Spending time riding rollers or the turbo trainer is a great way to maintain and improve fitness through the dark winter months. But it’s something most cyclists have learned to hate.
There are good reasons for this. Riding in the basement, staring at a wall, suffering through an interval workout is about as pleasurable as pulling teeth, or watching Sharknado on DVD.
American ex-pat David McQuillen, the man behind The Sufferfest, started making training videos to cure his own case of Turbo Trainer Boredom Syndrome (TTBS). Now based in Melbourne, Australia, the 'King of Sufferlandria' has a catalogue of 17 videos, training plans, a full line of clothing, and an army of Sufferlandrians that is growing daily. We take a look into the story behind the success of a brand built purely on torment.
In the beginning…
The King of Sufferlandria himself
McQuillen, a former investment banker, came up with the idea for the Sufferfest while living in Zurich.
“The winters in Switzerland are pretty brutal, and I had to spend a lot of time on the turbo trainer. At the time I was training for cyclosportives; when I was on the trainer I was bored, and couldn’t get motivated to work hard,” he explained.
Having tried everything from television and movies, to spinning and cycling DVDs, McQuillen was still unable to motivate himself to work hard on the trainer.
“I remembered back to when my brother and I were racing as juniors in Pennsylvania. We would watch old clips of the Tour de France, and pretend we were climbing Alpe d'Huez with Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond,” he said.
So McQuillen threw together a video using old Tour de France footage, with added music and simple onscreen instructions to guide the workouts.
“I showed a couple of my friends, and next thing I know I am making videos. I wanted to do it legally, so I approached the ASO and the UCI to see if I could get rights; and that was really complicated because they were used to selling rights to broadcasters,” McQuillen said. “They had no idea how to sell me what I was looking for."
Now holding exclusive rights with the UCI, ASO, IMG and the Challenge Family, the videos feature footage from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Flanders Classics, Milan-San Remo, and Amstel Gold among many others.
Beginning as a creative outlet, the success of the videos has allowed McQuillen to take his hobby and turn it into a career.
“When all this was happening I was working at Credit Suisse bank and making the videos in my spare time. We put the videos on the web, and sales started trickling in,” McQuillen continued. "I just loved doing it. I was teaching myself how to edit video and sound; and learning to run an online business. Now here we are today, and I don't work in banking anymore,” he says.
The citizens of Sufferlandria
A choice example of McQuillen's fan mail…
Now playing in more than 50 countries, the population of the mythical country of Sufferlandria is growing daily. With more than 116,000 fans on Facebook and 11,000 Twitter followers, the Sufferfest has built a massive following through the videos.
“I don’t know of any other workout series, cycling or otherwise, that has this underlying culture and mythology of characters and places: Sufferlandria, Gunter von Agony, the minions and so on and so forth,” he says. “It was people who liked the Sufferfest that started calling themselves Sufferlandrians. I didn’t start that one.”
This mythology combined with hosting such events as the Tour of Sufferlandria, Sufferlandrian National day, and becoming a Knight of Sufferlandria (achieved by doing ten Sufferfest videos in a row), the Sufferfest has brought people together into a commonwealth of sorts.
“The community of Sufferlandrians is surprisingly tight knit, for a group of people who for the most part have never met. They are constantly talking to me, and talking to each other through social media,” McQuillen said.
Despite the speed at which the Sufferfest is growing, McQuillen finds it important to remain a part of that community – and in the process he gets some pretty funny fan (read: hate) mail as well.
“I think that I'm the only CEO in the world that loves to get hate mail. I have been called every name under the sun. People will curse my existence, and then tell me how much they love what we are doing and they can’t wait for more,” he added.
The Sufferfest gives back
The King of Sufferlandria deep in the pain cave without a flashlight
Humbled by its success, for the American ex-pat the Sufferfest is more than a job and a series of training videos. From the outset McQuillen has stressed that the underlying mission of the Sufferfest is to make people proud of themselves, and proud to be a part of the community surrounding it.
“All our videos are based around how can we make people feel proud of themselves and by extension how we can make them feel proud of the Sufferlandrian community,” explained McQuillen.
This Sufferlandrian pride is what sparked partnerships with Parkinson's charity the Davis Phinney Foundation and women's cycling doco Half the Road, and the offer of free videos for race co-ordinators anywhere in the world to give as prizes for fourth-place finishers.
“I still shake my head at the stuff we are doing, because sometimes I don’t believe it is real," McQuillen said. "We are the official sponsor of the UCI Womens World Cup, and we sponsor the the Sufferfest-ACE Lesotho Pro UCI Team – the first and only all black UCI African mountain bike team – and a couple guys at the Commonwealth games. It is really cool to be in a position to help.”
Despite his grandiose and sinister title, the ‘King of Sufferlandria: evil and unyielding dictator’, McQuillen is actively working to improve the lives and fitness of everyone he comes in contact with. Whether that's through encouragement over social media, or by using the resources he has to raise the profile of worthy causes, the Sufferfest is committed to giving something back.
With more videos on the way, including triathlon- and running-specific workouts, a full range of technical and casual outerwear, training plans and plenty more, Sufferfest is helping make indoor training more bearable (Ed: it still sucks), and all the while making a difference in the world cycling community.