illegal! For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the league managers had to go 50 to 100 miles away to find a legal place to race. Every park in the Bay Area has a speed limit (generally 15 MPH), and won't allow mountain bike racing. No land manager within 50 miles is willing to subject the lands that s/he is responsible for to such abuse. That is a good indication that mountain biking - especially mountain bike racing – is not environmentally benign.


A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it's not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts. I found that of the seven studies they cited, all were written by mountain bikers, and in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions. In short, mountain biking, partly because mountain bikers travel several times as far as hikers, causes several times as much erosion, damage to plants, and harm to animals (e.g. driving them away from the resources that they need) as hikers.


Introducing children to mountain biking is criminal. Mountain biking, besides being expensive and very environmentally destructive, is extremely dangerous. Recently a 12-year-old girl died during her very first mountain biking lesson! Another became quadriplegic at 13! Serious accidents and even deaths are commonplace. In September, 2000, a mountain bike race was held in a regional park in the San Francisco Bay area. One rider ended up brain damaged. Since then, mountain bike racing has never been allowed. Truth be told, mountain bikers want to introduce kids to mountain biking because they want more people to help them lobby to open our natural areas to mountain biking and children are too naive to understand and object to this activity. Over the last decade I have collected almost 600 reports of serious accidents and deaths caused by mountain biking.

Isn't one of the purposes of school creating good citizens? Although the mountain bike teams claim not to support illegal mountain biking or illegal trail-building, their members (and, in some cases, even the coaches!) have often been caught doing just that. Their excuse is that there aren't enough legal trails close by….


Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it's not!). What's good about that?

If your students want to mountain bike, I suggest that you let them do it on their own time. Don't lend this environmentally destructive activity legitimacy by sponsoring it.