Can Dave Wiens Reinvent IMBA?

A conversation with the advocacy group's new executive director

Title photo: Angel King / RTI Sports

In June 2015, Bob Winston, then chair of the board of directors at the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), made a fateful inquiry. He asked Dave Wiens, the six-time Leadville 100 champion, two-time World Cup winner—the guy who defended mountain biking from Lance Armstrong!—if Wiens would help IMBA shape its strategic planning at a retreat in Park City, Utah.

At the time, Wiens was working part time as the executive director (and founder) of Gunnison Trails, an advocacy organization in Colorado’s Gunnison Valley. He was also still racing professionally for Ergon and doing about a hundred other things in the local mountain-bike world.

Wiens obliged Winston, and soon after, Winston asked Wiens to serve on IMBA’s board of directors. Wiens agreed. He was six months into his term when 12-year IMBA president Mike Van Abel resigned last summer, turning an already tumultuous year for the world’s most influential mountain biking organization into a bona fide situation. Five months prior to Van Abel’s resignation, a little less than a year ago now, IMBA lost its primary sponsor in Subaru. Layoffs followed. The Trail Care Crew—a team of two that drove around the country conducting wildly popular trail-building clinics—was cut. Suddenly, strangely, it seemed unclear what IMBA’s role was—and what it would be moving forward.

Wiens, who agreed to serve as board chair after the IMBA World Summit last November, watched all of this with a curious eye. He knew the potential was there for IMBA to broaden its reach and relevance. He also knew the advocacy world had changed, and it did not favor the gorilla.

Photo Credit: Angel King / RTI Sports
Photo: Andy Eyring / RTI Sports

Earlier this month, Wiens made one last move in his rapid ascent to becoming the face of IMBA—he shifted from board chair to executive director. The 52-year-old Mountain Bike Hall of Famer, who still looks like a 17-year-old surfer dude, says he feels like he has been “drinking through a fire hose” as he tries to absorb the scope of his new job. He took a break Monday afternoon and rode his mom’s red, 30-year-old Panasonic City Bike four blocks from his house to the Gunnison Health Food Store, where he shared his vision for IMBA and mountain biking over lunch.

Bike: Congratulations on the job. What do you feel like you’re inheriting?
Wiens: I feel like IMBA today is financially challenged, and I believe that national advocacy isn’t the same as it ever was. So we can’t be the same IMBA that we always were. It used to be, if you wanted to support mountain biking, you couldn’t necessarily find a club to give money to, so you gave it to IMBA. Now, there’s your club, they’re doing great work, I’ll give them money because I can actually go ride their work after work. It’s a little more nebulous: what’s IMBA doing?

So IMBA needs to very definitively tell the world what we are doing. If you buy a Trek bicycle, it says “Trek” on the downtube, unless you take it off. If you build a badass trail, it doesn’t have a name on it. Nobody knows where it came from.

What do you see as the biggest issues to address after a tough year for IMBA?
Our goals all revolve around, of course, access and government relations; we have to never lose sight of that, that needs to always be a priority. And then, important to us is seeing better mountain biking opportunities on the ground, all across the country. In a lot of cases, that means more access to the bread-and-butter riding that we all enjoy. Where you can get out before work, at lunch, after work—those quick hits that we all need for our bodies and minds.

We’re just trying to be more relevant to more mountain bikers. We’ve always counted our membership in that 30,000 to 40,000 range. And it’s staying just a bit static, but we know there are a lot more mountain bikers out there. We also know from our demographic studies that our average age is in the mid-40s. So the membership of IMBA is not necessarily representative of who all is riding mountain bikes. We’d like that to change.

What did you learn from Gunnison Trails that you can apply nationally with IMBA?
That I can’t carry a big stick around to get things done, because I didn’t get anything done that way.

What’s your stance on whether bikes belong in Wilderness?
It’s hard for me to answer, because I haven’t been affected by it. There’s a ton of Wilderness around us, but our riding isn’t in it. Now, if someone all of a sudden made Hartman Rocks a Wilderness area? That wouldn’t sit well with me at all. So we have to work with every new and ongoing Wilderness proposal out there.

IMBA’s policy is, and we’re going to revisit this with our board of directors and our senior staff, because I think the way the political landscape is right now we constantly have to be looking at everything and making sure that we’re on the cutting edge of what we need to be, but right now it’s that we do not support any effort to change the Wilderness Act. And personally, I’m OK with a place where we don’t get to ride.

You mentioned the need to have a unified voice. An obvious crux is the divide between the Sustainable Trails Coalition and IMBA. Is there room for both, or do people miss anything about IMBA’s position that forces them to feel like they have to choose?
There are people who support both organizations, and there are obviously people who support only one or the other, adamantly. So I don’t have an answer to that. I just know where we’re at, and we can’t support any organization that’s looking to change the Wilderness Act. It’s pretty black and white.

It seems like a lot of advocates don’t think mountain bikers get enough credit for their stewardship of trails, especially when it comes to access decisions. What can be done to make land managers more aware of mountain bikers’ contribution?
If I had a magic wand, I would have every mountain biker wear the same T-shirt to every volunteer thing they ever did, and it would be just a black T-shirt that said MOUNTAIN BIKER on the back of it. So that no matter what was going on, people would see eight mountain bikers working away, and they’d go, “What are those? Those are mountain bikers.”



Human-Powered Wilderness Travel Bill Introduced

Strange Bedfellows: The Senators Sponsoring the STC’s Bill Aren’t Environmentalists. Does It Matter?


Sound off in the comments below!

Join the conversation