After three seasons together that produced five World Cup wins and an overall title, Aaron Gwin and Specialized are parting ways. The reason? A differing of opinion when it came to how much Aaron believes he's worth.
Whispers of the separation, of which both parties say is happening on good terms, had been making the rounds over the last few months. Even so, it's still somewhat surprising that the quickest downhiller in the sport, who also happens to be an American, is parting ways with one of the largest American cycling brands. It all just seems like too good of a fairytale, a marketing team's toe-curling wet dream, to not continue. But here we are. Unlike a real fairytale, however, this one was cut short because of a difference of opinion when it came to the size of Aaron's paycheck. He simply wanted to be paid more than Specialized was willing to dish out.
''I proposed what I believe to be my reasonable market value, and they differed,'' Gwin explained to me in a straightforward way. ''It's nothing to be upset about, it was just a difference of opinion.'' It's rumored that Aaron's proposal would have made him the highest paid downhiller by quite a margin, although neither he or Specialized are willing to disclose the actual figure. Whatever the number was, which Aaron says is more than he was making in 2015, Specialized wasn't inclined to sign the cheques. ''When a brand decides to direct their monies in a different direction, I don't take it as a personal knock towards me,'' the World Cup champ said of what he clearly views as a business decision. ''These guys all have their own ambitions and passions, which is normal, and I wish them well in whatever direction they decide to pursue.''
|It's normal for athletes in any sport to switch companies or teams, not because they do or do not desire to continue, but because either the team or the athlete doesn't value the other according to the other's perspective. - Aaron Gwin|
Specialized has had a winning program for many years, so it's no surprise that they've used the budget for their mountain bike race program to keep that on track in the future. They recently announced the signing of Jared Graves to their enduro team, and there are rumors that they've signed another top downhiller to be Troy Brosnan's teammate in 2016 and beyond, both of which were likely made possible by using funds freed up by Aaron's departure.
And as for Aaron, he's not quite ready to spill the beans on his future, but he says that a similar offer to what he made Specialized has been accepted by a different, yet to be named company. ''After doing my own research and evaluations of the market, I calculated my own proposed salary and believe it to be very reasonable. That proposal was later quantified "proven true" as I now have a contract that I intend to sign which is based upon my original proposal,'' he told me of the accepted offer. Queue the speculation.
|Regarding what would have had to change for me to stay, it was only their perspective of my value that would have needed to change. If our evaluations would have been unified, then I'd imagine we would have finalized a deal moving forward many months ago. - Aaron Gwin|
While they did decline being interviewed on the subject, Specialized Sports Marketing's Gavin Noble released the following statement about Gwin's exit: ''Aaron is the greatest American World Cup DH racer ever - straight up. In a perfect world, we absolutely wanted to continue, and we know that, to a large degree, that feeling was mutual. Anyone who's ever worked in sports marketing, or has simply been involved with any kind of business decision making, however, knows that these decisions aren't as simple as they may seem from the outside. In this case, there were factors on each side that ultimately meant both parties were better off pursuing a different direction moving forward. Both sides came jointly to this conclusion, and there are no hard feelings whatsoever because of it. We had a great run with Aaron, and we will always consider him part of the Specialized family. We genuinely wish him the absolute best, both professionally and personally.
Unlike more mainstream sports, mountain biking is notoriously secretive when it comes to anything related to a rider's contract, and it almost feels like a faux pas to mention either when talking about guys like Gwin, Minnaar, or Atherton. That is slowly changing, though. As you'll see in our conversation below, Aaron was uncommonly forthright and open about his reasoning behind not re-signing with Specialized.
Interviewed: Aaron Gwin Mike Levy: After no World Cup wins in 2013 and a single victory in 2014, you had your best season racing for Specialized in 2015 with four World Cup wins and the World Cup overall title. That's an upward swing if I've ever seen one, which begs the question of why both parties wouldn't want to continue the relationship? Aaron Gwin:
It wasn't an issue of whether they or I wanted / desired to continue the relationship, it was a matter of belief concerning my value to the company. It's normal for athletes in any sport to switch companies or teams, not because they do or do not desire to continue, but because either the team or the athlete doesn't value the other according to the other's perspective. In my case, I proposed what I believe to be my reasonable market value, and they differed. It's nothing to be upset about; it was just a difference of opinion.
Some companies/teams might say that they do value an athlete accordingly but that they don't have the budget or funds to properly compensate them. That may or may not be true in some cases but for large, lucrative brands, generally, it's not a matter of if they "have" the funds. Rather, it's a matter of if they want to allocate those funds towards the athlete in order to support that certain division of their brand. I'm not intending to speak negatively towards any particular company or brand. I understand that every brand has different priorities based upon their business model and where they believe they can maximize their incoming revenue. In that case, those factors are usually related to the following divisions of cycling, whether it be downhill, road bikes, cross country, enduro, etc. However, unlike a lot of bicycle brands, my focus isn't spread across many different divisions of cycling; I value downhill specifically since it is my profession. That being the case and the fact that downhill is a rapidly growing market with a vast influence and a very promising future, I have a certain perspective on what my market value is to a brand. And personally, I just think that downhill is more awesome and more fun than every other cycling discipline, haha! Just kidding. Not really, but anyways...
With all of that being said, I proposed my value, which was a certain number above my previous contract, and they decided to allocate my proposed increase of funds somewhere else. When a brand decides to direct their monies in a different direction, I don't take it as a personal knock towards me. These guys all have their own ambitions and passions, which is normal, and I wish them well in whatever direction they decide to pursue. Levy: Do you believe that a World Championship win would have seen you continue with Specialized for 2016 and beyond? What would have had to change for you to stay with Specialized? Gwin:
I cannot speak for Specialized and the value that they place on a World Championship title, however, I can state my perspective. I believe that a consistency of wins over a consistency of years defines an athlete's legacy and the value of that athlete to a brand, more than any one race. For instance, there is a certain marketing shelf life to a one race win like that, where as many wins over multiple years gives a rider credibility far into the future. Thus, I believe the majority of one's overall value to a brand is better determined by their consistency of wins rather than any single win.
As a personal note, I'd also like to add that I still view World Champs as an awesome race. Hopefully someday soon I'll stop sucking when it counts and win a few of those as well!
Regarding what would have had to change for me to stay, it was only their perspective of my value that would have needed to change. If our evaluations would have been unified, then I'd imagine we would have finalized a deal moving forward many months ago. Levy: How much do you believe that a top racer, a racer who’s consistently winning World Cups and is among the quickest the sport has ever seen, should be getting paid per year? Gwin:
It's impossible to know the exact amount that a top downhill racer should be paid per year. However, it is not impossible for me to come up with a number that I believe to be a reasonable amount. In order to come up with an exact number, you would need to know all of the information concerning the total revenue amount of each brand.
Levy: Performance and win bonuses can add up to big money in other sports, but how big of a factor are they in top tier mountain biking? What sort of bonuses can a top racer expect for a win? Gwin:
There would need to be a disclosure of each brand's costs and profits in order to make a more technical evaluation of salaries. At this time, the sport has not developed to the point where this information is expected to be made available. All great sports have gone through these growing pains and hopefully, eventually, a full disclosure will be made available so that a proper evaluation of downhill salaries can be calculated.
After doing my own research and evaluations of the market, I calculated my own proposed salary and believe it to be very reasonable. That proposal was later quantified "proven true" as I now have a contract that I'm intending to sign which is based upon my original proposal.
Again, it's hard to know exactly since that information isn't made known publicly. From my own observations, I've seen bonuses for a World Cup title or World Championship [win] ranging anywhere from no money to $50,000 USD plus, each. Bonuses for individual races seem to vary largely as well. Ultimately, it's really up to the brands and how they want to structure value within their contracts. Levy: You had a great - and eventful - 2015 but have changed teams regardless. What sort of factors do you keep in mind when considering signing for a company? Gwin:
Apart from monetary compensation, which I've already discussed, there's a few other factors that I always look at. First, the bike has to be able to win races. It doesn't necessarily have to be the best bike at the time, but it does have to be a solid start, and I have to believe that I can win on the bike. Concordantly, I have to believe that the brand is willing to accept and value my feedback in order to make the proper improvements that will result in the best bike on the market. Almost equally important is the company's social vibe. By vibe, I'm referring to an overall direction, image, style, etc. To accurately sum it up, I value a consistently professional relationship that is both cordial and enjoyable during obligatory cultural activities. Haha! Levy: It looked like Specialized did a lot of in-season development to get your race bike to your liking. How big of a factor was this in-season development in your success, and do you think you would have had as good of a season if you had been on the same bike from the beginning of the year onwards? Gwin:
We actually didn't change anything on the bike during the season this year. We had a less "polished" bike at the first rounds of the World Cups, but functionally it was identical to the bike I rode for the rest of the season. That being said, and the fact that I won the first race of the year, the bike was great to start out the season, and it didn't affect me any differently from the first race to the last. Levy: Are you a numbers guy? Do you care about things like being at the top off the all-time World Cup win list, or maybe sweeping a season? Gwin:
The only number I care about is #1! Ha, but seriously, the main motivation to race is to win, and I'd think that most other top racers would tell you the same thing. For me, I wouldn't be racing if I didn't think I could win. I want to win, my sponsors want me to win, and my fans want me to win. That's kind of the point when you race for a living. My desire is to win every race, and if that doesn't happen, I want to win as many as possible. I don't focus on or care about the total amount of wins or possible records to break right now. If those things happen, I'll choose to focus on them and be stoked when the time comes. I want to enjoy my racing and give it the best effort I possibly can, and hopefully the wins will continue to follow.
Levy: Some people have said that you’re not “in love” with mountain biking and that you probably wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t racing and winning. What would you say to them if given the chance? Gwin:
|To just love something is to utilize it so as to enjoy your life. For me, to be "in love" with mountain biking would mean that I couldn't be happy without it. |
I'd say they were correct in saying that I'm not "in love" with mountain biking. However, let me explain what that actually means. To be "in love" with something is different than loving something. I'm not "in love" with mountain biking, but I do love and greatly enjoy it. I also love iced coffee and chocolate chip cookies, but I'm not "in love" with those things. To be "in love" with something makes it a governing factor over your life and your decision making. To just love something is to utilize it so as to enjoy your life. For me, to be "in love" with mountain biking would mean that I couldn't be happy without it.
Levy: Has retiring from racing entered your mind over the last handful of years, or do you see yourself continuing for the foreseeable future? Gwin:
To love mountain biking means that I'm free to enjoy riding and racing, but if I have an injury or bad result, I'm still content with life and happy regardless. I'm also then still happily motivated to continue riding with the hope of winning future races. Regarding my love for riding, it seems to grow more and more every year, which is crazy since I've been riding bicycles since I was three-years-old. There's no other sport that I enjoy more, and the fact that I get to do it for a living is a blessing that I'm thankful for every day.
So with that, I'm sure you get the point. You could say that I'm "in love" with God, or possibly "in love" with a hot babe (wife) someday, but a mountain bike, no.
If you would have asked me this question a few years ago, I might have said yes, but right now, no. I don't foresee myself retiring anytime soon. As I've matured as a person and grown in my belief over the past few years, I've really started to enjoy the racing side of my riding a lot more. In previous years, I would get more worked up over the need for results. The pressure that I would place on myself made it hard to enjoy the races. Since then, I've chosen to believe what I already knew, that is that God will work everything out for my good, regardless of results. It is always my goal to win, but I'm genuinely at peace with wherever the results fall. I get excited at the challenges which racing provides, and it's fun to see how much I can get out of myself for those few crazy minutes. Levy: What would Aaron Gwin be doing if he retired in the near future? Do you see yourself staying in the mountain bike industry in some capacity? Gwin:
At this point in my life, I don't see myself retiring anytime soon, but when I do, I have no idea. I see myself riding mountain bikes for as long as I'm physically able. When my racing career is over, I'd like to continue to be involved in the industry for many years. However, at this time, it's hard to know what opportunities will present themselves. I really enjoy the product testing side of the sport, and I also have a lot of fun putting on riding clinics and aiding in other people's enjoyment of the sport at a higher level. Maybe I'll continue to be involved in those things down the road. Or maybe, I'll put on a race-suit and drive a trophy truck. Or maybe both, or maybe none of the above! Guess we'll have to wait and see.
Aaron and the Future
A racer moving to another company isn't usually internet-breaking news, but Aaron Gwin isn't just any racer, is he? No, he's the first truly dominant American male downhiller who, up until just now, had been notching up his most recent wins for an American company. And not only that, but Specialized made the decision not to re-sign Aaron, the current World Cup champion, when they were given the chance. So now we'll see him working for a different company in 2016 and beyond, a company that Aaron alluded to paying him what Specialized refused to. Let the assumptions and opinions roll in.
Will he be able to keep steamrolling the competition with or without a chain? Will he continue to win World Cups? I'd argue that the current state of top tier downhill racing is just too knife edge, too hectic, for one guy to consistently dominate for multiple years, but if there's one man to do it, it is probably Aaron Gwin. Just look back to his days with Trek, and to 2015, to see what I'm talking about. It's been said that a person should always aim to be paid what they're worth, and the thing that's stopping most people from doing exactly that is their inability (or reluctance) to realize this. Aaron evidently does not have this problem, and now all he needs to do is keep winning.