“In 1988 most people thought a mountain bike was a motorbike with a speech impediment”
Like so much of the bike industry which took on the challenge of developing mountain biking in Britain, Mountain Biking UK came out of windsurfing. Chris Turner and I had a windsurf magazine and were riding a small boom in the sport, driven by glamorous Hawaiin images of bright sails looping the loop off crashing saphire and crystal waves under a relentless sun.
Windsurfing, apparently, had everything going for it that mountain biking eventually delivered: a free ride in the great outdoors, self sufficiently pushing ones own limits, with speed, high excitement, controlled amounts of danger and lots of shiny kit thrown in.
There was one problem. Almost none of those super glamorous moves could be done in UK waters. The best thing about windsurfing was that, when British wave riders went to American comps, they brought back MTBs. One year at Weymouth Speed Week, (a wind powered comp which almost always scares the equinox into a flat calm), we raced them behind the Chesil beach. We jumped them off dirt waves, we flare jibed them on gravel and not only was it huge huge fun, it was independent of the weather.
‘So let’s do a mountain bike mag!’ I said.
And we did. MBUK number one sold 14,000 copies, way more than any monthly cycle mag of the time, and stomped on to pass Cycling Weeekly, becoming Britain’s best selling bike magazine, which it has been for 20 years. By the time it was selling 30 something K and big corporations took notice we sold it to Future Publishing, I stayed with it, which is why, despite what people say, it hasn’t changed that much at all. It didn’t get younger, honestly, you got older.
I like the big time and have little time for the small special interest mag culture that plays it safe and chummy, churning out the same harmless dross month after month. If you want the big time, that doesn’t work. A magazine needs readers and the reader needs an obviously independent magazine he or she can trust. Above all a reader wants to be entertained.
We set out to do both those things and we certainly made the big time, but as we reach our 20th anniversary, I’d be interested to know what our peers (and biggest critics) in the bike trade, make of our achievement.
We have our own ideas; true, I think, although maybe pitched a little too high. Firstly, we believe we’ve driven most bad product off the market by rigorous testing, allowing people to buy MTBs with confidence that they’re getting value for money.
From day one, until now and forever, the MBUK rule is that we test without fear or favour, using the best people for the job and come up with as true a result as is possible. Whatever anyone says, why not? Putting all morality aside, it works. Advertisers may go off in a huff if their baby comes off second best, but the payoff is that when they do make the the very best on the market everyone will know and believe it. As for the reader, good kit advice is often the difference between taking up the sport and not.
We also think we have made riding bicycles fun. Some types of cycling can produce a very demanding and puritan culture, but we saw back there on the Chesil beach that riding a bike in places where you really shouldn’t makes it impossible to compete as seriously as you can on road and track. Mountain biking isn’t so much sport as the sort of pastime the English love. Essentially heroic but a bit silly; something you can laugh at yourself for doing but be deadly serious about at the same time.
So when MBUK rides along the sea bed, rides out of the back of a Skyvan at 7,000 feet or jumps off Beachy Head and the puritan asks ‘what has that to do with cycling?’ The answer is, ‘nothing, of course, but it has everything to do with mountain biking’.
Finally, after 250 issue of MBUK, not to mention our sister titles, and the new, hugely impressive, BikeRadar website; after ten years of National Bike Shows, Urban Tours, and constant attempts to allow the best to teach their skills, we believe we have helped mountain biking reach critical mass. We are no longer an unknown minority. Respected national bodies fall over themselvers to make bike parks for us, with northshore playgrounds and downhill tracks; councils fund jumpspots for teenage heroes and new events hit my calender like hail. Quite a change from 1988 when most people thought a mountain bike was a motorbike with a speech impediment.
Of course many of you who read BikeBiz have been a big part of all this too and I’d be interested to know what you think. We did OK, didn’t we?