Marathon mountain biking isn’t a glamorous sport. In the past year I’ve got nude in a rainy paddock surrounded by blokes because there was nowhere else to get changed, slept in the boot of a car, smuggled a $7.50 toaster into a hotel room to avoid having to pay for breakfast, and washed filthy kit in bidets, sinks, and bathtubs only to pull it on wet the next morning. I also specialise in something called the ‘sockwash™’, where, at the end of a race I remove one of my socks, wet it with my bidon, and use it to clean my face, arms, and legs. I try to do it with a sense of humour. Every race I participate in and every place I travel, I keep an eye on costs and improvise in whatever conditions present themselves. We all do. Nobody is getting rich in mountain biking and the higher you go the more this is true: Targeting XCM World Champs is making me exceptionally poor.
At an elite level, XCM probably has the highest number of amateurs taking part out of any mountain bike discipline. I am a great case in point – I’m no pro and have few international-level results but in just over six weeks I’ll be representing Australia at the XCM World Championships. I’ll be lining up with pros like Annika Langvad and Sally Bigham, but also alongside a lot of other racers just like me – people with jobs, families, and a passion for XCM, but little support outside their spouses, local bike shops, and fellow racers.
In the last week when I’ve mentioned news of being selected to people outside cycling – my parents, my physio, my PhD supervisor – they’ve all been astonished to learn that there is no government or institutional funding for athletes going overseas to represent Australia in mountain biking. Sure, they don’t know much about mountain biking and the fact that it’s split into several disciplines (of which XCM is probably the smallest), but their outrage shows how little people realise about what amateurs, and even professionals, at the top end of a small sport fork out for.
To me, it’s obvious: XCM is not an Olympic sport (and this is crucial to a sport’s capacity to attract government funding), and mountain biking is a tiny, grass roots activity in Australia. I don’t feel entitled to anything, and that’s not what this blog is about. At the level I race at, competing overseas is a lifestyle choice, not a job, not a career. The only rewards are personal and intrinsic, no matter how much you or I might wish it were otherwise.
Counting the costs of XCM Champs
Materially, Australian riders this year will be provided with a team uniform, and nothing else. When I first started planning the three-week trip to France I looked at big costs like flights, hire car, and accommodation, but forgot about some of the others. For example, athletes must take out an international licence with Cycling Australia (CA) insurance, which, to cover me for three weeks, costs $585 (more if you don’t already have a CA licence, and much more if you are staying overseas for longer).
To get my bike and gear ready for this trip, I’ll have to buy a new bike bag because my three-year old one has large holes in it. Racing to qualify, I’ve already worn out my pedals, chain and cassette and my chainring and shifter cable aren’t far behind. We have an amazing recovery nutrition sponsor with Pure Edge Nutrition but for in-race energy food I’ve recently invested in some TORQ products. I’ve been investing in my racing in other ways, too – just because it’s Worlds – getting weekly physio and some specialised coaching. All this adds up, as well.
There are little hidden costs: For example, getting a set of green and gold kit is amazing, but if the race is cold and I need a gilet, I’ll be disqualified for wearing my Subaru-MarathonMTB.com-branded kit, which is the only gilet I have (that’s if a commissaire notices little me pedalling somewhere at the back). A decent, plain vest costs at least $100 – and I’d be a taking a silly risk to show up in France without one. If you think this is a problem unique to amateurs, think again, here’s an interesting interview with two-time World Champ silver medallist Sally Bigham from 2013, where she discusses exactly the same problem.
Here’s what the expenses for the three-week trip to France look like so far, flying to Geneva then driving to Laissac, in southern central France. I’ve left out coaching and physio (these are by choice), and because I’m focusing on the race, I’ve also left out food, internet, fuel, and incidental expenses like an Eiffel Tower snowdome or a tricouleur beret:
|Bike parts and servicing||1000|
Some things I don’t want to add up, like time. Since making a play for Worlds, I’ve stepped up an already pretty healthy commitment to training and preparation. I’d estimate I give an average of 20 to 25 hours a week to training, stretching, strength, travel to and from rides and races, and bike maintenance. This is my choice but that’s a part-time job on top of my full-time PhD and part-time freelance work. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I had put the time I devote to cycling into something else, like writing novels or playing the stock market. Nowhere near as much fun.
Amateur athletes like me do not get support from funding bodies or sports institutions. Some lucky riders are supported by their husbands and wives, or their parents, and sometimes generous benefactors. Most often, however, We are assisted by our sponsors, who are local businesses – Aussie manufacturers of their own products and importers of bigger brands. Apart from looking for engagement and exposure, these sponsors support us because they want Aussie riders to succeed or just get out there and do the best they can. I want to dispel the myth that sponsored riders like me get everything for free. Some things we do, some things we don’t – and we work hard to provide value to our sponsors in exchange.
I’ve known many fellow racers to max out credit cards to make it to international competitions, and a few are now running crowdfunding campaigns to raise money to race overseas. I paid for my first overseas trip by redrawing from my mortgage. I’m ashamed to admit that my parents have offered to help me get to France, although I have turned them down because I am 35 after all. As it stands I’ll be paying for this trip with a combination of personal savings (generally from prize money I’ve put aside), team budget thanks to Subaru Australia, and income I make on the way by writing travel pieces for the Subaru-MarathonMTB.com site and other cycling media.
$6,235 is a lot of money to find for a single event, but I guess that’s just how much the chance to race for Australia is worth. It has to be: the opportunity might never come up again. Like I said, it’s a lifestyle choice.
A big thanks to my Subaru-MarathonMTB.com team sponsors
Without them, I’d never have made it this far:
Subaru are a huge supporter of our team and the assistance they provide will help subsidise my airfare.
I’m grateful to Ride Fox Australia who provide and service my fork and rear and generally look after us superbly.
Pure Edge Nutrition look after the team with natural, organic protein and recovery supplements – again, we use them every. single. day.
I’m given the best sunglasses from Adidas and have lenses of every tint and colour and Adidas sent me casual sunglasses way cooler than any I would have chosen for myself.
I have a light and comfy Lazer helmet.
The best socks I’ve ever worn in Swiftwick (even if sock height does confuse some of the Euros). Not a single hotspot since I first pulled on a pair.
Ride Mechanic is a great local business making exceptional products we use every day: chamois cream, chain lube, and bike wash.
The Team rides Norcos that we’ve been able to buy at great rates, and they’re proving a comfortable, agile bikes.