Life as a Bike Jockey: Pro Riders Face Chhh Chhh Chhh Changes

For pro mountain bikers, sponsorship ain't what it used to be. But that ain't all bad.

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Back in the heyday of mountain biking, when tales circulated of six-figure incomes and expert-level riders getting paid to race, I’m told that approaching a sponsor with only a race résumé showed solid organization and that a main expectation of a sponsored athlete was to showcase product.

Whether accurate or not, that was then. With today’s tight budgets, gaining sponsorship takes more than showing up with just paper. The role of the athlete has evolved from entertainer to engager.

Changing Times

“Back then,” explains former Sobe/Cannondale team manager, Matt Jewett, “you had non-endemic sponsors flocking to the sport bringing the cash with them that helped fund the big teams, big team staffs, semi’s, etc.  There were two primary events that athletes were focused on — XC and DH.”

Manufacturers could reach the majority of their market at a single event, and in the mid-1990s before the arrival of full-suspension, even with just one bike.

However, with the addition of Super D, marathon and ultra events, Jewett says that the sport of mountain biking has “evolved and fragmented into a much more diverse and welcoming sport.”

“All these points of access,” he says, “have gotten the spectators off the sidelines and onto the start lines.”

So now with more events and bikes to cater to these various interests, sponsors are looking for different ways to reach their markets instead of the one-stop, single big factory team to grace the race venue.

And to respond, riders are taking it on themselves to be that solution.

Being the Solution

Top results can speak for themselves, but to show to sponsors more return on their investment, more and more riders are stepping up as their own marketing machines.

A recent USA Today article (9/21/10) explained how endurance racer Rebecca Rusch has hired two friends to help with her exposure. Putting her marketing degree to use, Rusch doesn’t rest on cycling laurels to earn sponsorship and a paycheck. She uses a web site, Facebook and Twitter to update her fans on her latest endeavors.

Zack Vestal, former team manager of the Trek/VW Team elaborates on how marketing itself has changed expectations for today’s sponsored athlete.

“Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist [in the 1990s]. The Internet was barely around. Expectations were a lot less,” he says.

Vestal says that now, instead of just autograph signings and appearances, athletes are bolstering their exposure with these avenues of social media to speak directly to supporters.

You, Inc.

Additionally, either in personality or program, athletes are branding themselves. By finding personal niches, some riders have created their own way.

“The world is crowded with activity, events,” says Vestal. “[manufacturers and athletes are] fighting to stay relevant.”

Vestal points to “Rad” Ross Schnell as an example of today’s athlete. Moving from a predominant XC schedule to create his own race program, Schnell has become “the face of all-mountain riding.”

Time for Creativity

Riders have to be creative, but this is also a time ripe for creativity.

“Mountain biking,” says Jewett, “has always provided … sponsors a chance to get their products and services in front of a very large, health-focused, and quite affluent, audience. That was true in the nineties and it’s even truer today.”

With more emphasis on spectators experiencing — instead of just watching — an event and the rise of high school mountain bike teams, Vestal says he sees mountain biking in the U.S. as “poised for growth,” if it’s done correctly.

“It’s a lot of work being a sponsored rider today. No question to that,” says Vestal, adding that riders are forced to be more professional. “With more diligent and professional riders to the sport, we can adopt new people to mountain biking; to grow the sport with more participation.”

More points of contact via social media or smaller events create greater ability for professional athletes to engage new riders in mountain biking.

Vestal says he looks forward to the day when instead of seeing two manufacturers “fighting each other for attention, they’re fighting video games,” and getting kids off the couch.

No Effort Wasted

And the benefit of these new times in mountain biking isn’t lost on the athlete either. My team director for Kenda/Felt, David Myers, poses an upside to this new responsibility for the sponsored rider.

“A career as a mountain bike athlete at the pro level is relatively short-lived,” Myers says. “Developing the skills to interact in the business of a team can help you throughout life. These skill sets are transferable.”

The Kenda/Felt team has a tight budget and a four-rider-and-director crew who all share in the responsibilities of keeping our program running.

“We have to leverage the experience of everyone involved to meet the expectations of our sponsors and supporters,” Myers says. “If not, we can easily lose that support to a team that is willing to push beyond their limits. We have to be that team.”

Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2010, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2010 include TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Voler Apparel, Pearl Izumi, WickWerks, KMC, SDG, Crank Brothers, Uvex, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics and Mighty Good Coffee.

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