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A Brief History of the International Mountain Bicycling Association

Cody Sovis | Published on 2/10/2024

Catching Up with IMBA
For over thirty years, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) has served as the sport’s headline advocacy organization. From the early days of mountain biking to the pandemic-fueled boom in participation, IMBA has played an important role in expanding trail opportunities and encouraging grassroots associations (like ours!) to make a difference in communities worldwide. 

The Long Trail to Today

IMBA has headquarters in several countries around the world, though IMBA US remains the marquee representation of the organization’s goals. Since 1988, IMBA has popularized several hallmarks of mountain bike trail development, including:

  • Sustainable trail design
  • Low-impact riding and awareness
  • Coordination with other trail user groups

One of IMBA’s earliest successes came in 2000 when it locked in cooperation agreements with the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. These early agreements provided an important blueprint for grassroots associations to replicate at the state and municipal levels across the country. 

The Rise and Fall of the Chapter Model

By 2009, IMBA’s size and influence led to a chapter-based structure. The thought was simple; local associations would access IMBA resources and membership management while contributing to IMBA’s clout at the national and international levels. Many local chapters went all in, but within a decade, smaller associations became independent organizations, keeping membership dues local - including NMMBA. 

Still, IMBA membership is critically important. Most NMMBA board members and many of our local riders are card-carrying* supporters of IMBA, and with good reason. IMBA offers several important programs to educate individual riders and associations on trail development, land access, and offers Trail Accelerator Grants to support new projects. 

IMBA’s Mountain Bike Trail Difficulty Rating System

The ubiquitous MTB trail rating system is the group’s most visible contribution to mountain biking. Used at trailheads, signposts, and digital maps worldwide, IMBA introduced the five-point, color-and-shape system popularized on ski slopes to bike trails. These should look very familiar:

  • White circle: Very easy
  • Green circle: Easy
  • Blue square: More difficult
  • Black diamond: Very difficult
  • Double black diamond: Extremely difficult

The trail rating system has a bigger impact than riders may think. This system allows trail users to plan routes that match their ability level, which is extremely important for new riders and visitors. It can also help the trail development process by defining and assigning mileage to all ability levels, which gets more buy-in from municipalities and landowners. 

The Future of IMBA

The International Mountain Bicycling Association continues to promote new trail development while putting a renewed emphasis on making the sport more inclusive. The pandemic accelerated that effort, which saw record participation by 2022 - even as “core ridership” continues to decline. NMMBA is proud to support IMBA and encourages our members to learn more about the organization’s legacy as pioneering mountain biking advocates; we wouldn’t be here without them! 

*You don't an actual card, but there are some nifty perks.