I normally refrain from putting out my actual thoughts and opinions on the internet. I save this blog for happenings and doings rather than rants, because generally there is enough people to opine about their strong feelings. Those that know me well enough can listen to all this when they see me in person. I made an exception for this bike industry rant, as it seemed better to put it in words and get it done, so I can move on without being bitter for the rest of the season.
A little background: Sam, Deidre and I have been plotting to run our own team for a couple seasons now, and we’ve had some good reasons to do so. We all started out on a bigger team that arranged multiple sponsorship arrangements for us; seemingly the ideal situation for a pro rider who wishes to focus on racing. What we actually found was that having a team manager and multiple other organisers just removed us from what was happening on the team, and didn’t put us in a good position to represent the companies that had put their sponsorship dollars on our backs. We had no idea which sponsor was providing what, what was expected of us, and how we could fulfil the needs. We found that rather than care-free racing, we actually got bogged down in cycling politics (yes, I know how ridiculous that phrase is, but it applies here). We chose to take a new path; we wanted to be our own team manager, our own sponsorship coordinators, our own planners. We were really lucky to be sponsored by The Gear Movement during this time, as our needs aligned perfectly – they wanted a hands off team to be represented by, and we wanted a company to ride for who we knew we could help. Jordan Schware and Ben Duke understood this perfectly, both being ex-racers who had walked the same path we’re on. They put in place a transparent system where everyone on the team was open to the arrangements being made. It worked beautifully. It was a stress free environment that achieved its goals.
When The Gear Movement decided to reduce its involvement with cycling, Sam, Deidre and I were in a great place to be able to go out on our own and do want we wanted. Jason was planning on heading up a new team at Fascat coaching, and Jordan Williford, new baby in tow, is spending more and more time in Crested Butte than Boulder, so he wasn’t too concerned about us forging forward without him. Sam had got in contact over the summer with Red Ace Organics – a new company producing Beet(root) juice supplements that aid endurance. After some negotiating, both sides agrees that they would be a perfect title sponsor. We’d achieved what we’d set out to do – our own team with a company we support and the budget to do it.
So where does the rant start? Both The Gear Movement and Red Ace Organics have been excellent companies to work with, and the common theme is that they aren’t bike companies. They respond to emails, fulfil promises, have realistic expectations, and follow up with us to see whether we are doing what we said we would. With our title sponsor arranged, it was time to start looking for a bike company that may be interested in coming on board. We produced a very professional proposal, and with the help of Jordan Schware, set out to contact the people in the business that could make it happen. We had no illusions that it would be a simple process, but getting started in July seemed reasonable to have something on the table in October. The vast majority of the companies we contacted simply did not respond. Not “Thanks, but we’re not interested”, but no response, despite us always following up more than once. A couple companies expressed some interest, and this is who I spent the next two months emailing and calling. Norco bicycles were a pleasure to work with; Jonathan Duncan, their events manager always responded to emails, asked reasonable questions, and let us know where they were in the decision process. Ultimately it ended with them not being able to provide us with three frames for the season, and thus we turned them down on the offer to buy bikes from them. We went through a similar process with Lapierre: we first dealt with an entirely incompetent person who was soon fired from their job. This left us in limbo for a while until we re-upped the conversation with Matt Millen – the marketing manager. We were having a productive conversation; they sounded cautiously interested, with the normal caveat that everything depends on the budget. Pretty standard Bike Industry conversation thus far. It got weird when I sent a couple follow up emails that received no response. A phone call or two, a voicemail and still no answer. From having a set date to talk, to no communication at all. Very strange in most industries, but completely accepted in the bike world.
So this leaves me with a question that I’m trying to answer: Why aren’t we attractive to a bike company?
- As a team, we were asking for potentially a record-breakingly small amount of support from a bike company – the use of three frames, or three bikes for the season. We didn’t need to keep them, we would give them back. We didn’t need cash, multiple bikes, we weren’t asking for bundles of equipment.
- As a team, we are a small, successful and motivated unit. We have two national champions, and a World cup racing, bad-ass descending girl. Together, we will race a minimum of two weekends in every month of the year (apart from January), and ride group rides with hundreds of other people all over the country all year long.
- As a team, we have a secured budget. We have a title sponsor, we have race plans and the money to take us there. We have a kit design, we have existing relationships, and we have ORGANISATION.
I think it comes down to a couple of things. The first is that sponsorship is saturated. I’m sure the people I was trying to talk to at bike companies were also fielding hundreds of enquiries from other teams. Most bike companies have a couple teams they support already. Thus, for us to break through the noise takes a lot of work, and sometimes it fails. Other times, it can be put down to human error. Instead of Lapierre responding to me and saying a quick “It’s not going to work”, I got blanked; someone forgot to send an email, and from then on it got easier to not reply.
The second is the proliferation of “pro deals” “bro deals”, and “hook ups”. It’s a sad fact that I don’t know anyone who has paid full price for a bike. Not one single person. This is the fault of the bike industry itself. When the aspiring first time racers, or the money-in-the-bank Masters racer can both get a deal, then sponsorship is broken. Those are the people that sponsored riders should be persuading to buy bikes. If everyone gets a deal, then no-one actually benefits from being sponsored, and in turn sponsorship doesn’t work. A bike company will get no more benefit from giving me a bike, than offering up a team of 20 masters racers a 30% off discount code.
This might lead us to the crux of the problem, and it’s unfortunately something I don’t have a solution to. Now that everyone expects a deal, how do we go back to a situation where shops can sell bikes at full price, and pros can work to influence those purchasing decisions through racing, riding, advocacy and community.
If anyone has any answers to these questions, or just thoughts on the situation from a different perspective, it would be great to hear from you.