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Love Hurts, But Should It?

February 24, 2020

Cycling, as both an industry and sport, can be an extremely cruel mistress (or master). It often rewards those willing to suffer for their love, and punishes those same people who put love before personal gain or greed, willing to chase their dreams out of pure passion. The rewards often seem to fall to those who either cheat, take shortcuts, or place themselves ahead of others. The idealogical claim that “a high tide lifts all boats” falls short of actually happening when some of the boats have leaking hulls and short anchor chains.

A recent article on CyclingTips by retired pro cyclist Molly Weaver highlighted the stark and punitive disparities between professional men’s and women’s cycling at the very highest levels of the sport. In her article, the first in a series, Molly points out the many forms of abusive sacrifices she made to be able to do what she loves- race her bicycle at the highest level of the sport. In her pro career, riding in the top echelon of the sport, she was paid nothing at all for two seasons, and never more than £9900. Her salaries ranged from 0 to £3050-5400 … to ride for teams that raced at the women’s top level. Granted, here in the US, there are “professional” men and women who both race their entire “pro” careers making little to no salary at all. Racing domestically, many of the best racers in the country only earn money via cash payouts at races. And if they’re women, that’s significantly harder than it is for the men.

Molly’s piece leaves a lot to digest and underscores one of the biggest hurdles in the sport for women’s racing; money. There are brands in the bike industry who do a pretty good job of supporting women’s cycling. But even those, I’m looking at brands like Specialized, could do much more … by simply shuffling their sponsorship decks. Specialized, again as an example, seems to sponsor about half the men’s World Tour, as well as some of the best women’s teams. But if they just culled one of their mens teams and gave that same level of support to a women’s program … it would have a HUGE impact on that program. Sponsorship dollars are overwhelmingly male, and until the industry and other sponsors place a genuine value on women’s teams- at the expense of the men- change is going to continue to happen at a glacial pace.

Don’t get me wrong, I respect the work that is being done by brands like Specialized and Canyon. Both brands support strong women’s teams already. But they don’t do so at the expense of the men’s teams … which is what happens for women now. Brands will cut their support of women’s teams/ athletes, before they cut it for men- and more deeply. I also recognize that the entire racing landscape in North America, for both men and women, is hurting. Badly and bigly. Men’s racing struggles for broader support, and there is no longer a WorldTour event like Tour of California. One bright spot, for the women at least, is the Colorado Classic, which dropped its men’s race for 2019 … with pretty great success. Now, in its second year as a women-only event, it has become a major part of the race calendar in North America for the best riders in the world.

But there’s another element to this story, for me at least, and that’s how closely Molly’s experience mirrors my own experience within both the sport and industry. I got into both the sport and the industry in 1982. I began as a skinny junior racer and young shop rat. My first shop job, in a tiny Alabama town, was sweeping floors and building skateboards. I wasn’t trusted to touch the bikes, and the owner was really just paying me to keep me out of the way since I began to essentially spend every minute of the day there. I was passionate about bikes and the sport, and irreversibly naive. I believed in bikes, and also believed that I was destined to become the next LeMond … or Merckx. In the summer of 1986 my mother, sister, and I moved to San Diego, California to be with my mother’s side of the family. And I was elated to be closer to reaching my racing goals, after just finishing second in my first ever “real” race- the Alabama State Olympics. I was certain I was on my way. Not long after getting to San Diego, I got my second shop job in a shop near my home. Mostly, I worked in exchange for bike parts. Not cash. I was a broke kid who wanted to race bikes and be near them every chance I got. I rode my bike any time I wasn’t in school or in the shop.

Racing was brutal in San Diego, compared to Alabama, and I got routinely shelled by the much more advanced riders in California. I was utterly outclassed. But I kept riding. I kept training. I kept reading everything I could. And more importantly- I kept dreaming. Some knee injuries at the end of my senior year of high school put me off the bike for about a year, but the bug was still there, and once I was healthy and recovered my stolen bike … I was back at it. Like Molly, and countless other riders, I was willing to keep getting back on the bike- no matter what- because I loved it. And, truth be told, I still do.

I fancied myself good enough to eventually turn pro, but I got good in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as the sport was eyeballs deep in doping. I didn’t know it at first, but the many of the guys I just couldn’t seem to beat were pissing antifreeze and nitrous. I reached the peak of my elite racing in 1996, pre-Athens Olympics. It was then that I was offered “assistance” with my training … but I couldn’t do it. I loved the sport, and the purity of the suffering, too much. I was good enough to be able to compete with some of the best track racers in the world in 1996, getting utterly blown out of the water … but with integrity. That year, returning to the gym late in the season, I completely blew out my knees and back from doing far too much weight training. And then once back on the bike, I crashed during a night ride, and blew out the PCL in my left knee … ending any hope I had of returning to the very highest levels of the sport.

It was also in 1996 that I got my “break” in the cycling industry, and moved out of retail and into the brand side of the business. I became the Customer Service and Tech/ Repair Manager for NiteRider Technical Lighting Systems. I stayed in that position and grew with the company for 5yrs. I moved on from NiteRider and ventured into the outside world, working for a faux stone manufacturing company, but I couldn’t handle the normal world … so I went back to the bike world with Canari Cyclewear, then on to my most known role as the Brand Manager for Masi Bicycles. And then on to Fuji. Then Pivot/BH. Then Focus Bikes. And since that time freelance in the Marketing/ PR/ Media/ Content Creation world.

The point is, I’m a “lifer” in the bike business. For better or for worse … and some in my life would strongly argue it’s been for the worse. But here I am.

Just like Molly’s devotion to and time within the sport, I’ve had an equally tumultuous time within the industry itself. And many of the people I have known in the industry have as well. Some of the genuinely brightest and most creative people I’ve ever known, I’ve met within the business of cycling. And, with little exception, regardless of professional success very few of them have actually become “wealthy” from their talents in the bike business. Some have done pretty well. But most have survived with a heaping dose of luck … and spouses or partners with better incomes. I always credited legendary framebuilder Bill Holland for the saying, because I heard it from him first, that “the best way to make a small fortune in the bike business, is to start with a big one.” Ain’t it true though …

Many of us who have spent the better parts of our lives in the bike business, have done so with a slavish devotion to the cruelty of it, simply because of our love for bikes, cycling, and the people who feel the same ways we do about it all. As an ex-wife of mine used to say about the industry, “it’s a kingdom of princes- devoted to their own Peter Pan syndrome, refusing to grow up.” And she wasn’t entirely wrong.

And just as there are teams with bigger budgets, snagging the biggest chunks of success, there are dominant brands in multiple categories whose power and success leave little room for anybody else to nibble from the ever-shrinking marketshare pie. Though a high tide may indeed lift all boats, some of those boats have leaky hulls and very short anchor chains, while those who control the harbor have a vested interest in making sure those smaller boats never leave the harbor. The bike industry, in terms of sales growth, has been flat to down for about two decades. The dollars within and the size of the market (consumers), has essentially remained unchanged for those two decades. There have been notable spikes- like the explosion of road in the late 90’s, the growth of cyclocross, the brief boom in fixed gear bikes, the return of MTB (beginning with the boom in 29ers), and the current over-saturation in gravel. But we’ve essentially relied on carving ever smaller slices of the same pie, hoping that there are still enough consumers who buy into the N+1 narrative a little longer. The biggest potential bright spot on the existing horizon, is the growth in e-bikes; this category is bringing in more new and non-cyclists than any other we’ve seen in decades. Yet, as an industry, we still fumble with how to wedge this new and largely unfamiliar category into “the way we’ve always done things.” (Which isn’t going to work.)

I worked in a Schwinn dealership when I first got a shop job in San Diego, while still in high school. I sold A LOT of those bikes. I woulda never been convinced that Schwinn would fall from grace, go through bankruptcy, and become a much smaller, different player in the US bike market. But the dynasty collapsed, for a myriad of reasons. Trek and Specialized are both so overwhelmingly dominant in the market, that they can control a massive segment of the business. Both pretty regularly dictate the terms of business for North American bike retail. And I don’t even say that as an outright negative- they’ve both done a lot to get to the spots they have. But like all dynasties, they too can collapse. Ask Schwinn and Rome about that.

Cycling truly is a thing of beauty. And as much as I complain about the industry itself, it comes from a place of unwavering love. I need both the sport and the industry to survive. I need both the sport and the industry, TO SURVIVE. The business side of cycling is just as dysfunctional as the sport, but we don’t even have a governing body to attempt to make things better for everybody. The UCI is not my favorite organization in the world, and USA Cycling certainly needs help too … but at least they exist to try to make improvements, at least in theory.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, not for the industry or the sport. But I do hope that more and more sponsors of cycling will more evenly distribute their financial support between men’s and women’s programs. Who knows, we might even grow both the sport and the market if we made things more equitable and inclusive.

Just spitballing …

Tim

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2020 7:14 AM

    That was a really nice piece Tim. Thanks for taking the time share it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tim Jackson permalink*
      February 25, 2020 7:19 AM

      Thank you, Jeff. It got a little rambly, but I tend to do that when talking the sport and the industry … kinda passionate about it.

      Like

  2. Steve Parke permalink
    February 25, 2020 5:13 PM

    Always fun to idle along the narrative journey with you. Reminds me, I am not alone.

    Steve’s mobile device

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tim Jackson permalink*
      February 25, 2020 5:18 PM

      Far from alone, my friend.

      Like

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