Archive

News

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Another report, another finding that NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office have confirmed that global temperatures have been rising, continue to rise, and have resulted in a host of all-time meteorological records. The reports were published this week, and they tell us what we already know. We’re in deep trouble.

But we still deny the human impact and ability to control climate change. Why is that?

Perhaps the biggest problem with climate change is its “marketing”. It’s an idea that people are inherently resistant to. A second problem is culturally rigid thinking. And a third problem is a societal and individual resistance to new thinking.

Firstly, the crisis, which is absolutely real, absolutely man-made and absolutely controllable (but not reversible) has been poorly “marketed” or talked about.

In the social media age, image is everything, and climate change has fallen victim to some rotten media marketing. Its advocates tend to be labelled as weirdoes or academics who are prone to jargonish science-speak. Climate change also smacks of left-leaning politics. That’s a shame, because if ever there was a great cause for right-leaning robber-barons to embrace, it’s manmade climate change. There is the opportunity to recalibrate our global economy and earn trillions in profits from climate change, and that’s good. I think Elon Musk, as eccentric as he is, sees some of this. Bill Gates sees it too. I think Warren Buffett is watching it and waiting for a way to earn big profits from the marketing of climate change and its solutions.

But climate change suffers from bad marketing. Climate change started out as “global warming”, was re-branded “climate change” since that term is more literal. But this phenomenon should really be called, “Man-made, accelerated climate change”. But that doesn’t fit well in twenty-word social media posts, and people are too busy to learn anything that challenges what they already know and is longer than a Tweet or a Facebook post.

We already know that the climate is always changing. That’s normal. Even the magnetic poles migrate and change. Also, normal. What is not normal, or sustainable, is the rate of current climate change acceleration that is a direct result of mankind’s influence on the earth through overpopulation, overconsumption and pollution. Some climate change is normal, natural and unchangeable- desirable even. Our global ecosystem is built to adapt to it. Species become extinct partially from failure to adapt and partially from environmental change, and species also evolve over time to adapt to gradual change. The key word is “gradual”. What we’re seeing now is not gradual. It’s catastrophic.

The climate change I’ve seen myself, around the world in my lifetime, isn’t gradual. It is unbelievably accelerated. Glaciers I climbed on in 1999, that took thousands, or millions, of years to create, have now disappeared. In my lifetime. Animal populations I visited have been cut by 90%. Species I saw in person in my 30’s are now extinct.

Today, when I see sharks within ten miles of a populated coastline, the sharks are smaller, usually have scars from boat propellers indicating they have been feeding off scraps and trash from boats and ships, and their behavior is different. They are listless and docile. Go a few hundred miles off a coastline, drop down, wait for some sharks to come along and you see completely different animals. Larger, no scars or hooks in them, perfect fins and different behavior. They behave like alpha predators. The coastal sharks, even of the same species, behave like stray dogs waiting for the garbage to be thrown out. That is what a species looks like as it tries to adapt to a single generation of accelerated climate change, and when it enters serious decline.

When I was in Antarctica in 1999, I saw thousands of whales. This summer in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic in 5,000 feet of water, I saw about fifteen whales over three days, and those whales we had to look for most of the day. Whales migrate past the Azores toward Antarctica. What I saw was worrisome.

There is a strange calculus to climate change denial. Let’s say the chances that every climate change scientist is 80% wrong in their findings. That’s unlikely, but let’s assume that for the sake of discussion. That means they are also 20% right. A 20% chance that catastrophic climate change could manifest itself in our lifetimes. You pick the numbers you like; 90% chance climate change is false? 99% chance? There remains that lingering chance that it is right, and no human can afford that chance at any percentage.

America maintains a massive arsenal to defend ourselves against nuclear war, mostly from the former Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Yet we continue to maintain that enormous resource for an enemy that hasn’t existed since the Soviet Union collapsed in December, 1991, almost three decades ago. Today, according to the worst statistical analysis of the probability of nuclear war, there is, on the high side, about a 2% chance of a nuclear war ever starting. The chances of one starting in our lifetime, according to a 2015 expert survey in strategic probability, is 0.24%. That’s less than a quarter of a percent. The chances that climate change will alter our lives in our lifetime is much higher, yet we maintain no strategic deterrent force against climate change, despite the fact that it is a strategic global threat.

We are destroying this planet and accelerating climate change at unsustainable and catastrophic levels. We may survive the changes, but our lives will be less convenient, less healthy and less enjoyable. The lives of our children, even worse. And the lives of their children completely unrecognizable to us. If we continue to deny what science is telling us we may hold on to our lives, but they won’t be worth living.


Author Tom Demerly has traveled the world since 1980 including some of the most remote areas in Antarctica, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Let’s talk strategy. Real strategy. Erwin Rommel, Sun Tzu, Ho Chi Minh, Robin Olds, James Mattis style strategy. True strategy. The subversive, sneaky, calculating, genius kind. The kind you don’t learn in your fourth year at West Point or Annapolis. This is the kind you learn in the Mekong Delta, Fallujah, Mogadishu, El Alamein, Stalingrad.

If we (collectively) are the President, what do we want? One word: Reelection. So, how do we get it? This is on page one: we need a diversion.

We need to divert the attention of our primary adversaries, in this case the Democrats, from the Presidential reelection campaign. How do we do it? We need a scandal. A good one too. And it needs to be timed to perfection. Timed so well that the accelerating rotation of the news cycle grabs this scandal, “investigates” it, reports on it, grinds it into the news everywhere we look.

The scandal is the feint, the false front. This is the “breakthrough” we want all the Democrats to pour their troops into. There is risk, as with all warfare, because this scandal could very well manifest into a real problem for the President. But risk is inherent in battle, and to prevail, we must endure risk.

So, we continue this ruse. Buy into it. Feed it. Perpetuate it. A scandal! A scandal! And it goes around and around and around.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks inexorably toward election day, now 396 days away. Recent history and hard data tells us this scandal will occupy headlines for… 7 days. Secretive think tank analyst Nieman Labs (I know, you haven’t heard of them) says that recurrent news topics like the current Ukraine scandal may have a reciprocating effect that could recycle up to… 42 days maximum. That leaves us 354 days from the election.

This dramatic feint also leaves the Democratic opposition drained of resources and credibility for failing to consolidate their impeachment plans. Almost exactly 1 year to the day before Americans go to the polls, the Democratic opposition has been drained of vigor and fight and credibility by yet another presidential scandal that was somehow diffused. The Democrats have egg on their face, the President has a smirk on his. Again.

And the Democrats remain divided and contentious at a time when they need to be united and focused on the next Presidency. Instead of talking about the policy opportunities they could promote and exploit in this next election, like the environment and equal rights, they are scope-locked on their own differences and on the many foibles of the current administration.

The Democrats are so busy pointing out what is wrong with the current administration they forget to build a better one to replace it.

And so, they lose.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

Three participants died in the swim leg of two different triathlons within seven days in Wisconsin this June. It’s an ominous start to the 2019 Midwest triathlon race season, raising questions about athlete safety, fitness and medical screening prior to participation in long distance triathlons such as Ironman and even shorter distance beginner events, where one of this month’s swim fatalities occurred.

Todd Mahoney, 38, and Michael McCulloch, 61, died during the 1.2-mile open water swim of the Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin, Madison triathlon on Sunday, June 9. The race is commonly referred to as a “half-Ironman” for its total distance of 70.3 miles. The event is half the total distance of a “full-Ironman” or 140.6-mile combined swim/bike/run distance event. The week before on Sunday, June 2, 59-year old Scott Beatse died in the Lake Mills Triathlon, also in Wisconsin. The Lake Mills Triathlon was a short-distance triathlon with a 400-meter (1/4 mile) swim, 16-mile bike and 3.1 mile run. The specific cause of death for each participant has not been released.

A September, 2017 report on triathlon swim deaths published in Reuters Health News by journalist Lisa Rapaport revealed that, “A study of more than 9 million participants over three decades found that deaths and cardiac arrests struck 1.74 out of every 100,000 competitors.”

While Rapaport’s story makes the chances of dying in a triathlon swim seem low, the 30-year duration of the study and the method of data collection may miss some key changes in current triathlon demographics. During the last decade, triathlon events have “filled from the bottom” with most participants coming from the beginner demographic. Beginner participants may- or may not– have adequate fitness or pre-existing medical conditions that go undetected until they experience the physical and mental stress of triathlon participation.

The question of whether athletes should be required to have mandatory pre-race medical screenings has been an unpopular one in U.S. triathlon events. In general, race organizers and participants are opposed to the idea of mandatory medical screenings prior to participation. But in endurance events outside the U.S. like the 156-mile Marathon des Sables, an ultra-distance running stage race in the Sahara Desert, all citizen-participants are required to have a cardiac EKG and basic medical health check certified by a medical doctor in their home country prior to entry. In the professional Tour de France bicycle race, cyclists receive a comprehensive medical exam prior to participation not only to screen for performance enhancing drugs, but also to detect any pre-existing conditions that may pose a health risk during the race. In the long distance Raid Gauloises adventure race, pre-race medical checks were also required.

There are reasons to question the effectiveness of pre-event medical screening in reducing fatalities among recreational participants. Basic pre-race medical exams such as an electro-cardiogram, blood pressure measurement and medical history may not reveal common athlete killers such as a “Patent Foramen Ovale” or PFO. The PFO, a cardiac defect, is present in “about 25 percent in the general population” according to the American Heart Association. A PFO can result in a cryptogenic stroke, which can be fatal, especially if suffered during an open water swim where even a mild PFO-induced stroke can lead to disorientation that may contribute to drowning.

PFOs are difficult to detect in a routine medical examination. They commonly require a color flow Doppler echocardiogram or transthoracic echocardiographic (TTE) imaging test to detect. These tests are not routine in general medical examinations and usually only administered after a patient has suffered a stroke as a diagnostic tool to discover the cause of the stroke. PFOs can be treated with a small cardiac implant to prevent their return.

Other factors that could contribute to athlete mortality and medical risk include participating in triathlons while being overweight. As special categories for participants categorized by weight have been introduced in triathlons, called “Clydesdale” and “Athena” categories, there may be more overweight participants in triathlons. While there appear to be no published metrics on risk factors for overweight participants compared to non-overweight participants in triathlons, overwhelming exercise research verifies that being overweight is a general health risk. It’s unlikely, however, that any endurance event would begin excluding participants based on health-based risk factors such as weight or family medical history.

Similar, documented risk factors exist for older athletes. As the general demographic of triathlon participations is likely growing older, common age-related health risks are increasing in the general triathlon population. Although participating in triathlons at older ages presents additional risk commonly associated with general aging, older participants are often celebrated as exceptional in triathlon. In fact, regular, moderate aerobic exercise- although usually less strenuous than triathlon distances and not in a competitive setting- have been commonly cited as beneficial to reducing age-induced health risks, especially obesity, in many credible medical findings. While risks for aging endurance athletes remain and even increase, the benefits may be worth it when spread across the broader population if participation is approached with moderation and medical monitoring.

Ultimately it is difficult to make a case for any one set of common medical diagnosis to predict athlete risk factors in triathlons except for obesity and aging. It is common knowledge that overweight athletes are at greater risk than non-overweight athletes. Those risk factors themselves are part of the reasons overweight people begin to exercise- to moderate the health risks of obesity by losing weight through exercise and diet. It’s also common knowledge that older people have more health risks than younger people. It doesn’t require a medical screening to reveal any of those realities.

Perhaps the greater question is why participants who know they have risk factors would participate in triathlons when a more moderate approach to managing risk factors such as weight loss may be safer? This is especially true for long-distance triathlons. Using less strenuous exercise as managed by a health care provider over time to moderate risk factors such as obesity before participating in triathlons makes sense. This approach addresses the risks faced by participants with conspicuous pre-existing exercise risks like age and being overweight. It does nothing to predict the mortality of participants with difficult to detect medical problems like PFOs. Unfortunately, as the triathlon community has learned so far in 2019, these may be undetectable killers.


 

Author Tom Demerly has competed in well over a hundred triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii and five other Ironman triathlons around the world. He is a four-time state cycling champion and has participated in endurance events on all seven continents including the Marathon des Sables, the Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises. He has also climbed the highest mountains on three continents and the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Demerly is a stroke survivor who suffered a stroke while running in October, 2006 from a Patent Foramen Ovale. He had heart surgery to correct a cardiac birth defect that caused the stroke. He was also a member of an elite Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU), Co. “F”, 425th INF. (AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Russ Gibb with Dearborn retail maven and girlfriend Alberta Muirhead in 2005

You are fortunate in your life if you’ve had one truly great teacher. I had Russ Gibb.

Equal parts Jedi Master and Morpheus-like oracle, Mr. Gibb (“Sir” to you and I) imparted sagacious wisdom, innovative premonition and traditional norms of respect. And he actually changed the media world. Russ Gibb was one of the most influential men of our century whom you’ve never heard of outside Dearborn. But Russ Gibb’s legacy has touched nearly every person on this planet.

He died last week in Dearborn at the age of 87.

Russ Gibb didn’t fit inside any established box, so he built his own. In this case, one that sits under your television and has cables running in and out of it. Gibb did not invent cable subscription television, just as Henry Ford did not invent the automobile or the Wright Brothers invent the airplane. But just as the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford did, Russ Gibb took a fledgling, under-integrated new technology and launched it on a trajectory that led to internet television and is still growing. Gibb was an early adopter of new media through cable subscription television. His pioneering program in Dearborn, Michigan included locally produced television programming on topics specific to the neighborhood. Our high school, Dearborn High School on Outer Drive, was likely one of the very first high schools- if not the first- in the world to have its own television studio. Mister Gibb either found the funding for our TV studio (much of it in grants from Sony Corporation and early cable providers) or simply paid for it himself.

If Russ Gibb’s work integrating municipalities and schools with cable television was his entire legacy, that would be impressive. But it is his mystic synergy of combining this new media- even before the Internet- with unprecedented access and an innate sense for publicity that provided Gibb with another miraculous talent: Hype.

Russ Gibb was a promoter. He was always promoting. Every lesson he taught, every idea he imparted, was the promotion of some idea; real or imagined, innovative or traditional. That he walked so readily between the conflicting worlds of emerging pop media and traditional institutional respect was entirely unique to Russ Gibb. Russ Gibb didn’t have to ask his students for respect. His devotion to education, wisdom, quirky charisma and clairvoyance of the future simply commanded respect.

Gibb was an entertainment alchemist. He conjured the chemistry of publicity that included elbow-grease promotion with implied spectacle. Where fact ended, Russ Gibb’s hype continued. Gibb is largely credited with one of the first and most prolific hype campaigns in media history, the “Paul McCartney is Dead” rumor. Gibb foisted the rumor from a caller to the radio station WKNR (“Keener 13!”) where he DJ’ed on October 12, 1969 according to a story by journalist Gary Graff for Billboard magazine. Gibb spun the idea into a worldwide conspiracy sensation that vaulted The Beatles to their highest ever trajectory on pop charts. According to Graff’s report for Billboard, “The whole thing just exploded”. Gibb told Billboard, “The phones were ringing off the hook. People were calling with their own clues. It was non-stop.” Gibb laughed as he remembered the station’s owner telling him, “Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.” He even called Eric Clapton, his musician friend in England, to ask if he knew anything about the rumor. Gibb told reporter Graff that Clapton said, “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Paul for awhile…” Clapton went on to say, “It was really a phenomenon. For a while, it seemed like it might really be true.”

Russ Gibb DJ’ing in his early years.

When he wasn’t promoting tours, album releases and appearances by musical acts like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Wayne Kramer and the MC5, Cream, The Who, Janis Joplin and many others, Russ Gibb was working on his own media venue, The Grande Ballroom. This iconic shrine of music was a flash-pot of live media evolution that predated the punk rock and new wave movement and helped bend the trajectory of modern pop music and media promotion.

Gibb did all this while, in his 8-4 work day, he transformed high school students into television executives, managers in the Big 3 automotive companies, media pioneers and child prodigies.

Classmates of mine at Dearborn High under Russ Gibb included automotive exec, connectivity innovator and owner of numerous patents Larry Cepuran. Ed Korcinski was a prodigy student of Gibb who graduated from Dearborn High early, then MIT with a degree in materials engineering and went on to become a Silicon Valley microchip innovator. Paul Streffen graduated from Mr. Gibb’s curriculum at Dearborn High and went to Sony Corporation where he worked his way up as a pioneer of new media under Gibb’s sponsorship. I learned how to write a headline, organize a news story, and, more importantly than anything else, learn that I had a voice I could develop and share around the world from Mr. Gibb.

Russ Gibb left this world with an eternal and vibrant gift, the gift of promotion and sensation, connectivity and empowerment before those things were buzzwords. While he quietly built and boosted a media revolution, loudly pitched the talents of others, and steadily worked to bolster his incredibly fortunate students to believe they could achieve greatness he remained almost entirely on the sideline, out of the spotlight, instead preferring to focus that blinding and emerging beam of sensation on others. Perhaps more than any one great innovation or media promotion, it is this humble generosity that is his greatest and most enduring legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Scott Kroske.

Danny Klein’s smile was bigger than his face. His genuine, wide-mouthed grin didn’t seem to fit on his head. That smile said everything about Klein’s life.

Dan Klein died on Wednesday, killed in a traffic accident crossing the street. His death is the thesis of every life truism shared in quotes on social media; live every day like it was your last, dance like no one is watching, ride your bike because you never know when you may lose the chance to.

Klein did all that. He lived. In many ways, Dan Klein lived as though he had a premonition that he would leave this earth far too soon. So, he went on every bike ride he could, rode hard, took photos with his many friends, smiled that oversized smile.

I hadn’t seen Dan in years until one day I rolled up on him in my car on Hines Drive. Klein was sitting in the textbook perfect position on his bike. He was on the Dearborn Wednesday night ride along Hines Drive. Klein was there, in the drops, out of the wind, near the front in the tactically perfect place in the group. Living life, calling the shots on the ride. No one would get away without him. Before the ride was over he would spend all the energy he had that day going hard to defend his position at the front. When he got back to the parking lot Klein would have judiciously spent all his strength on the bike for that day. Then he would repeat that doctrine on his next ride.

On the bike and in life, Dan Klein did not seem to age. He simply followed his passions, his inner voice. He oriented his internal compass to the things that spoke to him and worried little about things off his path. Dan Klein was true to himself. When you got to know him, you recognized that was cornerstone to how genuine a person he was and how intoxicating he was to be around.

It was as though Dan Klein somehow knew he would not live to grow old. And in that, every decision he made to take time away from work, sometimes extended sabbaticals from the normal middle-class wage earning regimen, was a good one. Especially in retrospect.

I longed to see Dan Klein again in person. He was gregarious, genuine and affectionate. He had an oddly contradictory dignity and poise for a man who lived a life of passions on and off the bike. He sampled many relationships, and the whispers from his ex’s, his many ex’s, sometimes started in their first sentences a little stung with pain but quickly swung over to a wry smirk and an endearing tone for his authenticity and kindness. It was a good thing Klein had a lot of girlfriends. He literally spread the love around. They were lucky.

Let’s grab onto Danny Klein’s life and put some of it into each of our own. We will not be here forever. We should leave work and go on that ride. And we should love and smile without reservation and with wide-mouthed sincerity- exactly like Dan Klein did. If we do that, we will each be happier, even though right now trying to be happy with only the memory of Dan Klein is a very difficult thing to do.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

As a commentator, he was a master. Measured. Well-paced. Gifted with dramatic inflection and a lilting accent that brought credibility to his narration. As a dramatist, he was a rare thespian of the microphone. He paced his voice, volume and inflection to build a crescendo that hammered on the edge of control. And perhaps most importantly, as a person, he humanized and dignified a sport that is rife with indignity and subterfuge.

Paul Sherwen died last week at the age of 62. Far too soon. His untimely passing is gutting to the world of cycling, not just for fans who loved him, but for the complex synergy of broadcasting the Tour de France and all of professional cycling in the English language.

You can read of Sherwen’s impressive professional cycling career in any of the many eulogies published around the world for him over the last 72 hours. But Sherwen rose to greatest prominence as a broadcaster, commentator and even moderator of cycling’s most turbulent era.

Sherwen began broadcasting with Phil Liggett in 1989. That is when he went from great cyclist to mega-star. The combination of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen was not just good, it was magical synergy. The sum was greater than the total of its parts. By themselves, Sherwen and Liggett were excellent commentators. Together they became the institution of cycling in the English language.

It would not be an embellishment to suggest the team of Sherwen and Liggett saved cycling.

The damage inflicted by the Armstrong era cast a dark cloud over professional bike racing and the Tour de France. Its creditability as a legitimate sport was shattered in the post-Armstrong era and didn’t recover even after the brash Texan doper and extortionist was forced into exile. The doping scandals and accusations continued. For any informed observer, cycling had a titanic image problem. It was dirty.

Enter Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett. Commentating next to the thousand-pound doping elephant in the room the duo would chat during slow stages as the group rode together at a pedestrian pace. Cycling coverage had changed from a 45-minute recorded and scripted highlight reel to a rolling commentary of the entire stage. It became an endurance event for live announcers. Try describing anything non-stop for six hours. If your voice holds, you quickly find out you run out of things to say. Not Sherwen.

During the Tour de France, Sherwen and Liggett were served snippets about the areas the riders were passing through from race organizers. They were dry historical facts about castles, bridges, rivers and factories. It was the stuff you slept through in school. But Sherwen would grab this stuff off the feed and, as though you were sitting next to him in a touring sedan on a leisurely drive across rural France, weave a lilting tale from the popcorn-dry feed. When Sherwen talked about the milk production of the cows of Provence region, it sounded quaint and charming and… damn near interesting.

When the action started, Sherwen’s voice moved to his gut. He became more baritone. More Serious. More urgent. His pace picked up just a tick. Tension boiled under his narration. It felt as if the other shoe would drop at any moment, and we all slid to the edge of seats. His colloquialisms were Shakespearean. Who had ever heard what it was like to, “Throw a cat among the pigeons” or, “Reach deep into the suitcase of courage” before Paul Sherwen? Sherwin brought rare dramatic eloquence to a sport of blue collar schoolboys.

Paul Sherwen dignified cycling, amplified the drama, downplayed the scandal.

It is difficult to imagine a post-Sherwen cycling era. At 75 years old, Phil Liggett may decide to pack up his microphone and move on to a well-earned retirement. Something Paul Sherwen never got. Sherwen played the key role to Liggett’s performance, shoring him up when he made the errors in remembering a cyclist’s name that any 75-year old would make. They did so seamlessly, and it only added to the show. But without Sherwen as his muse and protector, Liggett may not want to continue. If that is the case, it is not too much of a stretch to say that when we lost Paul Sherwen, we lost all of cycling. Or at least any semblance of dignity, drama and decency it had left.


 

Tom Demerly has been a cycling commentator and journalist for over 30 years. He has written for Outside, Velo-News, Inside Triathlon, Triathlon Today, Triathlete, Bicycling, Bicycle Guide, USA Cycling, USA Triathlon and many others.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Two bicycle specialty stores closed in Metro Detroit this year. Three more suddenly changed “ownership” in November on their way to eventual closure.

On the national scale, Advanced Sport Enterprises, parent company to Performance Bicycle and Bike Nashbar, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

After decades of failure to adapt, Southeastern Michigan bicycle retail is in a brutal phase of enforced transition. Despite an overall economic boom many bike shops are a bust. Southeastern Michigan bike store closures and hasty ownership spin-offs that precede further closings confirm that.

The questions are; how did this happen; how can it be avoided and what will the industry look like once the rules of business exact their toll?

Like most significant shifts in business there is no singular cause.  A conspiracy of factors combines to weigh heavily on traditional bicycle retail. The reality that the industry has ignored these factors for so long manifests itself in this crisis.

Not every bicycle retailer is in crisis though, and some old-skool bike shops not only survive but are capitalizing on the increasing failures of retailers who thought they knew it all but had neither solid financials or enough vision to adapt in the changing retail landscape.

Southeastern Michigan bike shops like Jack’s Bicycle and Fitness, Roll Models in Allen Park, Michigan, Brick Wheels in Traverse City and Wheels in Motion in Ann Arbor are still there, still doing business and quietly surviving and growing as the others collapse around them.

In the renaissance of downtown Detroit, a new generation of bike family businesses has emerged on the shoulders of men like Jon Hughes of Downtown Ferndale and Downtown Detroit bike shops. Hughes also leads the family effort to grow the Lexus Velodrome and launch a new demi-empire in media and cycling in post-recession Detroit. He comes from a dynasty of bicycle business that stretches back three generations to Mike Walden and the formation of the country’s second oldest cycling club, the Wolverines. Even Bob Akers, who runs the decades-old, dingy, crumbling International Bike Shop in Garden City has survived as the shiny newcomers who thought they knew it all have tumbled.

Why do some shops survive while others fail? One factor common in the surviving Michigan bike retailers is they own their own real estate. But the ingredients for success, not just survival, are more complex than just owning your building.

Harvard MBAs don’t start bike shops. Bike shop owners don’t have business degrees. They start bike shops because they love bikes or have no other opportunity. They’re hobbyists. Not businessmen. The barriers to entry are low. Got $100K? You can open a bike shop. You’ll never tell a bike shop owner he doesn’t know business. As far as bicycle retail store owners are concerned, they are experts at retail. The crash of Michigan high-end specialty retailers proves otherwise.

I was this guy.  I lost my own store after 17 successful years during the recession. Then, like a scene from a movie where the plot repeats again and again, I went to work for two other retailers around the U.S. who, like me, thought they knew everything and couldn’t be told anything. They’re gone now too. More will follow.

Failure is only failure if you fail to learn. But in bicycle retail, no one listens. The first bike shop I worked for when I was 15 years old went out of business because the owners failed to adapt. The last bike shop I worked for four decades later did exactly the same thing. The owners refused to adapt. In a repetitive pantomime, I tried to convince the owners of the last shop I worked at to move the cash register to facilitate better customer traffic flow. It was a minor change that may have resulted in a minor improvement. I tried for a year. They never moved it. They went out of business months after I finally quit in frustration and left to work in another industry.

I take some small satisfaction in knowing the store that lasted the longest was mine. But business is pass/fail. You can run a successful business for 6,205 days like I did, but if you fail on the 6,206th day, you are a failure.

The first lesson I learned in losing my own store is you have to own your failure. Mine was my fault. While there were factors including a global recession that contributed to my 17-year-old store failing, I could have moderated them. Others did. I wasn’t smart enough or humble enough at the time. Some people pay college tuition for an education. I paid in bankruptcies and a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” by losing everything. While the second way may be a more durable education, it’s also more painful.

I went on to work for two more bike retail owners who made exactly the same mistakes I did while ignoring the changes that could have saved them. But bike shop owners don’t listen.

The specifics on what is killing some of Michigan’s bicycle retailers is a fascinating case study in the evolution of business that could fill a book. Bike shop owners and bike shops are, in many ways, indicative of the American economic condition. They are the epitome of small business America. As the small, independent bike goes, so goes all of small retail- good and bad. Small restaurants, pet stores, book retail, independent jewelers and all small retail can learn something from the enforced evolution and bizarre non-evolution of bicycle retail.

Small bicycle retail has been quick to scapegoat the big, ugly mega-retailer and the .com as the reason for their bust. That is a lie. In the broad sense, bicycle retailers are killing themselves by failing to adapt and innovate. They do it in hundreds of small ways every day they continue to do the same tired things over and over and over. Even the bicycle retailers who have survived could do better. For most of the survivors a major reason they still exist is they own their own real estate and remain impervious to swings in the volatile southeastern Michigan economy. But even their future is increasingly in doubt as forward-thinking innovators understand new opportunities in the age of Amazon One-Click.

What will happen to Michigan small bicycle retail? One thing is certain: it will continue to change at a rate that outpaces the ability of most shop owners to adapt. That means we’ll see more southeastern Michigan bike shops closing. Unless they learn from someone’s mistakes the cycle of failure in Michigan cycling retail will continue.

 


 

Tom Demerly is a 42-year bicycle industry veteran who owned his own business for 17 years. Today he is a defense and aviation analyst for several international publications including TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy.