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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.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

I was once so poor, I didn’t have a coffee cup.

It didn’t matter much since I had neither coffee or a coffee maker. I had boxes of things I owned when I was rich, before I lost everything. But I wasn’t going to stay in one place long enough to unpack them, so what was left stayed in the boxes. I never unpacked. Nothing was permanent.

No coffee cup though.

My parents told stories of the depression when they were kids. The stories didn’t seem possible to me. When I didn’t have a coffee cup it occurred to me, “Well damn. Here is our depression. Exactly like my mom described.” Now you’re reading my story of not having a coffee cup.

Eventually things began to improve. I was good at what I did, a writer. Got a good job writing at a company in California. Money came in. California is expensive so you need to earn a lot of money to be even reasonably comfortable. You still won’t have any money left over, so you better keep your job or find a new one outside California. If you want to make any money, don’t move to California.

Moved from California to Michigan. Brought my two cats in a cat carrier on the plane. I had written a letter to the airline well in advance telling them my cats were the most valuable thing in the world to me. They met me at the airport and took extra care of me and my two cats on the flight from California back to Michigan. I was thankful for that. Nothing was more important. I figured if I couldn’t even care for two cats, I was pretty worthless. But in this case, with the help of the airlines, I managed fairly well. Thank God, and I’m not even religious. The airline was Southwest airlines. If you can, when you fly, fly on Southwest Airlines. They actually care about people. And cats. That’s rare these days.

Still no coffee cup though.

When I got back to Michigan I took back an old job that I liked but didn’t earn much money. I was going to help open a new business soon. There was, at least, the promise of improvement if not tangible improvement itself. Sometimes you can do pretty good on just the promise of things getting better. It’s better than knowing things are going to get worse. I’ve gotten good at sensing when that is going to happen. It’s a bad feeling and you better trust it.

My friends Paul and Sue, whom I’ve known forever, visited me right away when I moved back. They knew me before the recession, before I lost everything. I was actually well-off then. Owned a house, car, business. Those things can disappear in an instant, so fast you can’t believe it. You think you are secure. Trust me, you aren’t. A million dollars means nothing.

I know that when Paul and Sue and their sons saw how things were for me then they were… well, I don’t know what they were. They never said. Sue drove me to the store. When it became apparent I had no money for food, her and her two sons brought food to my house. I always made sure my cats had food. They came first.

Things kept getting better. Made a little money. Lived in a house with a big yard, grass (we didn’t have that in California) and plenty of windows. The first warm day I went outside and just laid down in the grass. It was the first time I felt safe in a long time. My cats watched me through the window. That was a good feeling. I still remember that moment, lying there in the grass.

Eventually things got much better. That’s America. You can have everything, lose everything, and get everything back again.

On one trip to the store I bought a coffee maker, $22, a huge can of coffee (don’t remember how much) and a coffee cup. It’s still my favorite cup. I worry about breaking it. It would be a bad omen.

So with this new coffee cup, I am pretty careful.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

April 3, 2018. Tuesday. 

Winter hangs on like dampness caught in an old curtain. Under the tight, chilling grip of low cloud I walk the neighborhood in the early morning before sunrise while people wonder what it is I am looking for, stopping on the sidewalks to peer between houses and up driveways. Either one of them could be anywhere, and they are much better at hiding than I am at finding them. Their lives depend on that.

A man messages me. He has seen one of the cats at 5:36 AM. That next morning I am out searching. Batteries are charged, new memory cards are installed. The remotely triggered night vision cameras go out. Our yard is transformed into a feline version of a surveillance state. No cat, no animal, no leaf blowing can cross the yard without setting off the infra-red night vision cameras.

The two feral cats appeared last year and I found them interesting, then fascinating, then more remarkable than I had imagined possible. They created a secret society under our noses and re-ordered the local outdoor food chain, eliminating rodents, chasing pet cats back to their homes where they belong and policing the dark like a secret feline security force while setting order to an evolving suburban wilderness most people don’t realize exists.

There were two of them. One has disappeared.

“Mike Charlie 2” or “Mysterious Cat 2” went on to be formally named “Blackie”. He got his nom de guerre the way any shadow warrior does, against his will and under duress. I had enlisted the help of the local animal shelter’s trap and release program, captured Mike Charlie 2 with the intention of putting him through their trap and release program. But I made a huge mistake. I sat with him in silence, he in his cage, me outside in mine. As I looked at him, I realized, he could exist outside his cage, was born to live outside, had the courage and resourcefulness and cunning and stamina to live outside it. I only step out of my cage occasionally, and even that is more than most people.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

Trap and release feral cats that are immunized and neutered have their ear tip clipped to signify they have been through the program. Mike Charlie 2 was perfect. I did not want his ear clipped. Instead I paid to have him micro-chipped, neutered, immunized and returned to me, where I would set him free again. In no uncertain terms Mike Charlie made it clear he would never be an inside cat. Nothing about him was domestic. Mike Charlie 2 left our house with an official name, “Blackie”, given to him at the animal shelter. He also had an implanted micro-chip, number 956 000 010 017 739. I even enrolled him in pet health insurance in case he needed another vet visit. It was as though, for a short time, he had entered “The Matrix”. But then, like a feline version of Neo, he took the red pill to return in the real world.

Blackie stayed around for a while after we did the trap and release. He ate outside with us, seemed to be getting more comfortable with us. Our indoor cats loved him, lined up at the windows to see him. Then one day he disappeared. That was in late December. We haven’t seen him since. We’ve been to shelter, posted notices, passed out flyers. I found a dead black cat on Ford Rd. north of here and sheepishly took it to the animal shelter to have its poor, broken body scanned for a micro-chip in case it was Blackie. No chip. We gave the unknown cat a decent burial in our backyard.

There have been three reports of a mysterious black cat south of the large park, Levagood, that separates our neighborhood. This week my early morning search will move south to that area. Maybe…

While the search for Blackie has been fruitless we have welcomed back his accomplice, Mike Charlie 1, who actually has a name and, as we learned this week, a home. Not just any home, Mike Charlie 1, whose real name is Darth Vader, lives in the most famous home in all of Dearborn, The Kingsbury Castle. It is a fitting home for such a regal animal.

Darth Vader lives with the Marusak family who has lived at the Kingsbury Castle for decades, since I was a kid. The house is a local landmark. The Marusaks have done an excellent job maintaining the property and keeping up the entire appearance of the neighborhood, along with property values. Following their lead, many new, larger houses are being built in the North Levagood neighborhood. When anyone asks where we live in Dearborn, all I have to say is, “One house away from The Castle”.

Darth Vader’s home, the Kingsbury Castle, one house east of our house.

I’ve had several conversations with Darth Vader. He is a dignified and reserved cat, gentle and calm. He visited our house in these surveillance videos when he noticed the buffet we had laid out in hopes of attracting Blackie back to the area. Darth is well fed at home though, and only picks at the food left for Blackie, leaving the lion’s share behind in hopes that Blackie returns. Darth Vader also searches for Blackie, sitting on high vantage points along our street and gazing to the south, where we believe Blackie vanished to.

In one of these videos Darth Vader marks our outdoor cat feeding house with the scent from the corner of his mouth, effectively leaving a note for Blackie if he returns, “Call me Sir. We all miss you greatly.”

If you see a cat you believe may be Blackie, phone me at (313) 400-0150, email tomdemerly@yahoo.com or message me here. 

The Missing Mr. Blackie, Micro Chip 956 000 010 017 739.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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 tomdemerly.com

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 tomdemerly.com

Business rewards bastards. And Seton Claggett was never a bastard.

TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona is closing after 17 years of being one of the largest, and one of the first, online triathlon retailers. TriSports.com helped invent, define, and then sink the triathlon industry.

What happened to TriSports.com is happening to all of the triathlon and high-end bicycle business, and it is worth looking at.

Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder and President, messaged me early today with insights on why the business is closing:

“We are closing because I was in litigation with the bank that caused me to go into BK11 4+ years ago. We went to trial on breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. The judge ruled last week that the bank committed all of these but ultimately did not cause us any damages. I now owe them the original $1.8M (most of this would have been paid off by now) plus millions in attorney fees and costs.”

There will be a rush to judgment about what caused TriSports.com to close. Set against Claggett’s disclosure of bank litigation I’ll suggest it was not any singular reason that TriSports.com is closing, but rather a creeping, gradual, decade-long “death by a thousand cuts” that pervades an industry populated by people who like bikes and triathlons first, and do business second. Even though Claggett was not that man- he is a formally trained and gifted businessman- the rest of the industry weighed on pricing and distribution strategies. The Internet experts will have their say, but it’s unlikely many of them will understand the real reasons TriSports.com is closing and the industry as a whole is suffering.

The people still in the bike and triathlon business will pay no heed as the industry continues to contract and fails to adapt under the ruthless crush of economic reality and accelerating business change. I know because I have been one of those people- a business owner, and I did not change, so I know firsthand.

You can’t tell a small business owner anything. I’ve tried with four businesses I worked for; people tried it with me when I owned my own business before that. We never listen.

Until we lose everything, you can’t tell us anything.

I’ve seen five other bicycle and triathlon retailers ride their businesses into the ground. TriSports.com is just the biggest of us to close. It’s the 9/11, the Black Tuesday, the Automotive Recession, the Chernobyl, the Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island of the triathlon retail industry. Once the fallout clears, the industry will be radioactive for years and will only be habitable by ego-driven mutants of the small business world deformed by their bizarre and nonsensical toxic obsession with a sport and a “business” that eats its young, then consumes itself as their internal voice tells them, “I am the one who can get this right”.

They’re wrong. The triathlon business is no longer viable on any significant scale beyond hobby. There are a lot of reasons for that, enough to fill a book.

If you want a single narrative to the complex issue of triathlon business failings, then call it the same thing triathletes suffer from as a culture: hubris. I will, however, suggest that in the case of Seton Claggett and TriSports.com, he is a rare man largely immune to hubris.

I worked at TriSports.com for over two years in their bicycle, then marketing department. One memory of many defines the experience:

The employees of TriSports.com are high in the Arizona mountains outside the sleepy town of Show Low, Arizona. It’s a town named after a bet two prospectors made over a gold strike in the area. Both of them lost. We’re putting on the annual Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival, a series of endurance races in the high, wooded area surrounding Show Low.

Most of the about-50-person staff from TriSports.com drove from Tucson to Show Low, Arizona to help put on the Show Low Triathlon Festival. It’s a massive annual multisport event with kids’ races, various distance triathlons, an off-road triathlon and an orgy of the triathletes’ favorite endurance activity, getting free stuff. The event concludes with a giant raffle benefitting charity where tons, and I mean tons, of triathlon gear and schwag are given away for a charity donation- about the same volume of stuff sold in a small triathlon store in a year. But this is TriSports.com, and we are the largest. So, we can afford to give away tons of stuff for free people probably would have bought at full price anyway.

After the festivities are over it is time to clean up.

It’s hot out and Seton Claggett is addressing us while standing chest deep in disgusting, reeking garbage inside a trash hauling semi-trailer. Every one of us is exhausted, filthy, smelly, sore, hungry and sleep deprived.

“If we leave this mess here it goes against everything we stand for.” He tells our downtrodden mass of long-faced employee volunteers as the sun sags. It’s like a scene in a book about forced labor camps. This is the triathlon industry gulag, and I am exiled here like a less-intellectual retail Solzhenitsyn banished to the labor camps for my own personal failings in this business. Like Cool Hand Luke, I gotta get my mind right.

A key tenant of TriSports.com is environmental responsibility, and cramming all this garbage into the back of a couple semis to dump in a landfill is against Seton Claggett’s molecular make-up as an environmentalist, former boy scout, parent and business owner. It is against the Little Red Book of TriSports.com doctrine.

Despite the sickening, nose-permeating stench of rotting banana peels under the high Arizona sun, dirty bottles filled with congealing sports drinks, discarded race equipment soaked in athlete urine, changed diapers from spectators’ toddlers and all the other disgusting offal produced by a couple thousand athletes and their closest friends, Seton wants us to sort the garbage by hand into bins for environmentally responsible recycling and processing.

Claggett is clamped onto the ethos of environmental responsibility like the face-hugger in “Alien”. The Claggetts have two kids, and Seton’s life mission is to leave the world a better place than he found it for those kids, and for everyone else. Seton and Debbie Claggett’s unswerving attachment to environmentalism isn’t corporate feel-good window dressing. They own it. Environmental responsibility and a doctrine of leaving things better than you found them is in Claggett’s DNA, and he has cloned it into the corporate DNA of TriSports.com and its culture. Not to sell more stuff, but because Claggett doesn’t just believe it’s the right thing to do, he knows it is the right thing to do.

And now he stands chest deep is piss-smelling filth to prove it. And prove it he does.

One by one employees slowly churn into action, pulling trash bags out of the back of the disgusting mess, opening the garbage bags, pulling out discarded wet wipes with… something brown on them. It’s not just gross, it’s fucking gross. But Claggett somehow walks the walk with enough conviction he inspires the entire staff to wade into the offal and begin sorting the revolting mess into neatly organized recycling barrels.

Claggett somehow inspires a crew of tired, volunteer employees to sort filthy garbage by hand in the dark after consecutive 14-hour workdays. Show me a leader strong enough to inspire that, and I will show you Seton Claggett.

A couple hours later, in the dark, we stink like hell and the world is a slightly better place. Claggett himself is covered in filth, and the last to stop working. I have found a new hero.

The Claggetts defined themselves repeatedly with acts of generosity and kindness both large and small. When Seton saw me riding my bike to an airshow loaded down with camera equipment early one weekend morning he secured a pass for me to the Air Force base and took me with him to a private air show during the Heritage Flight Conference at Davis-Monthan AFB. When my cat Frederick died of old age Debbie had every employee sign a sympathy card for me. I still have that card.

The charity and giving doctrine of the Claggetts was infectious. It spread like a smiley-faced plague through the building. After riding my bike to work one day in a rare Tucson downpour the Human Resource Director, a woman named Susan, found dry clothes for me to put on and a towel. When I obsessively worked 70-hour weeks she counseled me for working too many hours.

But heroes are fallible and complex, and Seton Claggett is no exception. Claggett was oddly fixated on loading the dishwasher in the employee kitchen correctly. He produced a YouTube tutorial video on the correct procedure, lectured employees at meetings on the correct process and even installed a video camera over the dishwasher to verify compliance. Where did that come from? I chalk it up to Claggett’s penchant for clear thinking and process. He is a smart man, a man of organized thought, spreadsheets and analytical problem solving. To him it is incomprehensible that a person could not load a dishwasher correctly, and that detail mattered. It was a teachable moment.

The dishwasher conundrum.

The story of TriSports.com and the rise and fall of the triathlon industry deserves to be told. It’s a complex story not well suited for Internet chat room fodder. It is more complex, both worse, and better. It doesn’t fit in a 1300 word blog.

If Seton Claggett had opened a software company, an app developer, a social media outlet or any other emerging business I’ll suggest we would mention his name alongside Gates, Jobs, Buffett and Zuckerberg. Claggett is a tirelessly hard-working man with a Masters in business and a deep, analytical mindset and strong stomach for risk. Unfortunately for him his first round of entrepreneurship was spent on an industry filled largely by people long on enthusiasm for the sport, too quick to give a discount and short on business acumen.

I wager Seton Claggett’s next round at business will conclude very differently.

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