Tips On Starting A Mountain Bike Advocacy Group


If you’re lucky, you live in an area where you have unfettered access to a wide range of trails and the people — usually volunteers — who keep these trails running have the support of the local mountain biking community. Since this situation is an ideal one and all too many towns and cities don’t recognize the benefits of having such great recreational cycling spots inside their boundaries, a disorganized mountain biking community could find itself without a place to ride when an access or liability issue comes up.

In this article, I’m going to describe some of the initial steps taken by the founding members of our local mountain biking organization — the Fraser Valley Mountain Biker’s Association — when we were first getting started. While the FVMBA isn’t perfect, in only a few years, the group has gone from an idea to a recognized representative for area mountain bikers. It’s my hope that some of you can learn from our good ideas (and our bad ones) and work towards creating something that is a lasting legacy for cyclists in your area.

Keep in mind that the land I write about it in this article is located in Canada, and our ability to access land for recreational purposes is a little different from places in other parts of the world.

Some background: A brief history of the FVMBA

The FVMBA was born after a number of local cyclists saw one of their favourite riding spots receive serious scrutiny from the area’s land manager. Without a formal advocacy organization to represent the cycling community, these people were faced with the possibility of losing something that they’d worked hard to put in place and something that provided economic and social benefits for the community at large.

Fortunately, a few members of this group were well connected within the area’s larger biking community and, with the help of a few popular mountain bike websites, the FVMBA came into being late in 2003. The initial membership number was relatively small — about 70 members signed on for the first year at an annual rate of $20 — but this was enough to get the ball rolling. At its first Annual General Meeting, FVMBA members elected an executive board that would represent them for the coming year.

Get organized: enlist dedicated people and have a workable plan

Everyone involved in the FVMBA agreed on one thing: area mountain bikers needed a group to represent their interests whenever something popped up that threatened public access to the trails. Of course, getting an organization like this established is a little more involved than simply selecting volunteers and sending them out into the community.

During the FVMBA’s first year, a number of its volunteers disappeared into the woodwork and, since there was no formal plan for dealing with simple administrative tasks (let alone more complicated ones), sometimes it seemed like the group was floundering in one spot. Because of this, the executive meetings for the first year lacked the focus that was necessary to really get things done and the enthusiasm of many executive members waned during the course of that year.

In 2004, a new executive was elected and we — I was now a representative for my area — spent a good deal of time coming up with protocols and formal guidelines for things like the group’s finances, sponsorship guidelines, and a number of other items that would help future executive members make their decisions. We also turned our attention to growing our membership base and set some target numbers for the coming year.

To sum up, if you’re interested in starting a mountain bikers’ advocacy organization make sure that you sign up people who won’t abandon the cause after the spotlight turns away — you need dedicated volunteers — and that you have a workable plan with guidelines that move the organization forward (rather than leaving it in disarray).

Make sure you’re legit: register with governing authorities

Getting organized is only the first step in gaining legitimacy with the various stakeholders involved in land management and land access. One of the first things that the directors on the FVMBA executive did was to register the group as a non-profit society with the appropriate governmental department.

In addition to showing the other area stakeholders that your group is dedicated to its cause and is willing to take the steps necessary to be considered a legal entity, becoming an ‘official’ organization may afford your society with status that isn’t available to individuals, something that gives your group teeth in the face of adversity. Be sure to check your local laws and bylaws and take the necessary steps to keep things above board.

Get affiliated: ally with experienced cycling groups

In that ideal world I mentioned above, a single small group of mountain bikers could persuade other people — private developers, governmental organizations, leaseholders — that cycling is an activity that is useful not only to cyclists, but to the community that gains the economic benefits from the money spent by bikers at local shops, restaurants, and other businesses.

Since that ideal world doesn’t exist, it’s always a good idea to expand your group’s network of allies. Don’t be afraid to approach your local bike shop and ask for their support — often, the well-being of these shops is dependent on free access to area biking trails so it’s in their best interest to sign on with a focused, legitimate organization. Also, get in contact with other cycling groups that are based nearby because you’ll find that they often have concerns and experiences that are similar to yours.

Finally, don’t be content to stay local. Provincial (or state-wide), national, and international organizations like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) have a huge membership base, plenty of resources, and tonnes of experience that can be extremely useful when your little organization is dealing with government representatives and other public interest groups.

Spread the word: talk about your organization

Since no one will know about your group if no one talks about it, make sure you do a couple of things to spread the word. Be sure to talk about your group with every local biker who will listen; word of mouth is an extremely persuasive form of publicity, especially when it’s coming from people who are known within the community for their contributions.

Similarly, the Internet is a powerful tool that isn’t used in the way it should be. While it’s always been easy to throw together a website using a WYSIWYG website editor, the results are often disgraceful. I’d recommend that you enlist the help of someone who has a clue about websites and website design and have them put something together for you. If your group is limited by its budget, there are a number of free solutions (like WordPress or Blogger) that make it easy to get a decent-looking website up and running in a short amount of time.

Another way to publicize your organization is to write up a press release that introduces your group and send it out to any media outlets who might publish it. These can be newspapers, newsletters, popular websites, and any other outfit that can generate ‘buzz’ about your cause. Make sure your release is well written, concise, and sounds professional — enlist the help of people who can write if you’re unsure of your abilities.

Be persistent: results won’t pour in overnight

It’s important to realize that you probably won’t immediately get the results that you’re looking for. However, much like a thorough training regimen, with persistence you’ll start to notice little improvements, and, over time, these ‘little’ improvements add up into significant accomplishments.

Also understand that you won’t always win your battles and it’s sometimes better to walk away from a lost cause to refocus your group’s energy on an issue that it stands a better chance of winning. Again, this is where dedicated and articulate directors can provide solid guidance for your group’s members, something that will make your group stronger in the long run.

Summary

This article isn’t a comprehensive set of guidelines for setting up a mountain biking advocacy organization. However, I do hope that the things I wrote about point you in a direction that makes it easier to get your organization off the ground.

In only a few years, the FVMBA has gone from an idea floating around in somebody’s mind and turned into an organization that is negotiating with land holders about trail access and governmental bodies over trail stewardship agreements, so the thigns I explained do work. It’s just a question of getting your name out there, staying motivated and organized, and being persistent when working towards your goals.

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