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On the Merino Trail

01 December 2006

Countrywide Rural Newspaper

In the early 90s three men, all mad-keen mountain bikers with a desire to set a business of their own, identified a yawning gap in the cycling apparel market.

While road cyclists were well catered for with their bright body-hugging Lycra, there was nothing available for the more rough and tumble mountain-biker and so Ground Effect was born. Starting with just 12 products in 1994, the earthy tones of the company's baggy bike shorts and comfortably fitting understated tops with strategically placed pockets, quickly captured the attention of followers of this increasing popular sport.

Today the Ground Effect label is ubiquitous. There would not be too many aficionados of the sport in this country who would not own a piece of Ground Effect clothing and the company's distinctive logo is seen on mountain bike tracks throughout the country.

As owner Fraser McLachlan says, growth has been organic, but they have worked hard to keep it under control. Despite pressure, the three owners of the company have resisted the urge to go into retail outlets, instead all of their sales are through their mail order catalogue or website. This enables Ground Effect to control costs and keep their prices at a reasonable level without having to resort to sales to clear backlogs.

They have also stuck to their knitting as far as their clothing is concerned. While the Ground Effect catalogue now offers over 60 products and colours vary from season to season, their staple hardwearing baggy shorts, short and long sleeved tops and jackets remain as popular as ever to an increasing number of mountain bikers.

Described as the new golf, mountain biking is no longer the domain of the hard-out 20-something male. The sport has captured the attention of the middle age and middle-income who enjoy taking to the ever increasing number of biking tracks in their precious recreation time. And Ground Effect gear suits them well. The colours are subdued, the clothes fit comfortably, they are hard wearing and they are reasonably priced.

It is amongst this well-established range of clothing that Merino has made an appearance. In its purest form Merino fails to meet the criteria demanded by the company. Fraser says the 100% Merino doesn't work for serious mountain bikers because when it gets wet it gets heavy and then the body has to work hard to try and get rid of the moisture.

Initially Ground Effect looked to using Merino in a polyester mix, with 63% 18.5 micron Merino next to the skin and 37% polyester on the face of the fabric providing a 'shell' layer. This fabric was designed to be used as a high performance thermal body layer and the polyester made for a more durable fabric that didn't absorb quite as much moisture. This mix became the company's trademarked Lightwave Merino a winter-weight 150gm/m2 fabric.

This fabric proved to be successful and once this was established in their clothing range, Ground Effect looked to developing a more lightweight Merino-based summer fabric.

The trick with using Merino in sports clothing is getting the mix right. Fraser says there is not enough benefit is using less than 50% Merino, so enough wool has to be in the fabric mix to make it worthwhile. The company's Lightwave Merino combines 55% 18.5 micron Merino with 38% nylon to create a lightweight 170gm/m2 fabric ideal for biking in summer.

Fraser says the weight of the fabric is as light as they could go before the fabric starts falling apart, and the nylon adds structure and durability to the tops.

This year Ground Effect offers six different Merino mix tops and three different socks. One of the big pluses of including Merino in their clothing is the positive association with Merino being a natural product, grown in the country so loved by mountain-bikers. There is also the retro appeal of wool, as prior to the discovery of nylon wool was the accepted cycle-wear.

Wool also appeals to those who are anti the petrochemicals used in the manufacture of man-made fibres. While Merino is an expensive fabric, and some people do find it itchy against the skin, it is a niche product and Ground Effect has been able to fill this niche.

While the Merino story is a selling point, it is the functionality of the fabric that is of most importance to Ground Effect. Fraser says in the international cycling world New Zealand Merino is a strong brand, better recognised than Australian Merino for example.

All this rues well for Merino growers in this country. Ground Effect is a good example of a company using Merino in technical sports fabrics and as cycling increases in popularity so will demand for high-tech clothing.

Fraser says the company has grown every year for the past twelve years with sales now going into Australia and the UK.

The business partners have a number of aims for their company. These include the philosophy of them running the business and not having the business run them, earning sustainable profits and most importantly enjoying the journey. Each of them work four days a week and take three months off a year, allowing time for family and of course mountain-biking.

Ground Effect is a story based on a vision, a love of the outdoors and the desire to deliver a quality product, a story Merino growers can easily relate to.