Wheels don't win races; People win races

I got an email from Profile Design this morning with the subject line:

Profile Design wheels take 1st place at Ironman 70.3

Aw, hell, here's the full email so you can see what I mean:

Click to see full-size.

Poor Frederick Van Lierede, Belgian triathlete. The guy puts in 20-30 hours of hard training every week for years, pays meticulous attention to every gram of protein, carb and fat that goes into his body, remains even more vigilant to ensure that nothing on the banned substances list accidentally makes it in, makes a lifetime of sacrifices every single season to pursue a sport that is his passion, then goes out and puts himself through 4 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds of pure unadulterated suffering. Then his wheel sponsor swoops in and takes all the credit. That kind of marginalization is a pretty high price to pay for a free set of wheels, particularly for a guy who has done quite well for himself before 2011 on other companies' wheels

It's a pretty common scenario in pro athlete sponsorship. The model is normally a little more subtle - Alberto, er, Andy wins the TdF on this bike or those wheels, and the sponsor earns the right to imply, "See what our stuff can do for you?" (Though in the case above, the execution is a little less subtle than "imply".)

I understand the model, and appreciate it as a proof-of-concept. I agree that if equipment can allow someone to win at an elite level, it should be perfectly adequate for amateurs. But too often sponsors take an extra step, and suggest that the equipment does not allow the athlete to win, but is actually responsible for it. 

(Conversely, I don't believe that elite athletes need to win on certain equipment in order to prove that the same products are suitable for amateur racing. Pro usage of equipment can show that the stuff is raceworthy, but being under a pro rider is not a pre-requisite to offering excellent wheels and bikes.)

Let me be very clear on this point: our equipment is not going to make you win races. The best we can hope to achieve is that our stuff puts nothing in between you and the podium, or a top 10, or not getting dropped, or whatever is your personal objective du jour. We hope you use our bikes and wheels and you do win, of course. And when you do, we'll be tooting your horn, not our own.


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Who cares what the companies say if I'm getting free stuff… They can take whatever they want as long as I can keep my money!

The other persecptive

Are you saying that getting free stuff from sponsors is better than not? Yeah, that's certainly hard to disagree with. My point was more that getting free stuff from sponsors who treat racers like a person is better than getting free stuff from sponsors who treat racers like a company asset. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I don't actually think Profile is disrespectful to its athletes, only that this email suffered from a poor subject line.) But as someone who is not on the receiving end of a lot of gratis equipment, I suppose it's easy to take the moral high ground. I expect being told by a big industry player that you're good enough to deserve these wheels or that frame for free has got to be at least as gratifying as throwing hands when you're first across the line. It's a victory, to be sure – an acknowledgement of the work you've put in. So I think I can understand how a sponsored athlete might gloss over the language in the email above, where a pencil pusher like me found it a little disagreeable. Who cares about our business model? Hell, other than me and Dave, I expect nobody. I know some of our customers take some curiosity in it, but the business model isn't the objective. The objective is to make high quality racing equipment as inexpensive as possible. Dave gets at the tie-in to pro cycling sponsorship on the blog today, actually (see Part 2 of Ask Not What Pro Cycling…). We sponsor teams, but we'll never give stuff away for free because it goes against the grain of our mission. If we want to sell 100 sets of RFSC carbon clinchers, and we give away $10K worth of the wheels in sponsorship in order to build credibility for our brand, we have no choice but to pass that $10K expense onto the 100 people we're selling to. That's $100 more each customer pays for the wheels just so we can say that someone on our wheels took 4th in the Chris Thater Memorial Criterium. I understand the marketing rationale behind it, but it does not make our wheels better products. If we're spending money that requires us to charge more, it's because that added expense translates directly into an improvement in quality and performance. Anyway, thanks for reading and for commenting. If you're getting gear for free, you've found what is probably the only way to get a better deal than the ones we offer. And just because I take a different tack as a supplier, the racer in me is genuinely envious. If your deal ever changes and you have to shell out of your own pocket, I hope you give us a look.

Mike May

Altruistic… but once your on the inside, you realize it's better than the alternative.And since you like to relate work. Most companies have laws requiring the company gets credit for patents/inventions if employed by that company during that time.And… a lot of free stuff is given to people who cycle as a hobby… even more reason to say who cares what they say! You're getting free stuff to do what you do for fun!And… the people that are getting paid as professional atheletes (Job) are definitely getting a lot more than just the free stuff. I like your writing, and I wish I was half as eloquent, and I understand what you are trying to do with your business model… but let's face it… who cares? Answer, those not on the inside!

The other persecptive

Free stuff rules, to be sure. It's tantamount to an employer – employee relationship between the sponsoring and sponsored. I compensate you with these products, and in exchange you perform feats of strength. But are there other rights that the sponsor is entitled to? If I have a job and I believe I'm paid fairly, does my boss have the right to take credit for my ideas and my work, or ignore me, or otherwise gloss over my excellent performance? Sure, I suppose she has that right. But I also have the right to quit and get a new job, one that offers both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. If it's me, I'd rather have a job that pays me what I'm worth and treats me like a valuable part of the team, or at least like a person and not a company asset. Investments in morale and culture are some of the least expensive and highest returning an employer can make. The same is true of cycling sponsors, I think.

Mike May

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