The Top 5 Mountain Bike Magazines

Before internet videos became the craze, there were only two ways to explore the trails. The first and best way was to get on your bike and ride. Clad in safety pads or spandex shorts astride a steel or aluminum steed you would shred, spin and discover the world with your only confines being the exertion of your muscles and the fierce beauty of nature. The second way to explore was found in mountain bike magazines. It was here that you could learn about bold adventures in far away places or see results from the big races and learn the details about new technology and products. Full color photos told tales of guts, glory and inspiration for anyone desiring a good read of their favorite pastime.

So how does one determine which to read? Mountain bike magazines come in different styles with different attitudes and intentions. Some talk directly to their audience while others demonstrate a flashy display full of shiny frames and smiling celebrity riders. In preparation for this article I have endeavored to thumb through thousands of glossy pages to pin down the five magazines that deserve your well earned dollars. Hundreds of hours of reading and tons of fan feedback have been taken into account. I carried these books around with me. They were stacked in the gym, the car, at work, in every room of the house and for weeks on end I never stopped reading. I also conversed with some of the magazines to measure their responses.

The final result was less surprising than you might imagine, the top five have done a good job of creating a quality product suitable to their specific market. It was a tough process but each part was considered and evaluated based on the following merits - literary content, visual imagery, responsiveness, popularity and reviews. Now let's take a look at each to see who stood out and why.

Literary Content - This is where stories come to life, where the observations and experiences of columnists, contributors and editors turn words into meaning and emotion. For example, have you ever read an article that made you say, "Holy Sh*#! This is about my riding life!" I had that experience with a recent article in Switchback Magazine. It was the kind of story that summed up decades of life experience in five pages of prose. Props to Switchback, Dirt Rag and Bike Magazine for regularly publishing stories of this type.

Dirt Rag also deserves props for being the only one to feature fiction on their pages as part of a yearly literature contest. These contests turn readers into published writers who often win impressive awards. In addition DR brings light to trail access issues which are a pivotal part of our sport. If you prefer the other side of the pond Mountain Bike Rider (MBR) and Dirt Magazine educate and inform from a Eurocentric point of view. MBR uses a colorful blurb format to stack their pages with nutrition tips, bike hacks and how to's, including full color stories and maps. Dirt Magazine gets props for assembling the best coverage of Downhill racing and the rising Enduro scene.

They say the history of boxing is defined by the heavyweight division. Well, the history of mountain biking has been defined by the progression of West Coast and North Shore riding. Bike and Dirt Rag have contributed significantly to this important genre for years but most recently it has been Freehub which has provided never before told stories of the struggles behind the shovels. Add to that a meaningful look into the lives of celebrity athletes and they have truly raised the bar on content.

Visual Imagery - With snapshots, cartoons, artwork and landscapes, photographers have captured our shred with their shutters and artists have redefined our dreams with their imaginations. While many of the published pics are virtually interchangeable, one magazine with a remarkable vision is Freehub. This coffee table sized mag is brimming with award winning photography from Paris Gore and gallery worthy cover art by Jeff Boyes. They inch ahead of the competition in a field full of worthy adversaries.

Among the worthy is Dirt Rag whose full color drawings both cover and internal are utterly unforgettable. They allow us to see mountain biking from an otherworldly perspective. Once again, Dirt Rag dares to be different. However, the largest mag with the biggest pictures is Decline. Not only do they fill the pages with amazing panoramas, they have also been daring in their approach. One issue was published in full 3D and came with the glasses so readers could see the bikes jumping right off the page.

It would be a crime not to mention the online versions of these magazines. Most every mag has one but International Mountain Bike Magazine (IMB) and Decline have web versions that are both easily accessible and FREE! These include videos on their pages that relate to the story or advertisement thus making each read an interactive experience. I suspect we will see much more of this in the future.

Responsiveness - Mountain bike magazines pride themselves on being "Community Driven," the voice of the rider, a type of "Mountain Bike Forum" where everyone has a say. However, which magazines are actually listening? I made attempts to contact several of these magazines for the sake of this article. I did not pester them like a journalist would, I simply sent them a message or e-mail like a typical reader. The differences in response were dramatic. For now, I'll give you the positive results.

I received responses from Dirt, Freehub and Mountain Bike Action but the best respondents were MBR and Bike Magazine. Mountain Bike Rider Magazine (MBR) is enthusiastic about their product and was happy to share their numbers. They launched in England in 1988 and started with trail riders but have expanded their audience to a circulation of 23,000 with about 10,000 subscriptions. "What we try to do is combine great photos and inspiring features with serious, critical testing," said their Editor. Despite their UK focus MBR has more than enough content to benefit riders here in the states.

As for Bike Magazine, not only did their Online Editor reply to my inquiry within the hour, he was incredibly helpful in providing a vision for their product. I was also happy to see that in their Letters to the Editor section, Bike had apologized for a poorly picked article they had published. They thanked the readers for their feedback and promised to do a better job. You never see that kind of earnest responsibility anymore. They should be commended for it.

Popularity - Some magazines are wealthier than others, some have a wider reach or more newsstand availability but which has the most passionate followers? I put up an informal poll on the IMBA Facebook group knowing that I would get a cross section of readers. Three magazines immediately dived into the lead - Dirt Rag, Mountain Bike Action and Bike Magazine drove the numbers. All others fell to the wayside, stuck in single digits. It was a telling, though unscientific, slice of info.

Facebook popularity tells a similar tale. MBA leads the pack with 230,000 likes, Dirt Magazine takes second with over 180,000 and Singletrack Magazine took third with 160,000. If anything, these numbers are an indicator of the level of social media savvy or focus possessed by the company in question.

Reviews - Almost every magazine conducts reviews of some type. Whether it be bikes, products, trails or events, any expression of value is a kind of review. I'm not a big enough bike geek to tell which magazines know more than any other. What I did notice is that some have better reputations or more notable stories that readers refer to on a regular basis.

At the top of the list is the "Shootout," a regular feature in Mountain Bike Action where bikes are put head to head against each other with a handful of riders on varying terrain to make a judgement. The Shootout has become the industry standard for measuring performance and it is cited more often than any other feature in any mountain bike magazine.

As for reputation, Dirt Rag is often given kudos for their long testing period and thorough examinations. MBR, Switchback and Dirt Magazine should be applauded for their honesty and frankness. However, the big guns come out only once a year. That is when Bike Magazine puts out its Bible of Bike Tests which highlights dozens of products in one sought after issue. Decline also has a yearly review issue that focuses on longer travel bikes. Both are worthy of a read even if your not in the market for a new bike.

The Top 5 - Now that you've read the analysis, it's time for the breakdown. These five have been picked both for their contributions and their trajectory. Each is worthy of being on top but it is the little details that determine greatness. Enjoy.

#5 Dirt Magazine

Dirt caters proudly to the race oriented crowd. Those who love Freeride, Enduro, Downhill and Dirt Jump are served and respected by this magazine. They are deeply bike park focused and on top of the European scene. They employ the voices of elite riders who use their own words to speak about the issues of the day. Being early adopters of the growing sport of Enduro suggests that their audience might grow right along with it.

Personal Note: It took me several days to read one issue of Dirt. I kept learning new things and felt the need to let each sink in before moving forward. The magazine continually surprised me with its diversity of voices. Dirt has a high shelf price but their content is totally worth it.

#4 Freehub Magazine

Freehub Magazine - Freehub is a relatively new magazine based out of Washington State with a strong focus on the west coast and Canada. This magazine is built on behind the shovel stories, comprehensive trail analysis and celebrity rider interviews. These are especially noteworthy when bordered by award winning photography from Paris Gore and gallery worthy cover art by Jeff Boyes. Freehub is an over sized seasonal book with articles so beautifully structured that your non-mountain biking friends will want to read them. Be sure to leave it on your coffee table when you have company over and see what happens.

Personal Note: Freehub is my new baby. I love this magazine with an inappropriate zeal. I get lost in its articles and itch for each new issue. If it's still around in another ten years I see it reaching the top of the list.

#3 Bike Magazine

Bike Magazine - Based out of California, Bike Magazine has had a long and celebrated career in the MTB world. They have been steaming steady for 20 years built on the strength of the trail ride and a sheer love of the bike. Their columns are personal and identifiable. Their stories are a mix of epic treks, historical throwbacks and trail expose's. Bike is a building block in the MTB community but the best argument for their mission was sent to me by 15 year Staff Editor Vernon Felton:

"Our goal is to tell the unheralded stories—to celebrate the kooks, the unknown trails, the unexplored story angles. It is the act of riding that matters. We’ve never cured cancer or made our readers fitter and faster, but I know we’ve persuaded some people to ditch their responsibilities in search of a little sweat, dirt and adventure. I call that success."

#2 Dirt Rag Magazine

After 25 years in business and with 22,000 subscriptions plus a pass along rate of 100,000 readers, Dirt Rag is easily one of the most recognizable of the MTB titles in America. Despite being based in the northeast, DR's readership is well balanced across the United States. The Rag has top notch writing reaching events both local and worldwide plus excellent photography and a reputation for staying on top of trail access issues. DR rates among the best in product and bike reviews. They also have one thing no other title has dared - a yearly Literature Contest. You get all of this for one of the lowest subscription rates in the business paired with the coolest cover art ever produced.

Personal Note: I lost my Dirtginity to Dirt Rag. They were my first. They published a letter of mine and later a short story. I enter the literature contest every year. I used to ride regularly with one of their columnists, the Old Coot Bill Boles. I will be forever loyal to the Rag.

#1 Mountain Bike Action Magazine

MBA is the King of Mountain Bike Magazines. They have the widest audience, the largest online following, the most cited articles and some of the best reviews in the business. Most importantly, this is the magazine that new riders start with. Why? MBA is bright, clean, visual and fun to read. They do not discriminate between types of riders. They are positive and encouraging. They champion the sport. In their pages you can learn about everything from DH racing to trail riding, from celebrity personalities to little known trail systems, from basic bike maintenance to advanced concepts and designs. MBA is professional in their presentation but often humorous in their approach. They have something for everyone.

Personal Note: MBA was more like my dealer. They got me hooked on bike porn. I would do anything to get a copy. If mountain biking is an addiction, MBA is a charismatic pusher who seems to genuinely like you, not just as a customer but as a friend.

Flat Tires

When you bury yourself in hundreds of magazines, you do appreciate all the good stuff but you also can't help but to notice the flaws. When you get bit by the same bug often enough, it really starts to bother. I knew I needed to speak up but I decided to save my criticisms for last. This pain and pun filled paragraph is meant to give the magazines a heads up on where they need to improve. Clench your teeth and squeeze the grips because it's all down hill from here.

* Hey Dirt Rag, you sullied the legacy of Missy Giove by not understanding the negative consequences of tabloid journalism. You later defended the interview! I can suddenly see why you've had 3 Editors in the last 5 years. * So the new GT Sensor is coming out in 2104? Really? One or two spelling mistakes can be overlooked but I read an issue of Switchback where there were grammatical errors in almost every article. Hey guys, it's called a proofreader, get one! * When you define your mission by all the things you're not, "We don't cover the race scene. We don't do shootouts." This negative boasting insults a huge swath of your potential audience. Bike magazine needs to knock that big ole chip off their shoulder. * Finally, Mountain Bike Actions Editor Jimmy Mac doesn't know what sarcasm sounds like. That is so heartbreaking. And still we Shred.

Disclaimer: No animals were harmed during the making of this story. Special thanks to: Walker "Christmas" Ranger (The Orange Cat), Moochy (The Brown Dog) and Mouse (The Raccoon).

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