Has mountain biking started to hit a plateau?
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Well, welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual mountain bike podcast and as you know by now, we cover all aspects of mountain biking. There’s just so many aspects in terms of mountain biking, from events to riders to sponsors to the growth of the sport. Perhaps that’s where we’re going to go to now.
I’m sitting with Andrew Mclean and Andrew, thanks for joining us here. I think let’s try and focus on that and the growth and where mountain biking is now. In the last 5-6 years, has the growth continued, are we looking at a plateauing now in terms of mountain biking?
Andrew McLean: I don’t think we’re seeing the plateau yet Gerald and the growth has been phenomenal. I see a diversification happening. In other words, in the beginning I think it was very event driven and I’m now seeing a different kind of rider coming into our stores. I see us selling more longer travel bikes. In other words, people who are less racy, more looking to enjoy the experience, have a more comfortable ride.
Not so worried about the time that they do it in, more people doing events as in Namaqualand Daisies. I’m going to go ride my bike and explore, I’m going to see different areas; Tour de Mashatu, Tour de Tuli, I see a lot more of that starting to happen. There is more growth there.
Having said that though, the events, the good ones are certainly sold-out and new events are popping up. The one thing is, the bar is very high. The standard of events in South Africa is absolutely world class and weaker events are certainly not going to make it on the calendar.
Do people start getting bored with repeat events?
GDK: Is this a natural progression, these events have now been around for ten years and the people who started them and the riders who rode them for the first time are now riding them for the 8th, 9th and 10th time. They’re starting to get a bit of fatigue about it, tired of it and looking for new challenges?
AM: I think there is an element of that and I think there is kind of this, let’s just take our bikes and go and enjoy an experience where it’s not about time. It’s about enjoying the trails and let’s stop along the way and take a selfie or two. Let’s post a picture on Instagram.
I think those kind of experiences and I happened to go on one a while ago, to Tour de Mashatu. We took a group up of sponsors, suppliers, clients and we had the most wonderful bonding session. If you think the 19th hole of golf was good, this was 10 times better. In fact, we had a number of important golfing people with us who certainly absolutely thrived on it.
Things like electric bikes allowed us to take somebody along with us who would never have been able to keep up or enjoy the experience. He had a wonderful experience because nobody knew when he was using the electric and when he wasn’t. He could keep up quite happily. He had an experience that he would have otherwise not ever have had in his life.
As I keep saying, bicycles can change people’s lives. This took a guy off the couch and gave him an experience, he then got into it and is now training, getting fitter, losing weight and wants to do some events and other experiences.
Newbies continue to take up the sport
GDK: You’re seeing still new people, more people who have never ridden coming into the sport.
AM: Absolutely, without a doubt and one of my measures is just look around at how many cars have bike racks on them at the moment and it’s growing day by day. You sit at a robot, sometimes five out of the 10 cars around you have got a rack of sorts on it and we’re seeing families come in.
For me one of the most exciting parts and the new areas of our business growth is we’re seeing black ladies walk in, middle aged saying, I never got the experience of learning how to ride a bicycle when I was a child, I’d like to get into cycling. Not even with their husbands! We’ve never seen that and that for me is exciting. They want to learn to ride, they want to embrace cycling. Some of them, it might be to ride in the estate with their kids, others it could be to do their first Argus.
It’s amazing because a few months later some of them end up entering three-day events and who knows, going on to ABSA Cape Epics and others it’s just to stay fit and healthy. You’ve just got to look at how the big insurance companies, the Momentum’s, the Discovery’s of the world are embracing cycling. Saying, this is a wonderful way to keep people fit and of course if they’re fit and healthy they cost them less money.
So we’re seeing sponsorship and investment from them as well. I think one of the things you’ve got to remember with, certainly with mountain biking is, you can only have so many people in the field. You can have an Argus with 40 000 people, you certainly cannot have a mountain bike event with 40 000 people. In fact, 2 000-3 000 people is too many people.
On one weekend, in one province, you can have 2-3 events and they can all be sold out. As I said a little earlier, the bar is set high and I think that there isn’t place any longer on the calendar for mediocre or below par events. People expect a certain level and it is still all about the ride. You can have great hospitality and food, but at the end of the day, it’s about the trail, about the experience on the bike and I don’t think anybody should ever forget that.
Mountain bikes outselling road bikes by a massive margin
GDK: In terms of in the retail stores at Cycle Lab, in terms of the sales you’re making in terms of bikes, firstly, road to mountain bike ratio at the moment?
AM: I should imagine we’re probably at about 18 or 19 to one, no guessing which is one. It’s phenomenal the growth and that’s for a number of reasons. Are roads are unsafe, we’ve got great off road events, it lends itself well to the family. We’ve got a fantastic climate for it, so there are bike parks popping up all over, safe places to ride.
There are many, many good reasons for it, but certainly one of them is, if you had a young son or daughter who wanted to get into the sport, would you on a Wednesday afternoon put him on the roads of Jo’burg or take him to a safe bike park and I think that’s why we’re seeing so much growth there.
GDK: You’ve got an enormous spectrum of bikes, in terms of price range, where is the medium, what are the majority of people buying?
AM: The exciting part for us is, most of our sales are still happening around the R8 000 – R15 000 mark and that’s the entry level point. That’s the perfect customer for us because as I said earlier, cycling can change your life.
Bring me a Max Knox or a whoever, he’s got everything, he’s probably sponsored or wants a deal or knows the importer, we’re not going to sell him much and if we do, we’re not going to make any money. Bring me a newcomer to the sport and there’s just so much, they’re like sponges.
They need to join the club, they need to go on skills clinics, they need help at the club and learning how to fix a puncture. Every week they’re improving, they’re upgrading equipment, it just goes on and on. As I say, they want to learn and embrace the sport and it’s fantastic to see how the sport of cycling can change a person’s life.
A competitive spirit never dies
GDK: It’s certainly changed yours. If you look back at a career on the road, you had a fantastic career on the road, but now you’re a mountain biker, if the truth be told.
AM: Well, I’m not sure if everybody still refers to me as a mountain biker, but I certainly enjoy the events. I’ve done most of the road events in the country many times and the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban hasn’t changed that much in ten years.
But you can ride the same trail, Sani2c descent many, many times and every time the conditions are slightly different. Your experience is slightly different and I certainly am thoroughly enjoying it and of course, as I said earlier, in our business, that’s where the growth is and that’s where we want to be.
GDK: But the competitive spirit is still something that runs very deep in you doesn’t it?
AM: Unfortunately. Sometimes I say unfortunately because I think maybe I should start to act my age and just slow down a little bit and see the views and enjoy it. I’m lucky enough to do this year’s Epic with Doug Brown who is possibly one of the strongest, fittest 50+ cyclists in the world, let alone South Africa.
I’m not going to see much and I’m not going to enjoy much, but I’m certainly going to put 100% effort in and I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to have an absolutely epic dice, Udo Bolt, he was Jan Ullrich’s right hand man, coming. Rob Sim, another fantastic athlete.
Then probably two of the best mountain bikers in the world in that category, Barty Bucher and Heinz Zogweg from Austria coming out. I should imagine that it’s got to be one of the most competitive categories. I’ve always said, I’d rather come second or third to world class athletes than have a hollow victory and this year I’ve certainly got my work cut out.
Riding the same as the best no matter your age or ability
GDK: Therein lies one of the great delights of the sport isn’t it, is that here you are, at a reasonably mature age, racing against some of the best around. On world class tracks, on the very same track that the Nino Schurter’s, and Christoph Sauser’s are racing.
AM: That is one of the beauties of mountain biking is that I cannot think of one other sport where you can line up on the same day, on the same course against the world champ and measure yourself. You can go and play a golf course the day after a Pro Am or whatever, but you can’t tee off next to Tiger.
I can start this weekend next to Christoph Sauser, shoulder to shoulder on an 80km stage and measure myself, he had to do the exact same stage, the same day under the same conditions. I can say I was 10% off or whatever I was, and that’s quite nice, it’s a really good benchmark. There are not many sports that can offer you that opportunity.
I think that’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to keep on racing. Age, yes, you certainly slow down and your recovery isn’t quite as good as you get older. But you’ll be amazed, with good training, good nutrition and a little bit of experience as you get more mature, how well you can still do against some of the youngsters.
GDK: Andrew, thanks very much, good luck for that challenge and for the business, long may the sport continue to grow.
AM: Thank you very much Gerald, thanks for having me.
GDK: Andrew McLean who started out Cycle Lab some time ago, out of his garage and it is now something a little bigger than that. It’s a hugely successful business. This has been another edition of our Old Mutual mountain bike podcast.