The Soapbox: Is Australian Racing Dying?

So I thought, ‘why not get some feedback?’ Maybe it might lead to better events, in whatever format. Or maybe I’ll just be ostracised after publishing what may well be the thoughts of an idiot.

Some background: In the past I raced a lot, and I was an event organiser for two events in the Central West of New South Wales (the Ginja Ninja and the Back Yamma Bigfoot). For various reasons I don’t race a lot now and I’ve hit event organising on the head after the Ginja Ninja earlier this year. I admit, this clearly makes me a contributor to the (alleged) mass exodus from racing myself, but I’m keen to understand other people’s perspectives on why racing is on the decline.

Rodney Farrell. Ex event organiser and now infrequent racer.
Rodney Farrell. Ex event organiser and now infrequent racer.

I should add that I haven’t contacted Mountain Biking Australia (MTBA) or any other event promoters for actual figures that substantiate the claim that there has been a decline in racing numbers. But you only need to look at the anecdotal evidence to get a pretty good picture. Events that used to sell out in hours often don’t sell out at all. 24hr races that you had to scramble to get into have dropped right off. And now I see event organisers on social media almost pleading for entries, in New South Wales and further afield.

I have a few hunches on why racing numbers are down. Let’s start with the easy one: the expense.

Did events get too expensive? Were they always too expensive? Or didn’t they change with the times? Perhaps all three?

I don’t have an issue with professional event organisers making a good living or clubs making a healthy amount from an event. Having organised several events (hopefully good events) I understand the costs involved and the potential for making money and making a loss. But… has anyone else noticed the increasingly empty competitor pack? A few years ago when you signed on to an event you got the t-shirt, socks, the water bottle; I would think – that’s great, even though I didn’t really need them, it was just more to add to the collection but it served as a nice little memento from the event. Then I would come back another year and now the t-shirt wasn’t in the competitor pack. No biggie. But then when they took away the water bottle or socks, I started to think ‘what’s going on here?’ The entry fees certainly weren’t getting any cheaper.

24hr events have definitely declined in popularity. Why?
24hr events have definitely declined in popularity. Why?

Not so long ago I did a popular 100/50km marathon, I went and signed on, received a nice glossy goodie bag from a nutrition company, grabbed my number plate and wandered away. The race was fun, well-organised, great trails and I got the chocolate spoon award – 4th place. But my lingering memory is in the empty space of that goodie bag. The empty space that used to hold a drink bottle, maybe t-shirt or a pair of socks, some nutrition products, and the obligatory ‘gumpf’. This bag was now empty except for some flyers promoting the organiser’s own upcoming events. This got me thinking… I didn’t need to use a port a loo (the event set up meant that not many riders would have), I didn’t stop at the feed station (I did the 50km option) and my competitor pack didn’t have anything in it. I reckon that’s a pretty poor return on my investment!

Sure I race for fun, but I still want substance from an event. I still want to feel there’s value.

Another thought on what may be contributing to the decline is the effect of Strava. Surely I’m not the only one who thinks that it has had a huge effect on the numbers racing?

I should make my position clear, I use Strava, it collates my rides and I use it in moments of reflection. Do I ride for KOMs? Hell no, I ride for fun. That’s another article and argument I don’t want to get involved in. Of course I feel all the reasons that I have identified have their part to play and I am not sure on their apportioning, but for sure riders are Strava’ing rides, rather than racing.

My reasoning is, when the big marathons had 1500 riders there were a lot of mates there, racing each other, not the rest of the field. At the end they had their result amongst their group; their newly established pecking order, plus they could see how they stacked up against the broader community of riders. I see these same groups of mates are still riding, but now Strava’ing their rides.

They can still get their group pecking order and they can see where they stand in the grand scheme of things on Strava now, just as they once did by attending an event.

On the theme of technology, a number of handy little devices are now making it easier to find and ride trails that would have previously only been accessible during an event. Plus there are simply more great trails out there now, and they’re easier to find than ever. Events used to be a way to discover new places to ride, but that’s not such an issue any more.

What about the number of events? Could the decline in racing be contributed to by an oversupply of events? Did the calendar get suffocated? Or were there not enough events, or perhaps not enough diversity?

Gravity Enduro racing has definitely attracted new riders to racing, and probably drawn racers from other types of racing too.
Gravity Enduro racing has definitely attracted new riders to racing, and probably drawn racers from other types of racing too.

Moving forward, it looks like the racing landscape is changing. There is an influx of Gravity Enduro events which are increasingly well attended. But the number of people racing these doesn’t come close to balancing out the decline in racer numbers from the peak of marathon and 24hr racing 6-8 years ago.

It’s clear that there will be less events moving forward. Sadly from the perspective of an (ex) event organiser the dwindling numbers, coupled with a lack of support from other stakeholders (for example local council, tourism authorities) plus the red tape in regards to traffic management and the like now tips the balance against event organisation.

It’s a no-brainer than an influx of 300-400 riders and their support family/friends coming to a town for an event is hugely beneficial to the community. It’s unfortunate that local stakeholders haven’t given the events the attention or resource deserved, or fostered an environment that was conducive to running an event with minimal administrative angst.

Local councils could surely subsidise some expenses, like promotion costs or forestry fees. Then the events would have been cheaper to run, entries could have been more affordable, organisers could have offered more, the event may have been more enticing to riders.

Another option: Can we attribute the decline in racing to mountain bike tourism? I mean, who hasn’t ridden at Rotorua? (If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and ride Rotorua.) There are Aussies flying all around the world to ride now. Domestically, mountain bike tourism is going nuts – there are bunches of mates taking a week, or long weekends away, just to ride, not to race. This never used to happen.

With the proliferation of new trails and trail centres, riders have more options for travelling just to ride, rather than race, on great trails, like here in Derby.
With the proliferation of new trail centres, riders have more options for travelling just to ride, rather than race, on great trails, like here in Derby.

A few weeks ago I came across a group of five middle-aged (probably 44-55 year old) men who came through town from Queensland. Initially they drove to Thredbo, then up to Orange and on to Newcastle. They were on a drive-one-day-ride-the-next ‘Wild Hogs’ week. They all had trail bikes and whilst I’m sure they might have occasionally raced, their focus for this trip was purely fun.

In terms of the sport’s administration, perhaps they’re to blame too? It would be great to see MTBA supporting the clubs/private promoters more. Surely there’s a role for them there in streamlining the paperwork involved with event organising, liaising with the Police or Forestry on event promoters’ behalves? The last event my small crew and I organised we encountered several paper work road blocks that stalled us badly. Consequently entries opened much later than anticipated. It seems that each year the risk management bar is raised higher and unforeseen issues are raised. This is surely having an impact on event promoters’ motivation to push through the red tape.

So, party people, I ask you: why aren’t you racing?

Is it too expensive, was racing over crowded, not enough fun? Have you shifted your riding focus, or has Strava consumed you? And if you have stopped, what would make you get back into it? What do you want from racing that is not currently being offered?


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