Traditional bike clubs have been forced off the road by council costs but, as Dylan Cleaver reports, this has spawned an underground cycling movement that is rapidly gathering a momentum of its own
Mike Dowsing reckons he spends close to $1000 each year to look and feel good while he breaks the law. The 54-year-old spends his nine to fives in the printing industry and his weekends on his bike.
There are hundreds of outlaws on bikes each weekend enjoying the burgeoning underground cycling scene, racing against friends and like-minded "velo-heads" as they skirt around what one prominent cycling identity describes as the council's "cynical traffic safety management industry".
"I would like to do club racing but the only one worth talking about in Auckland is Counties Manukau, but they've been forced further and further out of town so it doesn't work for me," Dowsing says.
Instead he and his mates have been drawn to the races you find out about only through social media, cycling networks and friends of friends.
There's the long-standing Tamaki Drive Time Trial, a less regular race on the fringes of a Mangere industrial estate and newer entries like the Cannonball Run-styled events, whose courses remains an ever-changing and closely guarded secret.
(The Tamaki Drive TT is so well known it is virtually sanctioned, with cyclists reporting that they often see council staff sitting in a van watching the race.)
"The 'underground' races appeal because they're closer and they only cost $30 or so a pop," Dowsing says.
"The 'fun' races, like Round Taupo, are up to $100 to $150. For what? The privilege of riding on a road you can ride on any day of the week."
There's a flipside to this booming recreational industry. Traditional cycling clubs are dying, suffocated under a welter of regulations.
Even dying isn't the right word, says Counties Manukau Cycling president Mike Cornelius, because it implies a natural passing.
"It's being killed off by the council," he says.
Events around Auckland are regularly cancelled and clubs have either become defunct or are staving off closure.
Here's the irony: in an era when the country's cyclists both on the track and road are enjoying unprecedented success, it has never been more difficult to get on your bike and ride in an organised, licensed road race.
"They're trying to develop triathlons and road cycling and get Olympic medals and world championship medals, but at the grassroots level we're getting shut down," Cornelius says. "We're not getting the kids through any more. It's easier for them to get on PlayStation or jump in a boy-racer car."
Some of the problems are deep-seated and structural. The number of "high-end" bike shops in Auckland alone suggests there is no problem getting people kitted out and on the road, it's just getting them registered into clubs that is an issue.
It is estimated there are 120,000 recreational cyclists in the country, but only 7000 are registered. Every year at Taupo about 11,000 riders will sign up for the race around the lake, but only a handful will be registered.
That event is run by a private promoter, so they pocket the money with BikeNZ - a catch-all organisation that is the services arm for Cycling NZ, Mountain-biking and BMX - receiving a negligible amount. In the meantime, the cost of running events has made it near-impossible for clubs to remain solvent.
"They can't cover the traffic management costs," says former Cycling NZ president Wayne Hudson, a long-time and passionate advocate of the sport and co-founder of the Auckland Central Cycling Club.
Hudson estimates that 20 years ago there were five clubs in Auckland running events. There would be a small entry fee, around $5, with 25 per cent of the take going back into club coffers and the rest being spent on prizes. There are few club cyclists who don't have a pavlova server somewhere in their kitchen drawers.
Now, Counties Manukau Cycling is the only club running regular above-board events and they have had to cancel a number of races because of lack of entries in recent times.
The reason is simple: they need at least 60 entrants just to cover traffic management costs, let alone have any left over for prizes or club reserves.
"When we're running $1600 to $1700 of traffic management costs every weekend, there's not much we can do," Cornelius says.
The busiest person in the club is the person charged with traffic management liaison. Cornelius cited one example where a 16km loop track was ruled out because the council required a marshal, signage and cones on every single side road, even when the simple law of the road gave the cyclists right of way. Where they once had seven or eight marshals on that loop, the council now required 30.
And it is not just traffic management bureaucrats who have been hounding the club.
"I had a call from somebody in Pukekohe council wanting to know whether we had Portaloos set up for safety and health and hygiene," Cornelius says. "They were going to charge us more for that. We hire local halls and use the toilets. We've never had toilet issues, but that is the sort of rigmarole we now have to go through.
"In a funny way, they're justifying their jobs.
"It's rather ironic. Now the Super City has kicked in, the legislative procedures we have to go through have gone through the roof," Cornelius says. "There's a roadblock at every turn."
Counties Manukau run some events "across the border" in Waikato.
"Depending on what side of the line the course is on determines whether it will take one day to get course approval or six weeks.
"The way it's going at the moment, the council is killing the sport."
Hudson said that previously there were one or two councils, most notably Rodney, who would allow them to race for relatively low fees, but now that avenue has been blocked off.
Just ask Ross Anderson, the president of Akarana Cycling Club, "which has basically folded".
They used to attract a lot of young cyclists because they ran races, predominantly around Meadowbank, but traffic management has made that impossible. IT WAS the conviction of Astrid Andersen that changed everything. In 2001, Vanessa Caldwell was killed when she collided with a car during Le Race from Christchurch to Akaroa.
Andersen, the promoter, was in 2003 convicted of criminal nuisance and fined $10,000. The judge noted, wrongly as it turned out, that she did not brief riders properly before the race.
Her conviction was quashed but not before she had racked up more than $60,000 in legal fees, which made the cycling community so irate several of its number dipped into their own pockets to help fund her appeal.
The successful appeal, however, didn't change the prevailing mood. Event promoters were suddenly scared and councils were busy preying on that fear.
"It all started to unravel then," Akarana's Anderson said. "The council got all twitchy.
"I was called into a meeting and was told traffic safety plans around our races were going to be beefed up. It was going to cost us $1000 every Saturday to run a club event. We tried to find circuits outside the city with only moderate success.
"It's killing us, the cost of running events has become prohibitive."
Hudson has a more cynical view on it.
"An entire industry was created out of it, to nobody's benefit."
Auckland Transport, the council arm that deals with the cycle clubs, cited in a statement the work they do for the sport in the community.
"AT cycle programmes provide opportunities for a variety of participants from individuals to groups," the statement said.
"We work with cycle groups which are more informal groups created through bike shops, communities, local groups and neighbourhoods."
AT said it targets riders of informal, bike-shop groups to teach safe-cycling practices.
On the thorny topic of traffic management costs that have increased to the point of being unmanageable for even the most established clubs, AT had this to say.
"Traffic management costs for all types of events have changed over time as traffic and pedestrian growth and development of Auckland has required improved levels of service for safety."
Hudson is unconvinced that safety management has made races safer. He says the most dangerous thing on most courses are the cones placed to protect them and the public.
"Putting road furniture out there creates crashes. Cyclists know this. The only people who don't seem to know that are those involved in traffic safety management."
Bureaucrats are an easy target, popularly viewed as faceless souls whose only joy comes from encumbering our lifestyles.
But they're not the only reason club cycling is dying. The simple fact is that the clubs have been unable to convince cyclists, even serious recreational cyclists, to join them.
"It's a damn good question," Anderson says, when asked why that was the case.
In an article titled Real Cyclists Don't Race: Informal Affiliations of the Weekend Warrior, Monash University's Justen O'Connor and Trent Brown argued that many cyclists "go some way to distance themselves from serious competition and its associated layers of formality".
Or as Anderson puts it: "Recreational cyclists are not interested. They might ride every day but they don't want to race."
Jeff Webb might beg to differ. As chairman of the Department of Cycling, a West Auckland club, he has taken advantage of the boom in recreational cycling to run successful events.
Webb runs races at Kumeu and said although they are not making money, they have yet to find the costs prohibitive. They have trained marshals in the club and their own road equipment, but know others are struggling.
"Unless you can do it all yourself it's hard. The councils have got a lot tougher." O'CONNOR AND Brown discovered that over the past decade a "cycling cafe culture" had developed in Victoria, Australia.
Up to 10,000 riders traversed one particular route each weekend, with competitive club cyclists making up a small portion of the numbers. They often mixed with non-competitive riders to form faster bunches.
O'Connor and Brown surmised that a number of those riders had the skills, fitness and equipment to participate in organised cycling, but the "majority opt for the informal, unorganised bunch rides".
But in New Zealand there are still significant numbers of pedallers who want to race, but find it too difficult going through the official channels.
Cornelius knows this and is faced with the difficult dilemma of endorsing the "underground" scene while knowing it has contributed to the demise of some clubs and might even eventually claim his, the largest in Auckland and possibly New Zealand.
"These events have taken root because it's so difficult to run 'official' events. They work very well; they're awesome.
"We can't keep doing what we're doing. It will mean the death of the club and all that means is that instead of having controlled racing, we'll get a load of guys going out running private races without applying any of the rules."
Or as Webb puts it, we'll have people bending the rules to breaking point.
"I've no doubt the cost of running events has caused people to make that decision to run 'illegal' races, but it's interesting because it's a bit of a grey area. If a group of people decide to go for a ride on a planned day on a planned course, is that actually an event?"
Dowsing says that while he and his mates would love to have better access to licensed events, there is an element of thumbing your nose at the authorities that makes the underground races that much more enjoyable.
"Absolutely. I'm surprised we've got away with it for so long, to be honest," he jokes.
Everyone in the industry, be they on the licensed, unlicensed or purely recreational side of the sport, remains acutely aware of when the joke ends.
"It's great having an underground because it suits a lot of people, but eventually something is going to happen and, dare I say it, someone's going to get killed," Cornelius says.
"Who does it fall back on, then?"