Finding the balance – where’s your ethical centre?

Ride Sheffield have asked what ‘Ethics in mountain biking’ means to you. It’s a good thing to talk about and one which builds on discussions which have been had at length amongst groups in the mountain biking world – groups like Cycling UK, and the excellent Open MTB – who spend many volunteer hours debating just this kind of thing.

But what on earth are the ethics we’re talking about? What is ethics anyway? Why the hell should we care?

It will come as little surprise to you to know that I have my own thoughts on this; I’ve long tried to talk about doing things the right way and to consider others; but is this all it is about? Is this the core of it all?

In my grown-up life at work, I have a role as an Ethics adviser, so I have a particular interest in this too.

No matter what your thoughts are on ethics, every single one of us has our own moral code. We all have our own ‘centre’ from which we make judgements based on the situation presented to us, others’ behaviours, choices we have to make. When we talk about ‘ethics in mountain biking’ there are two things going on there. Firstly, ethics – which is a very personal thing to you, and secondly “…in mountain biking”, which obviously puts those ethics into a scope of collective ownership and accountability. When it comes to Ethics in Mountain Biking, I guess we’re looking for how widely aligned that centre point is. And that’s where it gets challenging.

For me professionally, the code drives the behaviours we should all aim to live by. Behaviours that our customers would expect to see and our colleagues would want us to demonstrate; how others see us, and how we wish to be seen. Is that how it is for the mountain biking world too? Is ethics just about our external image or is it more? Surely it’s about how we treat others. But the environment in which we ride can’t pass judgement on our behaviour – so the ethical question must also encompass the environment too?

So what are we talking about? Are we talking about riding footpaths? Digging? Slagging people off on a forum? Not having a bell? Maybe it’s littering? Riding muddy trails in poor weather? Filling the pages of your mag with rooster tails and “shredding”? Filming your latest drone edit on footpaths then chasing after sponsors? Riding cheeky then splashing it all over social?

It’s a big area to cover and one in which you can easily get into a tangle.

At its worse, people talking about ethics can stand accused of hypocrisy when their behaviour offends another’s moral centre. And in a world where we can’t even decide what MTB is, how are we going to get agreement on some utopian code of ethics to live by?

People cite the unwritten surfing code, and the climbers’ approach to things. But those are sports which are arguably not nearly as easy to get into as riding a bike, and lockdown and the pandemic has put more people on the trails than we’ve ever seen.

All those people who “never forget how to ride a bike”, likely can’t say they “never forget how to drop in to a wave” or “never forget how to belay”, so the parallels don’t quite work.

And we’ve got to be careful to talk about ethics, not just develop a list of rules.

Be Nice Say Hi has been a good shorthand for cutting through some of this debate. It’s an ethos. Things like the Countryside Code are also helpful – but may feel out of date or not entirely relevant to the MTB world. And should any code of ethics just apply to MTB, or all those groups who use the outdoors recreationally?

Like I say, it’s bit of a mess.

For me, there are some core things here that determine my own ethical centre.

Primarily it is to consider the impact of my actions on others and the environment and to adjust my behaviour accordingly. Acting with a level of integrity. So data driven, transparent, and not being afraid to call things out too – even when it’s my own peers. But I also have to be willing to listen and change.

Yes, there’s lots of grey areas and I can feel myself getting tangled up – but I’ve found that taking this approach and not being afraid to state where I stand (or ride) has begun to win MTBers friends via our campaigning activity.

You’d hope that other groups would take similar approaches. I find an ethical mindset drives a collaborative, open approach so it is something to be embraced and encouraged. A willingness to talk about behaviours openly and constructively is a good start. Getting beyond finger pointing and accusatory statements at the very first.

We’re starting to see this kind of thing being discussed more now in the media as influential riders make their voice heard and speak up. Perhaps we’re seeing the natural growth and increasing maturity of mountain biking. Whatever it is, it’s a good thing, because if we can show that we’re thinking about this stuff honestly and critically; if we can show that we’ve got our heads screwed on right when it comes to this kind of thing, the image we have – at times created for ourselves – can only begin to improve.

So what now? Where do we go? It’s hard to say – but by talking about this kind of thing beyond the advocacy groups’ Facebook pages and barely read blogs; taking it into your rides and beyond is important. We all have a role to play in changing perceptions, and doing it right. But we need other user groups to join the party too. Mountain bikers are growing up and thinking about the impact they have. Others need to as well if we’re to progress the access argument.

I’ve thought long and hard about all this – and people often say “why bother?” But I think it takes more effort to think outside of your own lived experience and even more to change your own behaviour as a result of that thinking. I truly believe that considering those things outside of our own experience is the best way to begin to understand and work with others in order to make things better for all.

Maybe this is all introspective mumbo jumbo.

Maybe it’s just thinking about something other than myself.

You decide.