Monday, May 19, 2014

MTBing And The Economic Benefits Of Drought

The most recent drought to ravage south eastern Australia lasted from 1995 through to 2010 with the last areas not officially being declared drought-free until 2012. Needless to say, this was a very difficult time, particularly for Australia’s agricultural industry. But for many mountain bikers, this period is quite fondly remembered as the “golden age” of off-road racing.

Just to be clear, in Australia, drought is defined as “rainfall over a three-month period being in the lowest decile of what has been recorded for that region in the past.”

To make this simpler for cyclists, and in particular mountain bikers, to understand, it is kind of analogous to the 80% rule in cross-country mountain biking, which dictates that any rider who falls behind by more than 80% of the race leader’s first lap time is pulled from the course. This rule is invoked to prevent the race leaders being impeded by lapped riders out on course.

In this analogy, simply substitute riders for regions, times for rainfall, 80% for 10% and the provisional race results for historical rainfall records – it’s quite simple, really, when you look at it like this.

At various times during this period of drought, farmers' crop yields plummeted due to insufficient rainfall. The dairy and cotton industries were some of the hardest hit, according to many reports, and stock feed also became scarce.

Between 2001 and 2012, the federal government deemed the situation so serious that it provided $4.5 billion in drought assistance.

But while the drought inflicted terrible financial woes on the farming industry, it probably had the opposite effect for mountain bikers. It was dry and there was little mud, so drivetrains lasted a lot longer, likewise brake pads, not to mention all the headset, bottom bracket and hub bearings that weren’t destroyed by mud contamination. These were glorious years to be a mountain biker.

Thanks to Amity & Duncan from The Fitzroy Revolution for this pic of what was left of their brake pads after just one muddy race in Redesdale last year.

Race organisers too, reaped the rewards of this long stretch of dry weather. It would certainly be an interesting exercise to collect data on all the races that were cancelled due to rain since the drought eased and also the drop in event attendances due to wet conditions. I suspect these were not trivial amounts.

So while it’s certainly true that the agricultural industry suffered greatly during this time, it is also important to count the positive impact that the drought had on the sporting event industry when calculating the net cost of this natural disaster. Sure, we might have been facing a shortage of food and other important agricultural commodities, but at least we could be pretty sure that the mountain bike race we’d entered three months in advance would go ahead on dry trails and with little degradation of our precious drivetrains.

Living in the city though, it’s easy to forget that food doesn’t originally come from shops and restaurants, and many of these issues were not as obviously felt. In a large city like Melbourne, for example, water restrictions were probably the biggest disruption to daily life. In April 2007, the city narrowly avoided Stage 4 restrictions, when its storage levels fell to 25.8% of capacity, precariously close to the 25% threshold.

Lake Eildon in Victoria starkly demonstrates the effects of drought...and the evolution of rail transport. 

And while the regulations regarding bike-washing weren’t specified during Stage 3a restrictions, it would generally have been frowned upon to be seen hosing your mountain bike down in the driveway…although you might get less frowns if you did it like this…

…or maybe you'd get the same number of frowns but more smiles. Either way, this would probably not be cool during Stage 3a water restrictions.

But thankfully, during this time of drought, washing your mountain bike was hardly ever required. Personally, I remember this time fondly – for what seemed like the best part of four or five years, all that was really required in the way of bike cleaning was to wipe the dust off your frame with a dry cloth and occasionally lube the chain.

Most races were mud-free and you didn’t have to worry about chewing through chains, cassettes and bearings. A set of brake pads could get you through a whole racing season, rather than just a single race. And forget having to spend 45 minutes after each event hosing and scrubbing your bike before gently chamoising it dry so your chain didn’t rust. Cycle clothing lasted longer and it didn’t take multiple wash loads to get all that filthy mud out. You could even wow people with your bright white mountain bike shoes, multiple times!

During the drought, you didn't have to be Julien Absalon to confidently bust out the bright white shoes.

Yes, this was certainly a good time for mountain bike racing.

This is not to say that the suffering of the farmers and the economic consequences were somehow nullified by the improved mountain biking conditions – rather, that despite this being a time of great hardship, it’s important to also take account of the positive effects.

Obviously, fellow riders from Canada, Great Britain or much of continental Europe would find this idea quite strange. They are more at home racing mountain bikes in mud and their trails are probably a bit more resilient under these conditions, they being more typical of their climate. But in many parts of Australia, the trails just don’t cope with torrential rain followed with ploughing by hundreds (or in some cases thousands) of mountain bikers. For this reason, since the drought broke, some events have had to be called off due to severely inclement weather.

While last weekend's Dirty Gran Fondo was certainly not going to be called off due to the muddy conditions, you can surely appreciate how much additional cost an event like this generates in terms of worn out drivetrains, brake pads, bearings and clothing, as well as all that extra water and detergent for cleaning.

On the plus side though, people do seem to enjoy the photographic opportunities it creates.

While riding in these sorts of conditions is often not favourable, taking photos of it sure is! Photo:James Taylor and James Barlow photography

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