The mountain bikers pushing for a more inclusive scene

The mountain bikers pushing for a more inclusive scene

In partnership with adidas Terrex — Justin Yates and Sharn Mahoney are part of a new generation of bikers: one that wants to share the high-octane beauty of the sport with as many people as possible.

Over half a million people live in Manchester. Home to football stadiums and a growing skyline of high-rises, it has a rich industrial heritage and a sprawling city centre. But it’s also a gateway to outstanding areas of natural beauty: rolling hills, lakes and waterfalls exist just a few miles from the city centre, while in the east, ancient forests and mountain summits give way to the endless moors of the Peak District. Geographically, the city centre and the natural world couldn’t be better connected, but for many of the city’s inhabitants – particularly its minority communities – the gap couldn’t be wider. 

That was a relatively recent but formative discovery for 49-year-old salesman Justin Yates. He tried mountain biking (MTB) six years ago, on the advice of friends. The aim was to lose a few pounds and improve his motor-racing skills, but what he found was a sport that changed his life. After doing a few trails, Justin realised he had stumbled on an activity so thrilling that he couldn’t help but return to it over and over again. In conversation, Justin’s sense of enthusiasm is palpable. “You set off and you’re climbing up a hill for 30 minutes which is knackering,” he says. “But then [coming down], it’s like being on a toboggan run. Jumping onto a mountain bike; people don’t understand when I tell them it’s more exciting, more dangerous, more exhilarating than racing a super bike because trees don’t move. If you’re flying through the air at 30mph and you hit a tree… that can be very dangerous.”

It wasn’t just mountain biking that Justin connected with, but the areas it brought him to and the power of the natural landscape. “As a kid, I never really bothered with the outdoors apart from playing football, that was all that was offered to me” he says. “I think for certain ethnic minorities growing up, your primary focus in sport is football or athletics, whereas if you’re from a white background it’s more varied – swimming, cycling, skiing, snowboarding; there’s more offered and more available to white culture. It wasn’t until I started mountain biking that I discovered Saddleworth Moor, the Peak District; these places that are on my doorstep. It’s been a real eye-opener.”

“The scenery is breathtaking” he continues. “Seeing a view with mountains, trees, forest land and no cars or telegraph poles; it’s phenomenal. It’s balancing. It does so much for your mental health. Working in sales can be extremely stressful and it’s very good stress relief.”  

As a self-confessed “petrol head”, Justin found cars long before bikes, and in his early 20s he started building and racing kit cars, which eventually led to racing superbikes. “Everybody in the paddock who races rides a bike too; a road bike or a mountain bike. I didn’t. A lot of the lads would say to me, ‘You need to do some sort of road biking to trim down and help your racing.’” Following their advice, Justin started riding a mountain bike, at first around local canals and parks, before moving onto bike trail centres. “That’s when I really experienced it,” he says. “Hundreds of people on bikes and a set trail with jumps, turns, burns, drops – I was instantly hooked! It’s so much more full-on than motorbikes; it’s so much more visceral.” 

Manchester is not unique in its proximity to green spaces. 200 miles away in London, 25-year-old Sharn Mahoney echoes many of Justin’s experiences. I meet her outside the Olympic Park Velodrome where a network of bike routes intersect. In a city location, I’m surprised to see the stoney rough terrain and overgrown grass that hides the narrow trails. I’m even more surprised to hear that there’s eight kilometres of routes like this, dedicated to mountain biking. Some veer off at sharp angles before disappearing up and down small but steep hills, another heads west, crossing the River Lea into miles of woodland. All look equally inviting. 

“Can you believe it?” says Sharn. “I went to school around here, I went to Westfield shopping centre all the time, and I had no idea you could come here and do mountain biking. I guess there’s a divide between the residents [that live here] and the wealth that is being pumped into the area; it was never advertised to us.” 

She makes a compelling argument. Sharn is a woman who has been into sports and fitness her whole life. She loves trying her hand at new activities; she’s happy to spend money on classes, and is both a keen dancer and gymnast. When you also factor in that she grew up in Newham, a stone’s throw away from the Olympic Stadium, you realise that she is exactly the kind of person the park should have been marketed towards. Instead, it took her almost another decade to realise it even existed. 

“My Mum told us that they did family days out here where you could rent a bike, so she suggested we all go,” Sharn explains. “That was in 2019. I don’t even know how she found out about it.” Like Justin, Sharn says she didn’t have much of a relationship with the outdoors before mountain biking. After her first session with her family, she took to watching videos of the sport rather than trying out more trails. “I lived it through YouTube; in my head I was there. I did that for a year, just watching people go round the trails. I didn’t think about coming back here until the lockdown happened and my friend invited me to go with him. That second time I loved it so much that I decided to get a new bike, and that was it. I started travelling; I’d go to Epping Forest and Swinley Forest, I’d go to pump tracks, I’d fall off and hurt myself but nothing stopped me.”

In mountain biking, it’s clear that both Justin and Sharn have found a sport they can no longer imagine their life without. “I’ll admit sometimes it’s scary,” says Sharn. “It’s scary when it’s rainy or it’s muddy. It’s scary when you get to the top of a hill and you look down and think, ‘I have to get down that?! What if I flip over the handlebars?!’ But that fear is what makes it so exciting. It’s such an adrenaline rush, it’s fast, it’s thrilling, it feels like being on a roller coaster. You end up feeling so excited; it doesn’t feel like exercise. That’s what I love about it.”

All of this happens in a sublime setting so far removed from day-to-day life. Mountain biking has brought Sharn and Justin to locations which they never knew existed – both on their doorsteps and further afield. “Bike Park Wales is my favourite” says Sharn. “It’s just beautiful. The views, the valleys, the blue skies, the hills, the mountains. I felt like I was on holiday. You’re so high up, you feel like you could touch the clouds… you don’t get that where I’m from.”

Like many others in the MTB community, they have discovered that outdoor sports can provide a unique antidote to the pressures of modern living, even for those who live in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. That said, it’s no coincidence that Sharn and Justin didn’t discover mountain biking until their 20s and 40s respectively. Like so many other outdoor sports, people of colour seem to be largely absent from the MTB demographic. In a 2016 survey by online mountain biking community, Singletracks, more than 90 per cent of its readers identified as Caucasian. 

Justin describes his experience as a person of colour in an overwhelmingly white space as frustrating. “Since I was 26 and got my first kit car, I’ve always forced myself into areas where I’m the only black person, so I suppose I’m attuned to it, but it does disappoint me because I know how fun it is. If other people who looked like me had the opportunity, or if it was shown to them, they’d love it just as much as I do.”

For Sharn, much of the issue lies in representation. “It’s psychology,” she says. “People need to see someone who looks like them to feel welcome and comfortable doing something. I can’t say I only see white people when I go out, for sure they’re the majority but I do see other people of colour too, so we’re definitely into it. I just don’t think we’re being shown. Brands and media platforms need to put campaigns in places where we will see it, because we have just as much purchasing power as white people. Even if you live in [the inner city] you can drive to a place or cycle there. My community is great, it doesn’t deserve to get left behind.”

According to a government report titled A Green Future, spending time in the natural environment improves “mental health and feelings of wellbeing”. It can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression, boost immune systems, encourage physical activity, and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. For many people living in an urban environment, it’s taken a global pandemic to recognise not just the value, but the disproportionate access different communities have to natural spaces. Race places a huge factor in access to the outdoors. The majority of people of colour in the UK live in urban areas; that includes 98.2 per cent of the Black African and 97.9 per cent of the Black Caribbean populations. When we consider the impact proximity to nature has on our mental and physical health, the fight for equal access to the outdoor world becomes even more crucial. “I was a bit annoyed at myself, that I had all this on my doorstep but I knew nothing about it,” says Justin. “MTB isn’t a secret thing, but it’s not advertised. Certain people are into it and they kind of keep it to themselves. It is a predominantly white sport.” 

It’s through social media that Justin first met Sharn, and after connecting online, the pair struck up a friendship and realised they shared a goal to improve access to the sport for minority communities. Having waited so long to experience the magic of MTB themselves, they’re now doing everything they can to encourage new people to give it a go – and they both put up a compelling case for newcomers. “I will ride with anyone!” promises Justin. “On social media if you start looking, there are a few people of colour who ride. If you drop them a message, they will want to come and ride with you. I want to get a bit of a network together and that’s the start.” 

That’s exactly what happened with Justin and Sharn. Last year they went to Cannock Chase trail park together, where Justin was able to offer Sharn guidance. It’s this level of practical support he wants to keep offering to mountain bikers of colour. “I want to do my coaching training and impart whatever knowledge I’ve got,” he says “I want to bring kids of colour to Farmer John’s Bike Park [in Manchester] and show them what mountain biking is all about. If you want to take a group of kids from Manchester out, and you take them to the Lake District, when they get back, ‘They’ll say, that was great but it’s out of my reach, I can’t go back, I can’t afford it.’ But there’s stuff that’s within seven miles of Manchester City. If they’re close to home and being coached by someone who looks like them, they may go back and tell all their mates to have a go because it’s brilliant.”

Almost as soon as Sharn started mountain biking, she started documenting her progress on social media, as well as creating a YouTube channel, Ride With Sharn. It’s full of nerve-racking Go-Pro footage as she navigates narrow woodland trails and unsuspecting pedestrians who have wandered into her path, but it’s also a platform for her to document her experiences as a woman of colour in mountain biking.

“If you’re not going to show me, I’ll show myself,” she says. “I’ve had so many messages from people telling me I’m the first Black mountain biker they’ve ever seen. I really take that to heart. It’s not just about me, it’s an honour to do this for other people.” Sharn hopes that by documenting her experiences, a new generation of mountain bikers from minority backgrounds will realise they have a right to take up a sport that is too often seen as a white, middle-class pursuit, despite the deafening lack of diversity in a lot of advertising. “People have this stereotype of minorities living in poverty but that’s not always the case. I wouldn’t say I’m the richest person but I’ve managed to do it; I hope I can be a positive role model in MTB.” 

Justin also hopes to inspire more people to take up the sport and is doing so with his work alongside the recently formed Colour Collective, a MTB specific group focused on celebrating and increasing the participation of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. He has hundreds of reasons why newcomers should try it, particularly those the industry has ignored, but top of the list is the sense of fun, freedom and joy that a bike has given him. “Take your brain back in time to when you were 10 years old,” he says. “It’s the summer holidays. Your mates knock on the door and they’re all on their bikes, you get yours out and you disappear all day, with nothing but a Mars Bar in your pocket. Those were the best days ever. You were free, it felt like you were out for weeks on end on one Mars Bar. Mountain biking puts you back in that state of mind. It’s like being a kid again, and that’s a very hard feeling to get when you’re an adult.”

adidas Terrex are working with the Colour Collective to host an event in Sheffield, UK (Spring 22). This will be one of the first mountain bike meet-ups specifically for people of colour in the UK and will go a long way in driving and owning the narrative.

The Outsiders Project is dedicated to diversifying the Outdoors. Follow us on Instagram, read more stories or find out more about partnering with us here