By Tom Demerly for

Major Roman Filipov is dead. Last week in Syria he pulled the pin on a grenade, held it behind his head, let the firing lever go and shouted, “This is for our guys!”

And then he died.

Major Filipov was a combat pilot for the Russian air force. He flew the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. You can think of the Su-25 as the Russian equivalent of our A-10 Warthog. A flying tank. Both of these planes fly the dangerous close air support and strike mission. Low and slow in the smoke, anti-aircraft missiles and flak. Major Filipov’s job was the modern day aerial equivalent of fighting in the trenches with bayonets. Ugly, dangerous, demanding and unforgiving.

Major Roman Filipov’s sturdy Sukhoi Su-25, “Red 06” before he was shot down.

And last week, Major Filipov’s luck ran out. But not his valor.

Before we go much further I want to answer your question about me writing about a Russian pilot. If you read this in the United States, a part of our upbringing is to believe that Russia is our adversary- our enemy even.

There are times when we are at odds with Russia. Politically, ideologically, economically. But to blankly condemn Russia as an “evil empire” because of the gulags, human rights violations, their communist legacy and more, is to view history through a straw. A more balanced perspective today is that Russia is not an enemy, but a roughly analogous superpower struggling, as the United States is, to maintain a foothold on this earth. In the sometimes bloody and inexcusable conduct of a nation, Russia has their atrocities and the United States has theirs. This is not to forgive either, far from it.

The story of Roman Filipov, the man, and his heroism is not about a discussion of the morality of nations. It is about the courage and resolve of one man; Roman Filipov, and the iron spirit of the Russian fighting man.

Roman Filipov fishing.

Before you broadly condemn Russia’s actions in Syria, consider that if they weren’t there fighting any number of ruthless terrorist organizations, expelled largely from Iraq by previous U.S. incursions there, the U.S. would be in Syria, fighting ISIL and its spin-offs instead. In the case of Syria, it is not too much of an oversimplification to suggest Russia is doing our dirty work for us. And yes, I acknowledge that the current Syrian “leadership”, President Bashar al-Assad, is, on the best of days, a despot. But there is a time honored saying in the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” And in this case, we may do well to consider Russia a friend for taking care of the Syrian mess, a mess the U.S. actively contributed to creating.

As they did in WWII, when Russia lost 14.2% of its population to the war (compared to 0.2% of the American population lost), the Russians have shouldered the burden of this war in the Syria. This has given the U.S. at least a partial reprieve from years of large scale wars in foreign countries that have helped to nearly bankrupt America.

Last week Major Roman Filipov was part of a recent Russian surge in daring low-altitude airstrikes around Idlib, Syria where a desperate band of terrorists aligned with ISIS is backed into a corner. Like anytime you corner a dangerous snake, it lashes out in one desperate attempt at survival. This is the Alamo for ISIS, their last stand of any substance in this region. And before their cancerous hate melts back into the dried blood red dirt and dusty ether of war-torn Syria to become malignant again elsewhere, they fight to the death. Major Roman Filipov’s job was to be sure the terrorists achieved their goal of martyrdom.

Filipov’s Su-25 operated at extreme low altitude, a daring tactic that the Russian air force has changed since his death. Video shot by insurgents on the ground show a hail of anti-aircraft shells streaking head-on into his Su-25 as though it were in a laser light show. But only every fifth shell had the phosphorus tracer, so for every shell you see, there are four more in between. But Major Filipov is determined to get his weapons on target, and that means flying low.

Filipov’s Sukhoi is hit. The right engine burns. It remains in level flight partially because the Sukhoi Su-25 is built like a flying tank with armor plating using simple, durable systems. Filipov ejects from his burning Sukhoi and parachutes to the ground, ISIS insurgent bullets cracking around him as he slowly descends into the seething cauldron of medieval street fighting that is Idlib, Syria. For a Russian pilot who just spent the last two days pounding lawless insurgents from the sky his chances for survival on the ground are precisely zero. Filipov knows this. They may behead him on video. They may burn him alive inside a cage. ISIS has done both of those things to unfortunate pilots they managed to capture alive. ISIS holds a particularly virulent hatred for combat pilots who rain death on them day after day with apparent impunity. They reserve the most grisly and agonizing executions for them.

Insurgent video of Major Roman Filipov’s Su-25 just after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

One could suggest that rather than parachuting to the ground in a vain attempt at survival, Major Filipov is drifting downward toward the insurgents specifically to exact some final revenge on them for destroying his Sukhoi. That is how the Russian warrior-mind works. He is armed with a handgun, three ammunition magazines and a hand grenade. And he is ready to fight.

Before you discount the admittedly romantic notion that Filipov parachuted to the ground with the express motive of mortal combat with his enemy, let me tell you a few quick stories about the Russian combatant mindset.

Sometime after midnight, on June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies surged into the Soviet Union in what would become the most titanic land battle in human history, the German invasion of Russia. Streams of Nazi bombers blotted out the sun as they thundered east over Russia. The German planes were well engineered, durably built and heavily armed. Many were crewed by experienced combat pilots. The Russians met them with sturdy, but obsolete, sluggish fighters that were not equipped with radios. Coordinating a cohesive air defense was impossible.

So, the Russian pilots simply rammed the German bombers with their aircraft in midair.

The Russians considered that trading one Russian fighter and one Russian pilot for an entire Nazi bomber and its multi-man crew was a reasonable trade-off. This lethal arithmetic was repeated nine times by Russian pilots in the first hour of the invasion alone.

Nine times in one hour.

Russian Lieutenant Leonid Illarionovich Ivanov flew his barrel-shaped little Polikarpov I-16, a plane that looked more at home in a circus that a dogfight, into the tail of an advanced Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber. Lt. Ivanov did not survive his attack but knocked the Nazi Heinkel out of the sky. He was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

But it was not just the men who proved the national resolve of Mother Russia in the skies of WWII. Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Ivanovna Zelenko dove her Sukhoi Su-2, an underpowered, sluggish, portly single-engine trainer aircraft into a vastly superior German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Neither Lt. Zelenko nor the German pilot survived, but Zelenko had traded an obsolete training aircraft for an advanced German fighter and its experienced combat pilot. Such is the bloody arithmetic of Russian air combat and its fearless pilots.

One of the first lessons I learned about Russian history was the story of the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942. A few tendrils of this horror have seeped into western media, including a popular Hollywood movie about Russia’s deadliest sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, nicknamed the “White Death” by the invading Germans. But from the same battle I learned of how hard Russians were willing to fight, especially on their own soil.

The Russian soldiers fighting for their nation’s survival on the outskirts of Stalingrad lived a hellish existence in freezing temperatures with no opportunity to get warm. Even a small fire would give away their position in the shattered ruins of their city to the Nazis. The fighting raged non-stop, day and night, with more soldiers succumbing to exposure, disease and starvation than enemy fire. Conditions were so horrific that surviving defenders resorted to cannibalism in a last, desperate attempt to remain alive long enough to kill one more Nazi on Russian homeland soil.

But here is the chilling part.

Some Russian infantry units on the outskirts of Stalingrad, isolated and alone against the advancing Nazis, ran completely out of grenades and ammunition. They had no radios to call for artillery support. One at a time the Russian soldiers, clad in tattered, long wool overcoats stolen off the corpses of dead Germans, would dart into the open long enough to convince the Germans they were an easy mark. Then they scurried back inside the toppled ruins of a bombed-out multi story building. The Nazis did not know the Russians had hacked holes in the upper floors of the buildings. When the Nazis took the bait, and stormed into the ruins in hopes of catching a Russian soldier, his comrades would drop huge chunks of concrete through the holes on top of the hapless Germans, crushing them to death. Then the Russians would take the dead German’s weapon and turn it back against them. Eventually the German invasion was repelled by the Russians, at a cost of, what one historian characterized as, “Rivers of blood”.

In any study of the Russian martial mindset, the stories about brutal resolve continue.

Consider further, and more recently, also in Syria, the case of Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko of Gorodki, Oblast, Russia.

Lt. Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s elite Spetsnaz, roughly analogous to our U.S. Army Special Forces. His job on March 17, 2016 was to protect the priceless cultural and historical artifacts of Palmyra from destruction by ISIS. The ruins of Palmyra are an analogy for all of the Middle East. Built on and off again starting sometime around AD 32 (that is 1,986 years ago, or about 20 centuries) the city has been conquered, ruined, rebuilt and conquered again. Like much of the middle east the sediment around Palmyra holds not only the sands of time but the stratified blood of warriors from many nations who died there. Like Roman conquerors before him, Prokhorenko was there to make sure Palmyra did not fall one more time.

Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko.

Calling in airstrikes on advancing ISIS insurgents, the short story is that Lt. Prokhorenko found himself encircled and isolated. He fought like a rabid wolf, down to the final yards, calling in airstrikes over his radio. Russian history, like all history, is a subjective craft. The account based on who is telling the tale. The official Russian version of what happened is that, when Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko realized his position was encircled by ISIS and there was no escape, he transmitted this message:

“I am surrounded, they are outside, I don’t want them to take me and parade me, conduct the airstrike, they will make a mockery of me and this uniform. I want to die with dignity and take all these bastards with me. Please my last wish, conduct the airstrike, they will kill me either way. This is the end commander, thank you, tell my family and my country I love them. Tell them I was brave and I fought until I could no longer. Please take care of my family, avenge my death, goodbye commander, tell my family I love them” 

Whether this version of Lt. Prokhorenko’s last radio transmission is a verbatim transcript, a fortified dramatization or an outright fable will never be known, but given the Russian penchant for ferocious resistance against impossible odds, I don’t doubt at least its spirit, if not its authenticity. Never back a Russian into a corner.

So, the story of heroic conduct last week on the part of Major Roman Filipov is absolutely amazing, but not at all new for a Russian fighting man.

But as it glided, on fire, toward the ground last week there is another reason Major Roman Filipov’s Sukhoi remained in a slow, controlled descent just before he ejected, wings level, in its terminal plunge.

Our modern hero Roman Filipov grew up wanting to fly.

He was from Vladivostok, east Russia. His father was a decorated combat pilot. In casual photos of Filipov on holiday his face is deadpan. Serious. Stoic. Only one photo shows a smiling Filipov, when he is fishing. It is as if he were the perfect Russian character pilot Tom Clancy invented for one of his novels.

“The boy was fond of sports, he studied well. He dreamed of being a pilot,” his teacher Lyudmila Lazareva told reporters yesterday in Russia. “He was never childish, but adult, serious, reasonable and balanced. He was among the best.”

Miss Lazareva looks at the floor. “He had a sense of justice. That was how he behaved- he knew what was right.”

So, as I write this, I do not write exclusively about Russia, but also about a heroic pilot- an image that transcends nationalities and ideologies. Roman Filipov’s courage, determination and ferocity was greater than any one country, any one flag. His courage and heroism is the ideal of all combat fliers. Give the enemy hell from the air, die with your boots on.

There is an oft quoted Roman battle axiom by the great philosopher and sage Heraclitus:

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

Regardless of the flag he flew under, fighter pilot, Hero of Russia award winner, combatant and officer, Major Roman Filipov was that one.



Author Tom Demerly is a U.S. correspondent for one of the world’s most widely read military aviation blogs, David Cenciotti’s published in Rome, Italy. He is a former member of a Long Range Surveillance Team and writes full-time from his home in the United States.

























By Tom Demerly for

There are few wild things left in our lives, and that is what attracted me to the mysterious neighborhood feral cat we began calling “Mike Charlie 2”.

He visited in the night, we started feeding him. He visited more, we started feeding him more. I learned of a neighborhood feral cat “trap and release” program sponsored by the Metro Detroit Friends for Animals where feral cats were captured in a baited cage, taken to a veterinarian and neutered, given immunizations and then released back into their environment. A few e-mails and Mike Charlie 2 was on the list. Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Metro Detroit Friends for Animals volunteered to bring a cage trap out to our house to catch Mike Charlie 2.

There are two “Mike Charlies” or Mysterious Cats. Mike Charlie 1 (Mysterious Cat 1) was sighted last year. He is also all black, but can be identified by an odd bend to the top of his right ear. When we first sighted them both a year ago, Mike Charlie 1 was significantly larger than Mike Charlie 2, and Mike Charlie 1 controlled the territory that surrounded our house. We learned that Mike Charlie 1 was called “Darth Vader” by local kids who saw him on his early morning and evening rounds out hunting and patrolling his neighborhood. Some people fed him, he caught local varmints. He quietly ruled the neighborhood as the alpha predator. While neighborhoods just a mile south of here complained to the city about a rat problem, we never saw a single rat. Darth Vader eradicated any pest rodents long ago. We soon learned from posts on the online forum Nextdoor Neighborhood that both Darth Vader and Mike Charlie 2 were related, likely brothers, and were members of a clan of feral cats that neighbors could trace back at least 40 years in the area. This was a noble clan of predators.

Darth Vader, or “Mike Charlie 1”, the original mysterious cat, is identifiable by the bent in his right ear seen in this remote night-vision infra-red game camera image shot in October 2017.

Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit volunteer Tracy Balazy set her traps at our house. Within hours we captured Mike Charlie 2. He was originally supposed to be participate in the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit’s free trap and release program. The no-cost program controls feral cat populations by trapping feral cats, confirming they do not have a microchip, evaluating their behavior to determine if they are feral cats or a lost stray, and then neutering, immunizing and marking them by clipping one of their ears so others can identify them as an immunized trap and release.

Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter sets the live traps for Mike Charlie 1 and Mike Charlie 2. We were only able to capture Mike Charlie 2, who became “Mr. Blackie”.

There was one problem with the plan. When I trapped Mike Charlie 2 I sat down next to his cage and looked at his eyes. They are a depth of green that is impossible to describe, if flame burned green it would be this color. As I looked at him in the cage, every ambition of freedom, wildness, strength and courage reflected back from those eyes. Nothing about Mike Charlie 2 was domestic or tame. When I tried to pet him, he hit my hand so hard with his paw he nearly broke it. It was bruised for days. Mike Charlie 2 made it clear that his domain was this neighborhood. He was no one’s pet. No one would own him. I realized that Mike Charlie 2 was everything I aspired to in life; free, strong, powerful, confident in his abilities and unwavering in his priorities. Mike Charlie 2 was something pure and perfect. To disfigure him by snipping his ear would change that, leave a mark on him. Somehow diminish his wild perfection. I did not want that.

I paid the animal shelter to not snip Mike Charlie 2’s ear, and send him through the same medical checks and procedures any pet cat would get. No ear snip, but Mike Charlie 2’s singular concession to civility (besides being neutered) was a microchip implant to identify him if he were captured by someone else. We had not provided a name for Mike Charlie 2, the animal shelter did not know what to call him, so Mike Charlie 2 became “Mr. Blackie” on his new microchip, invisibly implanted just under skin through a small incision. He was a little less wild now, but he was also a little safer, and that made me feel a little better. By now, having Mike Charlie 2 as the singular wild, perfect thing left in this neighborhood had become immensely important to me.

Mr. Blackie returned to our house from the animal shelter, microchipped, immunized, vet-checked and neutered. I briefly felt bad about potentially ending the genetic proliferation of these noble wildcats, but there was still Darth Vader. According to everyone in the neighborhood, Darth Vader had never been trapped and neutered. Until he was, it was up to him to continue the gene pool in the neighborhood. Neighbors suggested his romantic trysts with other cats were legendary.

While Mr. Blackie recovered from his surgery he stayed in a large cage in our garage, an arrangement he very begrudgingly accepted. It was here that I tried to pet him, and he very clearly let me know that would never, ever happen. I gently extended my hand to him in his cage after feeding him, just letting him get a sense that I was close, but not too close. The instant my hand entered the kill zone of his powerful right paw he rotated his entire arm, straightened for increased power, wheeled it in a lightning fast circular motion, and hit my hand a blow so hard it felt like a fur-covered ball-peen hammer. I had a massively swollen hand and Mr. Blackie had made his point very clearly. Look, but never, ever try to touch, and let me the hell out of here.

My girlfriend Jan Mack and I released Mr. Blackie one warm Saturday afternoon. When we opened the cage he stalked carefully toward the exit, wary of some other kind of trap. As soon as he cleared the door, he became a bounding black fur-missile. Gone in two seconds over a high fence and between backyard garages.

And then we would wait to see if the trauma and betrayal of trapping him and subjecting him to his medical routine would permanently destroy our strange relationship.

I had flyers printed that were designed by lifelong friend and graphic artist Kim Ross. She did an amazing job, we got them printed and I walked the streets distributing them in peoples’ doors so they would know who Mr. Blackie was and that he was now part of the neighborhood.

Food is a powerful motive for a wild animal, primary even to reproduction. Since that second priority had been removed for Mr. Blackie, it was food that drove him back to us 48 hours after his release from detention.

At first, after his incarceration, Mr. Blackie did not look entirely well. The ordeal had caused him to lose weight. His coat- previously an elegant black cloak of glossy stealth-black night camouflage, now looked gray and patchy. Had this whole thing been a mistake? Mr. Blackie had gotten a bloody nose from colliding with his cage during captivity, such was his desire for freedom. He looked haggard and beat up. He looked like a stray, not a wild animal in beautiful harmony with his environment. Bringing Mr. Blackie into contact with humans had not been good for him, and it would take time for him to return to the powerful, wanton vitality that defined him.

Mr. Blacky visited daily and ate, and ate, and ate. On some days he downed three cans of cat food, the same amount of food all three of our indoor cats consumed between them in a day and a half. His appetite was ravenous, and he put on weight. His nose healed, his fur grew. He put on more weight. And he grew. It is likely Mr. Blackie has increased in overall size by at least 30% in the four months since we first saw him, partially due to the neutering, mostly due to a steady diet of healthy food. After about four weeks he slowed down to two cans a day, a caloric intake necessitated by his exposure to the elements, the need to maintain body heat, and the increased physical activity of a predator cat who ranges over more than a square mile of territory every day and can run twice the speed of a human for a city block, jumping fences four times his height in a single bound all the way. We heat his food in the microwave during the winter so he gets a hot meal.

But winter was coming, and Mr. Blackie needed dependable shelter. So, we began a project to build Mr. Blackie and his wide-ranging associate, Darth Vader, a home. The project to build houses for them had begun. (continued in Part 3).

























By Tom Demerly for

Our neighborhood feral cat, Mr. Blackie, photographed in our back yard in October, 2017. (Photo: Tom Demerly)

Feral cats, alpha predators atop a complicated, evolving food chain in suburban neighborhood environments, may be the most exotic and remarkably adapted animals we’ll ever encounter. In most cases, we don’t even realize they are living among us or the benefits they provide to our suburban environment.

Feral cats live between being wild and domestic. They include us in their food chain as an integral part of it, usually without us even knowing. Their adaptation to a changing environment is masterful, as only an apex predator can manage. It is so complex it takes months or even years to fully understand, even as it changes right before our eyes.

Feral cats use sophisticated camouflage, mimicry, stealth and adaptation to benefit our neighborhoods and survive. They manage rodent populations, cull bird and small mammals who may carry disease and conduct a secret, covert “policing” of suburbia. They even manage to adapt and survive across wild swings in seasons, from freezing winters to blazing summers.

Most remarkably, feral cats form a dynamic evolutionary bridge between wild cats like the North American lynx, the African sand cat, the ocelot, cougars and mountain lions and domestic cats like the tabby, Maine coon and Siamese. Feral cats are smaller cats that resemble domestic cats in size and appearance and are not only predators, but highly adapted scavengers. Feral cats exploit both wild food sources, including mice, rats and varmints, and food sources shared with them by humans. Both are an integral part of their food chain.

In 1999 I traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa on safari. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the greatest natural game spotting destinations on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive natural game preserve is over 3,000 square miles in area and home to a boggling population of African wildlife, from primates, lions, hyenas, gazelles and impala to elephants, zebra, wildebeest and nearly every exotic species of land animal on the continent. We toured the crater by day from Landrovers. By night, the crater took on an entirely different life. What I learned about the food chain at night in the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, I began to recognize in my own neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan when I began watching the feral cats.

In 2002, I spent nearly a month in the high jungles of northern Vietnam, a remote, mostly untouched region left alone by the long war. I saw the difference in behavior between animals during the day in the jungle, and at night. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic change in their behavior from night to day was the presence of one of the last large land-based alpha predators on earth, the tiger. When I remarked to a local Vietnamese Hmong tribesman that I had not seen a single tiger in Vietnam during the entire month, he told me, “Ah, but they have seen you…” It is exactly the same with elusive feral cats in our neighborhoods.


A little more than a year ago we became aware of a feral cat in our neighborhood. The more I saw him, very late at night and early in the morning, almost always in the dark, the more fascinated I became with him. When I started to study his life and behavior, what I discovered was incredible beyond my wildest expectation. The feral cat behavior and its effect on our neighborhood was nearly identical to the influence big cats exerted on the dense jungles of Vietnam and the vast, wild game lands of Tanzania, Africa.

We soon learned there was not just one cat,  but two feral cats. We cataloged them as “Mike Charlie 1” and “Mike Charlie 2” for Mysterious Cat 1 and 2. The two are related and members of the same clan, possibly the same litter, and divide the neighborhood up into to regions from what we have observed. Our yard sits at the central border of the two regions. The night-vision video from a remote camera shown above is Mike Charlie1, the photo with the mouse at the beginning of the article, Mike Charlie 2.

The feral cats were influencing the behavior of every other animal in the neighborhood, from birds to small mammals. While other neighborhoods in Dearborn reported problems with rats and other pests, our neighborhood had no problems with pests. Our ferals kept rodent populations in check.

What I saw was not just one feral cat, but a complex nexus of several feral cats and the evolving, complex drama of their existence playing out secretly right outside our windows. The cats belong to a “clan”, or lineage of cats that is over 50 years old in this neighborhood.

Since we first became aware of the feral cats living in our neighborhood I’ve stepped up efforts to learn more about them, to help them where appropriate and to support their survival. Feral cats aren’t pets. Although some are converted to domestic cats most live their lives as some version of wild, an evolving predator in an evolving environment.

The series I am beginning here is the story of their lives and survival in our neighborhood.





By Tom Demerly for

Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”

I was stunned by this summation.

I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.

Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?

It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.

Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.

We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.

We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.

As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.

The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.

Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.

Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.

The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.

In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:

“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”

The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.

The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.

The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.

That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.

I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.










By Tom Demerly for

1. Preserve Price.

Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels, a successful independent bike retailer in Traverse City, Michigan told me years ago: “Never discount. You will only go out of business slower.”

Price preservation and the perception of what a product is worth has been destroyed by weak-kneed and undercapitalized bike retailers who give discounts too easily.

Sometimes they give discounts in the hopes of attracting more business, but discounted business is bad business, and it only earns the retailer a reputation for being a sucker to customers who drive a hard bargain. And soon they all drive a hard bargain.

Retailers also give discounts just to keep the lights on. Don’t do that. Just close the business, declare bankruptcy and get a job. The entire industry has been dragged down by incestuous and incessant discounting that has destroyed price integrity, brand identity and even alienated customers who don’t want to negotiate.

If there is one malignant cancer that pervades the entire retail bicycle industry, it is rampant discounting. The problem is so bad most retailers who do it are in total denial of it.

Bike industry, take one tip from a guy who has both succeeded and failed for four decades in this business: Stop Discounting.

2. Don’t Play Favorites: No Sponsored Athletes, No Club Discounts. 

When retailers play favorites with some highly visible athletes and groups through “sponsorships” and discounts, they alienate the rank n’ file average customer who subsidizes the cool girl and guy by paying full price. They train the consumership that through performance and visibility they earn special pricing.

This sends a clear message: Some people are more special than others and price is flexible.

Most importantly, there is no consistent, empirical business metric in small bicycle retail that quantifies how many full-margin additional sales are added to the bottom line by sponsoring anyone. And if you can’t accurately measure a sales promotion, you shouldn’t do it.

Sponsorships of athletes and clubs sends a message of favoritism and exclusion, rewarding persistence in driving pricing down.

Even if a sports marketing campaign were run correctly, as it is at the brand level (not by retail stores) it is extremely time consuming and expensive to manage. One beverage industry metric stated that for every $1 spent on sponsorship to automotive racing, the company budgeted $10 talking about the sponsorship in paid media. No bike retailer can afford the money or time for that. And if they could, they should start a beer brand and sponsor a NASCAR driver.

The most recognizable engagement ring brand, Tiffany’s, has never given a free or discounted sparkler to a Kardashian in exchange for publicity. Instead, news media reports, “Kardashian’s Tiffany Sparkler Was $25M!”. That preserves the perception of value and makes the brand aspirational.

3. Don’t Have Too Much Inventory. 

The worst thing about the bike business is bikes, and bike brands ram inventory down retailers’ throats with a vengeance. Bike shops: less is more. It is better to have money in the bank than bikes on the floor.

Bicycle inventory is like fruit, the second it lands it begins to spoil. Something newer, cooler and better is already under development and months away from release. And with the evolution in media the word about upcoming innovations doesn’t spread fast, it spreads instantly. As soon as something new is announced, what is suddenly old (but current only hours before) is suddenly devalued.

Customers will buy new, relevant bikes sight-unseen if the retailer’s sales process is optimized to facilitate that purchase format. That preserves capital, maintains freshness and keeps prices up. It also provides customers with more options and better integrity in the purchase.

Bike shops with a lot of inventory on the floor, and a lot of invoices on their desk, are compelled to “sell what we’ve got” and that leads to an ugly paradigm of putting customers on the wrong size bike with the wrong equipment rather than ordering the right bike and adding another invoice to the pile.

Consumers should be wary of bike shops with too many bikes on the floor, they’re going to try to ram something they have in stock down your throat just to make an invoice due date instead of getting you the bike you should really have.

4. Do Have Lots of Capital.

Nearly every bicycle retailer is undercapitalized and over leveraged financially. The reason is simple: When you have $500K to invest in something, does opening a bike shop provide the highest return on that investment? No, it doesn’t. You could take that $500K to an Edward Jones office and earn a better return on it the next day with no work than if you did the heavy lifting and ditch-digging of opening, promoting and running a bicycle retail store. As a result, most bike retailers try to start a business with about $50-200K and make a go of it.

If they don’t own their own real estate free and clear, have to pay rent or a mortgage, pay at least one employee payroll (and mandatory withholding taxes and health insurance) then the math doesn’t work.

To make bike retail profitable you have to have deep pockets and a deeper work ethic. You have to love hard work and business, not bikes and bike rides.

In its current iteration, the bicycle retail business model is a rotten investment. But, a new, emerging business model long on service and profit margin and short on inventory and overhead is promising and will be the bike shop of tomorrow.

5. Manage Costs.

This doesn’t mean go cheap. If your biggest overhead item is marketing then you are doing it right. If your customers arrive at your store and consistently say, “I thought this place would be a lot bigger”, you’re doing it right.

If you’re biggest overhead item is inventory, you are already in trouble.

Starting and maintaining a bike shop can be done very cheaply. Never buy new fixtures, so many used fixtures from other retailers that have been closed are available they can be had for pennies on the dollar. Never pay for extraneous and non-paying expenses like alarm systems (they won’t prevent or deter theft anyway) and subscriptions to POS software systems. Those don’t add to the bottom line.

Use low-cost, streamlined, highly adaptive and simple systems to combat the asymmetrical retail war the little bike shop has to fight against the big box e-commerce giants. Think of how the Afghan Guerillas used crude weapons to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, and still give the Americans fits in rural Afghanistan. Be a retail guerilla, a retail Taliban. Keep your costs low, adaptable and maintain a large amount of liquid capital.

6. Invest in Star Employees.

The online retailer you compete against is a faceless enemy. You can defeat him with a friendly face. If you have a star employee whom customers consistently ask for, reward them before anything else. Give them raises before you buy more bikes, pay them first and well and craft a set of “golden handcuffs” that makes it tough for them to go anywhere else. They are your brand, and if you lose them, you will have to rebuild your brand around another star employee. Worse yet, if you lose your star employee to another bicycle retailer across town or if your star opens their own shop, guess what happens, their customers follow them.

For a small bicycle retailer, the star employee is the single most important business tool. Develop them, value them, reward them, retain them.

7. Participate in the Sport. 

Instead of sponsoring the local hotshot, be the local hotshot. This doesn’t mean you have to do a nine-hour Ironman (but it helps) it just means you have to be present at events and participate credibly. This is a part of your business. It is work.

Set up the hours of your store so you can train. Close on key race weekends so you can be where the action is, as a part of the action. Ride the nicest bike you sell and show it off everywhere. Be an aspirational figurehead so when people see you on social media and in the store you have become “That Guy who Knows Everything and is Everywhere”.

If you build your hours correctly and manage your staff correctly the time you spend in the sport will directly and measurably bring full-price buyers into your store and keep them offline.

8. Differentiate Yourself. 

Build a voice, a brand and an identity. If your identity is so lifeless and generic that people confuse your business with others, you haven’t done that.

Understand that you will not please everyone. Nor is that the goal. If you talk about a donation to a wounded veteran’s charity in social media an anti-war activist may stop shopping with you. Fine. You can’t be everything to everyone.

Build your brand with clear vision and narrow focus. Don’t be generic. Don’t appeal to the masses. Keep your brand message narrow, unique and focused and be true to who you are.

If you are gay, fly the rainbow flag in front of your store and sponsor “Pride Rides”. If you are a veteran, have benefits for veteran’s organizations. If you are an animal rights activist, broadcast your donations to the local animal shelter and host an adoption day at your store. If you are an environmentalist, show your commitment to renewable energy and talk about how bikes preserve the environment.

Have the courage and identity to stand for something, be someone different and special. Brand yourself visibly and distinctly.

9. Be Highly Adaptive.

 Small bicycle retail is asymmetrical warfare: A small opponent taking on a much larger, better capitalized foe. Take a page from the teachings of Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Osama Bin Laden’s play book: Never fight fair.

Change your floorplan frequently. Bring in small, low-priced, easily purchased new products first. Seek out niche brands the big-box guys don’t have and use the equalizing power of social media to partner with the brand to promote them.

Build a reputation as a brutal buyer who torments sales reps and sales managers with non-adherence to “program” buying. If the biggest brands’ credit manager loves you but the sales manager hates you, you are doing it right.

Within your brand identity continue to change and adapt. Use every social media platform. Embrace new media. Use video. Never stop changing, evolving and promoting. There are two types of businesses on the retail battlefield: the quick and the dead. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

10. Have An Exit Strategy.

One day, this will all end. What will you have to show for it? Did you squirrel away money in an offshore account? Did you buy real estate? Is your brand developed enough to have some sales value? And, if you begin to fail, and chances are overwhelming that you will, do you have a viable safety net?

It’s a pipe dream to sell a small bicycle retail business. Frankly, they aren’t worth anything. The inventory is usually older than six months, the fixtures are stale, the employees may not come with the deal and rest can be reinvented elsewhere better and cheaper. As a result, you have to have a viable exit strategy.

What is yours? What is your end game? When do you cry “Uncle” and walk away? Know those answers in advance and you can sleep more soundly at night as a bike retailer.


By Tom Demerly for

It’s Saturday at Motor City Powersports in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Their large parking lot is blocked off to cars. A half dozen new motorcycle owners negotiate a series of traffic cones and practice skills under the watchful eye of a certified motorcycle instructor who teaches the new riders the skills they need to survive in traffic and to get their Michigan Driver’s License motorcycle endorsement.

It’s Saturday at Motor City SCUBA in Novi, Michigan. Students sit in the dedicated classroom at the SCUBA retailer taking a written test to earn their basic open water diver certification so they can be SCUBA divers. Before they can buy their own regulator or SCUBA tank, before they can rent equipment and before they can go out on a boat to SCUBA dive while on vacation, they must pass this written test and the practical pool examination of underwater skills.

It’s Thursday night at Target Sports in Royal Oak, Michigan. A crowd of people is in a classroom near an indoor shooting range learning basic firearms safety before they are given instruction in practical firearms handling with unloaded weapons. Before any of the people can carry a firearm in public they must past a Concealed Carry License written test and practical firearms safety instruction course.

The motorcycle, SCUBA and shooting sports industries have all taken proactive responsibility for teaching and certifying their customers for competence and safety before they allow them to use their products. Each of these three industries also has some type of state or commercially mandated licensure that tests competence prior to practice and collects revenue to provide for safer end user experiences through advocacy.

Each of these three industries also incurs significant risk to users. Each has proactively managed the user-risk experience. As a result, business in each category is doing well.

And then there is the bike industry. We just sell you a bike and turn you loose. As a result, the road cycling industry is tanking.

The bike industry’s answer to sagging road bike sales has been to introduce more bike categories. That creates more sales and marketing expense within the industry. It also relies heavily on non-paved riding areas to continue to grow when, in fact, gravel roads used for automotive travel are usually destined to be paved when populations and traffic in their region inevitably become large enough. As it is, cyclists are squeezed into a smaller and smaller artificially sustained environment of rails-to-trails and bike path/park settings that cost big money to maintain, require travel to access and, while growing in some regions, aren’t yet reliable enough to sustain the sport and likely never will be without some organized contribution from the bike industry.

Rather than working to sell what we already have and support that end-user experience through responsible instruction, the bike industry just keeps trying to sell a new category every few years. The recent contraction in bicycle sales suggest this approach is not working. But in SCUBA, motorsports and shooting sports, selling what they have through responsible instruction and advocacy has worked.

The bicycle industry has not been proactive in offering even basic cycling instruction to new cyclists buying performance-oriented road and triathlon bikes. Set against the backdrop of a recent influx of brand new cyclists entering the sport mostly as a result of triathlons, the bike industry has done an abysmal job of leveraging rider instruction as a safety benefit and a sales tool.

Motorsports, SCUBA diving and shooting sports have all had success with that marketing script. In fact, in the case of shooting sports, it helped keep that sport alive in the face of a divisive national argument over firearms ownership rights. What if cycling had an industry and user lobby as powerful as the NRA?

The impetus for teaching new cyclists how to use their bike safely has been on cycling clubs and national governing bodies like USA Triathlon and USA Cycling. But in a click-to-own culture it is a big leap to expect a new bike buyer to buy a bike on Saturday and seek out 3rd party instruction and certification before using their new bike.

In fact, most cyclists and triathlete revel in fact that buying a racing bicycle is one of the few things a person can do that is free from licensure, formal instruction or user certification. Think about this: what if you loved airplanes or high performance race cars and could just show up and buy one then use it that afternoon without instruction or certification? That analogy isn’t a stretch since going from a decrepit hybrid in your first triathlon to a narrow-tire, performance oriented bike in your next one is tantamount to transitioning from a passenger car to a NASCAR.

Here Is What The Bike Industry Could Do:

As an industry, cycling needs to organize. As with SCUBA, shooting sports and the motorsports industry, both the retailer and the brand level, need to shoulder the burden- and opportunity- to sustain the sport and take responsibility for the cyclists’ end user competence and experience.

The bike industry, bike brands and bike shops, needs to start teaching cycling, including bike handling skills, safe routes for cyclists, basic maintenance and other skills that build a safe, sustainable, responsible culture of new cyclists. It is likely this single opportunity, simple in proposal but labor-intensive and significant in execution, is cycling’s greatest hope not just from prosperity and growth, but survival.



By Tom Demerly for

What will be the eventual outcome of the current perceived brinkmanship between the United States and North Korea?

For students of history in the region the answer is conspicuous. The outcome will rise from the historical template of national evolution in the region. This history is among the most ancient of civilized man. As a result of this deep historical context and precedent, the script is likely already written, but the acts will unfold on a new stage of hyper-fast media that can exert a dangerous influence.

To the laymen and popular media consumer there will continue to be a forward facing game of media sensationalized military brinkmanship played out above a very subtle, quiet and deliberate process of diplomacy. The likely outcome will be an asymmetrical win-win that will benefit all parties in the broad spectrum, but more so North Korea than any other party. Part of this asymmetry in benefit is earned by North Korea’s increased tolerance for risk in this era.

North Korea finally realizes a need to enter the “Functioning Core” of the world community. Unencumbered by a radical religious mantra their only divinity is servitude to state. They are long overdue from becoming a modern nation state in nearly every way.

Author and scholar Thomas P.M. Barnett broadly divided the nations and governing ideologies of the world into two categories; the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrated Gap”. Barnett’s theory was presented into a now-famous Powerpoint delivered at the Pentagon called “The Pentagon’s New Map”. In his thesis Barnett describes how nations and cultures of the Non-Integrated Gap who are not perverted by idealogical distortion eventually realize they could have things better; they could have easy access to clean water, they could have dependable electricity, safe and abundant food and adequate clothing and shelter. In the greater evolution they could have access to the world community via the Internet. Once that social evolution is complete the citizenry can cross borders at the speed of the Internet, unencumbered by national dogma and censorship. This is their express ticket to the world economy.

North Korea realizes the pitfalls of the Arab Spring.  They are smart enough to have learned from the Middle East, where most countries are worse off following the Arab Spring. Russia and the U.S. are mostly the only ones to benefit during the near term in the Middle East and left with the lion’s share of plunder- albeit at great cost. But the countries and people in the Arab Spring are left destitute, trapped in a vacuum that is a breeding ground for messy, infectious radicalism as difficult to kill as a stubborn mold in a dank cellar. Kim Jung Un has been quiet witness to this phenomenon, and seeks to avoid becoming the next Syria, Libya or Iraq.

There is a subtle, brutal genius to Kim Jung Un’s strategy. He has avoided coups, subverted military conflict and expertly wielded nuclear brinkmanship to his advantage. He has everything to gain, and gain he will. When this is over a year or two from now, North Korea will be substantially more integrated into the global economy. The big losers in the near term will be the North Korean people. They have been subject to poverty and oppression on a titanic scale, unprecedented almost anywhere in the world today except North Africa. Their march into the modern world, from the non-integrated gap to the Functioning Core will take a decade at least, and it will be a grinding procession lubricated by more North Korean peasant blood. But war on a pan-Pacific scale will be subverted.

In the media this evolution will look and feel like brinkmanship, but on the back channels of old-world Asian diplomacy it will be business as usual, not far removed from the age of Niccolò Polo and Maffeo Polo as chronicled by their famous son, Marco Polo.