Interview: Tim Blumenthal, Bikes Belong
Tim Blumenthal is the executive director of Boulder, Colorado-based Bikes Belong, the U.S. bike industry association dedicated to putting more people on bicycles more often. Blumenthal previously served 11 years as the executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Under his leadership, IMBA grew from a single staffer and $60,000US annual budget into the world‘s largest mountain bike advocacy group with a staff of 24 and a budget of $2.1 millionUS.
Blumenthal began his cycling work as a cycling journalist, serving as an editor for VeloNews from 1980-84. He later became the managing editor of Mountain Bike Magazine and the racing editor of Bicycling Magazine. He was a top editor/writer at Rodale Press for nearly a decade. He has also worked as a TV commentator for more than 35 ESPN and OLN mountain bike programs. He has served as the scriptwriter and consultant for the US network TV cycling coverage of the last six Summer Olympic Games.
He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife of 25 years, Lise (a fifth grade teacher). They have two grown children.
BR: Tim, Bikes Belong has turned a corner in regard to rallying the US bike industry to focus on bigger issues pertaining to a healthier future. Tell us about this.
The US bike industry is working smarter than ever. We’re improving the process of developing, producing, and shipping products; how we sell them; how we communicate with our customers; and the ways we work to encourage people to ride.
The industry has unified under the Bikes Belong umbrella. At the same time, we all recognize that we also need partners outside the bike business to get more people riding. We’re talking about government leaders at all levels, foundation partners, allies in the health community, media, and companies that sell consumer products. We’re developing these types of alliances.
Bicycling is a time-tested answer to so many of the issues that dominate the front pages of US newspapers. Bicycling can help reduce obesity, sedentary lifestyles, road congestion, air pollution, global warming and dependence on foreign oil. I think more Americans are starting to recognize this. They already know bicycling is fun. While many people hesitate to embrace something [cycling] that is time-tested, simple and easy to start, I think bicycling is increasingly seen as a solution. Still, we have a long way to go on this.
BR: You’ve been involved in bicycle advocacy before, with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). Tell us about how that organization grew under your leadership, and the impact it has had.
I became IMBA’s first full-time employee in 1993. I started as a volunteer board member in 1989 when I was an editor for Bicycling Magazine. Lots of other people did lots of work to prepare IMBA to “go pro;” all I really did was follow them.
The time was right. Mountain biking was growing fast, and trail access was threatened coast to coast and beyond. Mountain biking had an image problem. So we got really involved in trail maintenance and construction and other volunteer stewardship work. We spent time in Washington, DC to properly represent off-road riding and correct negative stereotyping. We developed a large individual membership base, a fair amount of corporate support, and we started to gain the backing of major U.S. corporations.
When I left for Bikes Belong in 2004, IMBA’s annual budget was more than $2 millionUS, we had two dozen employees, and I think we were widely respected as a professional and reliable group. During the three years since then, the organization has continued to grow and prosper. Today, mountain bikers are widely recognized as committed stewards of public land. IMBA is stronger than ever.
BR: How has the bike industry matured in regard to political lobbying?
The short answer is, we now know the drill. We understand how Congress works; the committee system, the timetable of legislation, the hearing process and how the election cycle affects things.
A few years ago, Bikes Belong formed a political action committee called BikesPAC. We donate money to support the re-election campaigns of members of Congress who support bicycling. We donate equally to Republicans and Democrats. We are “bike partisan,” as Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon likes to say. BikesPAC has worked well for us. It’s a relatively small PAC, but it has helped build awareness of Bikes Belong and key bike issues on Capitol Hill.
Bikes Belong is only part of the bicycling political lobbying team. Experts from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the League of American Bicyclists, the Thunderhead Alliance, IMBA, and other national groups are key members of our team. We help with actual lobbying and we serve as a major financial supporter of this work.
BR: How can readers of bikeradar.com help get more people on bikes more often?
Everyone in bicycling can welcome newcomers to riding and then consistently support them. All of us who have been riding for years know all kinds of secrets: where to ride, what to wear, what to bring, how to make it fun, and how to make it practical. We need to reach out to people who don’t ride and gently encourage them.
All of us need to be ready to stand up and express support for new facilities and other key programs that improve bicycling. Part of this process is regularly complimenting elected officials who back bicycling projects. We need to be visible and steady in this, and not limit our involvement to times when the politics are intense.
Every local, state and national bike group is working hard to make bicycling better for all of us. They need membership support and/or generous contributions. Every little bit helps.
Finally, we just need to ride the talk by pedalling whenever and wherever we can. We don’t need to be preachy but we can lead by example.