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 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 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 was planning to submit to Congress, the night before Stroll was to testify, Wiens insisted IMBA wasn't opposing the legislation, just not supporting it. "I said, Dave, if the Palestinians say they do not support the state of Israel, how much interpretation is needed for everybody in the world to understand that the Palestinians oppose the existence of the state of Israel?" said Stroll, who was once a $1,000 IMBA donor and gave $100 as recently as last year.
For all its fire-starting, and despite raising $250,000 from 2,000 supporters in three years, STC has been unable to gain the industry's backing. Only one noteworthy brand has made public its support of STC: Santa Cruz Bicycles, which donated $500 in 2015. "The reason for that support was a bit of a shot in the direction of IMBA, if I'm honest about it," says Santa Cruz CEO Joe Graney, whose company had donated to IMBA for many years. "I don't care whether it gets their attention or not, but I think some of IMBA's messaging has been off and some of IMBA's positions are—I don't fully support their direction."
Lest one mistake him for an STC disciple, Graney simultaneously calls H.R. 1349 "a total piece of shit" and "a moon shot." Instead of sending a check to either IMBA or STC last year, Graney wrote one for $500,000 to help develop a 35-mile, multi-use trail network that will be rideable from Santa Cruz's offices. "The mountain bikers came to the table in a way that applied enough pressure on these anti-mountain biker groups that they accepted mountain bikes, because as a whole, it was better for the project," Graney says.
As for whether IMBA's commitment to the sport's core has strayed, board chairman Chris Conroy, co-owner of Yeti Cycles, says no way. "There can be discussions on tactics, but there shouldn't be discussions on whether the intent is good or bad," he says. "I think everybody, even if I disagree with their tactics, is trying to do the best thing for mountain biking. It's that kind of sport and it draws that kind of people."
Korenblat adds: "The problem spots we have left—Marin County, San Diego, the issues we have in Montana—without IMBA, everywhere would be like that."
Nevertheless, there are those who wonder whether IMBA is salvageable long term, or if too much damage has been done in the past three years. "I don't know how, at this point, you put the toothpaste back in the tube," says Bliss, the former chair. IMBA's budget has been cut from $6 million to $4 million, and much of its Big Bike gravy train has fallen off (Specialized didn't donate at all in 2017). A handful of club leaders in California are creating their own statewide organization, much like the founders of IMBA did—only this time, Loomis says, the purpose is essentially to replace IMBA. (Clubs in six other states have formed coalitions of their own with at least peripheral help from IMBA.) But within the organization, there is bona fide optimism that things are improving. The formerly isolated IMBA board, which added three new female members in June—a move that some called overdue—interacts with staff and works on committees with them. Everyone knows it will take time for the flotsam to settle and for today's work to build trust.
Contrary to rumors, Wiens says he never offered to resign after H.R. 1349, but the reality wasn't far off: "I told Chris [Conroy], 'However the board wants to handle it, I know this decision has put a lot of pressure on the organization, and just know that I'm good with whatever is best for mountain biking.'" The board backed Wiens but brought on Kent McNeill, a six-year board member and successful bike shop owner from Nebraska, as VP of operations. McNeill is running the day-to-day so that Wiens can focus on his "sweet spot": recruiting major donors and being IMBA's face. Despite all the choppy waters, "Dave remains the true inspiration of the organization," says new board member Jessica Kelleher, who has spent much of her career in the nonprofit sector.
While some wonder if IMBA has outlived its life span, Kelleher, 41, views the organization as being "in a very uncomfortable transition stage" typical for a 30-year-old nonprofit—albeit one that lost $40,000 and $57,000 the last two years, respectively. Despite financial loss, however, the number of donors grew to an all-time high of 30,252 in 2017, up 43-percent from 2013.
"There was a lot of drama and problems in the last few years—systemic problems—and you can't turn that around in a couple months," says Jenn Dice, IMBA's longtime director of government relations who is now a vice president at PeopleForBikes. "It's going to take a few years to get back to that state."
Some worry that IMBA will become an arm of PeopleForBikes, which is to say an arm of the industry—a trade association. Wiens, sitting outside a saloon after riding a pristine loop under big peaks, rejects that notion. "We're not a marketing entity," he says. "What we're doing for the bike industry and the outdoor industry, we feel, is growing the size of the pie. We're growing the number of mountain bikers by creating more places to ride."
This is why IMBA's devotees are so torn: they know IMBA is still expanding the network, even if it's not in their backyard or in areas where they've traditionally been excluded. When I spoke to Hasenauer, who ran IMBA from his spare bedroom for years, he was still planning to attend IMBA's 30th birthday party in Bentonville the last week of October. Though conflicted, he was also inclined to make his annual $1,000 contribution and renew his membership, if he can still call it that, in the Singletrack Society, which he has belonged to for a quarter century.
"I really want IMBA to thrive," Hasenauer says. "My e-mail address is 'imbajim.' I've got friends who call me 'IMBA.' I've worked hard for IMBA, and I think IMBA has so much to offer the mountain bike community. But I want IMBA to do the right thing. So my leaning, as an advocate, is to stay in and try to apply pressure from the inside."