From one trail to another

From one trail to another

Retired two-time mountain bike downhill world champion Manon Carpenter discusses how she’s helping to save the trails she used to race on

In 2017, Manon Carpenter shocked the mountain biking world when at the age of 24 and double downhill world champion, she announced her retirement from the sport.  

“I quickly realised that World Cup racing isn’t something I should force myself into once I realised my head was no longer in it,” she tells The Sustainability Report. She cited the risks of crashing and her reluctance to fly to Australia for the championships if she wasn’t fully committed.

“Growing up I was always environmentally minded,” says Carpenter. “I have had a bit more time and headspace to come back to what I’ve always cared about and want to do.” 

When she was a teenager, she joined woodland groups, and, as she got older and progressed with her bike, she sensed the growing affects of climate change on her surroundings. But it’s only since she called time on racing the stopwatch that she’s found purpose in another race against time.

Studying a Master of Science in Geology at Cardiff University – and now a Geophysics and Tectonics PhD at Leeds University – some “very hard-hitting talks” drew Carpenter into the sustainability space. In fact, she never really separated herself from the riding scene in retirement. Over the last few years, Carpenter has been one of the figureheads in the movement to preserve the UK’s mountain bike trails. 

Trails in trouble 

In November 2021, Storm Arwen created waves of debris and trees that led to many trail and forest closures. In Aberdeenshire alone, approximately three quarters of the region’s 500km of trails were closed. Two and a half years on, some forest trails in Northumberland remain that way. 

This has wider reaching consequences beyond cycling. A Scottish Government report estimated that mountain biking was worth £105 million to the nation’s economy, and at the time was predicted to reach £158m by 2025.  

The overarching issue is that many trails across the UK aren’t formally recognised. This leads to conflicts with landowners because in UK law, they are responsible for a person’s safety on their land. If a landowner doesn’t recognise a trail’s existence, it’s difficult to expect them to help maintain or repair it in the aftermath of extreme weather, or to allow volunteers to do so. 

There are no trespassing rules in Scotland so people have a right to roam responsibly, but that doesn’t mean that mountain bikers shouldn’t engage with land owners, as the Aberdeenshire Trail Association have shown. Formalising an ‘unauthorised’ trail network is more sustainable than building new trails, especially where there often aren’t enough resources to invest in forestry recreation. 

In the wake of Storm Arwen, organisations like Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland played a key role in helping to re-establish trails lost through storm damage, but Arwen provided the unfortunate circumstances where it was clear that increased collaboration between riders and landowners is vital to provide trail longevity.

The call to action

Arwen was so devastating that the storm was dubbed ‘once in a lifetime’, but with the consequences of climate change forging ahead, that clearly isn’t the case. Prior to Arwen, however, Carpenter realised she could use her platform as a world champion athlete to make a difference. 

The 31-year-old is a regular at trail events across the UK. In only the last few months, this has included Reframing Mountain Biking in Sheffield, participating in a Trash Free Trails Spring Clean at Garth woods near Cardiff, and attending the IMBA Europe Summit in Vienna as a new board member this year. 

Filmmaking is part of mountain biking culture and outdoor sports more widely and Carpenter has also attended cycling and environmental film festivals to engage with trail issues. 

“When I was racing, we would just make some fun edits and riding films,” Carpenter reminisces. “Back then, there weren’t that many videos of a woman riding and I wanted to do something about that.” 

But she didn’t realise at the time just how big cycling films on topics away from racing would become. 

Carpenter starred in Specialized’s Soil Searching film Winds of Change, which she co-directed with Arwen-affected film studio DWACO, highlighting the impact of storms like Arwen on mountain biking communities and the huge recovery and preservation efforts required for them to bounce back. As part of the film’s release, Carpenter initiated a ‘Winds of Change: Soil Searching’ fundraiser with Protect Our Winters (PoW) UK to raise money to support PoW UK and mountain bike trails in Scotland through the Scottish Trail Fund. 

Carpenter highlights that the environmental connection in outdoor sports means brands like Specialized have a growing awareness of their responsibility to help preserve it. 

“Brands are more and more having to get across what they stand for and be legitimate in actually following through on the things they say they care about, which is really cool.” 

She is now an ambassador of the cycling juggernaut, as well as Patagonia after supporting her recent film projects Trails on Trial and Winds of Change. 

Carpenter is fully aware that it takes something more than just relaying information to show that mountain bikers “aren’t just a problem to be dealt with” for landowners, but also to help riders understand the problems from landowners’ perspective. It’s about using the medium to show and spur constructive dialogue. 

“I definitely think film gets people emotionally where hearing the news doesn’t always make that connection with people in a way that would make them actually want to do something about it.” 

The athlete voice 

Creating constructive dialogue is also a theme of Carpenter’s work with Protect Our Winters (PoW) UK, where she has been an ambassador since 2020. Carpenter already engaged with PoW UK and shared their campaigns before taking on the role, but PoW UK helped Carpenter’s environmental engagement go to another level after participating in the organisation’s carbon literacy training. 

“I had been interested in carbon literacy for a while so that was a perfect opportunity,” she says. “It was really insightful for me because I had always thought it’s individual actions that matter, but being nervous around being a hypocrite.”

Despite learning about climate change through history in her academic work, it was the PoW UK carbon literacy course that really taught Carpenter how to talk to other people about it.

“It made me realise there’s only so many changes we can do realistically when the system that we live in isn’t set up for addressing the issues we face with climate change,” referencing the current configuration of society’s energy systems as an example to prevent reaching net zero by 2050. “Hence the need for systemic climate change action, supporting campaigns that are pushing for the systemic changes that we need, as well as individual awareness.” 

Carpenter expresses how she doesn’t want awareness of her individual footprint to “silence me” from talking about these issues and “expecting more from the people in charge.”

One example of this is British Cycling’s controversial partnership with Shell dominating the environmental discourse around the organisation. “I do feel very sorry for the athletes that have to wear a Shell logo on their jersey because there is nothing they can do,” she says. 

Rather than the unrealistic aspiration of athletes choosing not to race because of such fossil fuel partnerships, Carpenter believes that it’s more appropriate to encourage athletes to raise awareness about climate issues and why the sponsorship with Shell, despite the huge influx of money it has brought to British Cycling, is problematic. 

“I think a lot of athletes are still nervous about this hypocrite thing,” she adds. “Just educating themselves and educating followers is really powerful [to understand] the environmental damage that Shell has been responsible for.”

PoW UK wrote a letter to British Cycling outlining exactly why the partnership with Shell was problematic and to transmit the “outpouring of discontent from the cycling community”. This led to British Cycling accepting PoW UK’s offer to participate in a climate literacy course.

Carpenter finds it difficult to understand how such a big organisation doesn’t have that kind of basic climate literacy training anyway, “but hopefully they will have a better understanding going forward.”

‘The bad guys are doing it’

Beyond big business, Carpenter is keen to influence decision making at the top of the political tree, which she has also pursued through her role with PoW UK. Building from the Downhill From Here: How Climate Change Threatens Cycling As We Know It report published in August 2023, Carpenter has been supporting PoW UK’s ‘Send It For The Climate’ campaign to influence policymaking ahead of the upcoming UK general election. 

Following the Winds of Change and Trails on Trial films, discussions were held about creating a national trails framework to unite both new and existing trail organisations. At the beginning of June 2024, the UK MTB Trail Alliance was officially launched to meet that end, bringing together over 100 of the UK’s trail associations, informal trail groups and bike parks to share knowledge and best practices, giving them a voice on a national level. 

As someone with a wide-ranging perspective of discussions that need to take place, Carpenter is a trustee of the newly formed organisation, urging people to “support the crowdfund with what you can to make sure we collectively have a seat at the table where decisions are made.” 

Prior to the official launch, the alliance has ‘already demonstrated the benefits that collaboration and a collective voice can bring’ by engaging with Welsh Cycling to launch the Developing Mountain Biking in Wales project and building rapport with landowners like Forestry England, national governing bodies like British Cycling, and national government departments like DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Carpenter believes “there is disillusionment out there” regarding climate change, but recalls Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer’s speech in a lobbying talk at the 2023 Blue Earth Summit that the ‘bad guys’ are not thinking about whether their knowledge is perfect. It’s about doing what you can, even if it is imperfect. 

“I think it is important to know that advocating for action on climate and having a healthy environment is not like you do it once then it’s done. I think it is an ongoing fight.” 

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Photo credits: Samantha Dugon

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