Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Murky Underworld Of Corporate Contributions And Wheel Size Segregation

I was starting to think that the wheel size wars were finally petering out until a recent trip to Rotorua in New Zealand confirmed that not only is the debate still alive and well, but that it may actually be evolving in to a recognised form of segregation—bucking the trend of many civil rights movements throughout history.

I refer, of course, to the recently updated trail signage in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa forest that now include wheel size recommendations, a divisive instrument that may soon disrupt the harmonious nature of mountain biking.

Discount supermarket chain Pak ‘n Save in association with Anchor Milk have collectively donated a $15,000 lump sum plus $5000 per year over the next 5 years towards trail signage.
‘ "I'm a mountain biker and it's an opportunity to put something back into mountain biking," said Pak 'n Save Rotorua owner Neil Foster.’
The motives for this trail signage sponsorship are not immediately clear. Anchor Milk is one of New Zealand’s largest dairy producers and are probably most famous for their “100% Light Proof™” bottle. Designed to lock out light and keep your milk delicious and nutritious...[the] essential vitamins are protected from light, which helps you get the most out of every glass.”

To back up these claims, their website even includes a collection of scientific research that—somewhat surprisingly—was not exclusively commissioned by parent company Fonterra Brands or relevant industry journals.

If Brett Bellchambers ever discovers the benefits of the 100% Light Proof™ plastic milk bottle, the world of 24-hour mountain bike racing could be in for a bit of a shake-up. Watch out Jason English!

Major sponsor Pak ‘n Save, meanwhile, is a discount supermarket chain that we’re not blessed with in Australia—probably due to the dominance of an ethically questionable pseudo-duopoly that has evolved to dominate our local market. Aldi does target the budget end of the grocery market (and offers a few annual cycling promotions), but it's nothing like Pak ‘n Save, which resembles more of a home improvement-style warehouse for food and groceries.

For the second year running, in 2014 Pak ‘n Save were voted New Zealand’s most trusted supermarket (by the Reader’s Digest Trusted Brands website), edging out Countdown (NZ’s version of Woolworths) and the independently owned New World stores. Joining them on this illustrious list of Trusted Brands winners were companies such as Subway (most trusted Fast Food retailer), Ryman Healthcare (most trusted Retirement Village) and TENA (most trusted Personal Hygiene – Incontinence products). Even NestlĂ© managed a 3rd place in the Confectionery category, which is a notable achievement for the multi-national behemoth who have almost made a habit out of notoriously unethical business practices.

A big congratulations to Pak ‘n Save in keeping such esteemed company.

For something as specific as trail signage, NZ$15,000 is not a small investment and it is certainly a commendable action—on the surface at least—but it does raise two important ethical questions:
1. What sort of influence are these companies attempting to wield in the mountain biking community?
2. Why do these sponsored signs need to include wheel size recommendations? 
Mountain bikes have evolved over the last 40 years to serve many niche applications, and part of that has been different wheel size offerings. It’s a personal choice that might be influenced by riding style, terrain, stature or the size of your car.

While the 29” wheel’s improved angle of attack might help you navigate trail obstacles, the flip-side is that it may hinder your parking capability.

While Pak 'n Save owner Neil Foster might be a keen mountain biker, a little research reveals that the company has another (corporate) connection to the sport. Providing the link is accounting software company Accredo, who count both Pak ‘n Save and online bicycle retailer Torpedo7 as clients.

In fact, Neil Foster gives a glowing recommendation of the Accredo accounting software in this testimonial-style article on Accredo’s website.

A little deductive thinking reveals how the corporate relationship with Torpedo7 might easily have evolved: Neil Foster meets Torpedo7 Systems Manager Neil Gibb at a fancy Accredo client dinner event; a common interest in cycling is discovered; Gibb notes the potential marketing value of Rotorua's mountain bike scene to his large online cycling retailer.

It wouldn’t have taken long for the two businessmen to come to some mutually beneficial agreement whereby Foster would implement a subtle (almost subliminal) propaganda campaign (under the guise of “signage sponsorship”) that would plant the seeds for wheel size diversification, in turn boosting sales for Torpedo7. After all, once mountain bikers are convinced that three different wheel sizes are necessary to fully exploit different trails, the increased sales of tyres and tubes alone would probably realise a significant boost for Torpedo7’s annual sales figures. In return, Foster was probably granted membership to a special platinum VIP club with the online retailer, perhaps offering free shipping on all orders over NZ$50…or something similar.

This tangled web of connections and corporate back scratching almost rivals that of the Lance Armstrong conspiracy machine outlined in the book Wheelmen.

Mick Pietkiewicz is an Aussie mountain biker who recently took a month off work to chase the Kiwi dream—basically travelling the country, living out of a car, in search of New Zealand’s choicest trails. You can tell that Mick is a proper shredder because he spends most nights curled up next to his (dropper seatpost-equipped) bike in the back of the Subaru wagon which, he informed me, was “purchased for NZ$3000 from a Russian drug dealer in the car park at Pak ‘n Save.

Confirming his position in the gravity-fed segment, Mick was careful to select a car that would maximise his chances of landing a lucrative energy drink sponsorship during his time in New Zealand. A large sticker can be slapped directly over this base colour (known as Red Bull Blue) without needing to fork out for a full vinyl wrap.

Mick made some keen observations about how the wheel size recommendations in Rotorua were already starting to divide the mountain bike population. “Actually, I noticed that on the description sign for the K2 track, someone had half scratched out the recommended wheel size—probably a tourist who’d brought the wrong bike with them from overseas but still desperately wanted to tick the K2 box. People already understand this unwritten local law that you can only go one wheel size either way and still successfully negotiate the track obstacles.”

This might not seem like a big deal, but how soon before feelings of inadequacy or superiority coupled with a desire for inclusion lead to larger, more dangerous social problems becoming ingrained in the sport? It would be a sad indictment on the world of offroad cycling if segregation was allowed to flourish to the point where one day a 29” hardtail rider is forced to confront the issue head on by defiantly refusing to vacate his seat, Rosa Parks–style, on the shuttle bus that a group of over-entitled 26” downhillers have laid claim to.

Sure, these first incarnations of new signage merely offer recommendations, but this might just be the first step in an orchestrated program of segregation and systematic discrimination against different wheel sizes? It would be a wise move for the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club to take immediate action lest they go down in mountain bike history as the birthplace of such blatant prejudices.

Nowhere are the seeds for this flagrant segregation so obvious as at the trailhead pictured below.

Thanks to Mick P for the photo.

The Boulderdash trail is graded as Expert, which, given the inclusion of a few tricky rock gardens, seems appropriate. But the recommendation that this trail is best suited to 26” wheels seems needlessly restrictive. Like most difficult trails, there are different ways of tackling the obstacles presented. Decisions on how to best approach these sections are based on technical ability, speed, bravado or equipment choice, as evidenced below.

There are a number of ways to navigate Boulderdash ranging from  the “Monster Energy Huck” to the “XC Rollover”.

Surely the mountain biking community would be well-advised to foster a progressive, accessible and inclusive environment where a diverse range of riders can come together to advocate for the betterment of the sport? Let’s not make “Dashing the Boulder” any more or less of an achievement based on something as superficial as wheel size.

This might seem like a rather long bow to draw, but when you’re talking about compromising on the harmonious future of mountain biking, I don’t think it’s unwarranted. A fractured mountain biking community runs the risk of opening itself up to a “divide and conquer” strategy that road cyclists, happily united behind one wheel size, will surely not hesitate to exploit.

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