Eliot Jackson wears many hats. He’s an accomplished downhill racer, a presenter for Red Bull, a data analyst, an insightful writer
, and, most recently, founder of Grow Cycling Foundation
. After the recent news of his partnership with Santa Cruz, we reached out to Eliot to hear more about what he’s up to.
Congratulations on getting on with Santa Cruz! How did that come about?
I've just been such good friends with them for so long. I met Greg Minnaar at my first World Cup. My mom always tells this story, because he was sitting on the curb and she was like, “Oh, you should go talk to that guy. He looks lonely.” I said, “That’s Greg Minnaar!” And she's like, “Well, go over there.” And so I went over and introduced myself and he was super, super nice. He was always really helpful to me throughout my career and has become a family friend. Same with Luca Shaw. He's been one of my best friends for my whole time riding and racing. Over the years, I got to know the Syndicate team and a lot of people in the office – crashed a bunch of their holiday parties and stuff like that. I felt it was kind of my home away from home. Where even though I would be riding for a different bike team, I would always spend a ton of time there and they were always supportive of anything and everything I was into. I just thought it was so cool. Now I'm doing so much random stuff, I wanted someone who would not only engage with me, but care and find value in all that I do.
Now that your main focus isn’t racing, how do you see a role in the bike community?
I kind of put it in three buckets. With Grow Cycling Foundation, our mission is to provide education and access and opportunity to advance diversity and inclusion. It's something I'm really passionate about. For a company, I think it's interesting because I can help talk to their marketing teams and say, “Here's how you could reach a new audience.” Communicating business cases and helping them to translate them into action. There is also a huge connection piece there. For example, I am an ambassador for Fattire and we did some stuff with Diplo, the DJ. Giant gave them some bikes and we all went mountain biking and did a video. So now, Giant just got a couple million views because they were sponsoring me and I could make that connection. All to an audience that isn’t reachable by traditional means, at the cost of some gas and a mechanic, all in an authentic way. To me, it’s a cool way to approach marketing.
The second piece of it is my stuff on the bike, so that’s Crankworx, where I usually compete in slalom, pump track, downhill, and whip-off, and video projects. All of the video projects are riding, but also storytelling. I’ve always been fascinated by the question of: “What does it look like to humanize these people that seem super-human?”
The third piece of it is my Red Bull projects on the presenting and commentating side of things. Last year, I commented on all of the Crankworx races, and I usually go to the World Cups to do a behind the scenes YouTube series for them. There are also some projects there on the bike, but I think of that as the communication/storytelling side of things. So again, what does it look like for a company to have somebody who has their helmet off? You hear them communicating, and they can help give some personality to a brand. There's the main channel of racing and social media, but my role in the bike industry is more on the communication, marketing, and brand equity side of things – kind of the offline stuff – and really connecting with people and giving brands more of a voice.
Do you feel like social media now has made that possible?
I think social media has given people the avenue to do a lot of things, right? Like, how do you get your voice and personality out there? One of the ways you can do that is on social. For me, I don't really like social media so I try to avoid it as much as I can. Plus, people like Bernard Kerr are way better at it than me (laughs)
. I feel like my role is a little bit more about how can I find different channels to communicate through? So that could be Red Bull TV, or Diplo's Instagram, or the non-profit space. That’s what I am more passionate about.
What prompted you to start Grow Cycling Foundation?
It was the perfect storm, I think, not racing and having a little bit more time to think about anything besides “How do I go faster?” When you're racing, that’s the only thing you can care about. And then the George Floyd murder was really powerful for me. It prompted me to do a lot of internal reconciliation. It was about saying, what impact could I make? How can I provide somebody else the same opportunities that I've had in the bike world and make that a little bit easier? Because when I look back on my career, there was so much luck that let me be in that position. Helping other people who are coming up to have the same opportunities is the idea.
Where do you hope to see Grow Cycling Foundation go in the future?
The main thing is getting the pump track built, and we really want to have World Championships there in 2022. From there we want to fill out that path so someone can go from learning to ride to being a World Cup racer, marketer, or a lifelong weekend cyclist. We're just about to launch the Grow Cycling Jobs website, a place where everyone can find jobs in the cycling world because the industry is super insular. I believe this will help people of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. I have so many big ideas, but I'm just taking it one step at a time. Let's get the pump track built. Let's build infrastructure for the non-profit and just keep building every year. It's crazy how much support we've had. We've raised almost $200,000 since August and we have a location now in Los Angeles. It's been really, really amazing.
What do you think is the benefit of people having bikes in their life?
I imagine it's personal for everyone, but I know for me, if I wasn't on a bike, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. I wouldn't have any of the opportunities that I have, to be able to travel the world or start a non-profit. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities. On top of that, the confidence it gave me and the freedom it gave me is so important. Thinking about how I could just go and ride my bike at the dirt jumps and have something to work on. I just had this thing that was always there and I always had something that I could pour my energy into. So many good life outcomes come from bikes.
Do you feel like there's space for more emphasis on that in the bike world?
I think so. One of the things I think about a lot is just people's different relationships with bikes. We have a very narrow view of what a successful cyclist is. We think they have to be a World Cup racer or some super media person or Danny MacAskill. People have different relationships with the bike. Some people use it as a little getaway after work or tool for mental health or training or fitness or a way to connect with friends or family. All of those people are successful cyclists. It's important to understand that. Just understanding that people might not ride a bike the same as I do.
What could most of us do better to make the bike community a better place?
To me, it's just being cool. I feel like no matter who you are, you've had that feeling of walking up to a group ride or a bike shop or race or whatever and feeling a little bit out of place. Just remembering back to when we were all beginners and what that felt like, and just helping people get into riding bikes and being more inclusive and helpful, I think, is the biggest thing.
Could you tell me about your data analysis projects?
I started World Cup Stats. It was about getting all the World Cup data and making it easier for riders to digest and compare split times and things like that on a race weekend. I've still been doing that. I have this other project that I'm trying to do, which is kind of a race registration platform, but will have some other pieces to it. Apparently, I have lots of programming projects going on right now (laughs)
How do you balance everything you do?
I don't think my life is really balanced in the traditional sense (laughs)
. I really like staying busy and I've always enjoyed doing things I'm passionate about. I love working really hard, but I feel like I've been fortunate enough to be able to curate all the things I love, where I get to do a lot of business and marketing on the Grow Cycling Foundation side, I get to do a lot of creative and kind of bike related stuff in that middle piece with my sponsors, I get to do the communication side of things with Red Bull, and then programming and statistics and everything nerdy on the data side of things. I'm really passionate about all that stuff. I definitely work a lot, but I love it. I've found that instead of thinking about every day being balanced, I think about periods of my life being balanced, where some periods are just super gnarly, like over the summer trying to get the foundation off the ground and have a cycling career and commentating Crankworx. Now, in this little middle period before the races start up again, I've gotten a little bit of time off and been able to work on some other projects. I feel like sometimes it's just gnarly and you just have to do the bloody work and other times you get a break.
Is there anything you feel like the world needs to know about you or Grow Cycling Foundation?
There is this one thing, because I always get some questions about my health stuff. I took 2013 off because I actually got misdiagnosed. They thought I had asthma. I would cough all the time when I was racing, but it was actually vocal cord dysfunction, which is like, as soon as you get acidic, your vocal chords start to spasm, which makes you cough, and it would make me sick. I figured that out in 2013 and I had planned on retiring because it was just so gnarly and no asthma treatments worked. Coming back in 2014, I still had trouble, like it never really went away, but I learned a couple of techniques with diet and training and sleeping and stuff like that to make it manageable. I just wanted to explain the timeline and the actual cause, because at first, I did think it was asthma, and then it ended up being something else. I guess it gets misdiagnosed a lot and there's not really any direct treatment for it. I had a four-year World Cup career after that, so the health stuff wasn’t the reason I stopped racing World Cups.
What prompted the shift from racing full-time to doing what you’re doing now?
I kind of stopped enjoying riding my bike for a bit. I think the results go up and down and is something I could deal with. That year I got a top 10 at one of the World Cups and a 3rd at Crankworx, so I was riding really well, but I just wasn't having fun on my bike. I felt like it was a good time. I've always wanted to achieve and do a lot of other things and I was happy with the 10 years I spent traveling the world to race my bike.
Yeah, it seems like you have more balance, and I aspire to be that wide-ranging in the things I do.
I hope it opens the door for other people to explore what they're passionate about and think about blazing their own trail. Like, how do I make a living doing what I love doing in this space, rather than saying, I only have to race, or I can only do social media and that’s the only way to be in the bike industry. It's about saying, what are my unique skills and how can I make them valuable for someone?
That seems like something we could all think about more.
There’s this thing that I think about a lot: Why are you the only person in the world that this company should pick? Another way to put it is, what can you do that nobody else in the world can do? And why is this company the only company in the world that should pick you for that? For example, in my situation, I feel like I'm one of the only people in the world who could do the YouTube series for Red Bull because I have 10 years of World Cup experience on top of being able to communicate on top of doing a lot of data analysis stuff, and so that combination makes me unique in that way, and Red Bull is unique in that they are in a position to take advantage of all of that, so that relationship works really well. I try to apply that framework to all my partnerships, where it's like, what am I bringing to the table? And what are they bringing to the table? What is going to fit the best?Talking with Eliot was a great reminder of how many ways there are to be a biker and the extraordinary things that can happen when a person creates their own niche in the world. We are excited to follow along as Grow Cycling Foundation develops.