Yorkshire-based snapper Sam Needham is part of Ilkley MTB, a trail advocacy group pushing for everyone to enjoy their ‘local’ and dispelling some MTB myths in the process.

Mountain biking is a growing sport and sadly, user conflict is something that is sometimes part of that process. To give local mountain biking a voice, photographer Sam Needham and some local riders have got together to create Ilkley MTB.

Far from trying to push their local riding spot as the next destination in mountain biking, Sam, Rob and Mat are trying to take the responsible route to everyone enjoying Ilkley Moor, while keeping it in tip top condition.

Pete had a chat to see what it takes to get everyone on board and pushing in the same direction.

Photos by Sam Needham.

Who is Sam Needham?

I’m a photographer, film maker and ‘doodler’ who rides bikes.

What’s your background in cycling?

I first got into mountain biking when I was about 11. My parents moved us to Ilkley, famous for its moor and its football-playing ducks. As a family, we’d always been into being outdoors, cycling and the like so It didn’t take long for me to get curious about what it might like to ride a bike up those moors and so a few friends and I ventured up there on the bikes we had (26inch wheels and stuff). We all caught the mountain biking bug pretty quickly.

What’s your background in the cycle industry?

I got fully sold with mountain biking pretty quickly and that rapidly led to me documenting my friends riding. Between a bunch of us, we had the use of two Nikon film cameras (I forget which) thanks to our parents. We used to shoot every ride we went on and pretty much wait a year to develop any of the photos. The end of the year was always ace because we’d all get around a table and try and claw the best shots for our bedroom walls.

The photo taking got more and more for me until I started getting some of my work noticed. Originally over on Southern Downhill (now Ride.IO) and a website called Flowtography. Things kept on progressing and I kept pushing my work along side my work in a bike shop until I made the jump into freelance life 6 years ago and never looked back. Now I pretty much exclusively shoot bikes and the places they can take you for various folk in the cycle industry.

How did the Ilkley MTB come about?

Everyone has their ‘local’. Ours is Ilkley and there’s a solid core group of riders who ride on Ilkley Moor and have done for many years. I’ve personally been riding up there for 15 years now and it’s changed for me quite a bit over the years. I started riding DH, so we’d limit ourselves to trails that looking back on them, were shit.

Unless you like straight lines that is. XC always had a presence too, but there wasn’t so much of the in-between. Since the rise of bikes that can do-it-all the trails people are riding on the moors have changed. Sheep tracks have opened up into trails that are longer, more interesting and have more variety that what we might have ridden once upon a time.

Mountain biking has become more popular locally too. We’re seeing more and more new faces ride locally, which is awesome. More traffic does cause problems though and that’s really why Ilkley MTB started. Like anywhere in the UK, there’s always conflicts between different trail users. I’d say we’ve had a ‘problem’ arise every few years with riding bikes on Ilkley.

Unfortunately, it only takes the local press to write a single sided article about a bike issue for a fire to spark. The catalyst for IMTB was a collision between a rider and a runner. The story made the local press to the song and dance of ‘f*ck you bikers, long live runners’. The local association who help manage the moors along with the council then tried to ban us riding up there.

Long story short; we cyclists stood our ground, had some conversations with the higher ups, then some meetings and we all figured out that non of us are bad people (thankfully) and that we might be able to work together on this one. So we did…

Our first project was to make the trail safer where the rider and runner collided. It took a drone, a site meeting and a rough pitch of a new and safer route to the council for Ilkley MTB to be born. The part of trail used to be high speed, straight and with minimum visibility for all users. Now it’s corners, slower but more fun and way safer for all users of the trail as everyone can see each other.

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How many people make up the Ilkley MTB and what do they do?

There’s three of us who do the chit chat with the higher ups. That’s myself, Rob Dodsworth (Hope Technology) and Mathew Argyle (World’s tallest gas engineer), and a really good bunch of us all together who make up the bulk of lkley MTB . It’s really a voice, a forum and a body for local riders though, rather than a small group us trying to pave our own way. We want people to voice option, be involved and help out.

We’re not interested in making Ilkley a destination. Rather we want to make it better for us riders and other users. By better I don’t mean building ‘rad’ trail, I mean maintaining existing trail, trying our best to reduce the erosion, make trails last better in the winter months, make people aware of sustainable trail use and make these trails nicer to be on and to look at for all. We’re just trying to give a little back really.

How have you managed rider needs against landowner/user conflict?

I’d say so far we’ve done pretty well with this. We’ve been really lucky that the council fully support our work after a long few months battling for it. We work closely with the council to make sure we’re doing the right thing and that they are happy with it. Because of the nature of the land a lot of sheep trails that got ridden by bikes ended up becoming really wide and progressively less fun to ride.

They’d get wider and wider through use (not just bikes) and that never really did us riders any favours. A big part of our work is create new trail through these areas that will allow the wide paths to regenerate. The new trail in place of the old generally uses the hill far better and in doing so is much easier to keep as single track and across more sustainable terrain. We all prefer riding nice single track rather than worn out, shitty ruts, right?

What did you have to sacrifice to get to this stage?

Luckily nothing really. Apart from maybe future friendships with people stuck in their ways about bikes on the moors. Riding up there has never been illegal as such, always a grey area, so not a lot has changed. I guess our biggest sacrifice now is ride time in favour of trail work time.

Did you have day jobs that you had to give up?

Not so far. Though a lot of us have put plenty of work into making this happen.

How make or break is the idea for you?

I don’t think it’s make or break. I think it’s a step in the right direction and not just for us here in Ilkley. Cycling is becoming more popular and there are so many areas in the UK where people have awesome trail right on their doorstep. In our case, forming a group was essential if we wanted to be able to voice our opinions and set a good example for MTB locally. We’re not out to try and dominate over other user groups, or as I said earlier to make Ilkley into a bike park.

It’s about working along side everyone and really setting a good example for sustainable and considerate trail use. To date, most of the work we’ve done has been less about making a worn out trail ‘shred’ better, but it’s to help wide erosion tailor back in. Erosion of which is actually caused less by bikes and more by other users.

Have you had to overcome any major obstacles to get to this point?

Really just the initial hurdles of communicating with the higher ups and other user groups. There were very frustrating times back then. The usual stuff really. People not willing to hear our stand point on the issues because we are ‘reckless and abuse the moors by riding’. We kept coming across fences across trail and false council notices pinned to trees. All that’s cleared up now, though some of the attitudes are still lurking around.

The hardest part now is to convince people of the good we are doing. That by being a community that all communicate well only benefits us all. It’s funny, but some people (cyclists included) who’ve lived and used the moors for a long time are the hardest to win over. People hate change it seems and maybe there’s an air of ‘who are these guys coming and thinking they own the place’. We have to tell people it’s not like that, but if we didn’t form Ilkley MTB, no one else was going to. People don’t quite realise that it’s far, far more work than swinging a mattock into the ground.

Where next for Ilkley MTB? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?

We’re a slowly growing community. Our work will always be about making the place better for everyone and making people aware of considerate trail usage. This year we’ll be making dig days official for people to come and help at, ride socials so we can all get to know each other etc. We’ve had a great response to what we’re doing so far, so at this point it’s just to take things slowly and do the best we can.

Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?

A big shout out has to go to Mat Argyle for his level headed persistence with the council and Friends Of Ilkley Moor. Without Mat, things would have taken far longer to get to where they are now. A huge thanks also to everyone who supports what we’re doing locally, including Bradford Council.

Check out everything Sam, Mat and Rob are doing under the Ilkley MTB banner on their website.

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