Key takeaways from the IMBA Summit 2023 – Valposchiavo

10 June 2023

Key takeaways from the IMBA Summit 2023 – Valposchiavo

The main theme of the IMBA Europe Summit “Off the beaten track” was about rethinking our relationships with nature and how we use the word ‘sustainability’ in everything we do. From the trails to tourist destinations and rural development, guest speakers and attendees reflected upon the level of use that an area can receive without suffering negative impacts to its environmental resources or the visitor experience. Valposchiavo, the hosting town of the Summit was an example of a small destination working towards a sustainable solution and taking locally produced / sourced to the next level with the 100% Valposchiavo project. From menu’s in town that feature local specialities with dishes that are entirely made from ingredients the valley produces to ‘trail recycling’ where heritage trails are being optimized for mountain biking and taking your bike on the train or bus instead of using cars.

The theme of sustainable tourism was introduced with a personal message and presentation by Prof. Alessandra Priante of the UNWTO, World Tourism Organization. Prof. Priante addressed the latest World Tourism Barometer, the Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism and tourism potential for mountain ecosystems and communities.


 “Off the beaten track” is also about challenging the preconceived ideas of what mountain biking is and for whom. Invited guest speakers offered insights into new trends in off-road cycling, user demands, and the shifting identity of the ‘mountain biker’.  The MTB community can influence growth and participation through changing the perceived image of the sport through more thoughtful, targeted marketing to underrepresented groups, as well as adopting more inclusive policies in industry recruitment.

In reflection of the presentations from our guest speakers, the staff of IMBA Europe put pen to paper and gathered thoughts on the many lessons learned. Here are our top takeaways from the Summit 23’.

1. Rethinking mountain biking advocacy as activism

Vanessa Rueber from Patagonia gave a powerful presentation on how mountain biking can learn how to be better activists using inspiration from other outdoor sports. “You’ve (mountain bikers) got to be more active. You need to find the stories where individuals, communities are causing a positive impact and share those stories. When you learn to love sport and the outdoors, you naturally become an advocate for those spaces”. Equity in responsible access for all kinds of user groups, including MTB, seems to be an important precondition. People are not likely to protect what they can’t perceive.

2. Industry can help to change the narrative on MTB

The industry can create a more inclusive, diverse, and positive environment for all riders and attract a broader audience to the sport through several actions.

  • Showcase Positive Community Impact: Highlight the positive impact that mountain biking can have on local communities. Support Beginner-Friendly Initiatives, but also focus on showcasing the intermediate level, the everyday rider, which is most of the MTB audience but currently somewhat missing in the media landscape
  • Educate and Raise Awareness: Provide educational resources and campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of mountain biking, dispel misconceptions, and address concerns related to safety and environmental impact, particularly in the case of eMTB.
  • Collaborate with Advocacy Groups: Partner with advocacy groups and organizations that promote MTB, sustainable trail development, and inclusivity. By working together, the industry can support initiatives that aim to improve access, build diverse and inclusive communities, and promote responsible riding practices.
  • Highlight Environmental Stewardship: Emphasize the industry’s commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability. Showcase efforts to protect and preserve natural spaces, promote responsible riding practices, and support trail maintenance and conservation initiative.

3. Embracing the many subcultures of MTB

By embracing inclusivity and diversity in mountain biking, the sport can become more enriching, vibrant, and representative of the broader community. Through acknowledging and embracing the many subcultures or idioculture within the sport (Freestyle, Downhill, XCO, Enduro etc) it allows for a wider range of perspectives, experiences, and talents to be shared, creating a stronger and more inclusive mountain biking culture for everyone to enjoy. If we want to portray a more inclusive and diverse sport to newcomers, the MTB community needs to promote and share ALL stories and experiences from the many subcultures that exist. Or as Komoot explained how they involved more women in cycling, it’s less about performance and more about experience, it’s less about competing and more about shared adventures, it’s less about physical exercise and more about mental health, it’s not just about popular sights, it’s about adventures just around the corner.  

4.eMTB on the rise

Mountain biking has and continues to experience significant growth and increased popularity in recent years. Keynote speaker April Marschke, Lead of the turbo category at Specialized bikes shared the most current market overview which showed that eMTB sales have surpassed classic (pedal) MTB bike sales in recent years. E-MTB’s bring the largest number of new riders to the sport while 24% of e-MTB riders cycle less than 2 years.

5.MTB Tourism

Cycling tourism and with that, mountain bike tourism is on the rise and can benefit local communities and rural development as explained by the UNWTO. Tourism’s potential for mountain ecosystems and communities can be linked to supporting local livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and fostering cultural preservation. 

The presentations about Bellwald, Alvdal and Aberdeenshire clearly showed that mountain biking can contribute to regional revitalization and support the transition to more sustainable, and eventually, nett zero industry. Tourism development is more and more connected to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and although there’s a clear challenge to cut tourism emissions by 50% in 2030, cycling tourism and better usage of public transportation are considered as key opportunities to reach this goal. It’s clear that Europe still needs to catch up in terms of taking bikes on trains, with Valposchiavo and Graubunden as the positive example where trains and buses cater for the needs of cyclists to bring their bikes along with them. 

As most good practices showed, MTB tourism isn’t just about getting more visitors, it’s about creating better places to live, community health and local business growth. In order to build strong, resilient (MTB) communities, there are three important types of amenities needed: natural, rural character and culture & heritage

6. Trail sustainability reflections 

Trail sustainability discussions revolved around various academic and holistic approaches and ranged from very practical insights from Warburton MTB destination about mitigating impacts on trees, waterways and noise, towards the designation of trail corridors to be able to mee rider expectations but with proper planning principles to preserve sensitive flora and fauna. 

Topics like training, education and certification were presented by the DIRTT project and Trail Foundation and showed this is one of the ways to work towards quality management in this young sector. The sector should be self regulating and in the forefront of developing guidelines instead of waiting until governmental bodies start imposing technical standards for trail development. 

Edinburgh Napier University held a strong pledge for a more holistic approach of sustainability, or better said, regenerative sustainability. Adopt a systems approach which considers the overall health of the wider trail system, local economy and opportunities for equity. 

7.Community & Advocacy

Although a turning point in mountain bike advocacy is slowly emerging – we’ve gone from rogue to mainstream over 30 years as mentioned during IMBA’s advocacy workshop – it’s time to prove critics that we have earned this position of acceptance in society by positive actions and responsible behaviour. Local trail associations like North n Line in Lecco and MTB Freiburg showed both their successes and growing pains. Communities that still face many challenges are the ones in metropolitan areas where natural spaces are scarce and contested between various user groups combined with ambitious nature conservation and restoration objectives. 

A data driven approach is needed to understand the real issues instead of perceived ones. How many people use recreational trails versus how much infrastructure is accessible for this group? 13 legal trails varying in length from 0.5 km to 7.5 km combined with forest roads wider than 2 metres might not be the right offer for a city with more than 500.000 residents. Communication and stakeholder involvement is key, as much as to communicate with empathy. The role of local trail associations is to offer solutions, they can’t be held responsible for negative actions caused by a small number of individuals.