Interview: Specialized's Sponsorship Boss Benno Willeit Speaks Candidly About Losing Athletes, Fewer World Cup Teams, & More

Jun 15, 2021
by Matt Wragg  

bigquotesEvery brand wants to support someone that's out there winning all the time, no question. But to me it's important to support the people, even when they're not doing so well.

From a truck driver who didn't know how to put pedals on a bike to overseeing a global racing programme, Benno Willeit has been at the heart of Specialized's racing programmes for more than a decade. From triathletes to freeriders, Loic Bruni to Peter Sagan, he has worked with a veritable who's who of the bicycle racing world. For 2021, he is back at the helm of Specialized Factory Racing XC team as they reboot their whole programme with a clutch of young, talented racers. We caught up with Benno after their first team camp of the year to ask about what he is looking for in an athlete, what was behind some of the behind team changes of the last few years and how the future looks for mountain bike racing as a whole. This is a long interview, but Benno's candid answers offer a rare insight into the politics, dynamics and forces at play behind the scenes of elite mountain bike racing.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

So, you're back running the Specialized factory XC team.

Yeah, this year I am taking over the cross-country team again. Back at it. It is super motivating for me. Cross country is an athletic, athletic sport. It's full-on. You can immediately see the results. You're racing against other people, but also against the clock so it is very exciting. We have great riders on the team. It's a fresh start. I'm very sad that we weren't able to keep some of the riders we had on the team, but there are reasons why we couldn't keep them.

What are you looking for in an athlete?

To me, an athlete needs more than just the one talent. As a global company, we always look for the one rider that ticks the most boxes, right? I have been working with the downhill team, the enduro team, with triathletes. I went through all of it and I know what it takes to become a proper athlete that ticks all the boxes. There are only a few out there who really have it all. To me, it's important that we, as a company, if there are certain areas where they lack, come in and help them. If it's on the performance side for certain riders, if it's on the media side, whatever it is. I really would like to grow our athletes when they sign up for us and give them the best tools and toys to become better. Once you get into the King cage there are no gifts. There's no f*cking magic. You have to work hard to get into the top 10, into the top five, or even on the top podium. You don't earn that podium by just having talent anymore. That is not enough. You have to work your ass off and that starts with everything. It's not just riding your bike, you have to go to the gym, you have to have a nutrition, you have to become an athlete at the highest level to get to the top step of the podium. That's where a lot of athletes... I always say you have athletes, they could be top athletes if they changed their mindset. It all comes down to dedication, to the drive. There's a lot of kids out there with great, great talent, but I think drive almost takes you farther than the talent alone because you're working. If you have a rider that has both, that has the drive and has the talent, you're going to have a winner.

bigquotesOnce you get into the King cage there are no gifts. There's no f*cking magic.

With the pandemic, with no events and no racing, I think there was quite a sharp focus for brands on where they're getting other value from their riders. I know for a fact, there's a lot of guys up and down the results sheet whose sponsors went, "You know what, this isn't worth the money for us."

As a team, as a team manager, sooner or later you have to justify what you do. We're in the pandemic... How much longer will you rely on something that is purely tied to events if no events are happening? Okay, in the bike industry, we're doing well, at least we can pay some of the salaries. But you don't want to waste money. So if there are ambassadors or different people out there that give you more coverage, at some stage as a brand and as a company and as a business, you need to ask yourself, is it worthwhile? Is it worthwhile having a cross-country team, a downhill team, a race team out there doing nothing because they can't? It's not that they don't want to, but we cannot do the traditional way of marketing. For race teams, that is going to events and racing. But for me, and that's also a little bit of a benefit I may bring by having done a lot of different disciplines and spending time with the freeride guys, those guys already do what we as a race team need to start doing. You can come up with your own events, do your own things. They can be local, outside, or they can be virtually on Zwift, on different platforms, or even just Instagram. But you do need to think differently at this stage and make sure that you can justify the spend. I still want to pay our riders all year long, racing or not. If I can show the company that, "Okay, we haven't done the traditional racing but we have been out there in the public eye in different ways", whatever that may be. I want to make sure that I spend money the right way, that I'm able to justify the investment we have with the team. At the end of the day, it's a business and someone is paying our bills. This year we already have the second team camp coming up. Just because some of the events are canceled, I can still go out there with the team and make sure that yes, we may be not racing, but we can help the developers in Morgan Hill to work on new product and help them a little bit more because all of a sudden we have a little bit of extra time that we can dedicate to specific product testing that we wouldn't have done if all the races kept going. So now I'm just changing certain stuff around but we're definitely not sitting at home doing our own things or doing nothing and waiting for stuff to happen. It's also a good drive for the team because it doesn't matter when the first race is going to be on the calendar, we're going to be ready for it. It doesn't matter. We're not waiting around. It's just the time we have right now, we utilize it to become better in what we want to achieve.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

I was surprised you guys lost Andreassen.

Me as well. As I said, I haven't been involved in the cross-country team for a good while. It was his decision not to be part of the program anymore and it is understandable because he had been with the brand for ages. As a young rider sometimes you need a dramatic change to find the motivation again. It is what it is. I'm happy for him that he found a good team and could stay with Alan [Hatherley] as they are a very good force. The two of them are a dynamic combination, they push each other. My job now is to make sure that situations like that do not come up again because that, to me, is the worst. We're spending a lot of money and trying to help our riders, but it is down to us failing to put an environment in place where the riders feel happy. So now we need to bring it back to where we were, to be that inspirational team out there, not just for the riders for other people as well and push it to the new boundaries by implementing new stuff. Like I said before, making sure that we get the most out of the investment in whatever way we can. Of course, the focus will always be to make the bike or the team faster in anything we do. That to me is the main goal as a team manager. Whatever we do, whatever it is, it needs to be because of that reason, our main goal will always be to be the best out there or to try to be the best out there.

This was one of the reasons why I wanted to speak to you because if you race for Specialized Factory there's a level of expectation, isn't there?

For sure. We have four spots to give away on the factory team, so you can imagine how critical it is for us to find the right people. The best thing we did in the last year was working with Trinity Racing. It is something that I talked to Specialized about for a long time, a team before the factory team to keep young riders on our brand, like Red Bull do with the Alpha Tauri F1 team. Because you know how it works, there's a talented rider in a small area that wins local events. That rider gets sponsored by a shop. We're talking about kids between six and 12 years here. Once they're 12 years old they go up into the national league and start racing there. From 12 to 16, the Specialized market is going to come in, supporting them, helping them out. But that's already when travel needs to be paid when they need a bit more support than just a bike a year. So the market picks it up. But now you go into the first world cups, junior world cups, and so on, up to the U23 world cups where great talent already gets contracts with teams. In the past, for example with Simon or Alan, once the market wasn't able to fulfill their needs anymore, the factory team had to pick them up. That was the only way for us to secure those young talents, but that also put a lot of pressure on them at such a young age because there is nowhere higher to go in our structure after the factory team. With a feeder team, there is space for them to grow and prove themselves before they move up to the full factory team.

Does not having a feeder team also put pressure on your team structure as you're having to take on more athletes?

At that stage, you don't know if the drive comes from the parents or if it's actually him or her wanting to do this. Because, as I said, the markets are involved, maybe the family is involved, the dad was racing and now the kid needs to race. Yes, the kids might be doing well until they are 16, 17, but after that, if it's just the parents who want to see the kids doing well, they're not going to make it. It needs to come from inside and those are the years when we find out. We need that second team to take care of those youngsters, to make sure that by the time, so when they are old enough and have the results that we expect them for the factory team, they're ready for it. Take Simon Andreassen, it would have been perfect for him to stay with the Trinity team for a few years, there would have been the time to see how he develops. Only then, if he continued to dominate through to U23 in the same way he did in the juniors he would get the spot in the factory team. And that's why that is the best thing we have done in 10 years I have been with Specialized. That is the thing that makes me the most excited because that also allows me now to fully focus on the factory team to give everything to those four riders. We have food catering this year, the first team in the World Cup that will have our own food truck coming to events. It's a little thing to make sure that we put the bar even higher than we did before. There are lots of small things. Now, because the headcount is so small, I really can focus on those four riders. Maybe it will be five or six in the coming years. Of course, we will always be open to adjustments, but for the first and second year, '21 and '22, it will only be the four riders and we will make sure that we support them the best way possible.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is that I've been looking at what the Santa Cruz is doing, and you look at how much Greg Minnaar and Peaty are worth for them now, their value is from having that long relationship. I wonder if a long relationship with a brand, adds extra value to the rider?

A hundred percent, a hundred percent. I don't want to go out there and buy the best. The thing with Jordan [Sarrou], is that we signed him way before he won world championships. And yes, in one sense it was lucky for us that he did so well, but at the same time, it's not... We often get called out for signing the best for a huge amount of money. But to be honest, we don't. Aaron Gwin was expensive, but he was even more expensive when he left Specialized. At that stage, we said enough is enough, we cannot afford or justify that amount of money. There are other riders as well, like Fabio Wibmer. I mean, we have plenty of riders that we brought up as youngsters and then lost to other brands. And yes, we went out and bought some good riders as well, but it should never be just about the money. We believe that we can be the brand that supports riders in a different way than others, that really helps them out where they're lacking.

It seems to me that Specialized did a really good job of bringing Kate Courtney through to about that level, and then she went straight off to Scott...

The mistakes started when we took Brad off the team. He is her mechanic, her anchor. It's not easy to handle the characters in a race team. As a team manager, your first priority is to the people on the team, and a lot of people forget about this. In your job as a team manager, the first thing you need to make sure of is that you keep the team together. If you take Brad out of this environment, if you take Brad away from Kate, it is natural that she is not going to be with the team much longer. Because, as I said, money is one thing, but something like that, a relationship like that, you do not break it up because that means that sooner or later she's going to go as well. And unfortunately, it was right at the prime moment. We brought her up, she won the World Champ title on our bike and not on Scott, so all of it, all the hard work gone.

Did Kate leaving open space for you to support Jenny Risveds?

Jenny reached out to us and we supported her. Jenny is supported by Specialized, but she's not part of the factory team.

That was a conscious choice from her, wasn't it? I think she said that she didn't want that pressure ever again.

Yeah, exactly. But then she did well and it was her reaching out to us, especially with the Outride Foundation. That's exactly something that Outride should stand for, right? Helping people to outride their problems. So the connection to Jenny was much closer to Outride, than to the factory team. The fact that she was riding so well is awesome, that she came back and she's having fun again and by having fun being at the top of her game again, it was beautiful to see. And of course, she got a lot of support from our side, but she was never a full factory rider, she was always doing her own thing. Last year the conversation was whether she would become a factory rider this year. I had the conversation with her and I asked what her goals are and what she is there for, what she wants to achieve. The main thing for her was to make sure that the 31 team and what she stands for is the focus. I told her that I think she is better off doing her own thing rather than becoming part of the factory team because we can support what she wants to achieve much better by being a sponsor, rather than integrating her into the factory team. If she became a factory rider, there's no difference between her or anyone else. You ride for the factory team and that needs to be your focus.

I think maybe Jenny's story is an interesting one here because I imagine she's a rider where what she brings to brand outside the racing is a big part of why you guys support her.

For sure, especially because she has gone through a deep hole. Someone winning and whatever, they're good, they're riding the wave and you don't even have to look after them. Every brand wants to support someone that's f*cking out there winning all the time, no question. But to me, it's important to support the people, even when they're not doing so well. There is Jenny of course, but take Martin Söderström too. He went through a big hole as well and was scared that we were going to withdraw his contract. I said to him, "Martin, you've been with the company so long, don't worry, I'm in charge of your contracts. I want to give you the time you need to find yourself again. When you're ready, let me know. I'm not going to pay you out extra bonuses or anything like that, but I want to pay what we agreed and even renew your contract, I'm not just going to drop you now that you in the hole." We always try to help out people along the way as well, you know? It seems to work out for us. Martin is back, he's enjoying it, he's loving the bike again and I'm stoked for him to be back on the bike and enjoying himself. I see him inspiring youngsters, helping them out and so they don't make as many mistakes as he did. If Martin had come through 10 years later, with the success he had and the things he did, he would be one of the athletes that has now five million followers or whatever. He's well respected by the other athletes too. That to me is always a very good indicator of people, their personality and the value they bring. Because you can be winning everything, but then if you're seen as the biggest a*shole, you're not bringing any benefit to us. And I don't want to associate myself with someone like it just because he's winning everything.

I don't want to be associated with an arrogant person. Of course, you can be proud of what you achieved, but there are different ways of celebrating success, right? I mean, Peter Sagan, I did not even know him the first time I worked for him, because road cycling was so far away from what I did. When I told my wife that was I going to Slovakia to help out this road guy because he wants to qualify for MTB at the Rio Olympics, she asked me, "Are you f*cking crazy? You know what you got yourself into?" I was a little bit scared because I thought that road guys are super arrogant. But I must say, I have never met an athlete as caring as Peter Sagan in my life. When I got there, it was like we had known each other for years, even though I had never met the guy before. Within the first day I was making coffee in his private house by myself because that's the way he told me to do it. This is exactly why someone like Peter Sagan is the way he is. He is one of the athletes that ticks all the boxes. He is caring, he's a great character, plus he's winning. He likes to share his passion for cycling. And that to me is what a good athlete should be all about.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

Yeah, for sure, his obvious joy is so infectious, isn't it?

Yeah. It's the passion when he gives interviews. The way he speaks about cycling, you listen to him, and you almost feel like you were next to him in the race. But then he's also not shy to call someone out if they behave like a dick in the bunch, or to give someone the credit they deserve by helping them. To me, that's super important. That's something that I try to teach our current guys because they're fast, but they're not very good on social media. I think our riders need a lot of help to become better at it to showcase more of who they are.

It's interesting you talk about Sagan here, because he's a really good example. His English, it's... I don't know how to say it without being disrespectful, because it is quite unique the way he talks English, he's obviously not a polished television presenter, but he conveys so much emotion and personality.

Exactly. You get the point because he's not hiding his character. With the facial expressions, the way he talks, it can be any language and you still know exactly what he said. He is that guy that moves his hands, makes funny facial expressions, whatever it is. I want that from our riders. I have had plenty of ethics conversations lately telling me what I need to tell our riders about what they're allowed to say and what they're not allowed to say. There are a lot of things that you shouldn't say on social media and anything can be turned around and brought against you, but I want to make sure that they show their character. It's such a fine line between being able to say what you think, and being ethically right at this stage in time. Those are the kind of tricks I try to teach our athletes. I don't mind sitting through those meetings so I can let the guys know in a shorter way how to do things and not to do things. I think it is part of my job, I have a big team around me with communication managers, logistics managers, and so on, but at the end of the day, I want to lead by example. I try to point the good things out and the bad things. I try to become a better team and not a better individual. To me, it's important that we grow as a team.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

How do you feel about ebikes?

I'm excited about them as I rode them since day one. I was the one that pushed our youngsters to do the world championships on them. I was always said that e-bikes are not just for old people and I believe that if you show the technique, the technology and the potential of an ebike to a youngster, I'm sure they're not going to turn away, they're going to enjoy it. And that's what happened. So, that's why we have the first two UCI Cross-Country World Champion titles on our bike, at least on the men's side.

At the moment everyone's thinking of eMTB racing in terms of eXC and eEnduro, and I'm not sure either of those really works.

It can, if you understand the format, but at the same time, why have we not had any eCyclocross events yet? That would be amazing. Seeing people riding around on those road bikes we have now, the Creo EVO. There is cyclocross, crit racing, or there are so many different formats. Even a city enduro race. I mean, a technical Enduro track in a city? Organisers need to understand what those bikes are good at and what they're bad at. I think you could organize something as crazy as an event that combines it all: motorsport, e-bike and traditional bikes in different formats. I mean, enduro racing, motorbike racing, the six days and all that other stuff, or even the Dakar, they are incredible events, but they're not spectator friendly. So what did they do? They came up with City Enduro that they hold in soccer stadiums. They put locks and tires and all sorts of shit together, and they have them going off in waves of 20 or 40 where the top guys start in the back row, the slower ones in the front row. It's fascinating what they can do with this little track. There are a million different ways to put those ebikes in a good light, you could have a combination event like the King of Crankworx, right? Where the one athlete does all the different disciplines and you accumulate points

I thought that the biggest thing the World Ebikes Series did right, in the beginning, was offering a chance for the public to ride with the racers. The original concept was racing on Saturday and on Sunday it was ride with the pros. Originally it was supposed to be mandatory for the racers, so if you came and race, you have to go and ride with the consumers, but they backed off from it. I think maybe they tried to make too much money on it, they wanted €150 to go and ride with them and I think that's the wrong business model, but as a sales tool... You watched the rider race on Saturday and then you'd go riding with them on Sunday.

Yeah, exactly. You just need to explain to the riders that they're not doing their job if those people are not buying what you promote. It's give and take. Of course, you can add extra for VIP passes or whatever it is. But in general, the organizer should already make money from the sponsors, the tickets sales.

Yeah, let's say you see Jordan Sarrou win the race on the Levo SL on the Saturday, then you go and test it with him on the Sunday and he's telling you how the bike works. Jesus, in terms of sales, I'd imagine that's incredibly powerful.

That's already something that I've started working on. That's another reason why we have the food truck. It's mainly for the downhill team and the cross-country team. But the idea is, whenever COVID allows us again, to host VIPs so that we have our own VIP area at those events because it is important. I want to invite market leaders where the event is happening. I want to bring along the key dealers that are making the money for us to spend on this sort of stuff. That is the next step, like you have on MotoGP or any other event, you need to host the sponsors, to give them something back. We've very good at asking for stuff. We ask all the time, but we never give anything back, or very little. Yes, they can use our name and they can do certain things with it, but how many of those sponsor deals are created by the personal relationship? I was working in VIP areas back in the day before I came to mountain biking and I saw the stuff that goes on there. I saw a guy signing a million euro contract because the right person was invited at the right time to the right event. It's like, are you kidding me? This guy has the power and the authority to sign something like that. The other guy was smart enough to get him there, to invite them to a nice event, to look after him, and in the end everyone benefits. I'm not just doing it for the team either, I think it's great for the sport. I wish every other team would do the same and that we could put the money together and organize the huge VIP area where all of us can bring our sponsors to have a good time. Ideally, we would do it like they do in biathlon. I worked in biathlon events for many years. That's how it works, you get access to a VIP area, you buy tickets as a sponsor, as a team, whatever it is. On some you buy more, on some you buy less, but it's always there. You don't have to organize everything yourself. All you do is send out the invites together with those VIP tickets and a hotel room. At the moment we have to do it all ourselves, we have to create our own VIP area, we have to look after pretty much everything, but I think it is important to kind of get more people and different people from outside the bike industry to come to these events.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

bigquotesWe've very good at asking for stuff. We ask all the time, but we never give anything back, or very little.

It seems to me that mountain biking has had a long-standing issue with attracting outside sponsors.

We think we're professional, but when you compare what we do to other sports, we're still far away, far, far away and that's kind of the drive and the excitement in where we are right now. Look at mountain biking, there are so many different types of adventures with cross-country, enduro, e-bike, downhill. I mean, it's huge. And everyone around the world knows how to ride a bike. It's a global market with fans all over the world. Take biathlon, for example, I mean, it's huge in Europe, but who's doing biathlon in South America, South Africa, or anywhere else? Yet the sport itself makes more money than we do with the World Cup, and I mean a shit-ton more. They're on live TV every weekend in certain countries, they have sponsors that put millions in. We, mountain biking, a global sport, don't. So does that not make you realize that we're only scratching at the very beginning of our potential?

I suppose the question would do you think biathlon benefited from the skiing World Cup's history? They could use some of that experience to move over, whereas mountain biking, it's a bit more of a case of trying to find our own way...

No, it's the federation and the promoters of the sport. Like I said, how many countries are actually into biathlon? How many countries can you think of? And then look at the skis and there's a couple of ski brands. There's very little market behind it compared to cycling. Think about the cross-country ski industry. It makes maybe a quarter of what the bike industry makes, maybe not even that. I don't know the numbers, but it must be so small compared to what we are doing and what we're dealing with. But when it comes to the World Cup events themselves, they're much bigger and there is much more money involved. The salary of the racers, the prize money, the events themselves, it's all bigger. They make much more money than we do in mountain biking. So what can we do to make our sport more interesting? How do we reach the audience that we need to reach to get better sponsors? Cyclocross, it's the same thing. How can it be that a cyclocross rider earns more money than a World Cup winner? Why does everything need to be paid for by the bike industry? Ideally, as a team, we would still reach out to outside sponsors, we need them. Don't get me wrong, Red Bull did an amazing job, an amazing job and they saved our arse a hundred times. But at the same time, it is limiting us a little bit at the moment to get bigger than we are now. We, as a team, are the ones that pick up most of the bills, rely on the federation and the deals the federation makes, like Red Bull or Mercedes. Don't get me wrong, they do a great job, but I just ask the question, why can a small sport like biathlon be so much bigger when it comes to the event than we are? Where can we change certain things to become bigger?

In the past coverage of MTB events was terrible, but it gets better every year. Do you feel that the product is good enough to be pushed into the mainstream now, that we've reached that point?

Yeah, ideally, Red Bull would promote what they have as a package to outside channels, like Eurosport. You would think that would be beneficial, but is it in their interest? Most likely not, because they are trying to grow their own channels. And if they start giving it out... I'm not sure I know enough about it.

It's a valid question, I think. I don't think there's any ingratitude towards Red Bull...

Red Bull has done great things for us. Without them, we wouldn't even be here anymore. I mean the times of Freecaster, Rocky Roads... That didn't work out. And Red Bull saved our arse many, many times, many, many times. But at the same time, I do think that right now we have the riders, in cross-country, in downhill, we have proper idols out there that inspire other people to do what we do, what they do. There's a huge industry behind us. There must be a way to get a bigger piece of the cake than we currently do and make it to the next step professionally. Why can't we go racing in January? Road cycling is already so far ahead. We go from one season to the next, very much the same way, there are very few changes. What were the last big things that we changed in mountain biking when it comes to the format? I think the short track is good. That already increased viewing. Because now you're not just at the main event, you have the short track, it makes you a better rider, gives us as a company more coverage throughout the weekend, and so on. So that sort of stuff always helps. That is exactly what we need to do. Ideally, on a weekend, you would have five different events, and again, you count them together. You want to find out who the best riders are. Not just based on one race, based on a couple of different races. Or, just put more events out there, where every single round we go to has two World Cup events like we did last year. Ideally, we would race twenty times a season, and not just eight. It cannot be that our season starts in May and ends in September.

No, no.

That sort of stuff does not help the big picture. But at the same time, we need to look after the budget of certain teams. Going farther into the whole thing, why is everyone, and anyone allowed to race a World Cup?

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

I've had this conversation with people on the race scene before, going down a level or two, the national, the continental level, isn't always strong enough to provide that kind of continuous pathway up.

That is because everyone goes to World Cups. If only a couple of teams are allowed to enter the World Cup, then the national events will be way stronger because those are the ones to qualify for the big league. At the moment, you won't find sponsors if you say to someone that you are a great national team and are going to win all those events. You tell them that you're going to do one World Cup, even if you finished sixtieth or eightieth, not even making qualification in downhill, you're still going to find a sponsor. It's not the right thing to do, it's not helping anyone. Martin Whiteley was talking about this back in the day, I was hoping that they were going to get through with it. Most elite sports are very elite to get into as well. Take triathlon, only 60 guys can enter the race. Formula One. Soccer. You're not going into the Champions League as a f*cking little team from somewhere. So you need to work your way into the Champions League. In World Cup cross country or downhill, anyone with 20 points can sign up and that's just not right. It's not fair. If we limit the entries we can go to different events because we don't have to host 250 teams anymore. We only have to host 40 or 50 teams, or whatever that is.

I'm interested in the business side of things, I always think that mountain biking needs more open discussion of the business side of things. I think if you go to Mercedes, for instance, I have no doubt for a second that they've got a department somewhere who have calculated the precise value of Lewis Hamilton to their organization. Can I ask, do you have a precise number of how much Loïc is worth for you guys at Specialized, or to what level do you have that information?

It's a good question. I think it's no real number to it. What is it based on? Instagram likes? Social media value? But I don't think we have a proper number set to what each athlete, or program, is worth on a certain level. It is a combination of marketing, product development, and so on.

Yeah. Because I'd always look at riders, and we'll try and work out which ones sell bikes. Because there's quite a big intangible element to it, isn't there?

You have Sam Hill, Peter Sagan, Fabio Wibmer, Loïc Bruni, Nino Schurter, Greg Minnaar, and so on. There's a couple in there that really sell bikes... These are long-term relationships, and they definitely influence sales.

I look at, say... I'm not going to name names, because I think that's getting into shit-talking. But I certainly look at some high profile downhillers, and think, "Well, when I go to the bike park, when I go on an uplift day, I don't see those bikes."

Sure. The ones that sell bikes are the ones that were with the company for a good while. It's always super hard to say how it affects the business side. "Are we selling more or fewer bikes because we have Jordan on the brand now, or because we lost Aaron Gwin back in the day?" and so on. It's crazy. I don't know who could answer any of those questions and how far... And then even, what is more important? Is it more important to be on top on the equipment side of the industry, or is it more important to be on the marketing side? I think that's a valid question. I don't think the iPhone is the best phone out there anymore, but we still think that the iPhone is the best phone because they do great marketing. So yeah, it's just interesting to kind of have those chats and brainstorm a little bit.

I guess it's the frustrating thing at the end of the day, you can do everything rationally up to a point, but then suddenly someone will come along who's just got that charisma and they've just got it?

Yeah, for sure. It seems like everything goes in waves. It's super hard to stay on top, there are always ups and downs. Unfortunately, today, everything is fast forward. You do something great, you break a record today, two days later, someone else broke it. Even on Instagram, people don't even remember what they watched a day ago. You do something spectacular and everyone talks about it, for maybe a week or two, but then two weeks later, it doesn't matter, people forget about it. That's the good thing is, with racing, you do the same pretty much all the time, and it's still interesting. If you have competition riders or people like Fabio Wibmer, the project they do next needs to be crazier, more spectacular than the one before, otherwise, it becomes boring. How are you going to push the boundaries without dying from year-to-year? And that's where you need to start becoming creative. I think Fabio is very smart in having different Sick riders coming into his projects as well. The pressure's not just on him anymore, it's the team, the Sick Series riders and so on, that keeps pushing the boundaries. But he will get to a stage where you can't do any more crazy, without being dangerous.

Photo by Michal Cerveny
Photo by Michal Cerveny

That's what happened to Travis Pastrana, isn't it?

Very similar. How far can you push it without dying? If you want to survive, then you need to come up with something different. That was the Nitro Circus for him. He's still out there doing crazy things, but the pressure is not just on him. It keeps watching them fun. Maybe the tricks are the same, but because there are more people involved, they're doing different things, it's still entertaining. That's the danger when it comes to that sort of athlete, while racing is always the same. Sure, you race against the clock, you race against the 60, 80 others that are in the field, but at the end of the day, you do pretty much the same thing and the competition keeps it entertaining. There's maybe a course that's a little bit faster, slower, or more dangerous than the other, but it's not that they go from 20-foot, to 40-foot, to a 60-foot jump all of a sudden. A freeride guy kind of needs to do that, because if he did a 20-foot in his first video, if he's not doing a 40-foot in the next video then he's already getting old, he's not on top anymore. That is the good thing with racing, that what you do all the time is the same, but because you race others in the same environment, it's still fascinating. That's where freeriders and race guys are very different.

bigquotesHow far can you push it without dying? If you want to survive, then you need to come up with something different.

The question is, do you end up in the trap BMX and skating seemed to go into for a while where they went to doing tech stuff. It got to a point where unless you had an advanced degree in skateboarding, it all looked the same. I don't think that translated well to an outside audience.

You can't be good at all of it at the same level. But what we can do as a brand is to bring people together and do different things, like having crossovers with different athletes. One of the best things we did was back in the day was when launched the Stumpy in the US, and I brought all our freeriders to it. They were all there to do the Stumpy shoot and yes, that was okay, but I saw the potential of having this group of people, putting this amount of talent together. And by leaving them to do what they do anyway, quickly they pushed each other, they benefited from each other's fan bases, from each other talents. It brings it to the next level. That's definitely something I will do with the cross-country team, and any of our teams. Because that's now the good part for me, I'm not just running the cross-country team, I'm overseeing all of the mountain bike things a little bit. I'm in charge of the enduro team and the downhill team, and so on. One of my big goals is to do more events together, even if it's just a bike festival. I want to get away from this silo thinking, where cross-country is only doing cross-country, enduro's only doing enduro... If I can bring my athletes together, the more they can learn from each other, and the more they can push each other on so many different levels. We have access to the athletes, and you just need to make sure that you come up with something fun for them to do, and not something that you've forced them to do. They're all bike riders, and if you put them into the right environment and support them...

Author Info:
mattwragg avatar

Member since Oct 29, 2006
750 articles

  • 79 1
 Amazing article. Sorry boss!
  • 90 37
 lost me at putting kids on ebikes. worse than heroin.
  • 18 10
 @WasatchEnduro - How do you feel about kids racing moto? Also worse than heroin? Not trolling, just curious.
  • 26 12
 Just saw a 10-12 yr old kid today at Spanish Fork riding an e bike. About threw up on my steering wheel.
  • 27 6

only love for all the wheeled things, just seems nonsensical at a young age to stick a kid on an ebike and they become conditioned to that being the norm. i can't imagine, short of disability, what the benefit to that is except for the brand using it as a gateway drug.
  • 24 7
 Agree. Corporate speak there.

Sad when e-bike sales are better for the company, so please talk it up in media events and interviews.

Can people just ride bikes without the need for electronic heroin???
  • 7 3
 @ryd-or-die: i've seen a couple of enduro bro dads buy their kids bikes so that they can keep up. No time for patience.
  • 7 0
 @racerfacer: ha! I thought tow-ropes were sufficient for that, but I must be mistaken. Surely if you can put down the kinds of watts that justify chasing your preteen kid up a hill, you can spare some watts for towing your riding partner, no? Because what kids def need these days is a bike at least half their weight that is *more* difficult to control on the downs.
  • 2 1
 @ryd-or-die: You say that, but the common Squamish solution is to buy an E-bike for yourself and a tow rope for your shmuck kid. That way there's plenty of watts for the kid!
  • 8 0
 @ryd-or-die: I think the kid weight vs. bike weight ratio is underappreciated as an issue. When my now 16 year old first got into actual riding, he used his elementary school math to point out that if my bike were roughly proportional to his vis-a-vis body weight, it would be somewhere around 120#. No wonder, then, that as he grew both in size and skills a bit, he started kicking my ass pretty soon.
  • 10 3
 @WasatchEnduro: I think mountain biking is its own thing. Very different than moto, not just because you don't have engine power, but also because mountain bikes are pretty light and responsive. So climbing is very different, obviously (being human powered), but descending is as well. Different sport.

E-biking - well, it's its own thing as well. Frankly, the size of ebikes, to me, make them a bit of a non-starter for smaller kids. But if you consider it a different discipline within the sport, I have a hard time seeing how for a kid with sufficient body size to have fun on them an e-mtb is necessarily a bad thing. I spent a long weekend on an e-mtb (been riding a commuter ebike for a while, but that's transportation and a very different thing altogether). I found that there was a fun element to climbs (as in, type 1 fun, the giggly type, as opposed to type 2 'it's a great and satisfying challenge' fun). And I found that the descents were less fun to me on the type of stuff I like to ride, but pretty damn sweet on the sort of trail that lends itself to a heavy bike that like to plow. So different strokes and all that...

There's a pretty sweet trail system close to me in Darrington, WA. It's the kind of place where everyone and their dog shuttle, because the climb is a seemingly interminable road - sort of soul sucking to pedal, and because the descents are fast, steep, rooty/rock in places, big/flowy/bermy in others. I took the ebike there when I had it that weekend - and man, it was fun to self-shuttle. If I lived there instead of here in Bellingham (where trails are a bit more traditional and it's not at all a shuttle scene), well, I could totally see getting one of those. And I could totally see, for, say, teenage kids who live there, how it would be a really neat thing for them to be able to ride that mountain without a need for a shuttle.
  • 2 1
 @j-t-g: I must just be a cheap-ass then lol
  • 13 6
 I don’t understand why you care what other people ride. Ebikes are fun as hell, bikes are fun as hell. Lol besides easy upvotes I don’t understand shitting in other peoples good times?
  • 3 2
 I see ebikes as a tool put in the miles you wouldn't normally be able to do, be it downhill sessioning without an uplift, older guys and younger guys. If giving a kid an ebike gets them out on the mountain all day when they normally wouldn't then there's no harm in that........just make sure they ditch it when they hit 14/16 and start dropping their Mum/Dad!
  • 1 1

that's a slippery slope DJ! hey i'll get one eventually, probably another decade before I throw in the towel and get a 150/160 ebike to complement a 120mm analog bike.
  • 43 0
 That was a really good read
  • 40 2
 Guy spits unvarnished truth about the forces at play in the industry. Pink Bike commenters will say they know better.
  • 34 0
 You guys should read more. The stuff about how biathlon is so much more financially successful in Europe is quite interesting.
  • 1 0
 Where can I read about that? Seems an interesting subject.
  • 3 0
 What he says about mountain biking is so true. It's an incredibly unprofessional industry and racing scene. And that is exactly why it's not at the level of biathlon in the European markets.

Thank goodness RedBull took over the World Cup TV production. They're production is on the level of F1 and quite frankly I agree that RedBull saved mountain biking. The mentality that I ran into in the earlier 2000s, that continues today, is "we know what we're doing."

Way back in 2004 at the Snowmass NORBA Nationals, there was a forum for all team managers and the top racers. Many of us had radical ideas that would have made mountain bike races accessible and fun for everyone.
- grandstands at the start/finish
- rock climbing walls
- schwag for spectators
- more bike events for non-racers and non-pros.
The list goes on. None of it was implemented. I'd really love to get opinions from Leigh Donovan on this (or any other riders or managers that remember this!)

At any rate, mountain bike racing has changed so much in the US where EpicRides events by Todd Sadow are paying thousands of dollars and doing it right. Non-UCI/Olympic related, just a fun event for all. When was the last time a national level USA Cycling mtb race sold out?
  • 1 0
 @mtbchick: I'd love to know more about biathlon specifically because I suspect one challenge with MTB it's outside the European Military/Government/Olympic complex, whereas sports like biathlon and canoe/kayak, have a web of government support, nominally because they are Olympic, including things like having athletes nominally serving in the military as an alternative salary mechanism. But the key of course is sponsorship and I'd be fascinated to know how much corporate support there is for those sports to be on TV. Back in 2001 at the Vail Worlds I heard eye popping numbers for how much sponsors were paying for skiing. You had basically the same product as MTB DH with 20x more money. I'd be curious if that's still true.
  • 27 2
 At the end of the day, racers are a commodity. If they aren’t worth the investment they are out.

I really like what E13 is doing this season with their ambassadors (their phrasing not mine) and sending out emails with a short bio of one ride at a time and where to find them online. None of the usual “click here and buy the team replica gear” junk either, just repping their riders.

Now with Specialized, you walk into a shop and you see nothing, no Bruni poster, no Sagan or anyone else either. It’s crazy, and a missed opportunity that every racing brand ever figured out decades ago. I love my new Enduro but damn there is no feeling of community (Yeti/Ibis/SC etc) or even an acknowledgment that they support racing, trails or anything else. It’s bad when Cannondale and Trek are better at this stuff than you…
  • 4 1
 Those company's/teams (yeti,ibis . . . .) don't care about riders either! And you got a dam nice bike!
  • 4 0
 Well Sagan's face and merch with his name is pretty visible in the Specialized shops here in Switzerland, but I guess Spesh is more perceived as top-performance brand for mostly competitive people who do races, that means road bikes and XC bikes as the main marketing object. The amount of customers who race enduro (not even talking about downhill) is almost zero... Okay now gravel is getting also lots of vibes and bro feeling, but at least here in Europe I see it more as utility than a community, compared to e.g. US where it's almost a lifestyle (might also do generally with the nature of US vs European people, e.g. I used to do amateur cyclocross races and here it means business, no beer and burgers after the race... I was always jealous seeing the pics from US where people went to race CX events with costumes etc. Smile )
  • 2 0
 @ice29: There are pro-categories at those races where people are taking things super seriously. But the amateur categories are definitely more fun-oriented.

Also, how does a beer and a burger hurt your athletic performance after a race? Refill those calories asap and then you can get back to your normal diet the next day. I feel like doing anything else is just needlessly punishing.
  • 1 0
 @ice29: the shop I had in mind usually had Demo, Enduro, Stumpjumper and XC race bikes on the floor. The local Enduro/DH regional series with races (both categories) less than 50 minutes drive away is sponsored by Maxxis, Specialized (last year for sure) and a host of smaller prize sponsors, and had Richie Rude come out and race at the last round. It’s a big deal. It makes it here on pb sometimes even.
  • 24 6
 Wow, the stuff about e-mtb and e-enduro and e-xc and e-cyclocross racing is eye-opening.
But not in a good way. Those ideas for events and pressure to make "sell" racers emtbs is properly as opposed as anything I personally like about cycling.

But if there's a market, Specialized (and many else) will cater...
  • 6 4
 They know that motors and making things easier are key to selling more bikes and getting more people buying bikes. Having racing series for every kind of ebike helps to normalize motors. For everyone.
  • 1 1
 The industry's view is about creating scenarios to showcase what their product can do and who their target customer is. For example: mountain biking is all about demonstrating what can be done on a mountain bike. Pedal it up a challenging mountain and back down with far greater thrill/ease than hiking, pushing the limits of what you previously thought could be done by anyone who knows how to ride a bicycle. That's an image they can capitalize on.

People might not think of themselves as a rider/cyclist, so they resist fitting in these images. This is the case with some ebikers. These people just see themselves as individuals adventuring through remote parts of nature, and are agnostic about what gear they choose to suit their needs. If they can happen to afford an ebike, they're not ebikers when they take it out for a ride--that's just what these people who care about their image use as a label for others.

People who pay mind to all the labeling...
  • 20 3
 Limiting world cups, at least for DH, would be a big loss to our sport, especially if there wasn't a coherent plan to develop a national series in a number of countries. World cups are already expensive enough to qualify for, and would create an even worse sense of elitism. I'd love to know the percentage of top racers that come from wealthy families, compared to middle and lower earners. A US racer has to have significant support to even attend all of the nationals here to qualify for a WC. If we want to grow our sport, it needs to be more accessible, not less. The idea a family has to go all in financially to get their kid to a world cup is straight up stupid. That's not something we should take from moto or other pro sports. I think that's one of the best things about skating or bmx, is anyone can reach the top levels. You don't need to accumulate massive credit card debt to get there. The structure of DH racing makes it wonderful for families and weekend warriors, not capitalizing on that is foolish. We need more local coverage and support for stuff like the NW Cup and Downhill Southeast. Ride and party all weekend, then give it your all come Sunday. Push the local series, make a strong national series, then lets talk about making an already elite sport more elite. Till then piss off lol.
  • 6 0
 Why do we? The question needs turning on its head. The real question is why is the sport of so little interest to sponsors? Why don’t they want to invest in the sport? What isn’t the sport offering sponsors
  • 4 4
 I definitely got that "let's make this elite sport more elite" vibe from the interview. Sure seems like a quick way to ruin a sport.
  • 8 0
 @Patsplit: I didn't watch, only read. But, I feel like the World Cups should be elite? I don't care about the people who barely made it there. I care about watching the best.

They should do what Enduro does and have an amateur race around the same time.
  • 11 3
 @mustbike I feel like you've grabbed the wrong end of the stick here. His argument (that I agree with) is that having a free for all at WC level detracts from the local and national level racing you clearly care a lot about. That by restricting the top level more resources would need to be invested lower down to create the path up.
  • 1 3
 What to limit in a womens field of 14 riders and 4 female juniors?

Make it 3-5 so that everyone gets on the podium for maximum marketability?
  • 3 0
 @mattwragg: I agree it’s ridiculous how many people are eligible to race at World Cup level especially when it’s only the top 20 men and 20 women that are televised so giving sponsors any real value. You might as well restrict the men to a field of 60 with the top 20 - 30 qualifying for finals that are then broadcast. I don’t see much benefit to a sponsor of a rider either not qualifying or not being high enough up the run order to be televised
  • 1 1
 Sorry I meant to say to 10 women
  • 3 1
 @mattwragg you've exposed the problem with the argument right here: 'more resources would need to be invested lower down." You don't force investors to do things, you show them opportunities. How the heck is a less global, less elite national series a better investment than the current World Cup, or than putting that money to work in any other non-cycling investment? What's the business case? It looks like Benno's argument is magical thinking. What's clear from his words is that shifting the costs of elite pro racing off of the cycling industry and onto some non-cycling industry companies would be good for the cycling industry. Sure! But why should anyone do that? I enjoyed this article a lot, but if it has a flaw, it might be that when you agree with the person you're interviewing you may not scrutinize what they're saying very closely.

How would a car company, a mega-retailer, a chip-maker, a bank, a hedge fund, a fast food franchise, (etc) make money off of paying part of Bruni's or Iles' salary? Is he implying that once non-cycling industry investors pick up the tab for the super-elite WC, then Specialized will pay to grow the national series? Because my understanding of race promotion (limited to collegiate racing I admit), is that they make basically no money and are labors of love.
  • 4 1
 Make it elite. We don't need participation badges for everyone, we need top tier sport. All this whining about access for everyone...waaahhhh. What a bunch of softies we've become.
  • 4 1
 @Snfoilhat: Can I recommend you have a look at how road cycling works, from club level to World Tour, as what Benno is talking about already exists there - there's no magical thinking involved. I have also recommended one person on here take a look on GCN+/Racepass to see how their calendar looks for 'Race TV' - and appreciate that every race on the app is for broadcast (GCN = Eurosport, a major sports carrier on this side of the Atlantic). Quite simply, road cycling puts out more broadcast content most weeks than the MTB does in a whole year.
  • 1 0
 @mattwragg: That's one of the biggest issues with MTB, and especially the World Cup; apart from these races, there is very little coverage for TV/ streaming.
The Swiss Proffix Bike Cup is streamed live on YouTube, but the other series have no/very little live coverage - maybe 10-15min highlights later on.

In all honesty, it's just not good enough. Combined with the small number of World Cup rounds - and the small season, the sport isn't getting a lot of exposure.

I agree with his point; why shouldn't the World Cup season start earlier in the year? Why shouldn't there be 10-15+ rounds in the World Cup?
  • 4 1
 @mattwragg: Except its not really a free for all that Benno implies. The requirement for entry is a lot more than 20 UCI points stated (that only applies to U23 Womens XC). Elite Mens/Womens, and U23 Mens XC all have a 60 point entry. And DH is 40. Thats actually reasonably difficult to earn. It means athletes are amongst the best in their nation at least. Which for many fans is exactly what you want from a "world" series.

I also struggle what he means stating its "not fair." Not fair on who? I'd say it's one of the more fair systems in international sport... because it allows the opportunity for an independent athlete who is not fortunate enough to have been picked up by a team, to break through and prove themselves at top level.

Perhaps he might remember a certain Sam Gaze arrival on the scene at Cairns World Cup?
  • 1 0
 @mattwragg: How could a smaller country send their best to a World Cup if the ideas of Benno would be implemented? This is not F1 or Motto GP. We want more people on bikes, not less. Right now there is no chance to have smaller leagues, and big companies won't even look at smaller leagues in smaller insignificant countries. And then we wonder why only a handful of nations thrive in this sport, aren't we?

Then we are asking also why smaller countries can not develop kids to get pro in the end, or even sell more bikes, or promote the bike as a fun way to stay healthy, go to school, enjoy the free time, spend quality family time and so on...
  • 1 0
 @vladsabau: You should look at road cycling rather than F1, and road cycling does a far better job than MTB of providing a pathway up from the local to world level. Right now the continental-level racing in MTB is not too strong, so if you limit the World Cup those displaced riders will need to go somewhere, right? That would be the continental-level, that means more riders racing at that level desperate to make the step up to the World Cup. So if a kid from Romania wants to get to the WC they will need to come and race the continental series, which should be closer and less pricey to race than a World Cup season. And if those races are not at the standard people want now, then they would need to improve fast as the riders will demand it. In the immediate future some riders would probably lose out while people figure things out, but in the long-term I think it would offer more riders more chances to prove themselves as almost everybody who wants to race a WC would go through that class, so if you're an up and coming racer you would have had to race against the future WC pros and you could see if you're good enough of not.

I'm not sure if we mention it in this interview, but I spoke to Benno about teams too. What if it was a team that entered the World Cup rather than a rider? Right now Loic Bruni is what the UCI has at that level. What if it was his team instead? Say Loic gets hurt, the team would still need a rider, so then they would need this pool of talent from the level down to draw a replacement from, giving that rider a chance to show what they can do at that level. If the team has 4 guaranteed slots, say, in a smaller field with guaranteed media coverage then investing in that team is less risky as your logo is guaranteed a TV spot, while in the Loic out injured scenario they get no coverage. This is precisely what happens on the road, which also lets them set rules for teams. For instance, if you want to be a World Tour team you need a certain budget, certain number of riders, etc - so if we want a 20 race WC season, you would have to prove you can manage that to be a world team. Because right now one of the limiting factors is that the smaller teams can't afford to do too many more rounds each year. It also means they can do things like set a minimum salary (40,000 Euros a year at world level) and I think riders getting paid properly would be a huge step forwards.
  • 19 3
 Interesting article. Not sure how I feel about it frankly. A mixture of good insight, reality, but also definitely put off by his personality. Big man on campus syndrome perhaps... not sure.
  • 17 0
 Sagan is from Slovakia, not Slovrnia
  • 17 0
 I'm not sure anyone's from Slovrnia.
  • 3 0
 @j-t-g: Thank you. You just made me and my wife crack up!
  • 3 0
 @j-t-g: Oh come on, cut my fat fingers some slack. e and r are so close together, no wonder you mistype. But props for above average geography knowledge
  • 2 1
 @nots1: It's all in good fun bud Smile .
  • 15 2
 Why does everyone look to the sport of F1 racing as the epitome and golden goose? Is there a point at which we can be satisfied with the size of the industry and coverage as sustainable? Growing it to some behemoth money making VIP mega media circus sounds like a path to ruining the sport by putting it far out of touch with us common folk.

Plus, haven't we already been here before in the late 90's when racing bikes was huge and then it sort fell off the radar for sponsors and general population? When is it ever enough or do we have to experience these boom-bust cycles so a some people can capitalize on the sport and then abandon it?
  • 4 1
 I’ve always had this thought too. I don’t think trying to turn mountain biking into F1 in terms of coverage would be a good move. But more importantly, mountain biking will never be as popular as F1, MotoGP, etc as a spectator sport
  • 9 1
 Was going to make a similar comment. Been in love with mountain biking since 1990, and more trails in more places is the only thing I care about. Not everything always has to get bigger and louder.
  • 2 2
 Because top tier sport, the unattainable, is motivating and inspirational. If anyone can do anything, what's left to inspire you? If you want a fun-filled family weekend at the park, riding around in circles with your kids, by all means do it! But if you want to see top-level racing, near-unattainable levels of engineering and design, are you going to find that at the local hill? Is that going to inspire your children? If you plaster little Johnny with participation badges, don't be disappointed when he takes his PhD in philosophy (which he made you pay for) all the way to be top barista at Starbucks.
  • 13 0
 I love an interview that leaves me both inspired and a little bummed out. Thanks for the insight, it's pretty interesting thinking about this piece in the context of the State of the Sport survey.
  • 14 4
 Interesting that boss-man b-dub says he sees value in long term relationships, but isn't the big S notorious for dumping their racers? At least in the 2 disciplines I follow, Enduro and DH? He admits they buy top athletes sometimes but then says they're too expensive.

At least they still have Hunter. Him being part of any launch video is worth more to me as a prospective customer than Bruni sweeping the whole series. Also I think Finn is a great ambassador.... but because he races maybe his days with the big S are numbered.
  • 12 1
 For me, Specialized is two sided. There is the likes of Matt Hunter and Hannah Barnes living it the way I think most of us can relate to or at least would love to live like. And the guy (sorry, forgot his name) fueling the trail work days everywhere. I think that's beautiful and I think they do this better than every other brand. These may not even be the most exiting role models for an teen stoked on anything that goes big and fast, but they are for us older ones who actually have the money so I even think they make them more money. As for their racing activities, I think they'd better just ditch that. If a brand like Commencal can support so many good riders on such a high level and your brand apparently can't, then just leave it up to the experts.
  • 9 0
 Good interview. I expected Benno to sugar coat everything like a good company spokesperson. There was some of that but also some harsh reality. I know that I go to work to make money. So do the folks at Specialized and all the other brands of bikes and components. Like every other product, if there were no money in making widgets/bikes very few would be made. And or we would be still be riding commuter bikes with slightly fat tires.
  • 9 0
 Great interview, great insights into what goes on especially on the business side of biking. Thx!
  • 5 0
 I raced road for 5 years and did a bunch of crit racing. The last thing I'd want to see or do is eCrit racing. The speeds are so high and crashes so frequent going faster and adding a bunch of weight to the bike is silly. Same for CX. I don't own an eMTB and don't see owning one anytime soon. Long distance, epic eMTB rides are straight up giggly fun though. I've rented a handful of times and if you're a mountain biker I would suggest trying it. No more shuttle. The UH is as fun as the DH.
  • 13 9
 Specialized sure has a lot of ideas for how to spend other people's time and money -- robust national racing series in a dozen or more countries, mainstream and better-paying video production and streaming, big outside sponsors. What tracks? What event promoters and staff? What media company? Peacock Premium? Mt Dew? 1-800-COLLECT? What big untapped pool of new viewers of people riding bicycles hasn't been reached?
  • 1 0
 Lots of questions which is great up to a point but not a lot of answers or suggestions...
  • 14 0
 He is saying that the way to make those smaller series more profitable is to make the top-tier series exclusive. That way, the smaller teams can focus on a national series, and it builds popularity from the ground up. It's a very reasonable and well-thought point, coming from a person with more knowledge of the business than all but a handful of people in the world.
  • 5 0
 I find it weird that in xc in particular the big drink sponsors are still red bull and monster.

Shouldn't it be Gatorade, Powerade and similar?
  • 6 1
 So what actually happened at Spesh in the last two or so years? To make it such a bad situation?
My job now is to make sure that situations like that do not come up again because that, to me, is the worst"

  • 1 3
 Losing Alan Hatherley and Simon Andreassen to Cannondale - their entire male lineup jumped ship.
  • 17 11
 Yeah BIG FY! This guy wants World cups to became private club for the rich guys... surprise MTB is fo everyone!
  • 6 0
 I can agree with your approach and a bit of his. IF the national series were already well established and getting ridership and could act as feeder leagues then it could work. But you can't just limit access to races, exposure and points without that already being in place. Right now most national series just dont have enough races or aren't well enough organized to support that. We see a lot of privateers paying huge money to travel for world cups which arguably is not the best possible approach - its the reason the privateer award from Wyn is even a thing. Ideally they could race in national series for several years, not worry about travel or money as much before getting a ride on a bigger team. But there needs to be that kind of feeder system with decent exposure in place otherwise they will just languish.
  • 2 0
 This is interesting. Biathlon, which he mentioned has field limits (only so many lanes on the shooting range), they also have a feeder circuit. Would be nice if regional/national/continental feeder circuits were better supported and attended.

On the other side, not sure if this is different in the US with College football/basketball and AAA baseball, but in the major cities in Canada, nobody gives a shit about anything but the top tier sport. Jr hockey, bush league basketball/soccer/baseball, heck even CFL are always dwarfed by the popularity of the big 4 leauges, even if there is only 1 team in all of Canada!
  • 2 1
 @wilsonians: why should they not worry about the money side of it? Just because you have the talent to be good at something doesn’t guarantee you can make a living from it. It’s true of all skills and talents not even just in sport
  • 5 0
 @CM999: I meant that from the perspective of traveling and racing for a national series is significantly less taxing financially than trying to do a bunch of world cups internationally. Of course it still requires money but a whole shit load less than trying to do months in Europe, especially if you're from north america or AUS/NZL.
  • 7 0
 @skarhead89: you missed his point entirely
  • 4 1
 @wilsonians: very true which is why I think the idea of National out continental feeder is a good idea. I thus think riders need to accept they aren’t going to make a living from it.
  • 7 0
 @racerfacer: I don't think a lot of people realize how large the turnout for XC Ski events is. Even here in Vancouver with one ski area (Cypress), the weeknight races are PACKED with kids. I'm not sure if some of the turnout is linked to high school teams, but I was pretty surprised counting more than 50 youngsters and teens lining up for the COVID 'races' (more of a TT this year). Probably more than 50, and that was just a weeknight race, Callaghan has kids programs for Biathlon, and is pretty wild seeing 10 year olds at the range. Thumbs up for that!

And this is the Coast, which isn't exactly the hotbed of XC skiing. How about Kimberley, Canmore, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec etc etc.? I honestly think there is a larger pool of endurance winter sports kids in Canada than bikers.

Perhaps it's the cost of entry for families? Maybe it's that MTB here has moved on from the awesome everybody all in XC events of years past in favour of enduro type events, which let's be honest, typically cater to people that are older and pay or borrow shitton of cash on bike equipment. Alifestyle sport with a premium price. When Pinkbike talks about budget bikes, even those are 3-4CAD out the door after tax. A family of 4, parents making average to good wages, but live with a 3000-4000$ mortgage in the Lower Mainland. Most will look to another sport for their kids.
  • 1 1
 The top teams want to do it because if it ends up like F1 or MotoGP the riders pay the team to race not the other way around. Only the top riders get paid by the teams, everyone else buys their ride
  • 5 2
 People need to remember that adding all the cash to increase wages and sponsors more people all comes from one place and one place only you and me and the rest of the brands customers. Put your hand on your heart and say that you would pay more for your bike to pay for all this extra sponsorships. Don’t forget that if brand x wants to spend £20k more on sponsorship that will be at least an extra £40k at retail
  • 3 0
 If it grows the user base than your rider tax is lower on a per unit basis.
  • 3 1
 That is part of the point as to why the sport needs external sponsors. At the moment what you describe is fairly close to the reality, while if the sport could reach external sponsors it would change - in pro cycling athletes have quite a different relationship with the bike industry as the external sponsors are usually the biggest contributors.
  • 1 1
 @mattwragg: That was what I was thinking. If you look at the road world tour teams very few of them have the bike brand as the title sponsor. The world tour has an attractive offer to the non bilking industry that mtb simply doesn’t
  • 4 1
 @CM999: If you really want to feel depressed about the state of mountain bike racing, grab a free trial on the GCN Racepass/+ and take a moment to appreciate how many races there are with broadcast-worthy TV footage. Road cycling puts out more hours of broadcast content almost every week than MTB does in a whole year.
  • 3 0
 Think we all better be very careful what we wish for. Lots of coverage and money would be great for the industry (including PinkBike). However, for the 99.9% of without a financial interest at stake, there would likely be some good (maybe more trails) but also lots and lots and lots of undesirable consequences. Much better for mountain biking to grow more organically and more from a holistic health and happiness angle.

Fortunately, I think there is very little danger of the industry and the racers getting professional and organized enough to move the needle very much as far as racing goes. However, the industry is well on its way to creating a big mess with eMTS.
  • 8 2
 Gwin- "Wants more Money"--- No Benno (Bueno)
  • 13 6
 Ctrl+F Gwin
  • 2 0
 That's how I found your comment Razz


Is this SEO?
  • 2 0
 Biathlon? Who woulda' thunk it? (says a guy who regularly skis past our biathlon range)

Thanks to PB for this content, it's interesting to get a glimpse at the business side of racing. Regarding the short season, few (Cool races, and getting bikes/racing in front of more spectators/buyers, here's what this fan (ie: old XC guy and father, aka: multiple bike owner/buyer) would find interesting. And, yes, let's assume COVID risk is either managed effectively or becomes a non-factor.

- Have a 15 race international series and make it a truer World Cup by having host locations spread out more than currently so. For example, let's say 2 in Canada (1 west, 1 east), 2 in USA, 1 in Scandanavia, 1 in UK, 2 in Europe, 2 in South/Central America (Brazil + Mexico?), 1 in NZ, 1 in AUZ, 1 in Japan, pick a few other markets with stellar riding. Mix up the host cities each year where possible.
- Have an annual contest such that one lesser known location gets to host a race. Have regional tourism management boards make proposals, have fans vote on a final 3 locations, have the powers that be choose one from those.
- Dedicate 2-3 days following the weekend as a demo/expo concept where fans (ie: prospective buyers) get to test out bikes and go on small group rides with racers. And/or skills clinics. Some racers may not like the idea but, as the interview makes clear, marketing is ​their core job.
- Racers must enter 10 of the 12 races, AND fulfill demo day obligations, to qualify for overall series points.

Regardless of the format, if you like riding or are even curious about it go see a World Cup race in person. The speed will blow your mind.
  • 1 0
 Not the worst proposal, and ticks the 'International' boxes. However, there is a slight fly in the ointment. Who is going to pay? Isn't that the problem at the moment? Not enough host venues can afford the fee? And if they can, the money they make isn't enough.
  • 2 0
 The thing with Biathlon and XC Ski-ing, is, it's on Eurosport virtually every weekend from late November to mid March. That's a lot of coverage, and exposure for sponsors, etc

Similarly, Cyclocross, which I'd argue is a far smaller sport worldwide (apart from Flanders) than MTB, manages to have plenty of racing from early September - end of February; with a lot of weekends with double headers. Then there is the Festive period were races come thick & fast. And all available to watch on GCN/Eurosport. That's fabulous exposure for any sponsors.

There needs to be a way were we're able to see the top MTB riders racing live on our TV/laptops more than 7-8 times a year.
  • 2 0
 Hell yeah Benno, tell it like it is! You're one of the folks I miss the most from my days working at Big S. It was always a good time when you came through the shop with Sauser. Always willing to help out however you could and passionate as all hell about racing. Winning World Champs with Sauser and that new Epic was memorable to say the least, lots of effort from lots of people all coming together.
  • 2 0
 I’ll be that old guy! listen here kid….back when I was your age we pedaled that thing all the way up the hill and turned around and pedaled the damn thing back up down the same hill! Now you kids got motors. So quit yer bitchen
  • 4 0
 Cool interview, very insightful. However, Sagan is not Slovenian - he is Slovakian.
  • 3 1
 Erk - my bad, fixed.
  • 4 1
 Worked alongside Benno for the ‘12 season, great all around guy, as a team manager and as a person, always there when someone needed a hand! Cheers Benno!!
  • 1 0
 Very interesting. I've always wondered why the professional sport of mountain biking isn't bigger. So many people ride bikes and it seems crazy that it can't support 60 DH riders on a living wage.

Having only 6 races in a year is insane! An average world tour road rider pro may make $200k a year, but is sometimes expected to race over 100 days a year.

Road cycling isn't much better, it's still a broken system that relies entirely on sponsors to finance the teams even if it does have more money. Sponsor gets bored and pulls out? Team goes under.

Other sports have prize money, gate receipts, tv money and various other revenue streams that build a sustainable model.
  • 1 0
 One question i'd have liked to have seen asked is, what level of bikes of each genre are sold within the company.

e.g How many DH bikes, how many AM/Enduro, how many XC, how many CX, how many commuters and how many roadies... Because clearly there's little point spending lots of money on Rider A in DH if they only sell 45 DH bikes.... but by the same account is you sell 1,000,000 Diverge road bikes, then clearly that's where you're making the money, so have more money to fund.

Say what you want, MTBing at a DH/AM level is a VERY minority sport compared to pedalling to the pub or being a roadie... So it's hard for companies to spend their money as there's very little return.

This is where social media plays such a massive factor, i bet more people could tell you what Danny McAskill rides rather than Loic Bruni.... Are the 'kids' really into DH in the same way as they're into social media ? My lad is a DH/Enduro racer, but if he's watching MTBing, it's more like to be Freeriders, Slopestyle, things like Rampage, things like Wibmer... rather than sitting watching Minaar doing a DH run.
  • 4 0
 I am staying, finishing my coffee
  • 3 0
 Did Benno just rubbish the iPhone. OMG, You'd better get yourself enrolled on a witness protection programme!!
  • 3 0
 I had to pay about 400K$ for Gwin, that's not cheap considering the performance. Wink
  • 3 0
 Thank you Matt and Benno!! Amazing
  • 3 0
 very interesting read.
  • 2 0
 Thank you PB/Matt for this article. Enlightening.
  • 4 4
 People like this came up with the European Soccer Super League. Maybe the amount of money in circulation is not the best metric for the success of a sport.
  • 1 0
 100% Support the I RIDE FOR BURRY t-shirt

I have a HURRY BURRY t-shirt made fort the SA UCI XCO he competed in.

  • 9 7
 Seems bitter about Kate.
  • 17 0
 At least he did acknowledge the fact that they shouldn't have let her mechanic go. They were a successful team that wanted to stick together.
  • 15 0
 I read it as he was unhappy that the team made such a grievous blunder in letting Brad go. He saw the consequences of that decision, the proverbial Writing on Wall, that Kate would soon follow.
  • 11 0
 I didn't get that sense at all. More like an honest statement of regret and acknowledgement of mistakes. One can be regretful without being bitter.
  • 7 0
 The article says Benno just came to manage the XC team for 2021. Sounds like he would have done things differently if he was managing the team a few years ago and would have fought to keep Brad on board and thus Kate.
  • 2 0
 @thatshowiroll: Yep. He wasn't in charge when they let Brad go.
  • 3 2
 *scrolls down to the comments* "Specialized Sucks", goes back up...
  • 2 0
 Great interview!
  • 3 3
 Honestly don't know how to feel about this one. Seems like a whole lot of company speak in very wordy disgiuses.
  • 1 0
 Very interesting convo. Thanks for sharing this.
  • 1 1
 Looks like they had a really though/growing time... having Gwin, Brosnan and Carter...
  • 1 2
 Is there a TLDR for this article?
  • 1 1
 you cost too much Benno!
  • 10 13
 me no reed. me look at pictures.
  • 5 0
 "Why use many word when few word do trick?"
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