The landscape of the mountain bike industry is ever-changing. With the rise of the world wide web and social media, the outsider sport we’ve all found ourselves within has gained popularity across the world at a staggering rate. With that, opportunities have surfaced and there are new breeds of rider coming forth, those who have managed to unite their passion for the bicycle and their drive to create and forge their own path, their entrepreneurial stroke.
Words // Andrew ‘Howie’ Howieson
You only need to look back 10 or so years to an era where the media was littered with the same guys, those at the top of the sport in a competitive sense. Nowadays, media is consumed differently, and the way we interact with the sport is different. A number of brands and personalities have ridden the wave of change and emerged out the other end forging their own path, building stronger riding communities and making the sport all the better as a result. You might wear their product, run their bike parts, frequent their website or view their content without paying a second thought.
You don’t need a rampage winning run to leave your mark on the sport, you just need an idea and some guts. This is the workers generation, the era reserved for the creators and the dreamers; These are the Movers and Shakers…
If you haven’t heard of Blue Dirt Mountain Biking then I’m upset for you. I’m upset for you because that means you’re yet to experience what they are about and you’ve yet to share a cold beer with Brett and Aaron after a day of epic trails and some serious good ol’ fashioned bike orientated fun. The good news is that it’s not too late for you. The winners of the unofficial ‘official best Australian mountain bike weekend of the year’ award thanks to their breakout event, Ignition, have plans – BIG plans – and these plans involve a lot of beer, music, good people and more espresso martinis. And some bikes allegedly.
So, Blue Dirt, What’s your why? Your mantra?
It’s about riding bikes on the best trails and having fun with your mates. I think that extends across the BD service and everything BD does. We have high standards about the experience we offer from the trails to after-ride hangouts, but we like to keep it light. Fun is paramount. Brett originally ran MTB tours with a sister company but split from that 10 years ago to found BD, more gravity riding, larger emphasis on fun. It’s now all we do for a crust and we have a team of 27 like-minded, mountain bike enthusiasts helping us spread the stoke this summer!
The riding scene in Australia has at times struggled to develop a bit of cohesion and consistency, was it important for BD to help build a consistent riding ‘scene’ in the mountains of Victoria?
Consistency is definitely a key motto. Back when we kicked things off, you couldn’t ride a shuttle day unless you were entered in a race that had shuttles included for practice, that didn’t fly with us. When we first started, we’d get 2 people book, sometimes 1 sometimes 4. We’d still run the day, we’d lose money of course, but we did it again the next week, and the next. Reliability for riders is a big deal. Now things keep on growing and we keep on showing up.
You guys have started running some pretty innovative events, which I can attest too are a bucket load of fun and extremely refreshing in comparison to the generic ‘race weekend’. Was this always something you had planned, or did BD start originally just as shuttles?
We started with tours that included shuttles, but we love riding down, not up and migrated to shuttles pretty quickly. Our events grew out of our shuttle days, we added all the lifestyle elements that we love so everyone can experience what we do in a pretty epic environment. Races have their place and are critically important, it’s just not what we do at the moment. Pro racers come up to us at Ignition and say “this event is amazing, such a cool vibe. Everyone is digging it and having loads of fun (and Espresso Martinis), it’s totally different to a race day” and that’s what we want. Our brain storming sessions for these events can get pretty wild and out of the box (usually coffee fuelled). We have plans for more events and potentially a series – watch this space.
Continuing on from above, how important is the ‘Fun’ aspect to BD?
Extremely, if anyone has ever spent time hanging around either of us or riding bikes with us, they’ll know that we are all about a fun time on and off the bike. Visors up – Party laps!
You’ve almost thrown competition out the door. Don’t you think this is a bit of risk in a sport that breeds and feeds off man’s desire to compete?
No, not really. What about a person’s desire to have fun and live life on the edge and to the fullest? Not everyone who rides a bike wants to race. I competed in a few surf events there for a while, it changed my whole outlook on surfing. It took something I loved and pushed it in a direction where I didn’t enjoy it as much. Much like surfing, a lot of mountain bikers want to ride for pure maximum life enjoyment. Everyone’s different!
I think it’s safe to say that everyone reading this can only dream about working a business that requires them to go to Whistler and ride for two weeks. I’m sure if it were that simple, everyone would be doing it. What are some of the less glamorous parts about running a service-based organisation within the mountain bike industry?
Yeah, our Canada trip is a wild ride. But yes there are less glamorous parts. Time away from family, airport food, getting chased by bears, stinking hot days in the Kamloops desert, keeping an eye out for cougars (both types), but at the end of the day we love what we do and get maximum life enjoyment out of it.
How many sleepless nights have to happen to organise the logistics of such a trip?
It’s not all sunshine and lollypops. A trip like this takes a lot of planning, or as we call it, R&D (code word for bike riding), but that’s why it’s a full time gig. The amount of logistical moving pieces involved in making these trips work is enough to make some people squirm. On the flip side, our job is finding the best trails, best beers, best bike friendly accommodation and best place to crowd surf after 12am. It’s for sure a lot of man hours, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything. Offering this type of experience to the Mountain Bike community is satisfying beyond words!
Where does Blue dirt head next?
First and foremost; keep up the good vibes and amazing customer service. We have a bigger vision for mountain biking in Australia, however our short-term aim is to improve the mountain biking experience in the locations where we currently operate. This includes trail improvements, more trails for both advanced and beginners alike, along with more bike friendly accommodation, and of course great beer and coffee all day every day.
Growing up on Vancouver Island Mark Matthews was surrounded by the terrain that haunts the dreams of mountain bikers the world over, endless lush rainforest with the perfect dirt and small but driven communities committed and invested into mountain bike culture. After a pivotal crash whilst competing in Redbull Rampage Mark’s priorities changed and so did his outlook on the sport and his future in the mountain bike space. Fast forward to 2019 and Mark is making a living from mountain biking, but not how you may expect.
How much work is involved in the creative/media aspect of mountain biking and what does a ‘standard’ week in the life of Mark Matthews look like?
I can assure you lots of work goes into the creative process, nothing is ever reactive, it’s proactive and non-stop! Not only am I passionate about mountain biking, but I am also passionate about entrepreneurship. The process of making something out of nothing is so fun for me I actually enjoy it more than the end result. I start everyday by attacking my emails and working on proposals, I’ll have a little brainstorm session If I need to pencil down some ideas or form an action plan for existing ideas. I ride and trail build during the day as much as I can, then use my evenings to prepare any content I need for the week. I like to have some media prepared for when I’m away on trips or shoots so I can remain consistent with media I’m putting out into the digital space. My life seems to be one constant state of workflow and I have a quote I read to myself often, “No hurry, no pause”.
Did you teach yourself everything re. Photo and video processing? Do you have any advice for the younger generation who have a passion for content creation?
I am 100% self-taught on Adobe creative cloud programs and that is where most of my creative process takes place. I just watch YouTube tutorials and figure things out, it’s an ongoing learning process and I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at all. My best advice would be to play around on whatever creative platforms interest you and that you enjoy the most to try and find a style or look that’s unique to you. Get inspiration from others but find something unique to you that’s fun to create every time.
What are some of your favourite destinations that media creation has brought you too? I noticed you were in Tasmania recently, was that for a media project or was it a personal trip?
Every travel project has been awesome in its own regard, but I think going to Cappadocia, Turkey is still my absolute favourite. The natural sandstone landscapes there are perfectly carved out for fast flow, plus there’s lots of unique, techy natural features. The culture, the food, the smells are still all imprinted in my mind. We had great local guides and my friends Mason Mashon and Bruno Long came along. Together we made some amazing content that is still being published in magazines a couple years later. I went to Tasmania because I knew the entire crew at Maydena Bike Park was rad and from the media I saw it looked way too fun! I reached out to the Tasmanian tourism board and did a promotional campaign for them and as a result I also got to ride Derby which was a pretty awesome experience.
In theory, getting paid to be yourself and do what you love seems like the most insane dream job, but it’s extremely difficult. You have to work your hardest at everything you do.
From where I’ve observed your career, you’ve tended to have some small, but pretty innovative and funky brands as sponsors. How important to you is who you work with? Does working alongside a smaller brand mean more to you or give you a better relationship with them?
I am very selective about who I work with, I need to partner with companies who fit my personal brand and understand the results I can bring. I am not creating awareness through competition, so it’s very difficult to get big brands to support me, since the bike industry is so hyper focused on racing and contests. However, adventure-based brands, and those who understand the power of visual storytelling find great value in working with me. Hydro Flask actually reached out to me, because my content speaks to their mission and we make a great team. Whilst smaller companies can at times mean less monetary support, I feel an authentic connection with said brand is far more important [than anything else]. For example, I chose to ride for PNW components this year instead of a bigger brand because I believe in the product and those behind the brand are amazing guys.
For kids looking to follow in your footsteps, where should they start?
My advice to a younger generation; understand what I do is so appealing because I am often showcasing the best moments. In theory, getting paid to be yourself and do what you love seems like the most insane dream job, but it’s extremely difficult. You have to work your hardest at everything you do. Focus on your strengths and make them unstoppable. That could be your riding, any form of content creation, or both. No hurry, no pause… play the long game!
The quintessential Aussie start-up brand that has absolutely blown up in recent years to become a major icon across the world. Simply put, DHaRCO was born to support a change in the overall image of mountain biking. From an idea conceived in 2012, the DHaRCO name can be found at just about every trail head across Australia now, not to mention riders like Connor Fearon and Kyle Strait rocking the famous ‘party shirt’ jersey on live Redbull streams globally. We recently caught up with one of DHaRCO’s founders, Mandy Davis, to find out more about the evolution of DHaRCO.
When did you first come up with concept and what inspired that?
The idea for DHaRCO really came about as Mathieu (my husband) and I couldn’t find clothing that we related to and that worked well for the Aussie climate. Growing up next to the beach, I’d always been around surf culture. Aussie surf brands have done so well at creating an image and lifestyle associated with surfing, which I felt was lacking in the mountain biking industry. The bike industry brands had a strong origin in either motocross or more of a dorky cross-country style, which influenced the media around mountain biking also. I really wanted to create something more relatable to the everyday rider who loves bikes, adventure, friends and the good times that surround all that. Creating an inclusive men’s and women’s clothing range, which was hard to come by back in 2012, seemed like a great place to start.
What inspired starting your own business?
After working for more than 10 years in Sales and Marketing for a large global company, and following a bit of a burn out, I was looking for a change in direction and to do something more creative. Ironically on a work trip at the airport I bought a book titled ‘The 4 Hour Work Week’ …which challenges the traditional 9-5 work concept and basically, I quit my job the following month. Needless to say, these days I work more like 12 hours a day…so I guess I should revisit that book!
I had the right background and support network to make clothing and being a rider I knew exactly what I wanted and what was missing in the market. Growing up my father owned his own fabric factory in Botany and later he imported from overseas, so I knew a lot about fabrics, as well as working with international factories. A close friend who owns a very successful clothing brand came with me on my first China trip to source suppliers. Don’t get me wrong I had a lot to learn, and I’m still learning. But I had experience and the right people in my corner to provide advice. Mathieu and I sold property to fund the business and I quit my corporate job, so I was all in right from the start.
DHaRCO is now available internationally and there are quite a few riders overseas running the product, how important has that been in growing the brand? Is the aim for DHaRCO to be predominantly Aussie, or a global brand?
For the brand to be sustainable and have the resources to make a positive change in the industry we need to become a global brand. That being said, our first focus and our product development is based on the Australian market. This is our roots and we care a lot about OZ and being a part of supporting the local Australian mountain bike movement and culture.
As individuals we are and have always been big on travel and living abroad, so it feels only natural to grow the brand internationally and have ambassadors and party threads on a global scale.
“I really wanted to create something more relatable to the everyday rider who loves bikes, adventure, friends and the good times that surround all that.”
You’ve got some big names on the roster now, when/how did this happen? Did you need to pursue this, or is it something you allowed to happen naturally?
When Kyle [Strait] contacted us in late 2017. We’d just moved into a warehouse on the Northern Beaches. So, it marks a real turning point in the company in general, a growing up of sorts. There was no specific plan, it just happened naturally! Kyle got in touch and we lost our shit. Kyle is an icon that we respect so much, but on top of that he’s a really nice guy and loves riding bikes. It seems people find us that share the same values. We’ve been so lucky to work with Kyle as our first professional rider, he’s someone who has taught us a lot and he feels like part of the family these days. This year we added Connor Fearon to our Pro-Athlete line up. It’s awesome to have an Aussie on board and World Cup DH racing is really the pinnacle of the sport and something we religiously follow, so seeing the party shirt on Red Bull TV was epic. We work with a lot of local riders also, not just the Pro’s. The DHaRCO crew, at grassroots level, has a really strong influence on the brand and its evolution and is something we value highly.
To wrap this up, can we ask where do you see the future of Australian mountain biking heading?
We believe that Australia is an underestimated riding destination for overseas visitors. We think the next big thing for Oz will happen when the rest of the world catches on and comes to spend more of their winter seeking epic riding, beaches and general good times.
Just as much an entrepreneur or personal branding prodigy along with being one of the worlds most talented bike handlers, Bryn Atkinson is our third element of Movers and Shakers. In contrast to Mark [Matthews], Bryn grew up with heavy racing pedigree and spent a huge amount of time between the tape before transitioning into a content orientated role, making him the prime suspect to compare the two paths and talk about the role media based athletes and entrepreneurs are having on our sport and the growth of this movement.
For those who are relatively new to the sport, give us a brief run down on your background?
I discovered mountain biking up in Townsville, North Queensland in the 90’s, joining club rides with the local mountain bike club (The Rockwheelers). After a year or two of that, I decided I wanted to be a pro downhill mountain bike racer and pursued it pretty heavily. I started with state racing, onto National, and then had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. in 2002 for a season of NORBA racing (U.S.National series at the time) on a U.S. DH team. Over the following years I had a few good results and met a lot of great people in the industry, setting me up to race full-time for the next 12 years. I raced on the World Cup DH circuit from 2005-2014, then made the transition to content athlete/ ambassador, I had just felt it was just time to mix it up and have continued with that since. I’d say it all happened pretty naturally.
On that note; what exactly is your current role? Are you an employee of a particular company, do you make a living solely through media/content creation?
I’m an ambassador to brands, an independent contractor. My role is to bring visibility to products through high level riding, photography, travel and social media, along with other various projects. But yeah, this is my full-time gig.
Is it difficult to maintain a career in the sport as a rider without doing much competition, if any? What sort of workload does this entail, and how does that compare to your racing days?
I think maybe it’s become more attainable to have a career outside of racing with the surge of social media and online content, but “freeriders” have been doing it for decades, so it didn’t seem out of the question when I made the transition. It’s all about being clear about the value you are going to provide and presenting it with a “pretty bow and some whipped cream”, haha! Execution is obviously key, and once you start pulling off what you’ve been saying you’re going to do you’ll gain the trust of your sponsors, and at that point you can start taking more risk with projects, that’s where the real fun is. I still have to be strategic with my time, and focus on improving my skills on the bike, but it’s definitely not as structured as when I was racing.
Your competition “Win Bryn’s bike” blew up and was for sure one of the cooler things I’ve seen on social media in the last few years, was this your concept or Norco’s?
Yeah, I came up with the concept, I wanted the entrants to have to put some effort in and bring the best out of them if they were going to win a brand new bike! I knew it’d be a hit going in, I planned it that way! The goal is always to do things differently, put my own spin on it, and create something that’ll stand out from the noise.
How important do you think social and digital media is for mountain biking and how do feel about the seismic impact it’s having on the sport? Do you think this side of the sport will continue to grow at this rate or do you feel it’s reaching maturity?
There’s no doubt that social media/ online content one of the most powerful ways to have an impact as an athlete other than an actual face to face interaction. The power is literally in your own hands, and you can do it from anywhere in the world, that’s kinda fun. I think we’ll continue to see a steady growth for a bit here but we’re getting pretty saturated for sure.
There seems to be more than a few riders making an income solely from media creation. Do you think the industry has reached a point where the potential to earn a livelihood from media creation is on-par, or close, to that of a similar calibre rider in a competitive environment?
The opportunities are there, and the brands have a pretty good grasp on the value a content athlete can provide compared to that of a racer or competition athlete. Again it comes down to how well you can present that value, and then pulling it all off.
To wrap things up, where do you see the sport headed? Are there any emerging trends you think will play a bigger role with things to come than others?
I think we’re still on the upswing, I can’t say how long that’ll last, but there will be a lot of athletes taking advantage of other online platforms to increase their impact and worth. World Cup DH, XC, and the EWS are all really healthy right now, which as a former racer makes me happy. I really like the path of a racer, and the lessons you learn from it. I think we’re in an exciting time with the arrival of e-Bikes, that’s bringing a lot of money into the sport, and a whole new demographic, it’ll be fun to see where that all goes.
The fifth and final member of this article is a guy that has been an instrumental force in the greater Australian riding scene across so many different fronts for over 4 decades. Rising to notoriety for his ruthless speed up a hill, Rob proved he was the real deal after performing the ‘Eva Double’, taking out both the national title for both XC and DH in 1993. To this day Rob remains a pivotal figure in the Aussie cycling scene, having been witness to disciplines and wheel sizes come and go, and has ultimately seen the sport become what it is today. We’ll keep things pretty broad as we could certainly go down the rabbit hole with Rob and we’ve all got a Christmas dinner to get too in December, so we’ll ask three key questions to close up this article.
Firstly, Mountain biking has changed a lot since the 90’s. How is product innovation changing the experience of todays mountain biker, vs. yesteryears mountain biker?
Back when I was racing, product testing was extremely different, products were brought to market with far less R&D or refinement, now we have massive amounts of engineering, CAD programs etc. We generally have a 3 year lead time now, so when you see something released from say SRAM or Rockshox, that’s been undergoing engineering, controlled testing and refinement for 3 years, with the concept probably going back considerably further. 20 years ago we, as racers, were conducting the testing, we just didn’t really know it. You can imagine there were more than a few reliability issues. Global bike brands were also driving the market considerably more, whereas now the manufacturers of technology are able to innovate more freely which ultimately leads to a better bike and a better experience for riders, both pros and first timers. 20 years ago you couldn’t just go and buy a bike that you could race, you’d need to swap out the rigid forks for suspension, probably swap the tires too. The hubs may have been OK, but you’d almost always have to swap the rims out for something more durable. OEM manufacturing has excelled leaps and bounds as the sport has grown. You can now buy a 2K mountain bike that really has nothing wrong with it, whereas 20 years ago you could definitely buy a bike that was near un-rideable.
How has mountain biking changed since the internet really took off, I mean we had internet in the 90’s, but social media and online shopping didn’t exist. Is this causing the growth of Mountain biking to increase exponentially?
In terms of online shopping, the power is now in the consumers hands. They can search products online, get opinions from Pinkbike or Vital MTB or whatever outlet it is, and then at the click of a button get availability or prices etc. They can then head into their dealer and essentially demand that product and if they don’t get it, move onto the next. It definitely makes it a tough environment for shops to operate within, and ultimately shops are now having to nail top notch customer service. On the flip side however, the overall popularity and participation in mountain biking has never been stronger. Whilst social media can get over done or can be detrimental if used too heavily, it’s giving people a window in mountain biking. Mountain bikers are off in the bush, they aren’t seen by the wider public. But now you can log onto Facebook or Redbull TV or Youtube or any other number of different channels or mediums and see mountain biking in it’s various forms. This is creating awareness and ultimately kids who’ve never seen mountain biking are seeing Go Pro videos and saying to mum and dad that’s what they want to do. Then they have available to them really good bikes at affordable prices, that can do just about everything. Now days we use Facebook or ‘whatsapp’ to organise rides, no more text messages or missing out. There are group conversations and you and your friends are chatting all week about how good Saturday morning ride is going to be, this is awesome for our sport and great at building stronger riding communities. When I rode in the late 80’s I had four trails in Melbourne to choose from, all of which were slightly repurposed animal trails. Now trying to choose where to ride is the hardest part, and there is always someone to share the trails with. Whilst social media needs to be tread carefully, overall it’s having a big benefit on our sport. The Australian government just funded the Warburton mountain bike project at over $11 million, it’s doubtful Aussie mountain biking would have reached this level without prolific exposure on the internet.
What do you think of the current state of Mountain biking here in Australia? Are we in a good spot?
Australian Mountain biking could not be any better, I just wish I were 30 years younger. It’s not just about racing anymore, it’s about getting out and having fun with your friends and getting more people involved. The sport has come full circle, when I started it was one bike (that needed a lot of work). We raced uphill, downhill, sometimes trials etc. Then it moved to multiple bikes and the industry and sport went through a confusing time, it was difficult and overwhelming for people who hadn’t mountain biked before to take it up. Technology has now granted us these 130-150mm bikes with fantastic tubeless technology, suspension that works sensationally but can be locked out, dropper seat posts etc. and best of all these bikes can do pretty much anything and can be bought for realistic prices. On top of this, the government are (finally) investing heavily intro creating designated mountain bike trails, realising that eco tourism really is an under served yet fantastic opportunity for the Australian economy. I’ve just invested in Warburton (bought property) and there are 12-15 year old kids there who have no idea how good their lives are about to become. I honestly don’t think there has been a better time to be a mountain biker in Australia, than right now. [R]