Cycle Tour Sponsorship: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Imagine the following entirely hypothetical situation.

Sandal on the roadside

You, like plenty of others, are hauling a roll-call of sponsors behind the story of your cycle tour. This menagerie is composed of small to medium-sized manufacturers and retailers, who you bludgeoned with the ebony clubs of persistent emails and cold-calling until they gave you the free shit you always wanted.

Several months into your journey, you are still glowing with what you see as a victory over the whole of capitalism — when something goes wrong. A piece of equipment isn’t doing its job properly, and you need one particular sponsor’s help to replace it. So you write to them.

They don’t respond. You spend a small fortune to call them from a public phone booth. But the person you want is not available right now. And after endless weeks of being fobbed off because someone in an office somewhere is still in a meeting, you realise the sickening truth. Your sponsor doesn’t actually give the tiniest shit about you. And your ego’s ruin is smitten upon the mountainside, like an egg.

But then you didn’t give the tiniest shit about that sponsor, either. You’d fulfilled your half of the bargain, of course, but had secretly thought that they were nothing but a bunch of flailing, self-interested publicity-grubbers. Aside from demanding that you wore their sponsored T-shirts for several years in return for what the MD’s salary would cover in less than a day, the biggest hint was the contract which stipulated that you would never mention them in a negative light.

And so, in future articles, you could only hint at them anonymously as characters in entirely hypothetical situations such as, for example, the one I am describing right now.

You never received the tiniest bit of assistance from said sponsor, and wondered why they hadn’t just said “sorry, we can’t help you” instead of spending weeks saying “hold on a second…”. Then you remembered that they’d failed to deliver on a couple of previously agreed items. You wrote to them and pointed out that they were actually in breach of their own goddamn contract.

A denial letter full of bullshit corporate-speak arrived some weeks later, which you ignored, stripping all of their branding from your site and removing their stickers from your bicycle. Then you failed to complete your original mission anyway, so the whole thing became null and void. And you never heard from the company again.

Phew.

* * *

Here’s another hypothetical situation.

A small, ambitious manufacturing outfit comes into being as you plan your cycle tour. Their flagship product looks ideal for your particular journey, so you write to them. They respond immediately, and offer you a half-price deal, to ensure that you’re not just scrounging for free shit, in return for feedback on their innovation.

After some weeks, their innovation suffers a failure, and you write in to tell them. Their marketing manager immediately gets in his car, drives across three countries and sleeps on the grass outside the house at which you are staying in order to hand-deliver prototypes of a new product, which their engineers have just finished building, and take the broken items away for investigation.

The prototypes are a brilliant idea, but still prove flawed, so you write again to tell them as much. When you announce that a new and far more challenging journey is about to begin, they tell you that their new product is still under development, and that they’d prefer to send you, free of charge, an improved version of the original design, because everyone knows that it works, and they now trust you to do what you said you’d do and to give them valuable feedback afterwards.

You spend six months testing the thing to destruction — literally — and send your thoughts their way. They email you engineering diagrams of improved ideas, and you comment on them because you really want their new product to be as good as possible.

Finally, they send you a prototype which combines the best of everything they’ve made since you began your relationship with them. You take it through the most challenging conditions of all, and it not only survives, but performs better than any alternative you’re aware of.

This small company is onto a winner, and you’ve played a fundamental role in that by undertaking your journeys. And you watch as their excellent product becomes a success in the marketplace. Other riders are able to benefit from the innovation, and the small team is able to continue its work.

* * *

I’ve penned these polarised examples of cycle tour sponsorship to represent its nature as a double-edged sword. If you’re considering going down the route of the sponsored bike tour, please take heed. Sponsorship is not about free stuff.

Some of my cycling kit

Yes, you may get given a bunch of nice equipment and not have to pay money. But that privilege comes with a different kind of cost, which is to become a part of your sponsor’s operation — whether that’s publicity, product development, catalogue photography, or something else.

If you enter into an agreement with a sponsor, you’d better be aware of that. So do it for the right reasons. Find outfits whose attitudes you agree with, because they’re going to be your riding partners too. If one side shuns its responsibilities, the relationship will break down, and the all-important trust between riders and industry will be eroded.

So choose carefully, and make sure that your potential sponsor understands what you expect from them.

And make absolutely sure that you understand what your sponsor expects from you.

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14 Responses to “Cycle Tour Sponsorship: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”

  1. James Dean

    Come on Tom, name and shame them…

    Reply
    • Tom

      Name & shame who? I don’t know what you mean — these are entirely hypothetical scenarios!

      Reply
      • gyan

        hello, i am a cyclist from nepal.i am planning to do cycling. please log on my website about my detail information.

        and in this time, i am searching for sponsirship to make the cycling tour. please make me help by giving information if you know.
        waiting for result.

        cyclist
        gyan
        nepal

        Reply
  2. Liz

    James — integrity is best I think!

    Reply
  3. Peter

    I think you’ve summed up most of the reality here. In my experience only a few sponsors will stick with you once you’ve gone, or take an interest in what you’re doing. Will a tyre company who you nagged to give you a couple of decent tyres help you out by shipping new ones to you when you’re duct-taping them up thousands of miles away? Stupid to email or telephone them when time/cost is important. People who you spoke to before may forget you or even not be working there anymore. I think a lot of time is expended by many people sponsor-chasing in the lead up to a trip (emailing/phoning) which could arguably be better spent earning money to pay for your trade discount price. Of course all those logos look impressive on your site and make you appear as if you’re doing something impressive (which you may well be doing anyhow) but what really matters is you and your trip.

    Reply
    • Tom

      That’s a very good point — most manufacturers/distributors will happily sell you stuff at trade or otherwise give you a generous ‘pro deal’ if you call up and explain what you’re doing. They’re used to it and they have deals set up for such customers. They’ve nothing to lose and they may well gain from the deal in the long run. This, in general, is 100 times easier than trying for a full on sponsorship agreement.

      I’ve done this with a couple of firms this year when I’ve needed a piece of kit but don’t want to add to my obligations. I’m quite happy to pay 50% of the RRP to keep things simple and affordable. If the kit does well, I’ll write about it here and they’ll get the benefit. If it doesn’t, that’s that — nobody loses out.

      Reply
  4. Honza Galla

    I wrote my diploma work about financing of outdoor expeditions. It was more or less only about marketing and what you can do for the companies. It was also about experience in taking good pictures, writing articles, doing slide shows, being in television. In that time (2002) I was at the beginning with just one expedition and one article behind me, but I understood that well. Than I did several journeys, write tons or articles, were many times in TV and radios etc. I was not working with sponsors as I have a good job. Two years ago I need some expensive equipment so I prepare a long presentation of what I am going to do and what I am going to do for the company and I realized that I can already offer something valuable. And I was sucessful. Now I am going to ask for even more and I pretty much belive I will be sucessful too. Usualy I ask free stuff or at least 50% off.

    What I want to say is that you have to give first and than ask. This is my life motto and it works for me.

    Another point. I work for a company producing good recumbents for travelling called AZUB (http://www.azub.eu). We receive about 10 to 20 requirements of sponsoring per yer. We are also ORTLIEB distributor in the Czech Republic and it is the same for Ortlieb. Giving something for free is much easier with Ortlieb than with our bikes as those are far more expensive. Infact we never gave free bike. But often gave 20 or 25% of dicount or even more. As I know this “sponsor world” from both sides, I always ask for a presentations and I look on the history of the person and what he did already. This is very important for me.

    The best presentation asking sponsorship (and also the most crazy expedition) I have ever seen was from those two guys: http://www.1000hourday.com/ And I am pretty sure they well paid back to all their partners by what they did.

    Howgh :-)

    Reply
  5. Rob

    ‘I’m quite happy to pay 50% of RRP’??? This is really annoying. Who needs celebrity bike tourers anyway? There are so many self promoting adventurers around, few of which are interesting.

    The truth is, bike touring is accessible to everybody, even with very limited means. There are plenty of people out there riding absolute ‘rubbish’. Or, as I tend to do, you can buy a 15 year old bike with good components on it for peanuts, and it’ll last you 20 years.

    Reply
    • Tom

      You’re right, Rob — bike touring is accessible to everybody. If you read around the site you’ll see that I make this point time and time again — it’s at the core of what I believe.

      Not sure I understand the aggravating tone of your opening, though. It’d be good if you could elaborate on that. It sounds like you’re suggesting there’s something wrong with running a popular blog. I do very little self promotion, so I guess that my site is popular because it’s interesting. And I make it interesting because (aside from loving to write) I want it to inspire and entertain, not because I want free or half-price stuff, although that is a bonus for someone who the UK government defines as below the poverty line…

      Reply
      • Rob

        Tom, it’s got nothing to do with whether the blog’s popular or not. You described the problems around sponsorship well. So why buy into it on any level? Taking gear for 50% of RRP generates an expectation. I simply don’t believe that any First World citizen can’t afford to get hold of their own bike touring gear, whether purchased normally, second hand, borrowed off friends, gifted by friends… then if you feel like commenting on gear, you can, completely independently. If a First World citizen chooses to ride for years on end, I don’t see how they can plead ‘poverty line’. Anyone who can tour for years on end is rich.

        Why should professional tourists expect to pay 50% of RRP while average cycling numpties pay anywhere between 70 and 100% of RRP? (Subsidising the freebies in doing so?) That’s not making it accessible.

        No, I don’t buy the whole ‘sponsored professional adventurer’ model of travelling. It is indeed aggravating. I used to work in outdoor gear shops, full of gear freaks who turned me off the commercial side of outdoor activities for life.

        Reply
        • Tom

          I’m sorry, Rob — you’ve made too many assumptions about my circumstances here for a defence to be worth making. I wish you all the best in defending the retail paradigm, and I’ll continue to strike what I consider a healthy balance with the small few manufacturers I work with. (My blog isn’t really about equipment and sponsorship, anyway.)

          Reply
  6. Derek

    I wonder what folks would make of my situation! After being told my illness had returned I have decided to sell everything I own and embark on my own world trip and I’m not ashamed to admit your blog has been a big motivator in that decision, I’ve even pinched many of your ideas for my own website! I certainly don’t see you as a ‘celebrity’, just someone with a love for cycling.

    But what I’m getting at is that almost all my kit will be brand spanking new. Maybe I don’t need to spend, but why not? I’m certainly not in the ‘all the gear — no idea’ camp, I simply want the best kit I can get to do the very difficult job ahead of me. Your blog and a few select others has helped me to choose that kit, so a big thank you.

    Oh and Rob, not being a celebrity either, I’m paying 100% RRP!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Glad to hear you’ve found my blog useful, Derek. In the end it’s a matter of personal choice which way to approach equipment for a tour. So I try to cover a broad range of angles, rather than being dogmatic and preaching ‘the best’ way of doing it. After that point, it’s up to the reader to decide!

      Reply

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