While travelling the Northern New South Wales coast this week, I had a chance to catch up with some indigenous mates. We got chatting about bike riding. Lots of the local kids on the missions use bikes to get around, meet up with friends, go fishing or hang out at the local skate parks. BMX is pretty popular and I also saw some mountain bikes getting around. After our chat, it got me thinking. I decided to find out if there were any programs specifically supporting local NSW indigenous cyclists. The most prominent program that popped up was the Indigenous Mountain Bike Project (IMTBP) and it also piqued my interest for other reasons, like program viability.
National Indigenous Centre for Excellence (NCIE)
This is a NSW specific biking program. This was one of the many LIFE (Lifestyle Innovations For Everyone) programs run by the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE). The actual centre is based in Redfern, Sydney, but the actual MTB program had services and trips spread out all over the state. The central NCIE focus is to provide services, training and opportunity to increase health, life skills and talent for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. NCIE has an array of educational, arts and culture, a conference centre, sporting, recreation, social, health and wellness services that develop skills, enterprises, occupational and technical opportunities and the like – all aimed at improving the learning, development and positive lifestyles for its members.
The Indigenous Mountain Bike Project was one of the services the NCIE offered and it was created to get more indigenous people riding bikes. It was launched January 2012 and the main driving force, legs and faces of this project was Sean Appoo and Ben Bowen.
Indigenous Mountain Bike Project (IMTBP) – Background
The Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet states the program as being:
“The Indigenous Mountain Bike Project is run by the Lifestyle Innovations For Everyone (LIFE) team at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in New South Wales. The aim of the project is to promote bike riding as a form of physical activity to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of all ages and health levels. The IMTBP has a fleet of 19 bikes for use by staff and program participants. The program offers:
- regular bike trips for groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people around Sydney
- entry into local and regional mountain bike competitions
- workshops on bike maintenance and safe cycling skills.”
Some key details about the Indigenous Mountain Bike Project.
- This project ran From Jan 2012 until June 2015, whereupon it looks like the project was stopped. During those three years, the project held many social and skills rides, supported and attended events, had a good social media presence on Facebook and built up a community of active and enthusiastic cyclists.
- Of the 19 bikes used, 3 are hybrid bikes and the other 16 are mountain bikes.
- The fleet was not just used for training and maintained programs for new beginner riders, but were also used in local and regional MTB competitions, races and events.
- The program was operational and participated in the Inaugural Koori MTB Cup in 2014.
- The project had a team of representative riders who raced events such as the JETBLACK 24Hr, Koori MTB Cup and the Huski 100.
- When the bikes are not being used for programs, events, trips or for local and regional MTB competitions, the NCIE staff use them to ride to and from meetings during work hours.
- Other local inner city rides and meet ups were an adjunct feature of this program getting more people on bikes – local businesses, commuters and weekend rider forums popped up with riders sharing trip reports, ride details, invites for meet ups and technical knowledge.
- The program received quite a bit of publicity and was feature in an SBS featurette in June 2015 (see below).
The IMTB Project Facebook site
Although no longer actively used since May 2015, the IMTBP Facebook site is still a testament to the range of biking services, popularity and community that this project built. There are numerous videos event posters and invites, people posting their trails via mapmyrides and sharing details for upcoming rides and active discussion forum for all levels of fitness, ages and cycling types.
There are a series of videos detailing the IMTBP team and adventures on MTB trials and during the JETBLACK 24 hr race at the LIFE TV YouTube channel, which show skills sessions, training, the IMTBP team riding in various events and it also has a few IMTBP rider profiles which are good to see. It also demonstrates the time and effort that many different people put into this project.
So what happened?
On the face value, it seems like the Indigenous Mountain Bike Project was a ‘success’. But what does that mean and how do you measure it? What were the outcomes of this project? It seems to have got a good following, achieved its goals of getting more indigenous people riding and created a thriving community that had a good presence – so what happened to this program? Did funding run out? Did attendance wane? Was there no one to hand over to?
The only indication given was this post on Facebook group on June 2015.
But this post gives few details about the status of the IMTBP (but certainly showcases the massive effort and impact Sean and Ben had during their time there). Even though Sean and Ben are ‘wrapping up’, it is unclear if that means the IMTB project finished as well. If it did, then why?
I called the National Indigenous Centre for Excellence LIFE Team’s 1300 866 176 phone number as provided online. I wanted to find out what happened to this project. But the number was disconnected. I tried the NCIE landline (02) 9046 7802 and had to leave a voice mail message. So I still don’t know what happened. Seems strange…
Why do some of the best projects fail to continue?
It can be incredibly frustrating and unfortunate that community programs such as this one can be planned, funded and implemented, yet are not sustainable to endure and provide such a valuable service. These kinds of scenarios occur all the time in the community/international development sphere. Whether it is a community group or multilateral international aid organisation, sustainability and how/why projects finish is a massive industry issue.
In my field of International development – one organisation decided to meet this issue head on. I will never forget seeing the 2008 Engineers without Borders Failure Report and watching David Damberger talk about what happens when an NGO admits failure – and hearing of project insights that were learnt, yet rarely acknowledged or shared.
I am by no means suggesting that the IMTBP was a mistake or ‘failure’, merely making the observation sad that such a positive biking program that obviously had community popularity and traction was not able to continue operating – which begs the questions – why not?
I thought back to my chat about bikes with my indigenous mates earlier this week. I wondered if the program was still operating would there be even more Koori riders? With such a strong community following and uptake, why was this initiative not picked up by local/national councils? Are we short changing the next Indigenous Anna Meares or Cadel Evans? What a great biking and community initiative – and what a pity it has not prevailed!