From its inception more than three decades ago, the New England Mountain Bike Association has boasted strong female voices, from co-founder Heidi Davis to former president Krisztina Holly, founding director of MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Now NEMBA has its first female executive director — Olympian Nicole Freedman.
“This is a job of passion,” said the 50-year-old mother of 7-year-old Ella. “You get to work on what you love, where every interaction with people throughout the day is one that energizes you. In the outdoor recreation world, people are inspired. They’re positive, they’re happy people. And I see that for myself.”
Freedman, who assumed the reins at NEMBA late last month, has built a career of representing others. The Wellesley native represented her country at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, , as a member of the United States cycling team (road race). In 2008, she was tabbed Boston’s “bike czar” (officially, she led the “Boston Bikes” initiative), and helped transform the state’s capital into one of the nation’s friendliest cities for cyclists, according to the League of American Bicyclists , establishing bike lanes and launching a bike share program.
“We were one of the first cities in the country to have a bike share system,” said Freedman, a Somerville resident. “We launched with 60 stations, and then the next year added 110, and brought in Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. Now it’s over 4,000 bikes at 400 stations. That was the real leap of faith. It was transformational.”
At NEMBA, Freedman takes over an organization that has roots in Eastern Massachusetts, but now represents every state in the region, with more than 30 chapters and more than 8,000 members overseeing thousands of miles of trail. Established to advocate for mountain bikers who wanted equal access to public lands along with hikers, runners, and equestrians, NEMBA successfully earned admission, and its members developed a reputation as responsible trail stewards, emphasizing trail etiquette and maintenance.
Freedman is now the steward of that legacy.
“It’s NEMBA’s 35th anniversary, and they’ve done tremendous work,” said Freedman, who attended MIT and Stanford. “As it moves into its next phase, a big focus of NEMBA will be, ‘How do we continue what we’ve been doing, and also make this sport accessible to everyone, to be as welcoming as possible to young people, old people, people of all genders and gender identities, people of all races, economic strata, in urban, suburban, and rural communities?’
“Ultimately, everyone can try mountain biking, just like everyone can walk their dog or go for a hike,” she said. “It should just be another way to enjoy the outdoors.”
Freedman acknowledged that NEMBA, during its formative years, was more homogenous, with everyone committed to the shared goals of trail access and trail maintenance. But with expansion comes diversity, and a difference of opinions based on how people ride, what they ride, and where they ride. NEMBA’s diversity, said Freedman, is an opportunity.
“The conversation and the disagreements are important, because it’s all about carving the best way to capture the benefits of having increased accessibility for more people, but also preserving the trails, and making sure it works for all the trail users,” she said.
One hot-button topic facing Freedman, and NEMBA, is the growing popularity of electric mountain bikes, or e-bikes. These pedal-assist bicycles allow more people — especially older cyclists or those with physical limitations — to ride. But they’ve also drawn criticism from certain user groups that don’t want them on trails that are currently set aside for “non-motorized use.”
“It’s clear that e-bikes are here, and they allow more people to enjoy mountain biking,” said Freedman. “So when we talk about bringing on young riders, bringing on senior citizens, bringing on people who are just starting to move their bodies, e-bikes make mountain biking really welcoming and accessible. It can definitely be done sustainably in the context of all the other trail users.”
NEMBA’s official e-bike policy will likely be modified as more data is processed, said Freedman, though an updated “position statement” can be found on the organization’s website. This careful, analytical approach, recognizing the opinions of land managers and users alike, is a NEMBA trademark. It also underscores one of NEMBA’s strengths — a collection of individual chapters that allows members to concentrate on issues in their own backyard, said Freedman.
“The chapter structure is so important, because when you go for a bike ride, you’re typically biking locally and you’re meeting the people that live near you,” she said. “Those relationships matter, between bikers, between bikers and hikers, other people using the trails, and the land managers. It’s very local.
“Those connections are critical. From my perspective, you just have to work really hard and listen a lot,” Freedman said. “There are so many nuances to every different location, you just have to be flexible and adapt. NEMBA now has a lot more staff than a few years ago, and that helps us to provide more support to all the various chapters. As NEMBA continues to grow in popularity, the more people join us, we need to be prepared, and have the staffing and capacity to help them out.”