Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
You met me a few weeks ago on the VeloNews Podcast, where I talked about needing to build a better economic model to support the push for equality in women’s cycling. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about two things: (1) the business of cycling and how it can improve, and (2) do I really have as many chins as I did in the photo VeloNews chose? In the midst of this deep pondering, I received an announcement: the Hagens Berman law firm is discontinuing its title sponsorship of my team for 2020. While not unexpected, it still came as unfortunate news and of course I cried, because that is how I process most things. (This is not unique to me; in a recent review of every race day my team had in 2019, at 91.4% of events at least one person on our payroll has cried. For all of pro cycling’s shortcomings, we’re certainly not lacking in feelings). In the words of Steve Berman of Hagens Berman, “Biking scene in the USA very depressing.” He’s not wrong. Like I said in that podcast, if we don’t improve the business of our sport and figure out how to grow our fan base, we’re in trouble. More races will end, sponsors will leave, teams will fold. Mine just did.
Before going further, let me add one note: I’m sharing this because it’s news when pro cycling loses another sponsor and I’m hoping at some point these losses can cumulatively be a catalyst for change in the pro cycling business model. This is not a call for you to send my team $20 or for somebody to launch a GoFundMe to save the program. While I may launch a new women’s program from the ashes of this team, I’m not writing this in hopes of being saved. I started a dialogue a few weeks back through an interview at Tour of California about the business of cycling, continued it in the VeloNews podcast, and am now keeping the conversation going using my own team’s story as a case study.
A bit of background for those unfamiliar: my team is Hagens Berman—Supermint, a UCI women’s pro cycling team in our fourth season. Hagens Berman (a longtime pro cycling patron) pays the majority of our bills; Supermint is a holding LLC created to own the team and finances. We are not selling gum and it is never pronounced ‘spearmint’, despite efforts of announcers worldwide to convince audiences otherwise. We race across the U.S. and recently tried some Spring Classics in Belgium. Our roster includes the reigning U.S. national criterium champion, and our best results include winning the 2018 and 2019 Winston-Salem Cycling Classic, the highest ranked one-day road race in America, as well as jerseys at the last three editions of the Women’s WorldTour Amgen Tour of California. In other words, we’re not exactly Boels-Dolmans, but we’re good enough to have our own Wikipedia page.
When this team first launched, my goal was simple: run a team with a healthy business model. That meant following a few basic principles, like adhering to a budget and paying riders and staff on time, concepts that seem straightforward and yet somehow manage to elude many teams. I also wanted to create a marketing plan that worked, both for the team as a brand and for each individual sponsor. This meant understanding what mattered to the sponsor (Instagram likes, professional photos of riders using their products, visits to their headquarters, etc.) and then delivering it so the sponsor would feel their investment was worthwhile and want to keep building the relationship in subsequent years. Again, concepts that should be elementary in a sponsorship-driven sport and yet are not. All too often, the season gets underway and teams are content to take the cash and free gear while focusing entirely on gaining five seconds on the GC to clinch that coveted (yet ultimately forgettable) final podium spot. Optimistically, I believed I could do better and lead by example, boiling the ocean by microwaving a single mug of water and dumping it in.
In some ways I did. Over the past four years, my team went from being a fledgling program with a dubious future to a strong organization with loyal sponsors, an enthusiastic fanbase, financial solvency year after year, and results that are gradually pushing us up the world rankings. Anna van der Breggen has yet to send me her resume but maybe she just doesn’t have my email address (I’m kidding). Kidding aside, my team has become one of the mainstays of U.S. women’s pro cycling and I’ve weathered enough storms successfully to feel like I know what I’m doing as a leader and businessperson in cycling. This team has finally reached a point where strangers on the roadside make Go Supermint! signs at races. When I see that, my heart swells with pride and I gratefully toss them packs of gum.
And yet, it was still not enough. Berman expressed doubt about his future as a patron of pro cycling last summer, so I knew the end was inevitable. He felt like professional cycling had become depressing and wanted to move his funds into a foundation. I couldn’t blame him; it was only with his support that the last four years had even been possible, so I’m left with nothing but gratitude. He made so many dreams come true – mine more than anybody’s – and had a significant impact on women’s cycling. There is no bitterness in his departure and I hope you’ll join me in wishing him and Hagens Berman the very best. But now he’s gone and unless I start a new program, pro cycling just lost another team in a time when opportunities are already scarce.
Rapha recently released the Rapha Roadmap, an extensive report examining the state of professional cycling and how to improve it. No, their answer doesn’t involve selling more $500 rain jackets; rather than propaganda, it is the most thoroughly-researched and well-considered thesis on how to fix cycling, and if you have a spare 16 hours to read the report’s roughly 40,000 words, I’d highly recommend it. I read the whole thing because it was refreshing to see so much of the crap in this sport called out and then corrected with smart suggestions. The report provided answers to so many of the problems that plague pro cycling and make people like Berman decide their money is better spent elsewhere.
I found validation in a number of the suggestions, ideas offered to the industry that my team has already been doing for years. My team’s focus has always been split between earning results (the traditional hallmark of a successful cycling team) and meeting sponsor objectives, which – and this may come as a shock to many – don’t always equal simply winning races. What?! It’s not enough for me to just win something and wear a logo-emblazoned hat on the podium?! No, dude, you have to ask your sponsor how they want you promoting their brand and then do whatever accomplishes that. So we’ve been doing that now for four years. Hagens Berman wanted to make a difference in cycling, so I created the Ambassador Program under which my riders mentor women at all levels and across all disciplines of cycling. That has nothing to do with winning races and everything to do with delivering something meaningful to a sponsor.
Beyond working to keep our sponsors happy, we keep professional photographers on staff to generate high-quality photos in and out of events, follow a detailed schedule to ensure the team and riders cover all sponsors weekly across social media, joined a Zwift race league in 2019 to keep up with the growth of eSports, dabble in merchandising, and do grassroots outreach through our Ambassador Program, school visits, and other mentoring opportunities to make us relatable and tied to the greater cycling community. We look for opportunities to increase visibility across the sport, writing columns and blogs in cycling media, participating in race promotion and series like USA CRITS, and racing the heck out of our bikes. Racing is boring when everybody sits in the pack and rolls around until the final sprint, so we throw everything we’ve got at a race from start to finish. Often it pays off in the end, but if nothing else, it’s earned us the reputation as an exciting team to watch. Announcers and spectators have thanked us countless times for animating races, but I see this simply as our job. Because, if you really think about it, professional sport doesn’t exist to fulfill the hopes of dreams of its participants. It exists to entertain, and if we are not entertaining, then why are we in the business?
So, I’ve given this my best shot, I’ve built a team that’s doing many of the things it took the Rapha Roadmap several years of in-depth research to conclude we should be doing, and yet here I am. This tiny empire that is frankly my life’s best work (other than my kid, but I’m not sure if I can take credit for work my uterus performed autonomously) will crumble to dust and memories unless somebody decides to give me a new title sponsorship. What this tells me is it’s not enough for a few teams or people to create pieces that would fit in a new, more successful future of professional cycling. I cannot boil the ocean alone.
We must change. This sport needs reforms at the highest level to become more consumer-friendly, less reliant on generous but transient benefactors, less inwardly focused on self and sport and more attuned to the greater cycling community. Clinging to the many traditions and rules that dictate how we run this business is suffocating pro cycling. Sponsors are leaving, industry companies are targeting their marketing dollars elsewhere, pro races are shutting down. For every bit of growth, we are still taking steps backward. We haven’t kept pace with the many other sports that have evolved to best leverage available technology to connect with a bigger audience. The Rapha Roadmap explains so many ways we could grow our fanbase exponentially while generating enough income to be a self-sustaining sport, but as long as most of pro cycling keeps marching to the old beat, nothing will happen. We all must change to affect real change.
When Berman told me the team was ending, I cried over the end of something great. The best years of my life have been spent building this team and enjoying a million fantastic moments with the people creating it alongside me. While I was often driven to madness with the tedium of team management (the work literally never ends) and often fantasized about starting a pro cycling team with no actual riders, I wouldn’t trade a minute of the torture. I built something memorable, gave dozens of people jobs and opportunities, met the most incredible and interesting people, suffered brutally on the bike and stressed endlessly off it, learned how to weather the most frightening challenges in a tough business, and created a legacy that at least a few people will never forget.
Will I do it again? I don’t know. If I do, it will be with the goal of building a new and even better program leveraging every lesson I’ve learned and those taught through the Roadmap and smarter people around me. But there will be dread mixed with the thrill of starting once again (and definitely some tears, because that’s what I do). The weight of running a team while trying to affect real change is huge and robs me of more sleep than my baby ever did. But I’ll do it, gladly, because I haven’t given up on trying to be part of the change that must come to save our sport at the highest levels. If that sponsor doesn’t come, then I will walk away knowing this team did the best we could, became the best we could, and went out at the highest point we could reach. Then I’ll use all my newfound free time to reread the Rapha Roadmap another eight times and plan a new way to boil this ocean.