The cycling industry is funded by the masses but in terms of innovation and image, it’s still largely driven by racing. If you pin on a number each weekend, kudos for helping fuel the sport and maintaining its healthy atmosphere – and if you’re doing well, even better. But if those local results are also coming with a Manwich-sized bite of self-entitlement when it comes to endorsement proposals, let me offer a good-intentioned, honest dose of reality: sponsorship is not and has never been about you.
You have every right to be proud of your results. You trained hard for them, bested some worthy competition, and perhaps even had Lady Luck on your side. But you need to maintain some perspective on those results and what they mean in the grand scheme of the sport if you’re going to try and parlay your race resume on the sponsorship scene. Your Michigan state age-category gold medal in the individual pursuit deserves a firm pat on the back and maybe even a beer at the bar but what it doesn’t earn you on its own is a free bike, three sets of wheels, and a new XXXL helmet.
Put another way: no one owes you anything because you’ve done well.
Sponsorship isn’t a question of what someone owes you or what you deserve. At least in concept, it’s a symbiotic relationship: the sponsoring company helps a rider with free or discounted gear – or, cue the singing angels, maybe even some money – but in return, the sponsored rider is supposed to generate additional business. And doing so doesn’t mean just slapping a logo on a jersey because, honestly, there are lots of people out there who actually pay to do that.
Much as some of you might prefer to believe otherwise, your race results aren’t actually worth much on their own. Again, this rant isn’t intended to discount your achievements, and as a middling Colorado SM 35+3 casual ‘cross racer, probably everyone except that one guy who came down with bubonic plague has beaten me.
The issue is how useful those results are in terms of marketability. Unless a company can proudly use them in a national or global ad, the harsh reality is that they’re not significant enough on their own to matter. When was the last time you saw Shimano boasting about landing the California state criterium championship? Right, that would be never.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you have no hope of landing a lucrative deal with Wobble Wedge or a five percent discount at your local appliance repair shop. All it means is that you need to look at the bigger picture at what you have to offer. There are lots of ways to successfully push a product in return for getting a deal on it that aren’t related to winning.
Be an ambassador and an evangelist. Whenever someone asks – and sometimes even if they don’t – show some appreciation by talking up your sponsor’s product. Hell, lie if you have to. The point is that while no one is entitled to sponsorship with some good results, any sponsors you do have are entitled to good word of mouth. It doesn’t take much.
Be a loyal partner. Sponsorship can be a notoriously fickle game but no company likes a rider who jumps from supplier to supplier every year in search of the best deal. Unless something really goes awry, it’s usually best to maintain relationships long-term assuming you have the option.
Provide useful feedback. As a racer, you’re theoretically subjecting your gear to more abuse than the average Joe and probably are noticing some things that might not pop up every day. While you’re sending your sponsor that next periodic race report, toss in some product feedback, too. If your experience helps improve your sponsor’s product next year, your sponsorship has already paid for itself.
Consider offering to organize some clinics or demos to spread the words on your sponsors’ gear. Arrange to bring their demo truck to your area – and then work there for the day. Take the time to educate some local riders on why you believe your stuff is the greatest. There are more than a few local ‘cross racers who can recount stories of Tim Johnson offering test rides of his personal Cannondale SuperX Hi-Mod Disc – because he convincingly believes it’s the best and wants you to think so, too.
Most of all, be a nice person. Never forget that slapping that logo on your body carries with it the responsibility to represent it with dignity. While it’s true that not many people remember who finishes second, you can guarantee that they’ll remember the guy who threw his bike and screamed like a spoiled brat.
Again, I’m in no way trying to discount your successes on the racecourse and there absolutely are up-and-coming racers who genuinely do need some help in getting to the next level. One way or the other, though, that support has to be earned.
Sponsorship can be a wonderful and productive thing for both parties, but only if it’s viewed as the reciprocal relationship it’s meant to be. Train hard, ride fast, and by all means, win – just don’t be a self-important jerk about it in the process.
James Huang has been writing about bicycle tech since 2005 and has more than 14 years of experience as a shop mechanic. In that time he’s seen plenty of fantastic gear and technology but also a lot of things that have just flat-out pissed him off. Follow the AngryAsian on Twitter at @angryasian, and check BikeRadar for more of his columns, which run every other Tuesday.