Fitting together the sponsorship puzzle is something that I get a lot of personal questions about. In an age of social media built around constructed personas its impossible to separate an individual from the “brand” he or she has made for themselves. We all have one; even if its all cat videos and breakfast selfies, and being sensitive to this is the first big step in positioning yourself for sponsorship. Being aware of the brand of YOU is being aware how the world sees you.
Every rider’s progression or development follows a different path. But the pressure to perform is nearly universal. It’s pretty common to hear “serious riders” (you know who you are) expressing their perception that their sponsorship hinges upon wins, upon podiums, and upon results. Repping product on social media, stickers on top tubes and handlebars, heck even socks are ad space for the rider who views his or her results as what keeps their races paid for, their gu’s discounted, or their socks fresh. The rider who brings his bike with him on the podium represents an intense level of pride in not only her accomplishment but also the equipment she used to get there. For the riders who structure their lives around racing any result is fuel to get them back out on the bike Monday morning; pushing harder and riding faster.
The truth, strangely enough, is that the folks buying the Gu’s typically have a much broader goal than podiums or trending hashtags. They’re never heard saying that their participation in the sport is genuinely dependent on results. The sponsors who are invested financially or otherwise in cycling do it for their own passions the vast majority of the time. While there are exceptions where sponsorship is genuinely mere ad space, they are very rare. Cycling support certainly informs spending choices in our family its a big jump to say that affects the bottom line of a major sponsor, especially in the microcosm of the cycling world. The jerseys you see on top racers and professional cyclists these days are often backed by a smiling face in a team car who cares deeply not only for the success of the body inside that jersey, but also about the health of cycling in general. Those involved on all sides of cycling today do so out of passion. Passion for human endeavor, passion for the journeys we all take, and a genuine belief in the bike as a catalyst for personal and fundamental change. Behind the scenes the podiums are merely a celebration of the success of cycling, not just the achievement of the rider.
I came onto the cycling scene reading gear reviews in my sister’s back issues of Mountain Bike Magazine or Zapata Espinoza’s editorials in Mountain Bike Action of the latest product which would barely be safe to ride these days! An era where super teams like Volvo-Cannondale or Trek-VW dominated the sponsorship landscape. Where Ned Overend’s lanky profile graced the backlit plastic billboard of the Mountain Dew dispenser at the corner store. I grew up wondering how I’d get into that world. How could I as a chubby kid from a town few had heard of at the time get to where The Lung (as Ned is still called) stood lit in green and red.
My time in the industry began at a local bike shop in that little town; shop-ratting my way to a free kit at said shop. Having access to pro-deals from said shop were a big step, and one which most of the sponsorship world is still based off of. As an employee of a shop I was already heads and tails above the shop’s few “sponsored” riders; who all got a tidy little shop discount and access to regular promotional discounts. For most every bike “race team” was a gray area for the shop as it was hard to connect the dots between margin gained through sponsorship and margin lost to team riders. It takes a shop who genuinely values their racing community to subsidize it. So value your local shops who support racing. Prodeals hooked it up in place of sponsorship for a long time for me.
The next step in my progression I remember thinking that race results would open the doors of those awesome red Trek VW Golfs I saw my heroes pull up in. That if I just got on the top box all the big names would come knocking. As if my phone number was on the back of the jersey with a sub-line of “call me!” Nevertheless I spent a year lighting up the highways pursuing a pro mtb license. The numbers game of getting a pro mtb license meant a lot of travel, a lot of hitting the road early and crashing in a field, waiting for your 90 minutes of lactate threshold effort which MIGHT yield a free tire and a few NORBA/USCF (Now USA Cycling) points. I spent 42 weekends of the year away from home that year. I even raced the morning of my sister’s wedding to warnings of “don’t you dare come back damaged!” And after a Pro upgrade and some of the fastest fast twitch I’ve ever had the phone still didn’t ring.
I had to radically change my perception of what made me worthwihle as a rider in order to make any headway in the world of supported riding and racing. I had earned some support from a grassroots program run by Gary Fisher and Trek but each year that deal was changing and the dynamic didn’t always feel like pro ball. 2011 was an Olympic year and in Olympic years the sponsorship paradigm shifts a lot to provide as much support as possible to athletes who have a shot to attend the biggest bike game there is. As a result I did get a phone call from Trek: “Sorry dude, we are cutting everybody.” If you didn’t have a shot at the Olympic Village, you didn’t have much to work with. Fortunately another phone call came shortly after that—a phone call I still tell folks about today and one I’m excited about every year its come since.
What then are sponsors paying for? They are paying for association with positive individuals. To gain brand recognition not only with quality legs and podium time; but also quality character. When Roger Masse asks Tinker Juarez what tire he’s running he expects; and receives, a genuine answer. Suddenly the tire brand Tinker is riding is more than just a good option out of a batch of good options, its now THE option. And that’s worth a lot more than any billboard or ad in MTB Action. And the more that happens the more any brand grows, and grows in the right ways.
When racing for Fisher and Trek I had developed a little bit of a side passion. I had built a singlespeed mountain bike in college because a meager college student budget couldn’t afford a second training bike. It was equal parts classic and miserable; a steel singlespeed cobbled together from parts laying around or bartered for. That bike rode terribly and seldom worked as intended. On this singlespeed though I had started to make friends. Make a reputation for being all the right kinds of rowdy.
Loud and proud at 2 A.M. in the pits of a 24 hour race. Bright eyed and bushy tailed on the start line as the “pain train” pulled out of the station. These things brought the sponsorship phone call that I stoke on. A friend had opened a bike shop and wanted to put together the best team VA had seen in a long while. That year we had 3 of the 5 pro MTB licenses in Virginia. It was stoke worthy. And this stoke, this excitement, this enthusiasm and being recognized FOR it is what’s brought me here today. At least I think so!
I try to be someone who cherishes the world around him. Who recognizes that every rider, every person is on their own journey. That each pair of legs that crosses the finish line has a story equally as awesome as mine; most often more awesome than mine! I am a lucky and blessed man because I have financial and family support which matches my appetite for self challenge, for adventure, and for making the world a better, more positive place, one pedal stroke at a time.
I continue to ride for Blue Ridge Cyclery today because we share the principle that life is better with a bike. That passion for the outdoors, for family, and a vision of a cleaner, healthier, and more informed world can all be better experienced and actualized with a bicycle. We share dreams. What makes me sponsor-able by them and others isn’t that I’ve won races; though that airtime and facetime helps, its the alignment with a positive force in the world. I’ve also been blessed to work with Pivot Cycles, Industry Nine, Ridge Supply, Starlight Apparel, Handup Gloves, Wolftooth Components, Endless Bike Co and a huge variety of other brands who’s faces I know, who’s hands I’ve shook, and who I feel honored to represent in my capacity as a smiling face and strong legs. In putting together the sponsorship puzzle I’ve aligned myself with not only brands and products I WANT to use, but ones I am excited to use. Behind the logos and product pages are good people. People who care as deeply as I do about promoting cycling, healthy lifestyles.
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