Yup, it’s me and I’m kinda sorta back to doing the Explainer column, after having dropped off the map while I was doing Live Updates and such. This week’s is not a normal Explainer column, though. That will be back on Saturday and I will happily field questions related to cycling, legal issues related to cycling or anything that catches my eye. (Please send your questions to Charles@Pelkey.com and I will try to answer as many as I can and include one or more in the next column)
But for now, you’ll have to bear with me and let me rant about one particular subject. I just needed to get something off my chest, so to speak.
More than just a parade of pink
Okay, it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the most part, we are all quite aware … with one lone exception. In an effort to increase “awareness” this annual parade of pink ribbons generates a host of news stories about breast cancer, early detection etc. More often than not, those stories include the phrase “women with breast cancer.”
Ninety-nine percent of the time that is an accurate statement. There were approximately 180,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. in 2011. That year, there were 1800 MEN diagnosed as well.
I was one of them.
Obviously, we men are far less likely to get breast cancer than women. It’s logical to refer to it as a “women’s disease,” but it is not that exclusively. We are mammals. We all have “breast” tissue, including ducts, nipples etc. In men it’s generally useless tissue – tits on a boar, if you will – but it can be subject to the same cancers suffered by women, albeit far less frequently.
According to a study presented earlier this year at the American Society of Breast Surgeons conference, when men are diagnosed with breast cancer, it is often deadlier. That’s largely because men (and even their health care providers) tend to ignore those early symptoms that trigger alarm bells when it comes to female patients.
Because of that lack of “awareness,” men tend to be diagnosed later than women (even though our tumors are actually detectable at an earlier stage) and as a result have larger tumors, are more likely to have had the cancer spread and live, on average, two fewer years than women who are diagnosed.
I was lucky. I found an aggressive 2.3cm, grade 3 tumor when it was just at Stage 2b. A failed lumpectomy, a bilateral mastectomy and five months of chemo later, I’m as good as new (albeit sans nipples).
We caught that sucker in time. Other men, like my late uncle weren’t quite as lucky. Many ignore indicators, thinking that a bump is merely a cyst. Worse still is when medical professionals tell them it’s nothing to worry about. Get a second opinion.
I’m not asking you to donate money. I am not begging you to participate in a walkathon or a 5k. You don’t have to wear a ribbon, a pin or a wristband. Nope, I am not asking you to do any of that. Instead, let’s truly honor National Breast Cancer Awareness Month simply by becoming aware.
Be aware that now and then, in those rare cases, this also happens to men.
Don’t panic if you find a lump, but please, please, please don’t ignore it by thinking that breast cancer is only something that affects women.
Just be aware.
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
Three hundred sixty-six days ago I made a miscalculation. Simply put, I went too fast through a corner. I could tell you how I thought the adhesive quality of my bike’s rear tire given the road surface, lean angle and speed I was traveling was sufficient to keep me stuck to the road, but none of what I thought prior to that turn matters. Nor does it matter that I got the bike under control briefly. The impact itself doesn’t matter in the way you might think it would.
Here’s what matters: any time I enter a corner that I don’t have as well memorized as my social security number, I hesitate. Hell, even the ones that I do know that well I find myself sitting up a bit to scrub some speed.
That one tire slip changed, well, maybe it didn’t change everything, but it was the first in a series of events that, in aggregate, served as the most colossal upheaval I’ve experienced in my life.
Under other circumstances I wouldn’t have seen the events as related in any way. However, it was that sinking feeling in my gut—the universal signifier that no matter how good or bad things may currently be, things are about to get worse—that kept coming back with each new lousy piece of news. I knew the moment my tire slipped that I was going too fast for the next few seconds (or days as the case turned out to be) to turn out in any routine manner. That feeling came back when I got the call that my stepfather, Byron, was unlikely to leave the hospital. There was the call with the ad sales guy I’d hired in which he admitted that not only was he planning to take a job with an exercise magazine but that he really hadn’t done a damn thing for the previous month.
I experienced the same feeling the day the obstetrician said, “I don’t like this,” as he pointed to a dark area in our son’s body as he performed what was supposed to be a final and routine ultrasound two weeks before delivery. I did my best to tell myself that things couldn’t be that bad, that my body was jumping to conclusions not supported by the data. However, minutes later, the feeling only grew when we entered a different office with a different ultrasound pro operating an ultrasound unit that was S-class Mercedes compared to the Toyota Tercel we’d just been on. That doctor’s first, “Hmm,” was all I needed to begin wondering how the moments go before a first experience with incontinence.
The next month served up a succession of conversations that each resulted in that damned feeling. It was as if I’d discovered some previously unknown cookbook in which Julia Child served up that one emotional response in eighty different dishes. There was Sinking Feeling Paprika. There was Sentiment d’Angoisse a l’Orange, Sensazione di Affondare Cacciatore and Spaetzle mit Flaues Gefühl. I lost track of all the dishes containing that one ingredient, but you know how the palate fatigues. After a month of chicken, all you want is beef.
Once we finally brought the 15-lb. miracle home, I headed to a doctor, one just for me, for what was supposed to be a relatively simple out-patient procedure. Weeks later I woke up in a hotel room and the sheets were red. I spent Memorial Day in the emergency room.
Each of those events is as related as a brick is to a blue whale, but they share an emotional crossroads to which I inevitably responded, “Oh no, not again.” Even as I sit, typing, my stomach hitches as I traverse the events of those days, the tone of the doctor’s voice, the color of the sheets, the leftward kick of the wheel.
Shortly after the crash I wrote that I’d soon be back on Tuna Canyon. But that hasn’t happened. It took more than six months for me to return to Decker, to Las Flores and to go 90 percent of my old speed requires an anxious, uneasy clenching of teeth. It’s not a flow state. Not currently, maybe not anymore. Maybe I’d have returned sooner were it not for the succession of events that made my life a Himalayan roller coaster. I’ve no way to know.
I’ve gained much in the last year. The Deuce is a prize beyond measure. And the awareness I have of my place in the world thanks to the beer fund is a lesson that simply couldn’t be purchased. For those, I’m grateful. But neither can change my desire to be able to let the bike run on tilted asphalt. For that, I’m pissed. There’s no road map for how to get them back.
Worse is the simple fact that I’d be okay going slower if I could relax. Just relax. My discomfort on the descent to Cazadero and on Myers Grade at Levi’s Gran Fondo made me brake enough that I wondered if maybe I was now part of the legion that shouldn’t ride carbon clinchers on such roads. The wheels, I can report, fared better than my nerves.
It might seem that a year is a pretty arbitrary way to mark a collection of days, but anniversaries are how we mark time, mark progress. Occasions are a chance to look back at who we were previously. Weddings allow us to demonstrate how our lives have improved thanks to the power of love. Birthdays give us a chance to look back on who we were, to judge how we’ve grown. Commemorating the anniversary of a crash doesn’t seem the remembrance you’d want to mark, but for me, it was the first in a series of events related by a visceral response. It is my hope that today marks a turn, a chance to move forward without each new disturbance tapping into the psychic equivalent of being tazed.
To the degree that I don’t sound more hopeful, I admit that my outlook is tentative, uneasy. While I’m sure what the shackles are, I’m less sure how to cast them off.
Image: Wil Matthews
When the trail you’re riding ends in the ocean, literally in the ocean, you have done something right, especially if that trail also ribbons left along a cliff that hugs the shoreline. Clumps of goldenrod and sea grass hem you in. An increasingly rare Monarch butterfly dances across your path.
Block Island is part of a coastal archipelago. It sits 13 miles off the south coast of Rhode Island, and almost the same distance from Montauk Point on Long Island. 40% of it is conservation land. One main road rings the interior, linking houses to the sole, small town, New Shoreham, and, as it turns out, a small spider’s web of jeep track and sandy trails reaches even further, out to the perimeter and into the ocean.
The dudes I was there with all surf and fish. I am the only cyclist, so I was fortunate to escape for much of a Saturday to explore on my own. I had been to the island once before, but contented myself then with a soft spin of the main loop, pretty but unremarkable. This time, resolved to see more of what was there, I plotted a route on a crude map, only to have the ten minutes invested there deliver me to one of the most beautiful twisting, winding solo rides I’ve done in a long time.
Honestly, it’s hard to weigh the awesomeness of a ride like this. How does it compare to D2R2, for example? Was it more beautiful? No, just different. Did I have more fun? No, but it was a solo ride. It was more about me and less about connecting with friends. Honestly, there were a few times on this ride, where I caught myself laughing out loud at how good the route was, or because a pair of pheasants scurried across the way.
What is clear is that I am undeservedly lucky to get to ride when and where I do. I will bemoan how busy I am, how much time I spend sitting in ice rinks watching youth hockey, how most of my substantive riding begins in the pre-dawn, but that is all just the bullshit ranting of a guy with no clue he’s won life’s lottery.
When I got back to the house, perched there on the edge of the salt marsh, to shower and begin cramming my face with food, I had a peace of mind and a strong sense of having learned a great secret, the feelings we’re all hunting out there on the road and/or trail. Then I took a nap. Yeah. It was like that.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, what has been your most awesome ride this year? And what made it that way? Was it the location? The company? Or some alchemical combination thereof? Maybe you had some sort of great form and won a race? Or maybe, like me, you discovered a beautiful place that you might have known was there, but still couldn’t believe once you’d arrived.
Cycling is almost by definition a group activity. The more people you ride with, the easier the ride becomes. You can draft, you can talk, you can challenge your companions in a sprint or help a slower friend up a hill. But sometimes it isn’t possible to pedal with others. Life, timing, plans, all of those things can put a crimp in an otherwise dialed riding agenda.
In my early days, such impediments sent me into a tailspin. To get the needed miles, I would ride twice, sometimes three times a day. Then I spoke with a friend who touted the joys of The Long Solo Ride. The ride where it’s just you and your bike and the road for five to six hours. Though skeptical, and more than a little intimidated, I decided one day to saddle up as a Lone Ranger and head out the door.
I’m so glad I did. Not because of the workout I get, or the miles I log, but because of what it’s taught me about myself as a rider.
I bore easily on roads that don’t light me up if I’m pedaling by myself. Thus, I always plan my routes carefully. If I’m looking at the map the night before and I think “meh,” then that’s a road I avoid. Sometimes, this means driving to a place I’ve never ridden before but have heard great things about, and sometimes it means revisiting old favorites that I haven’t seen in a while, family reunion style. The night before a long ride, I dream of the amazing adventure I’m going to embark upon in the morning; that’s how I know I’ve done my homework correctly.
I’m a spontaneous rider. It contradicts the above point, but I relish the ultimate freedom I have to do whatever I want. Who cares if the gameplan says Zig but I have the yen to Zag? It’s my prerogative to get crazy should the fancy overtake me.
I lose all sense of vanity, as the Long Solo Ride completely upends my super pro aesthetic. My pockets bulge with preparedness for every possible contingency. I bring food as if I will hit no stores. I bring an extra tube and a pump, even if I’m carrying CO2. I bring a patch kit. I bring my phone. I bring my ID, cash, and my medical insurance card. Upon swinging my leg over the top tube, the diameter of my body around my midsection appears to have doubled. But it only takes one error (see above) to learn the lesson the Boy Scouts teach from day one: Always Be Prepared.
Most importantly, I become zen. I detach. I try to be ready for whatever may come my way. It could be a breathtaking vista where the sun hits the trees just right. It could be a descent that finally sharpens into a perfect, apex carved focus. It might be a new friend I meet at my café stop. It might be all three, or none of the above. But because it’s a wonderful Long Solo Ride, I know it will always be something.
These are the truths I’ve learned about myself. My friend who first talked me into embarking on the journey has an entirely different set of truths. You may relate to some, all, or none. But that’s ultimately the great thing about Long Solo Rides: they take an activity usually defined by how you behave in a group, and redefine it based on how you behave in no one’s company save your own. My spontaneity? My Zen? These are parts of my personality I honestly didn’t even know existed. And I’m sure there’s even more the bike can teach me about myself in the days to come.
But first, I had to learn to give it my undivided attention.
I imagine it drives engineers nuts. They spend all their hours trying to understand how the interaction of material and shape can produce an objectively better ride, doing hard stuff like math and testing, and then a designer comes along and slaps an eye-popper of a paint scheme on a competitor’s bike and suddenly they’re getting outsold 2-to-1. For all our talk about what makes one bike better than another, we all want to look good.
In the ’80s that meant splatter schemes and sparkle, neons and contrast. These days everything is either matte black or some permutation of the classic black/white/red. Bicycle aesthetics work in these small spirals, everyone seeming to riff on one color-way or one basic pattern, until some brave bastard dares to do something both different and repeatable.
I like geometrical shapes. I don’t care for splatter. Diagonals bother me. The Pegoretti above floats my boat. I don’t necessarily want to grab your attention with my bike, but if you do happen to look, I want my bike to be both sharp and unusual. I don’t want it to look like yours, but I don’t want it to look like a Ferrari Testarossa either.
Coming up with the next big thing is tough. I’ve been involved in projects like picking a season’s new colors. What you discover quickly is that, to do it right, you can borrow from no one. You have push out into the new and hope your idea of new somehow resonates with the masses.
It is possible that features and benefits are important, that engineering is, for some people, the thing that inspires their want, but I have been told for years that people buy things emotionally rather than rationally. And, my experience suggests that nothing inspires that emotional buy-in quite like a slick paint job or an elegantly crafted line. It is hard to feel compelling emotions about a bike’s stiffness, not impossible, but hard. Of course, in the best examples, engineering and design converge, but these are rare and precious, and usually very expensive.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how important are looks to you? Have you ever convinced yourself you wanted a bike based on a rational analysis of your needs, only to be swayed by a pretty paint job on another ride? What do you think looks good? How much will you pay for it? And have you ever bought a great ugly bike, only to watch it sit in the garage, because you just didn’t feel inspired to ride it?
I was JRA (just riding along), my legs rising with the pedals and then falling again, letting the circles be circles without adding or subtracting anything. Sometimes it blows my mind that I can do this, just let the bike roll beneath me.
Momentum is mass in motion, a rider on a bike, just rolling along. It is a function of mass and velocity, but metaphorically also a measure of what we are moving toward or away from in our larger lives. In some ways, ‘Can I pedal harder up this hill?’ is a similar question to ‘Can I sneak in one more day on the bike this week?’ which is only a tactical permutation of ‘Am I getting better at what I’m doing?’ or ‘Am I moving forward in my life?’
I find that when I am moving well in the literal way, I am probably moving well in the other way as well.
I also think of momentum as what is happening in the moment. What forces are at play? Am I moving with them or against them? Sometimes just being present in the moment is a challenge, external forces rag-dolling me through like a kid caught in a too tall wave. We wait around for something magic to happen, maybe we put ourselves in magic’s way, ride a tall mountain, shoot a twisting descent, ramble over miles of dirt and gravel. We are only trying to force ourselves into the moment, gathering the circumstances that will focus our attention, if only briefly.
It is tempting to bring inertia into the discussion, but there we are talking about bodies at rest. Inertia is a measure of a body’s resistance to momentum. Even in a track stand the bike yearns to move. Sometimes it yearns hard enough to deposit you on the asphalt. That we control that movement is only our temporary mastery of momentum, the asphalt a measure of our hubris.
My form on the bike is more than just fitness. It is also my ability to work with whatever momentum I’ve got. Can I keep my fingers off the brake as I lean against a turn, dropping my knee as counterweight, edging the volume of my tire against the broad surface of the road? Can I find the will to drop down the cassette at the crest of a steep rise, to pound into those tall gears that will spit me out the bottom at something approaching terminal velocity? Can I wed concentration to that force, dance with it, bend it to my will, and accept its own thoughts on the subject? This is souplesse.
Off the bike, wiser heads ask me whether I want to be right or happy, and I smile and think this is really a decision about whether I want to squander the momentum I have to prove a point, to stop in the road to admire my own paint job. Do I want to swap momentum for inertia? Mostly not. Life is hard enough without riding the brakes all the time. I’d rather go smooth than fast.
I don’t know about you, but I capture very little of the momentum I receive. Mostly my ego revolts, pulls back hard on the brake levers, and I shake my head, over and over, at my own stupidity, the past welling up to overwhelm the present. Or else I am afraid. What will come around the next corner? What horrors await in the wreckage of the future?
The bike is like this, both teacher and blackboard, serving up lessons and giving us a place to practice. As ever, I struggle to pay attention in class, but I believe the answers are there, on the bike, in the moment, somewhere just beyond my front wheel.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
So today an event took place that will make the activity of the UCI worth following. We’ve no guarantee that Brian Cookson will make all the changes to professional cycling that any of us believe aren’t just helpful, but necessary to its survival. And while the cynics among us may be ready to quote The Who’s line from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—”Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” Cookson deserves the distinction of at least being different from Pat McQuaid because he was never banned from the Olympics.
A brief reminder of that event. McQuaid organized a trip to South Africa for the 1975 Rapport Toer. He talked brother Kieron, John Curran, Sean Kelly and Henry Wilbraham into violating the ban—due to apartheid—on competing in the country. The five riders were competing under assumed names. A journalist following the honeymoon of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor discovered what was happening and when he published his story, they were found out. As a result, the entire bunch, the majority of whom would likely have been part of Ireland’s 1976 Olympic cycling team, were banned from the Olympics.
Cookson, on the other hand, has no such sordid history. He’s known as the man who helped forge the alliances that turn British Cycling into the powerhouse it is. Team Sky simply wouldn’t exist had he not laid the groundwork with the British federation.
But the successes Cookson has enjoyed could be harder to notch once he’s in Aigle. Many of the UCI’s staff have been close to McQuaid and it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone there will be eager to dismantle McQuaid’s legacy, such as it is. But change is as necessary as it is imminent. A great many practices will need to change if only to demonstrate that it’s not business as usual.
But just how much will change and how soon? Will the Tour of Beijing survive? Will the UCI persist in promoting races other than the World Championships? What of the frame certification process? Will positive tests by the leader at the Tour de France take three months to announce? Could a Truth and Reconciliation really happen now?
Rather than air suspicions and reservations, let’s make this positive. If you had an audience with the man, what would you ask him to change first? Which fire, in your mind, burns brightest?
The president of the UCI will be chosen today in Florence. The outcome of this election will have a significant impact on the course and credibility of professional bike racing for a decade to come. Should Pat McQuaid be voted in, we can be assured that some efforts will be made to make cycling look clean. Under his leadership the UCI will, however, do less than is possible, less than the public wants to see, less than would be done by a person with a strong moral compass.
Brian Cookson took Great Britain from the lowly status of cycling backwater and helped turn it into a veritable cycling David, knocking off Goliaths as if it were only a day’s work. To be sure, should Cookson be elected to the presidency of the UCI, the task before him is similar to his previous one in that it involves a turnaround. However, it will be a turnaround of a very different flavor and he won’t have had the benefit of building years of consensus within a smaller organization with a more unified goal. His will be a gargantuan task, to give the UCI credibility where it has little. He’ll be charged with making transparent processes that weren’t so much conducted behind closed doors as carried out in secret.
Has he proven that he can do it? Certainly not, but the delegates have but two choices and that one thing we know for sure is that McQuaid has proven he will fight transparency and good governance like they were a bunch of harpies bent on his destruction. (Given the way he has presided over the UCI, that’s not far off the mark, though.)
Last week I wrote that I believed McQuaid would win the election for UCI President. My reasoning was simple: The election is decided by secret ballot and he controlled who counts the ballots. Well, in the most stunning and pleasant turn of events since this charade took flight, Cookson has prevented UCI lawyer Philippe Verbiest, who is close to McQuaid, from being the person to count the vote. So Cookson now has an actual shot at a proper election.
USA Cycling’s Steve Johnson has indicated that the dossier of charges against McQuaid haven’t entered in to his considerations regarding his vote. It’s fair to wonder how many others will disregard some of the most damning charges against McQuaid. This would be where Lance Armstrong could have done the sport a real favor. Were he to look beyond his desire to compete and consider the sport’s best interests, he might appreciate that he has had interactions with McQuaid and Verbruggen that could fill in some of the shadows in their character. I believe he had the power to further the process of showing McQuaid to be the despot he is.
Finally, yesterday, Greg LeMond released an open letter to the voting delegates. I, for one, hope this can sway anyone who hadn’t already committed themselves to making cycling the laughingstock of world sport.
Dear UCI delegates:
Tomorrow is one of the most important days in modern cycling. The future of our sport will be impacted greatly by the election of the new UCI President.
Earlier I made clear my belief that the sport needed new leadership and I still feel the same today. Pat McQuaid has had many opportunities to take that leadership, to tell the world of cycling that the past is the past, and that this sport will never allow what took place over the last 20 years to ever happen again. He had his opportunity and failed. It is time now for change.
I truly believe that if there is no change in the leadership of the sport that the impact will be felt for years to come, in every aspect of the sport. From the parents that do not encourage their children to take up cycling as a sport of choice, to the sponsors who are sick and tired of the scandals and their costs, both social and financial.
We need to show that there is a democracy in place at the UCI. That cycling’s officials can be trusted to act in the best interest of the majority, not in their own private interests. Why would anyone invest in cycling without trust in the sport and its governing body?
I beg of you to vote with your eyes open. The UCI has been dragged through the mud for way too long. Pat McQuaid has demonstrated he is not capable of being an effective and stable leader. His history of bullying, public denigration of cyclists and rule bending is unacceptable. What this sport needs more than anything right now is positive change. The only way for change to happen is with new leadership: someone that people can count on to put cycling first and not their personal ambitions.
When I look at all of the countries in the world and see which country is thriving, it is impossible not to think of British Cycling and what Brian Cookson had done for the sport in England: look at his track record. Look at what he has done for British Cycling, not just at the elite level of cycling, but look at the explosion of non-racers riding their bikes in England. Who would not want this for cycling?
It is up to you, the voters that get to decide the future of cycling. If you truly care about this sport there is only one option, and that is to cast your vote for Brian Cookson.
Please do the right thing and vote for Brian Cookson.
I didn’t pass him. That would have been a dick move, so just as I was about to make the catch I sat up a little and coasted onto his wheel. As far as I could tell he never even turned his head to notice I was there, but I was trying to get my lungs back in my mouth and keep my brain from bursting out my temples, so maybe he did.
I don’t know why I did it. It was just one of those stupid commuter games you play. “Can I catch that guy?” you think. “I probably can’t. Maybe I can. Well, screw it.” And you go.
He was probably 50 meters out in front of me on the long climb that leads up to my house, but I could see he wasn’t going very fast. He had a bag on, like me. He wasn’t rushing. He was just going home.
I closed half the distance pretty quickly, as you do on a climb, but my heart was red-lining, so I had to back off. That’s where it gets challenging, right? It’s hard to know how much to slow. Your brain is telling you to let the pedals go slack, to coast until the engine room gets the fire under control. You have to find that middle point, fast but not heart attack fast. You have to maintain enough progress to continue the chase, to maintain motivation, but not go all in like a poker player with a pair of nothing.
Like much of what I do on the bike, there was no real point. I was commuting. He was commuting. Why race someone who isn’t racing you? Why go so hard on the way home? It was stupid, but I needed something to ride for. I hadn’t realized that until I was getting close enough to believe I would make the catch.
The pros calculate their every effort by whether they have something to ride for or not. A chance to put a teammate in the winning break? They ride. A chance to save a podium place? They ride. A chance to set up for the sprint? They ride.
I can’t be so discerning. I don’t stand on many (any) podiums, but I need to ride. I need that something to motivate me, or I let the pedals go slack. I coast.
After D2R2 this year, I swore I would take my fitness and plow it into trail riding, that I’d double down by running on days I couldn’t fit a ride in, that I’d play more soccer, that I’d keep it going. Instead, I gave myself a week off. I slept. I drove. I ate stuff. One week became two became three.
I needed to ride. That poor bastard didn’t ask me to chase him. He was just the right challenge in the right moment. By the time I turned off his wheel my breath rasped in my chest painfully, that bronchial ache made of effort and car exhaust. I didn’t pass him, because it would have been the wrong thing to do.
As I stood in the kitchen after, sweating like a summer soda can, I wondered aloud, “WtF was that?” But it felt good. It focused my mind. I thought, “I’m going to ride every day this week.”
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Trade shows are an odd phenomenon. They are like little artificial malls where you go shopping but no actual commerce is conducted. The best you can really hope for is the promise of future business. I’ve been to trade shows for the musical instrument business, electronic security, computers and, best of all, bicycles. Only the trade show for the music biz could hold a candle to Interbike. But oh my God, it was louder than the Chinook helicopters that plucked friends of mine from the flood waters in Boulder, Colorado.
It used to be that Interbike was the place where dealers came to see the new line of bikes and then sit down with their rep to place their preseason order. It made perfect sense. Go to the virtual showroom, see the bikes in person, go over colors and pricing, and then sit down with the order sheet and start writing numbers in blanks. As recently as 2004, I can recall seeing a dealer sitting at a table with his rep and an order sheet. But lead times have grown over the years. Today, forecasting times have grown to the point that a bike shop’s preseason order needs to be placed before they ever arrive at Interbike. Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale all have dealer events more than four weeks before Interbike. The single biggest driver on the product management end in this is ordering product with Shimano; lead times with SRAM and Campagnolo are somewhat shorter, I’m told.
The other big driver that no one likes to talk about is the one on the sales end of things. No one wants unsold units in October. Those bikes get discounted and all the profits made through the year get nixed when you take a loss by dumping bikes. To the accountants, it’s not as simple as that, but the career of a product manager can end with a single bad forecast. Those discounted bikes used to be welcomed by retailers looking for Christmas deals. What has changed is that retailers are now being asked to guess how much product they will need for the year more than six months prior to singing “Auld Lang Syne.” The burden of forecasting has been shifted from the manufacturer’s shoulders to the back of the guy who is far less sophisticated. As a retailer, if you order too many bikes, it’s up to you to figure out how to get them all out your door. And if you order too few? Well, then it’s up to you to figure out what to sell because the manufacturer will be sold out of their most popular model by June, July at the latest.
So bike shops order the bikes they hope to be selling in July in … July.
The dealer events that the bike companies hold are pretty genius because the events serve their forecasting needs and give them a multi-day audience without the distraction of other companies. If a shop employee wants to go for a ride, and he’s at Trek World, it’s on a Trek, or a Trek.
The trouble for dealers is that these preseason events are smack dab in the middle of the selling season. Attending one is tantamount to leaving a dinner party you’re throwing at home to drive to work for a conference call.
All this begs the question of the point of Interbike.
Those who are desperate to see the latest, greatest, suggest that Eurobike in Friedrichshafen, Germany, could serve the whole of the market, but that misses the fact that there are models and colors peculiar to that continent and this. Further, if a dealer actually flew to Germany, he’d have the shock of finding out his rep wasn’t there. Who’s going to take that order?
Timing aside, Las Vegas continues to be anathema to all that the bicycle stands for. Cycling is a triumph of clean living and Vegas celebrates nothing so much as excess. All you need to do is wander through one casino at 8:45 am on a weekday morning and witness someone at a slot machine with cigarette dangling and Jim Beam on the rocks to know that Vegas aims to be the home to coloring outside the lines. This also begs a question, but a different one: Why Las Vegas?
That part is easier to answer. Because Las Vegas markets itself more effectively as a travel destination than any other locale in the contiguous U.S. Don’t believe me? Try to find a three-star hotel in any bona fide vacation destination that goes for less than $50 per night and you’ll be looking until the cows have come home and left again. Airfares are similarly discounted. You can fly for less than $200 round trip from any major city in the U.S. so long as you don’t book the day before departure. There’s not another city that wants you as badly as Vegas does.
That part creeps me out. Every other city on the planet is happy to see me leave. ‘Cept maybe Santa Rosa. Damn. I digress.
Interbike’s former marketing director, Rich Kelly, put forward the idea that the show should give into all the cries to move the show to Denver or Anaheim or Timbuktu and then let the disaster unfold for a year, maybe two before moving the grateful hordes back to the surface of the sun, er, Nevada. To demonstrate the particular genius of this idea, I note that a political pundit put forward the idea that if conservatives really thought Obamacare wouldn’t work they should let it be enacted and then allow—you guessed it—the disaster to unfold.
As a journalist, Interbike is very useful to me. It’s useful to all of us in the media. Oddly, we may be the one user group for whom Interbike remains an unqualified success. It’s true that no one walks out of Interbike with a signed ad contract anymore, much the way dealers aren’t filling out order sheets, but the edit side of things often prides itself on being as clueless about actual commerce as possible, especially when it’s the commerce of one’s employer. I can’t be quite so cavalier as I’m the one cutting commission checks to my ad sales team, but I do my best to separate church and state. Sometimes it’s a bit like being at Four Corners with one hand in Colorado, another in Utah, one foot in Arizona and another in New Mexico, but you do your best.
Our ad sales director, Wayne, bumped into some guys from one of the local shops on his flight. In tow was a kid from the shop for whom this trip was a verified travel trifecta: It was his first trip out of Wisconsin. It was his first plane flight. And, of course, it was his first trip to Las Vegas. Last I heard that kid still wasn’t sober. That kid, [name redacted], is the perfect example of why some folks are perfectly happy with Las Vegas. The thing is, you could leave home everyone who is there to party and the show wouldn’t suffer a bit. Weirder still, by clearing out the halls a bit, people rushing from one appointment to the next, usually five minutes late (no names mentioned), would probably save 30 seconds of dodging the hangovered. Trust me, every little bit helps.
That last point is meant to help bring into focus the many conflicting elements that make up the single most important trade event for the bike industry in North America. By keeping the show in Vegas it continues to attract people for whom business isn’t their first priority.
This year, Interbike made two significant changes to its format, one small, one big. First, it allowed consumers to visit on Friday; second, it changed locations. Consumers have long visited the show as part of shop staff. This was just the first time that it was actually okay for that to happen, but only on Friday. Given the number of people we all see who don’t actually work in the industry who make their way to Las Vegas to attend, there was some concern that the show would be mobbed on Friday. I know people who made sure to leave Thursday night so they could avoid the influx. Only the multiplcation didn’t happen. If anything, the fear of the masses was so great that more people left than showed up just for Friday. The overall population seemed down.
The second change, that of venue, took it from the Sands Convention Center where it had been held for 14 years to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. I heard exhibitors complain about increased cost, poor placement, a lower ceiling (making it harder to raise big banners sufficiently high above above their booths to attract attention), gigantic support columns that were as easy to see around as a school bus stood on its end and tighter aisles. All of those may have been true.
For me, and all the other journalists with whom I spoke, the selection of Mandalay Bay was a certified miss. The biggest single issue was one of geometry. The Sands Convention Center is more or less laid out in a rectangle. Mandalay Bay? Not so much. The show floor was laid out in a kind of squared-off “J.” The upshot is that there were parts of the main show floor obscured from view. Navigation was an ongoing nightmare. I can’t recall ever being in a room with such a confusing layout that even after two days of walking around it I could still become—there’s no other word for it—lost. I pride myself on my sense of direction and I was 90 degrees from the direction I needed to head more often than not.
For the vendors who stood in their booth all day, this wasn’t a problem. Retailers, who have a fraction of the appointments that journalists do, had plenty of time to find their way around, but because my colleagues and I needed to move quickly from appointment to appointment, the confusion of the layout, the tight aisles and the lack of multiple aisles that stretched the length of the show made it easily the worst trade show layout I’ve ever encountered. I can put it in perspective this way: I’ve never actually criticized a trade show layout before. How badly do you have to screw it up to be criticized?
Wait, it’s gets better (or worse, depending on your view). There was a “paddock” outside on the hot asphalt. Nevermind that I was too busy to head out there, I didn’t even know how to find it.
As a business, Interbike benefitted from the return of a number of companies, such as Felt, to the show floor, but I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for Interbike. Exhibiting at Interbike can present the same expense as adding another full-time staff member. I think it’s just a matter of time before someone figures out better timing and a better venue and in that creates a better business model.