A CAUSE FOR QUES­TION

Bike (USA) - - Contents - BY DEVON OÕNEIL

Fat tire’s fiercest ad­vo­cate has fallen vic­tim to ... it­self. In two de­ci­sive steps, IMBA alien­ated sup­port­ers en­trench­ing schisms over Wilder­ness and e-bike ac­cess. Reporter Devon O’Neil un­earths truths from moun­tain bik­ing’s big­gest non­profit.

Dave Wiens, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor and face of the In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion, pulls into the dirt park­ing lot in his 2001 Chevy Sub­ur­ban. It’s a Satur­day in late July, at the base of an alpine drainage near Colorado’s Hoosier Pass, five miles south of Breck­en­ridge. Wiens gets out and throws on a white tank top, stuff­ing a tube and en­ergy gel in his pocket. Then he puts on a T-shirt that reads #moun­tain­biker. The tail hangs low over his To­peak-Er­gon team-is­sue Ly­cra. He has scrapes on his right arm and leg from a re­cent crash.

Be­fore the steep climb to 11,000 feet be­gins, Wiens, who is 6-foot-2 and has the tan, sun-bleached look of some­one who’s spent most of his life out­doors, says hello to a lo­cal For­est Ser­vice worker out for a morn­ing hike. Upon learn­ing of Wiens’ role at IMBA, the forester raises his eye­brows and says, “Oh,” al­most sym­pa­thet­i­cally.

Wiens comes from ag stock; both his par­ents grew up on farms, one in Idaho and one in Kan­sas. They raised him and his older brother in Den­ver. “Bikes were my free­dom,” he says. IMBA has never had a direc­tor like him: a Hall of Fame racer turned grass­roots ad­vo­cate, as core as moun­tain bik­ers come. “He has the re­spect of the ad­vo­cacy de­mo­graphic and the rider de­mo­graphic, which is hard to find,” says fel­low pi­o­neer Ned Ov­erend, whom Wiens passed to take third at the World Cham­pi­onships at Mam­moth Moun­tain in 1989.

Wiens would later win six straight Leadville Trail 100s, the fi­nal one ahead of Lance Arm­strong in 2008. He also won two World Cups and re­fused to shave his legs, hence his nick­name, ‘The Vanilla Go­rilla.’ But lately he finds him­self in the midst of a prickly de­bate about the fu­ture of moun­tain bik­ing’s big­gest ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, which turns 30 this year and which Wiens has led since Fe­bru­ary 2017, af­ter serv­ing on the board for a year. Re­cent pub­lic state­ments about E-bikes and Wilder­ness, fol­low­ing a run of very pub­lic up­heaval and fi­nan­cial freefall, left IMBA de­pleted and on the de­fen­sive. Wiens is try­ing to change that.

He’s had a long week for a 53-year-old. He schmoozed at the Out­door Re­tailer show in Den­ver on Mon­day and Tues­day, then flew to Al­bany, New York, and ar­rived at 11:30 Tues­day night, where he rented a car and bee­lined to

WITH UN­DER IMBA FIRE,

MOUN­TAIN BIK­ING’S

BIG­GEST

AD­VO­CATE SEEKS

TO RE­GAIN ITS

FOOT­ING

a friend’s house in Ja­maica, Ver­mont. The next morn­ing, he drove three hours south to meet a fel­low ad­vo­cate, Philip Keyes of the New Eng­land Moun­tain Bike As­so­ci­a­tion, who had been crit­i­cal of IMBA and whom Wiens sought out for a meet­ing to “break bread,” as he put it. Their ride bal­looned into a group out­ing, as they of­ten do with Wiens, af­ter which they talked about their dis­agree­ments deep into the evening. Wiens finally got to sleep at 2 a.m. Four hours later, he got up to meet a po­ten­tial ma­jor donor near Rut­land—the point of the whole trip. They rode in the pour­ing rain, swam in a lake, had lunch. Then Wiens met an­other lo­cal ad­vo­cate for a twi­light ham­mer­fest.

The fol­low­ing day at 4 a.m., he drove three hours up to the King­dom Trails, rode with a group of 15, then drove four hours back to the Al­bany air­port, packed up his bike in a park­ing lot, threw clean clothes over his dirt-caked body and crammed him­self into a win­dow seat for the flight back to Den­ver, where he spent the night with his 83-year-old mother. Ear­lier this morn­ing, he in­stalled new light­bulbs in her bath­room while she cooked him pan­cakes, then he drove up to ride in Breck­en­ridge be­fore con­tin­u­ing home to Gun­ni­son.

All the travel keeps him away from his wife, 1996 Olympic moun­tain bike bronze medal­ist Su­san DeMat­tei, who’s now a reg­is­tered nurse, and the back­yard trail net­work where he taught his three sons to ride. But he likes the fundrais­ing trips and what they por­tend for IMBA. “I get to be my­self and talk about moun­tain bik­ing,” he says. The tip­ping point in what was eas­ily the most po­lar­iz­ing stretch in IMBA’s his­tory hap­pened De­cem­ber 6, 2017, when IMBA sent a now-in­fa­mous let­ter to mem­bers of Congress’ House Com­mit­tee on Nat­u­ral Re­sources. The let­ter de­clared that IMBA did not sup­port a bill—H.R. 1349— that was cham­pi­oned by the up­start Sus­tain­able Trails Coali­tion (STC) and in­tro­duced by no­to­ri­ously anti-en­vi­ron­ment U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tom McClin­tock (R-Calif.). H.R. 1349 would amend the Wilder­ness Act and al­low lo­cal land man­agers to de­cide whether bikes should be al­lowed in Wilder­ness ar­eas. This came two years af­ter IMBA had ded­i­cated great re­sources and man­power, yet failed to pre­vent the loss of revered moun­tain bike trails to the newly des­ig­nated Boul­der-White Clouds Wilder­ness in Idaho.

In the eyes of some, the two episodes rep­re­sented a broader prob­lem and called into ques­tion IMBA’s rel­e­vance as an or­ga­ni­za­tion. Lead­ing up to the de­feat in Idaho, IMBA sent out a call to ac­tion to more than 30,000 sup­port­ers, re­quest­ing they con­tact Idaho’s Con­gress­men and ask for a na­tional mon­u­ment in­stead of Wilder­ness. Only 187 peo­ple wrote let­ters or emails.

Un­be­knownst to many out­siders, IMBA was also run­ning dangerously short on cash. That made what hap­pened next es­pe­cially crush­ing. In the spring of 2016, Subaru in­formed IMBA that it would be end­ing its $330,000 an­nual dona­tion and loaner cars for staff, af­ter a 19-year re­la­tion­ship. It hap­pened right as IMBA was train­ing its third VP of devel­op­ment in eight months. The en­tire staff took a 20-per­cent pay cut. Four rounds of lay­offs fol­lowed. Long­time ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Mike Van Abel re­signed at the end of Au­gust. IMBA’s me­te­oric rise had turned into a plum­met. What’s more, at a crit­i­cal junc­ture in the much larger fed­eral lands fight, moun­tain bik­ing’s most re­spected voice was in dan­ger of see­ing its cred­i­bil­ity dis­ap­pear.

In Fe­bru­ary 2017, IMBA hired Wiens, who’d joined the board 13 months ear­lier and was elected chair­man in Novem­ber. Big changes fol­lowed. IMBA did away with mem­ber­ships and changed its E-bike stance in Novem­ber 2017—a shift with par­tic­u­larly large im­pli­ca­tions on al­ready-crowded metro ar­eas. In­stead of say­ing all E-bikes were in­com­pat­i­ble with non-mo­tor­ized trails, as they had in 2015, IMBA said pedal-as­sist mo­tors are OK as long as they don’t jeop­ar­dize ac­cess for tra­di­tional moun­tain bikes—and as long as lo­cal land man­agers and riders deem them ac­cept­able. Vit­riol fol­lowed, much of which cen­tered around IMBA’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to side with cor­po­rate in­ter­ests—no­tably those of cer­tain board mem­bers who stood to make more money from in­creased E-bike ac­cess—over riders’ in­ter­ests. “If I can be clear,” one mem­ber wrote in an e-mail, “and in the strong­est of terms, I sin­cerely hope that you sit down for lunch to­day and think about eat­ing a pile of old dil­dos. While the po­ten­tial of chok­ing on a pile of old dil­dos may be scary, it does not even compare the threat that ebikes pose to the crowded multi use trails

of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia.”

One month later, IMBA’s let­ter about H.R. 1349 went pub­lic. Many of the staff, who had lit­tle to no no­tice, were fu­ri­ous that it cast IMBA in such a con­tro­ver­sial light. More nasty emails rained down. “Fuck you imba,” read one. “You’re fail­ing be­cause you’re a dick­less org. Fuck you and fuck weins [sic]. Dick­less cock­suck­ers. Get on your 29er sin­gle speed and suck a dick.”

A lot of IMBA’s crit­ics the­o­rized as to who was be­hind the let­ter—and why IMBA felt the need to write it. Wiens, who drafted the let­ter with IMBA’s gov­ern­ment re­la­tions team, says he was un­aware of a con­fi­den­tial side agree­ment be­tween IMBA and STC—“Sec­tion V” of the joint state­ment they crafted in May 2016, ti­tled “Mu­tual Re­spect”—that promised nei­ther would “de­fame, dis­par­age, or in any way crit­i­cize” the other, in­clud­ing to “mem­bers of Congress and their staffs.” It’s sub­jec­tive as to whether this move vi­o­lated that pact. None of IMBA’s board mem­bers were in­volved with writ­ing it; in­stead they re­ceived it by e-mail a few hours prior to its re­lease. “But the board po­si­tion was what I had to go on,” Wiens ex­plains. “We don’t sup­port amend­ing the Wilder­ness Act.”

At the heart of the is­sue, Wiens says, was a sen­tence on Page 7 of STC co­founder Ted Stroll’s writ­ten tes­ti­mony, which he was set to de­liver the fol­low­ing day and which some­one leaked to IMBA. It read: “Moun­tain bik­ers are united on bi­cy­cle ac­cess in Wilder­ness.” (Two sen­tences later, Stroll, who is based in San Jose, quoted IMBA sur­vey re­sults that said half of Cal­i­for­nia re­spon­dents wanted to ride in Wilder­ness.) “Just to make sure, I looked up the def­i­ni­tion of ‘united.’ It means ev­ery­body, all,” Wiens says. “Well, that’s not true. IMBA would never make a state­ment like that.”

Wiens be­lieves that had IMBA re­mained silent, the as­sump­tion would have been that IMBA sup­ported H.R. 1349. John Bliss, a for­mer IMBA board chair who later joined the board of STC—and an­nounced it in a pub­lic let­ter that acted like lighter fluid— says that’s not nec­es­sar­ily true. “Hav­ing been a for­mer chief coun­sel for a se­na­tor on the se­nate ju­di­cial com­mit­tee, I can tell you that any­thing other than si­lence is viewed as op­po­si­tion,” Bliss says.

Jim Hase­nauer, one of IMBA’s founders and a for­mer board chair­man, wrote a 3,000-word e-mail to the board and Wiens about their let­ter of non-sup­port, ac­cus­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion of los­ing its way. Hase­nauer ar­gues that IMBA’s state­ment “throws away the his­tory and phi­los­o­phy of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.” “There were sev­eral other points in IMBA’s his­tory when we were mak­ing a con­scious de­ci­sion of are we go­ing to go af­ter bikes in Wilder­ness, and we chose not to,” Hase­nauer told me. “But when­ever we did, we al­ways said, ‘IMBA be­lieves that the Wilder­ness Act al­lowed bikes when it was created in 1964, we be­lieve that bikes are com­pat­i­ble with the his­tory and phi­los­o­phy of Wilder­ness, but at this time we are not fight­ing for that be­cause of other pri­or­i­ties.’ The dif­fer­ence this time was that IMBA didn’t say that. In­stead they said we don’t sup­port this bill that would al­low bikes in Wilder­ness. That’s a real different po­si­tion.”

Wiens doesn’t re­gret what he did, even if the blow­back was hard to take on a per­sonal level. “Who knows, if we hadn’t been men­tioned in their tes­ti­mony, it could’ve been different,” he says. “But since that was put out there, we needed to be very clear about where IMBA stood.”

Moun­tain bik­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cally for the bet­ter since 1988, and IMBA’s lead­ing role in that growth and evo­lu­tion is inar­guable. The or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan as a way for five Cal­i­for­nia clubs to de­fend their ac­cess to state parks—and po­ten­tially stave off fur­ther trail loss to Wilder­ness and open up the Pa­cific Crest Trail to bikes—at a time of in­creas­ing hos­til­ity to­ward moun­tain bik­ers. IMBA be­gan pro­duc­ing strate­gic ad­vice doc­u­ments, like: “What to do if your lo­cal trails are be­ing threat­ened by clo­sure,” and “How to or­ga­nize a moun­tain bike club.” It was IMBA that got the Sierra Club in 1994 to call moun­tain bik­ing “a le­git­i­mate form of recre­ation on sin­gle­track.” IMBA board mem­bers met with Pres­i­dents Clin­ton and (W.) Bush and chal­lenged the For­est Ser­vice and Bureau of Land Man­age­ment to ac­cept fat tires.

“There were times at IMBA when ev­ery day that a trail didn’t close to bikes was a good day,” says Ash­ley Koren­blat, who served on the board from 1992 to 2003, the last five years as chair, then worked on staff over­see­ing the Pub­lic Lands Ini­tia­tive from 2009 to 2011.

As IMBA tack­led both low-hang­ing fruit and trick­ier po­lit­i­cal grounds, like Na­tional Parks, Big Bike bought in. IMBA’s most gen­er­ous sup­port­ers in­cluded Trek, Shi­mano and Spe­cial­ized. At one point the or­ga­ni­za­tion em­ployed staff lawyers and lob­by­ists. But as the fi­nan­cial pic­ture dark­ened, all of that went away. To­day’s staff of 39 is down from 66 two years ago. Only a hand­ful work out of IMBA’s Boul­der head­quar­ters, aka a suite in a cowork­ing space. The rest are scat­tered across the coun­try.

IMBA, not for the first time, re­cently re­vamped its

“I looked up the def­i­ni­tion of ‘united.’ It means ev­ery­body, all. Well, that’s not true. IMBA would never make a state­ment like that.”

pro­grams af­ter ask­ing its chap­ters how it could share its knowl­edge bet­ter. This year, IMBA de­buted Trail Labs (a pair of two-day work­shops de­signed for lo­cal ad­vo­cates, land man­agers and tourism pro­fes­sion­als, each of which takes place in Ben­tonville, Arkansas) and IMBA Lo­cal, an a-la-carte menu of ser­vices avail­able to clubs that need sup­port. And of course there is still Trail So­lu­tions, a fee-for-ser­vice arm that does ev­ery­thing from teach trail­build­ing clin­ics to plan, de­sign and build new trail.

De­pend­ing on how much help your club needs, you can use IMBA’s 501(c)(3) sta­tus and get deals on in­surance and vol­un­teer-man­age­ment soft­ware. IMBA will even put your ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor on its pay­roll and man­age his or her ben­e­fits. Pro­gram direc­tor An­thony Dun­can, who lives in John­son City, Ten­nessee— east of the Mis­sis­sippi, where IMBA is mostly revered—says, “The goal isn’t to have IMBA’s name on it, the goal is to cre­ate a more ca­pa­ble ad­vo­cacy net­work.”

Crit­ics, how­ever, say IMBA is mired in the same old pat­tern that got it in trou­ble: reg­u­larly rein­vent­ing it­self, strate­giz­ing in­stead of ex­e­cut­ing, un­sure of who it is or who it serves. Board mem­bers, the same crit­ics ar­gue, are be­holden not to moun­tain bik­ers but to con­ser­va­tion in­ter­ests (Luther Propst also serves as chair of Out­door Al­liance, a mostly pro-Wilder­ness or­ga­ni­za­tion to which IMBA pays $6,000 in an­nual dues to main­tain a voice in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.) and their em­ploy­ers (Taldi Wal­ter, a for­mer Audubon So­ci­ety staffer, is direc­tor of gov­ern­ment af­fairs at REI, which can’t af­ford to cross con­ser­va­tion­ists be­cause they buy too much hik­ing and back­pack­ing gear, skep­tics con­tend). “IMBA doesn’t rep­re­sent moun­tain bik­ers any­more,” says Kevin Loomis, one of IMBA’s most vo­cal crit­ics, who is pres­i­dent of the San Diego Moun­tain Bik­ing As­so­ci­a­tion (SDMBA). “They rep­re­sent a board, which has its own special in­ter­ests, that is not ac­count­able to any moun­tain bik­ers.” Both Propst and Wal­ter de­clined in­ter­view re­quests about IMBA, cit­ing a short­age of time and other obli­ga­tions.

When IMBA was founded, the idea was for mem­bers to elect the board, Hase­nauer ex­plains—which would mit­i­gate a dis­con­nect be­tween IMBA and the lo­cal clubs. But it’s been a long time since mem­bers had a say in who ran the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Af­ter the H.R. 1349 hul­la­baloo, some thought the di­vide had grown too wide. SDMBA, which con­trib­uted $37,000 to IMBA from its mem­ber do­na­tions two years ago, ended its af­fil­i­a­tion with IMBA this past March. A six-fig­ure in­di­vid­ual donor did the same. “A dog with­out teeth is a worth­less dog for pro­tec­tion,” Loomis says. “IMBA is a dog with­out teeth. It barks re­ally loud, but as soon as the dog is con­fronted, it pees on the ground and runs in the other room. You can’t have that for an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Oth­ers dis­agreed with IMBA but stopped short of walk­ing away. Jenny John­son, pres­i­dent of the Mount Wil­son Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion, which was founded two years be­fore IMBA and is based in Los An­ge­les, where 82 per­cent of its mem­bers want ac­cess to Wilder­ness, says the club de­cided to re­main an IMBA chap­ter de­spite ve­he­mently dis­agree­ing with IMBA’s H.R. 1349 stance. “What they did was said, Thank you for let­ting us sit at the kids’ ta­ble at Thanks­giv­ing din­ner,” John­son says. “Still, fight­ing with IMBA doesn’t do any­body any good. All it does is show the rest of the world, the politi­cians, the other user groups that would love noth­ing more than to see us dis­ap­pear, that there is a di­vide. It’s a real stick­ing point for me. I re­ally dis­like them, but I’m try­ing to see the greater good in them.”

The STC-IMBA spar­ring has slowed but not died, mostly be­cause IMBA peo­ple still think STC is fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle for no rea­son, and STC peo­ple still think IMBA back­stabbed them. When Wiens sent Stroll a copy of the let­ter

“IMBA doesn’t rep­re­sent moun­tain bik­ers any­more. They rep­re­sent a board, which has its own special in­ter­ests, that is not ac­count­able to any moun­tain bik­ers.”

PHOTO: BEN GAVELDA

Dave Wiens, IMBA ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor.

Kevin Loomis, pres­i­dent of SDMBA.PHOTO: CHRIS WELLHAUSEN

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