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Monthly Archives: March 2016

By Tom Demerly.

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“Support Your Local Bike Shop” has been a battle cry of hipsters, struggling shop owners and condescending vendors for three decades. The emergence of this flaccid anthem corresponds with the rise of e-commerce, Amazon.com, e-Bay and a host of technologies that make consumer shopping more convenient.

My first bike shop went out of business after 17 years because I wasn’t a good enough businessman to compete in an evolving market.

I deserved what I got. It’s that simple.

Like every business that relies on discretionary income- from computers to boats, skis and electronics, specialty bike retail has had to evolve to survive during the last 30 years. Some dealers have survived, many have not.

But the pouty little bike shops still beg for support, as if they are some quaint, soulful charity instrumental to the sport of cycling itself. Save the whales. Save the harp seals. Save the local bike shop, because they are incapable of saving themselves, again and again. Statistics prove that.

The rough n’ tumble natural selection of capitalism has been as hard on the quaint little bike shop as evolution was on the dinosaur. That’s not all bad.

A whopping 2,140 bikes shops went out of business in 13 years from 2000 to 2013.There were 6,195 independent bicycle retailers in 2000 but only 4,055 shops in 2013 according to bikeleague.org. That’s a 35% decline in independent bike dealers in 13 years.

“During the same time cycling grew across several specialty segments there was a 35% decline in the number of bike shops.”

During this same 13 years cycling grew across a number of categories including women’s cycling, triathlon, charity rides and other categories. The National Bicycle Dealer’s Association wrote, “The overall size of the industry has remained fairly stable since 2003, with sales between $5.8 billion and $6.1 billion each year”. In England the BBC World News said, “More than two million people across the country now cycle at least once a week, an all-time high. For businesses in the cycling industry this means booming sales. Sales [at some retailers] were up 11% in the year to 27 March 2015.”

Why did so many small bike retailers close when the sport remained stable and some segments grew so fast through the recession?

The answer is simple: most small bicycle retailers are great bike enthusiasts, but rotten businessmen.

Ask me about Jacques Anquetil’s bike position, the dimensions of a 2010 Cervelo P3, the ergonomics and battery life of Di2. I can orate on these topics with expertise.

Ask me about E.B.I.T.D.A., business valuation, tax strategies, inventory turn rates, just-in-time fulfillment and the discrepancy between net and gross and you’ll get a sideways puppy stare. I’m a five-time state cycling champion and Ironman triathlete, not a Harvard MBA.

That describes most small bike shop owners; long on enthusiasm and short on business acumen.

The surviving bike retailers have divided up the growing pie of cycling sales with new distribution channels that include big-box national chains like REI and Performance Bicycle along with sophisticated brand specific online retailers like Rapha cycling apparel and ultra high performance niche bike brands like Dimond and Canyon. And there are the thousand-pound e-commerce gorillas (or guerillas) like Amazon.com, Alibaba.com, e-Bay and others.

Some surviving (formerly) independent retailers have aligned with major bike brands to reinvent themselves as brand-specific stores, surrendering most of their autonomy and uniqueness to the perceived strength of a national brand that does their marketing, inventory planning and merchandising for them. They’ve given up their identity to “The Man” but garnered some big-brand marketing inertia in return. They are the “McBike” shop. Not all of these have prospered, with some stuck in the lethal “no man’s land” between unique independent business and massive national chain.

It would seem, in business, as in war, there are two distinctions in bike retail- the quick and the dead.

“Traditional bicycle retail lacks the sophistication found in other retail categories and is historically reluctant to benchmark new strategies outside of its own category.”

I love bicycle retail. It is one of two industries I have worked in. The other is war. In the past two decades I’ve noticed a set of similarities emerge between fighting a war against a rising insurgency and selling bicycles in a rapidly changing marketplace. One dictum prevails in both: To survive on the changing battlefield and sales floor you must be highly adaptive and willing to do things differently.

Three years ago I partnered with industry insider Scott Parr to open a new retail store, The Bike & Tri Shop, in Livonia, Michigan.

Before I made the commitment to go back to bicycle retail after my own business failure I needed to know what would be different about this new business.

Parr is a businessman. A spreadsheet guy. His background is diverse and he is a veteran executive of brands like Oakley, The North Face and Jansport. His expertise is in strategic and tactical business planning. He spends long hours merging data fields into analysis, analysis into budgets, budgets into projections, projections into business plans and then business plans into executable strategies. That is where I come in. He plans the operation, I execute the plan.

We aren’t a local bike shop. We’re not a brand store either, although we integrate brand merchandising into our business from several vendors. We’re a hybrid, specialty retailer in the road and triathlon category with a concentration in service, bike fitting and specialty product mix. As a result our customers drive past ten other bicycle stores for more than an hour to visit us, and those that don’t drive here interact with our social media and buy from our website. Our focus is narrow and deep.

Since we opened the Bike & Tri Shop our growth has followed Parr’s business plan and projections with a degree of accuracy that exceeds models from major military intelligence agencies. Scott planned our work, and we worked our plan. And while the first casualty of any operation is the plan, our combined industry experience, willingness to adapt and commitment to work have prevailed over hard Michigan winters, election year uncertainty and the normal volatility of a Midwestern economy.

Before Scott Parr opened the Bike & Tri Shop he conducted a thorough surveillance of the regional retail landscape, including intelligence gathering on brand distribution, proximity to intersecting north/south interstates and access to local cycling venues. He even collected intelligence on the locations of active local triathlon clubs and began liaising with them in advance of opening to assure the support of indigenous triathlon and cycling enthusiasts.

When Scott Parr opened the first Bike & Tri Shop location in Livonia it was in a half-empty strip mall across from a major automotive manufacturing facility. Since then the store has more than doubled in size and become a destination. This growth is contrasted against the backdrop of the automotive collapse in neighboring Detroit, and the city’s own sensational bankruptcy and descent into ruin.

But Parr has beaten the odds, and that’s not an accident.

Other retailers in our region who have also gone beyond surviving and grown during the past two decades of contraction in the bike industry include one of the oldest businesses in Dearborn, Michigan, Jacks Bicycle & Fitness. Founded in 1935 the family-owned business has navigated changes in the bike industry through WWII, the bankruptcy of Schwinn and the emergence of e-commerce. A current specialty of Jack’s is industrial bicycles for moving freight inside the automotive factory facilities of the southeastern Michigan. Jack’s has constantly adapted and reinvented itself. They have also taken a conservative financial approach to the industry, a factor partially responsible for their continued growth. Instead of begging for local support, Jack’s has explored untapped markets like industrial cargo bikes. Their innovative approach and focused product concentration has been rewarded with continued growth.

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Jim Potter of Vecchio’s in Boulder, Colorado has maintained a clear brand identity and used social media to spread the word about his authentic store.

Jim Potter at Vecchio’s Bicicleteria in Boulder, Colorado is another example of an independent bicycle retailer who has strategically employed social media to deliver a well defined and unique brand message across a wide frequency band. Even though Potter’s store is a small business in the overcrowded bicycle retail landscape of Boulder he has differentiated himself by integrated retro-themed reverence for cycling’s history with a level of expertise in service unmatched even in the crowded Boulder market. Potter’s Vecchio’s Bicicleteria delivers on both the sizzle and the steak. That’s not an accident. He has also sought ought unique brands with limited distribution that he can maintain margin on so he doesn’t have to go head-to-head with Amazon.com.

There is a place for the independent bicycle retailer in the changing recreational sporting goods and consumer discretionary products landscape, but it isn’t for the traditional bike shop model of 30 years ago. The successful specialty bike retailer of today has evolved to focus on niches of niches, makes themselves appear larger than they are through social and contributory media and expands their reach using this media. They are light, fast and adaptive. They are also willing to put in long hours while maintaining meticulous attention to process and planning and staying laser-focused on business that turns a profit while ignoring the “shiny things” that distract from this critical priority.

These adaptive, fast moving, hard working bike specialty shops don’t ask for support, they earn it fair and square. And they never spend time whining about someone “saving” them for old time’s sake.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly.

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I was in a small gift shop on an island when I first saw one of Erin Hunter’s The Warriors series books. I opened it and read one page.

And my trip began.

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Warriors is an opulent, luxurious fantasy novel series featuring fictional cats who are empowered with mythical abilities. Their mystical powers have roots in ancient lore attributed to Native American, African and Asian cats- including Egyptian mythology. The result is a dream-like journey with loveable characters overlaid on a detailed examination of cat zoology and animal behavior science. Plot lines and morals threaded through the series feel like an amalgam of sacred texts, from Buddhist writing to the Bible and many others.

The Warriors series is immensely complex, featuring a dizzying number of cat-characters. On the Wiki page for the book series one reviewer is cited as saying the series is “confusing due to its large number of characters”.

But the incredible dream-like quality of the scenes, characters and the fairy-tale, Aesop’s-like moral themes unfold at a brisk pace that is incredibly readable and engaging.

“The incredible dream-like quality of the scenes, characters and the fairy-tale, Aesop’s-like moral themes unfold at a brisk pace that is incredibly readable and engaging.”

Author Erin Hunter is actually three writers and an editor/plot director; Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Tui Sutherland write the The Warriors series with Victoria Holms editing.

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“Warriors” writing team includes (Left to right) Victoria Holmes, Kate Cary, Tai Sutherland and Cherith Baldry.

This writing team may have created The Next Big Thing. Before you dismiss this idea, let me propose the following:

According to the A.S.P.C.A. there are 96 million pet cats in the United States. Nearly 37% of American households, more than one-third, have a cat. One celebrity cat, Tara the Hero Cat, earns an estimated “$55,000-$463,000 per year” according to the New York Times. Add in other celebrity cats and the total take for the top earning celebrity cats is well over $10 million- probably much more. Now, consider the “Hobbit” film trilogy grossed over $3 billion for three movies, and no one has a Hobbit for a pet. You get the idea; combine cats with a Star Wars style plot line and some convincing computer generated cat characters with celebrity voices and… The commercial potential for The Warriors series is titanic (pun intended), with licensing possibilities for plush toys of each of the cat characters, lines of every pet accessory attributed to the series and about every other standard movie merchandising theme imaginable. The earnings potential is boggling. Why the big movie studios haven’t grabbed this series already is a mystery.

Business potential aside, The Warriors series is why we read. It is escapist, descriptive, creative and pulls you in. Your imagination wanders the mystical forests in the moonlight with the cats. You learn about real cat behaviors and you see your own cats differently after reading these.

I’m a Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Robert F. Dorr fan- technotrhillers, not flowery fantasy stories. But The Warriors series spans genres and speaks across topics to the animal lover and storyteller in me. This series is a gem waiting for mainstream discovery. I’m looking forward to seeing this series explode in popularity and I’m thrilled I discovered it early.

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By Jan Mack and Tom Demerly.

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Today is Trish Morgan’s first triathlon.

It’s a beginner triathlon with a ¼-mile swim, 10-mile bike and a 3-mile run.

Trish has run a few 10K’s, a half marathon (she has a “13.1” sticker on her Honda), did a three-day charity bike ride and swam on the intra-mural swim team in junior high school. She followed a “Ten Weeks To Your First Triathlon” program on line.

So Trish is ready.

She’s at the swim start. The loudspeaker says something important. She catches every third word. Her swim cap feels too tight. It’s her first time swimming in this new wetsuit. It feels too tight. She can barely take a full breath. The salesman said that was OK. Her goggles feel so tight they are making her eyes pop out. They keep fogging up. She won’t be able to see where she’s swimming. In the middle of Mud Lake, with foggy goggles and a new wetsuit choking you, what are you supposed to do?

She can’t see where the lifeguard kids on the paddleboards are. How is a kid on a paddleboard supposed to save you anyway? She can’t see the swim buoys that mark course. The loudspeaker keeps saying something. The wetsuit is too tight. They said this was the right size…

It’s too late to worry. Like a herd of lemmings her group with pink swim caps is moving… into the lake. The dark, weed-filled lake. They are like people trying to escape a fire. Trish moves with them, swept along in the crowd. A rising voice inside her begs attention. It begins as a whisper but gathers volume and urgency.

The rush of cold thickness in the water at her thighs makes it hard to move forward. When do you start swimming? It gets deeper. Quickly. The bottom is giving way- sandy and mucky. She feels something touch her foot… A weed? It grabs at her toes, sending a spike of panic. The water is too deep to stand now. Everyone is still moving forward. She has to swim. There is no choice now.

Her first few strokes are desperate churns of the water that now feels too thin to grab or support her weight. At least the wetsuit floats, and her legs seem to bob uncontrollably behind her while she tries to manage some kind of swim stroke other than a panicky dog paddle. But the wetsuit feels like a straightjacket now, binding her arms and squeezing her chest.

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“Put your face in the water and swim,” she tells herself. But the cold bite of the water on her face sends shock through her body, seeming to steal her breath. A jet of icy water shoots down her wetsuit. And through the grey water another swimmer’s heel emerges- she sees it just before it cracks into her left goggle lens. Something touches her foot, a person next to her where she can’t see bumps into her. She cannot see land behind her, she cannot see the first swim buoy, she cannot see a lifeguard. She cannot see in the murky water as the fog in her goggles begins to thicken. Sun glare bounces off the surface blinding her. She can’t see. The buoyancy of her wetsuit is replaced by a rising sensation that she can’t breathe. The voice in her head shouts one word: drowning.

Her chest tightens. She flails against the ever-thinning water. The wetsuit is her enemy now; squeezing what little breath she has out of her lungs. Another swimmer collides with her from behind. And another…

Drowning.

Trish Morgan ends her first race in tears clinging to a lifeguard’s rowboat as he slowly paddles her toward shore.

Trish is a fictional character, but her terrifying ordeal is typical of first time triathletes with no open water swim experience. This horror story is the combination of every swim disaster story I’ve heard during my 30 years in triathlons.

Ask twenty triathletes what the hardest part of a triathlon is, eighteen will tell you the swim.

This contradicts the reality of swimming. Swimming is the easiest part of a triathlon. The swim leg comes at the start when athletes are freshest. It is not weight bearing. There is no foot strike or saddle discomfort. Your body is horizontal so your blood pressure is the lowest of all three sports. It is the only part of a triathlon that is monitored every few yards by safety personnel. You are moving the slowest so risk of impact injury is lower than the bike or run. And unless the water is really rough, there are no hills on the swim course.

But despite the cognitive realities that open water swimming is safe it is consistently perceived as the most difficult and dangerous leg of triathlons, especially for new athletes.

Why do people have swim anxiety and how can they moderate it?

Like any single problem, there is no single solution. Swim anxiety emanates from many origins, some founded in rational fears of drowning, others founded in irrational fears of being attacked by sea life, entangled by weeds or sucked underwater by invisible forces.

Two common triggers are present in open water swim anxiety:

  1. Lack of experience in the open water swim environment. 
  2. Absence of a purposeful, step-by-step approach to building proficiency and competence in the open water.

You can’t just jump in the open water and expect to feel comfortable, especially in a crowded mass swim start. People often have unreasonable expectations when they enter their first triathlons. They have not adequately prepared for open water swimming, both mentally and physically.

How to Overcome Fear: A Meeting with the Sensei.

I went to California to find out how the best open water swimmers in the world, the Navy SEALs, overcome terrifying swim conditions, often at night, usually with a very real enemy trying to find- and kill them.

I’m sitting on a log at the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. The man sitting at the beach with me is SO1 (SEAL Operator 1st Class) David Goggins.

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Naval Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Dave Goggins (Left). Photo Credit: Outside Magazine.

Goggins is a legend in the Navy SEAL community, a title that most of these naval special warfare operators don’t care for with the recent flood of Navy SEAL books, movies and media attention. They prefer “Naval Special Warfare Operator”.

David Goggins is a graduate of the U.S. Navy Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS), SEAL Qualification Training (SQT), the U.S. Army Ranger School, The U.S. Army Airborne School, and The U.S. Air Force Special Tactics “P” School. Because of challenges he faced during his Basic Underwater Demolition School Goggins had to go through the most difficult phase of BUDs, Hell Week, almost three times. He may be the only person in history to have done so. Goggins’ Hell Week became Hell Month.

Goggins is an African-American, a demographic not populous in competitive swimming. Black Americans do not widely integrate swimming into their adolescent development. According to USA Swimming, “70% of Black-Americans cannot swim”.

Goggins also came from a broken home, has battled obesity and has a heart defect, a hole in his heart, for which he underwent surgery to correct. None of it has stopped him from being a Navy SEAL, Ironman finisher and ultra distance runner.

“How did you overcome physical and mental barriers to swim for hours in the dark?” I asked Goggins.

“You can push yourself past physical limits.” He told me. “You simply have to focus.”

“Really? It’s as simple as one word; ‘focus’?”

Goggins is right. The singular problem new triathletes have with open water swimming and the single largest cause of open water swim anxiety is the failure of athletes to systematically prepare for the specific task of swimming in the open water environment.

New swimmers practice avoidance, not focus, with learning survival in the open water.

They don’t use a step-by-step approach to open water swimming. They literally jump in all at once.

Jan Mack is a corporate executive and an Ironman finisher. She also has swim anxiety. Or, more correctly, had swim anxiety.

In only eight weeks Mack went from terrified of open water swimming to being a competent open water competitor and SCUBA diver. Previously she stood on the beach crying in fear at the start of a race, her friend pulling her by the arm into the water. Now she is a certified PADI Expert Open Water SCUBA diver who swam through underwater caves at 60-feet depth, explored sunken shipwrecks, swam in the open ocean in 5-foot waves three miles offshore and dove in a school of 6-9 foot sharks without an anti-shark cage.

How?

“Crawl, walk, run.” “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”.

Learning any new skill is best done in a systematic process broken into steps.

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This is especially true of skills that require confronting fear. The most common reason for open water swim anxiety is the failure of the athlete to engage in a step-by-step process for acclimating to the open water.

It’s a Sunday morning, eight weeks ago and I am at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center pool in Dearborn, Michigan with Jan Mack.

We are in three-feet of water, about knee-deep, and she is learning to flood her snorkeling mask of water and then clear it underwater without panic.

She’s having trouble.

When Jan’s swim mask is flooded she must continue to breath through her snorkel underwater, but only through her mouth, and she cannot see clearly since her mask is now filled with pool water. When she tries to inhale through the snorkel some of the water inside her flooded mask goes up her nose, producing a drowning sensation. It is terrifying, the same sensation suspected terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay experienced when they were waterboarded. According to most international watchdog organizations, what Jan is subjecting herself to in preparation for open water swimming could be considered “torture”.

In repeated evolutions I explain and demonstrate the process to Jan. Slowly, smoothly, repeatedly. Slow is smooth. Explanation, demonstration. Then Jan tries a practical application by ducking underwater on her knees, flooding her mask, panicking and surfacing. And we start over. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Explanation, demonstration, practical application. Crawl, walk, run.

There is no time limit, no starting gun, no dark water, no pressure.

Jan tries her fifth or sixth time. It works. There is coughing and sputtering and spitting, but it works. She did it. In three feet of clear, warm pool water Jan Mack has become a “Go” at task number 1, clear your mask of water in a pool without showing undue signs of panic and continue breathing through your snorkel underwater.

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Jan Mack advances to the next phase of basic open water training. And the next. And the next.

At each step Jan receives an explanation, demonstration and then performs a practical application of her assigned new skill; using swim fins, wearing a SCUBA tank, maintaining neutral buoyancy… The skills build upon one another. And so does her confidence.

At the same time she is assigned bookwork on open water diving and must take graded tests. Her knowledge about ocean conditions, the sea, her equipment and open water physiology increase. She learns a checklist mentality. She is focused. The new knowledge combined with the skills she practiced beginning in the kiddy pool and advancing to the deep end has built on each other.

Crawl, walk, run. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

She has learned through deliberate progression. Jan Mack focused- exactly like Navy SEAL David Goggins, on specific intermediate goals on the way to a bigger goal.

It’s seven weeks later, Friday, February 19, 2016. Jan Mack and I are in a small boat bouncing through big waves three miles off the coast of Roatan Island, Honduras. 70-feet below us a school of sharks, big sharks, circles. I’m fighting seasickness and Jan is fighting fear. But we have our dive instructor, Russ Nicholson, with us and we have our training and experience up until this moment.

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There are 20 big Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) swimming below us.

For the next hour Jan swims with the sharks, no shark cage, no protection. She learns the sharks are like any animal in wild; commanding of respect but not aggressive toward people if unprovoked.

“I don’t know why I was ever afraid” she says after her dive training and open water experience.

Jan Mack has systematically ascended the open water swimming learning curve. She knows the open water environment, from top to bottom. She’s experienced every corner of it, from the shallow end of the local kiddy pool to the open ocean with a school of sharks. Whatever frightened her before, known and unknown, has been systematically broken down into smaller tasks, defeated, and resolved.

The open water environment still commands respect, and being three miles off shore, 70-feet down rough water in a school of large sharks only reinforces the need for that respect. But the process of Jan Mack’s indoctrination into the open water environment has also taught familiarity. And competence.

Unlike the fictional Trish Morgan who panicked in her triathlon swim, Jan Mack prepared in a step-by-step process to get acclimated to the open water environment. Now her fear of the water is converted to a learned respect of the objective risks and a significant level of competence in moderating them.