Benno Willeit Interview

Feb 24, 2021 at 23:20
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 Slovenia 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...


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