Words by Huw Kingston | Images by Flowtographer, Damian Breach, Mark Watson, Incite Images, Aurora Images, Jordan Cole

Is Australian racing dying? Entrants numbers at some of our country’s best events are on the decline, while the sport overall is going from strength to strength. To an outsider it doesn’t stack up, so we asked an insider for their perspective instead. Huw Kingston of Wild Horizons is a well known, long standing event promoter, whose events have been (and still are) some of the country’s biggest. Here’s his perspective on the changing events scene.


Earlier this week, Flow published a bloody excellent article by Rodney Farrell. For the last year or more I’ve been surprised the MTB media hadn’t picked up on this, so good on Flow and on Rodney for doing so. I returned home to Australia a couple of months ago from a long ‘road trip’ lasting more than a year and, whilst away, often pondered the question that Rodney has gone some way to answering (I certainly hadn’t considered the impact of Strava though – perhaps I’m too much of a Strava avoider to have been blind).

Is the clock ticking for some of Australia's longest running events?

Is the clock ticking for some of Australia’s longest running events?

I too, like Rodney am an event organiser and I think it’s fair to say Wild Horizons is amongst the longest established organisers of mass participation MTB events in Australia. Back in the mists of time, in 1997, we set off down a long trail of MTB events with our Polaris Challenge. Then – and some still now – the Urban Polaris, Highland Fling, Mountains To Beach, 3 Ring Circus, Rock&Road…..

Back in those early years we could pick any weekend we liked without having to even consider what else was going on. Now perhaps it has come full circle and you almost don’t need to consider other events as it’s almost a given there will be plenty to conflict with whatever you do.

The entertainment, the trepidation, the pain, the pleasure, the laughter, the tears, the food, the beer, the mateship, the prizes, the contribution to regional communities.

For 11 years with the Polaris Challenge we’d drag 600-700 people off to a new destination for 2 days. We didn’t even tell riders until 2 weeks beforehand where we were going! We’d take over a small village and a whole area of forest and farm, seeking out tracks and trails. We’d camp, dress up as cows or Dr Frankenfurter or worse. It opened up eyes as to places to ride; destinations.

IMG_0482

Are stage races the new growth area of Australian racing? Maybe, maybe not. If so, then it would buck the notion that cost is driving people away from racing, as stage races are generally not a cheap exercise.

I’ve loved witnessing the growth of the sport, the growth in events, the growth of trail networks and those MTB destinations. I’ve competed (and I use that term loosely) in hundreds here and overseas and still get a buzz from the whole event experience. As an organiser I get that same buzz from seeing riders and their families enjoying and enduring the event experience – the entertainment, the trepidation, the pain, the pleasure, the laughter, the tears, the food, the beer, the mateship, the prizes, the contribution to regional communities…….

Port-to-Port-MTB-34

The market, like all markets, has and should refresh its produce. 12+ years ago it was all about 12/24 Hour racing, then 6+ years ago came the turn of the Marathons, then a flourish of Stage Races (which many media pundits said was the next ‘big thing’ but in reality, given the commitments of time and money, could never really be so). Now I have come home to Gravity Enduro in the news. This is, I think, another result of now having excellent trail networks on which to entertain ourselves.

Event entries probably peaked in 2011-2012… Since that time entries have been on a steady decline.

Event entries probably peaked in 2011-2012. How good was it to sell out a marathon in a day, stick the money in the bank, do nothing for 4 months then bang in a few signs, grab a mic and warble for a day with a town full of people? Since that time entries have been on a steady decline. Hardly a major event has bucked the trend (with few notable exceptions like the Cape to Cape). Even some of those quoted in the comments to Rodney’s articles as ‘growing’ have actually fallen markedly. Our Highland Fling had over 2200 riders in 2011 and last year was down to about 1300. Our 3 Ring Circus had over 800 in 2011 and next week will be something like 350 when we run it for the 7th and final time. As much as I love the event, eventually it becomes more sane to spend the same money on a new bike and bugger off on a road trip…….

There's  little doubt there has been tremendous growth in the social side of mountain biking. Could that be a reason for declining race numbers?

Mates going for trail ride or a road trip. Bloody good fun. But could the increase in the informal mountain bike scene be a reason for declining race numbers?

Certainly, as Rodney alluded to, there are now a vast array of destinations for people to head to; to load up the car, ride great trails, drink local beers and wines and fuel up on excellent food. But it may be worth remembering that many of these destinations came about by event promoters and clubs developing trails with a primary function of putting on events; whether local club events or bigger ones. Purely as examples the Flow Trail at Thredbo was developed in part after we showed that it was possible to create an XC line down from the Top Station of the chairlift which we did each year for our Mountains To Beach stage race. Similarly the impetus for better trails at Lake Crackenback Resort was the same event. The great trails in Wingello Forest were originally developed with the impetus of events and are of course now there for all to enjoy. This is mirrored across the country.

Of course this, in itself, is no reason for sticking with the events.

Mont 24 2014

Yes, event promoters can make good money out of a well-run event. But there are also enormous expenses and risks. Last year’s last-minute washout of the Mont 24 should highlight this pretty clearly.

Cost is absolutely a consideration in everything we do to entertain ourselves and we, as race organisers, must understand that we compete against a thousand other demands for dollars not just against some dozens of other MTB events. No-one I know has made a fortune running MTB events and I am sometimes surprised at the occasional criticism made of so called private promoters as if it is OK for big brands, big (or small) shops to sell bikes/bike bling and make a living but not for someone to offer an entertainment product where you can use that bling. And of course the more the numbers fall the harder it is to maintain the entry price – things are much cheaper in bulk and sponsors understandably start to question their contributions if numbers are decreasing. So we have just put up the entry price for the 2015 Fling for the first time since 2011, a risky strategy perhaps, but I am not interested in putting on ‘cost and corner cutting’ events. But like all businesses if we don’t give the customer want then ultimately we close the doors (and bugger off on another road trip…..)

Are riders looking for new styles of events? Perhaps with less of a racing focus, like the Melrose Fat Tyre Festival.

Are riders looking for new styles of events? Perhaps with less of a racing focus, like the Melrose Fat Tyre Festival.

Like all entertainment, we have to keep it fresh; bring in new aspects and events. Sure the way we approach our events – themes, course modifications etc hopefully does this but it has not stopped the slide. This year at the Fling we are introducing the Some Fling, a shorter distance aimed primarily at junior (13-16) racers; a gap I’d happily to admit we’ve always had between our U-12 Kids Fling, non competitive Casual Fling and minimum 16 Half Fling. This year we are also introducing The Bundy Run, a Trail Running event on the Saturday. Whilst we’re not expecting many to run Saturday and ride Sunday we do recognise that MTB events are still an 80/20 M/F split. Trail running is something approaching 50/50. So The Bundy Run gives families a better chance of something for everyone. One parent does the Trail Run on Saturday; the other the Fling on Sunday and there’s always someone to look after the kids.

I had to chuckle recently when I received an email from the local council informing me that ‘A recent economic development summit has identified the Shire as having an opportunity market itself as a cycle tourism destination.’

Rodney is right about many local regions not quite ‘getting’ the impact of MTB tourism or events. Some absolutely do; increasingly so. As a case in point, in my home shire which is also home to the Fling, the 3 Ring Circus as well as the Willo and assorted other cycling events, we have had close to zero support from our local Council or Tourism over the past decade. This when, conservatively, the events have put some ten million dollars into the local area and up towards half a million dollars have been raised by local community groups and charities. And this does not include the flow on effect of people coming to ride/stay all year round. I had to chuckle recently when I received an email from the local council informing me that ‘A recent economic development summit has identified the Shire as having an opportunity market itself as a cycle tourism destination.’ I wonder what they think has been going on this past decade? And many of my grey hairs have come from hard won battles with bureaucracies where, particularly in NSW, it is easier to say ‘No, it’s too much work for me or might adversely affect my risks’ than to say ‘Yes, what a great idea for tourism and health. Now how do we make it happen within the bounds of public safety and risk management?

The Cannonball MTB Festival in Thredbo has adopted the same approach as the Bike Buller Festival, with multiple events over one weekend.

The Cannonball MTB Festival in Thredbo has adopted the same approach as the Bike Buller Festival, with multiple events over one weekend.

  What also seems apparent is that it is not just mountain bike events that are suffering but music festivals, village shows and other outdoor activities are too.

Since coming home I’ve been talking with other event organisers, bike industry figures, riders and others like food vendors. Absolutely without doubt per event numbers are falling (your evidence was certainly not anecdotal Rodney) but it is hard to know whether it is the same number of people spread across a larger number of events. Personally I think not. What also seems apparent is that it is not just mountain bike events that are suffering but music festivals, village shows and other outdoor activities are too. Again, so much choice, so much competition for the dollar, so few weekends. Perhaps we should all be campaigning for a shorter working week with a ‘short weekend’ every Wednesday? 104 weekends a year………

It has been very interesting to see the increasing crossover of road and MTB in the last 3-4 years. It is a key reason why we introduced our Rock&Road event this year. But what I have very much noticed since I’ve been back is the number of committed mountain bikers who used to ride occasionally on the road who are now committed roadies who ride occasionally on the dirt. Why is this? Is it the profile of road cycling? Is it the reduction in the amount of maintenance, cleaning, laundry? As someone who loves the sounds and smells of the bush, loves the relative safety of mountain biking and loves being dirty, I find this surprising. And yes I do ride a roadie too.

IMG_1234

Giveaways/Goodie Bags are an interesting area. We try (try being the operative word) to have a strong element of sustainability in what we do. So when it comes to giving away things we really do think about the usefulness and quality of the items and the need or otherwise for a bag to put them in. So, using the Fling as an example, we have given away $20 bottles of local wine, $15 CamelBak water bottles, hydration packs, bladders, firestarter flints (well it was the Flingstones theme….), bananas (when they were $18/kilo after Cyclone Larry).

 The number of committed mountain bikers who used to ride occasionally on the road who are now committed roadies who ride occasionally on the dirt.

We have never done cheap water bottles and in 20 years have never given away T-shirts. It is a difficult balancing act and I accept that this is potentially fraught as, whilst we might lay out our sustainability credentials not everyone will support that and may avoid the event in the belief we are cheapskates. None of these giveaways are free though. It is rare these days for a sponsor to say ‘here’s 1500 widgets’ particularly if you are chasing 1500 quality widgets.

So thanks again Rodney for writing on the topic and time will continue to tell what happens to the event scene. As mountain bikers we’re lucky to have an ever increasing canvas across Australia and NZ on which to entertain ourselves – destinations, events, tours – and the bike bling to decorate them. That’s healthy.

close