Ask Not What Pro Cycling Can Do For You... (part 2)

As the sponsorship market continues to darken for even the most marquee teams, manufacturers have taken a recently unprecedented role in sponsorship (in the long long ago, endemic/technical suppliers played a FAR larger role than they have recently).  Leopard-Trek, BMC, Garmin-Cervelo, and Liquigas-Cannondale wear their manufacturers straight across their titles, and Specialized also stepped pretty close to the plate with HTC-High Road this year.  That's more direct manufacturer involvement than we've seen at the top of the pyramid for a long, long time.  It's also striking how American (and North American) the involvement is.  Is this because one of top tier pro cycling's most valuable assets is its ability to sell (predominantly Taiwanese-made) product from American brands to the American audience, peopled as it is, almost exclusively with enthusiastic participants in the sport?  We're a long way from the first glimpse of pro cycling that I had as a kid, when I remember thinking "they don't really ride Huffys in the Tour de France, do they?"  Now American brands have reversed the hammerlock that Euro brands had back then.  Leopard-Trek, Liquigas-Cannondale, HTC-High Road, Astana, Radio Shack, Saxo Bank - they're all sponsored by American brands, not to mention Geox, who's sponsored by Fuji/Kestrel.  It's far from limited to frames, either.  Zipp, Easton, Bontrager, and Reynolds form the dominant cabal of wheel suppliers, and SRAM's no third wheel in drivetrain supply, either.  So far, it's only frame manufacturers who have gone to the plate for title sponsorships. 

Companies like Nike or Adidas find a market in every owner of a foot or a torso who sees their brand on any athlete in any game.   People see Rafael Nadal in his Nikes and think “I need some new sneakers, and those must be good ones, I will get some from that brand,” whether or not they will ever in their lives hold a tennis racket.  (Meantime I look at Nadal and think that the Spanish doping authorities must have one seriously major huge rug to hide all of these cases under, but that’s a different story).  For every one basketball player, or tennis player, or soccer player, who wears shoes to play a game in which he is sponsored to wear those shoes, there are many times that number of spectators who will buy shoes not for that game, but because of that game.  

Endemic cycling sponsors have no multipliers on their audience.   No one who doesn't ride is an audience for Zipp wheels, or Lake shoes.  No one who doesn’t ride is going to buy chamois cream.  The man on the street doesn't see Heinrich Haussler winning today's Qatar stage and thing "I need some new shirts for the gym - that Castelli sure makes some nice stuff."  Heck , half the time you're pretty darn challenged to find a lot of these brands/products in your local bike store.  Probably the best they do on that score is driving brand awareness among casual fans, who aren't going to buy a $4k race bike, but will see a Specialized among the legions of hybrids and think "that's one of those bikes that I see in that race on TV, I should get one of those."  But the endemic sponsors really, really want a large and growing pro cycling game and pro cycling audience, because in an era of homogeneous products (see Mike's point about the same guys winning no matter what bikes they're on this year), the visibility that comes from pro cycling success is their most dependable point of differentiation.  

With significant exceptions, we're generally in favor of pro cycling. It's good entertainment, and despite the fact that maybe the dial on the "innovation-o-meter" is turned up a bit high, it does inspire technical innovation and refinement.  It's also interesting to see some people we know reach pretty high up into the rarefied air of pro racing, and to have that be a carrot for them to pursue. 

This winter, we've been fortunate enough to be able to help out an uber talented young rider whose bike (and nearly body) were destroyed by a careless driver.  He's currently using one of our bikes to train in pursuit of his hoop dreams.  We both viscerally cringe thinking about some of the choices he'll face in the next few years.  If ever there was a family that had prepared a kid to face such things, it's his (seriously, Katie and I have had fully serious conversations about having his parents raise our kids, they're that good), and hopefully he's talented enough and the environment's changed enough that he won't face what we fear he will.  And then there's the guy who slapped us all around so hard last year that he's all pro'd up for this year.  Another great kid, another great story. 

Of course for every one of those stories, there are ten or fifteen kids who are developing a relationship with physical activity through cycling that they might not otherwise have gotten.  Cycling's still a pretty "fun" thing for a kid to do, when it's presented correctly, and it teaches a lot of really good lessons.  All told, I think cycling's got more to offer as a healthy lifestyle choice than as a career choice, but it's neat that it's out there for those few.

But the question remains of "is there any legitimacy to the idea that consumers should pay extra for their products with the sole intent of that extra being put toward supporting the pro game?  Should there be a 'pro cycling tax?'"  A friend brought up yesterday's installment and compared pro racing to any kind of local racing that race promoters are tasked with supporting because "it needs to be there."  I can certainly sympathize more readily with the thought that the great and collective "we" need subsidize junior's fields more than with the thought that we need to subsidize pros, but he makes a good point. 

A lot of this exercise stems from Mike's and my mutual uneasiness with the "PRO" concept.  We get it, we get the attractiveness of it.  There's an aesthetic thing that we both definitely get.  Mike can't ride a bike with mismatched wheels (I just imagine that I've paid a visit to neutral support, which is even more pro, right?).  But yeah, I mean, cycling has a HUGE aesthetic component to it, and we have this very visible (ever more so, thanks the internets) fashion parade that instructs those who care on what it looks like to be a serious bike racer.  You don't want to imagine yourself as a blight on that landscape.  On the other hand, the slavish devotion to it is kind of silly. 

So now you've gotten to the end, and I apologize for the lack of a clear and cogent point having been made.  As it turns out this was sort of a stream of conscious trip through some thoughts that a weird comment inspired.  Sometimes you get that here on the November Bicycles Blog.  We live to serve.

Race Smart. 

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