If you were a fly on the wall, you’d be forgiven for thinking me insane.
There are three empty bedrooms in the house, but every night I lay down to sleep in the back garden.
There are two good showers here, too, but I hang a bag of water up outside and wash beneath it.
I could prepare elaborate meals in the fully-featured kitchen, but instead I eat only bread and cheese, or what I can cook in one pot.
And I could listen to any piece of music, from any genre, or any point in time, but I listen only to radio stations in languages I don’t understand.
There’s no particular need for me to go anywhere, but every day I get on my bike and ride it in a big pointless circle.
Yes, you’d be forgiven for thinking me insane. But in fact these acts are not only sane but necessary. It is an immeasurably vast leap from where I sit today to where I sat when the events that I’m writing about occurred. And in order not just flip through faded memories of that place and time, but to actually relive them in all their colour and context, I must take measures that look remarkably like acts of insanity.
Full disclosure: Schwalbe gave me a pair of Marathon Supremes for my 2012 U.S. West Coast trip, asking for feedback and an honest write-up of the tyre in return.
From the ashes of the much loved Schwalbe Marathon XR expedition tyre arose a phoenix. Or, more correctly, a number of phoenixes. Or perhaps phoeni. Anyway. The point is that Schwalbe now make no fewer than 10 varieties of touring tyre, instead of just two or three; each specialising in a particular kind of touring.
For some months I’ve been hinting at another major journey I was planning for later this year. I haven’t cancelled the trip, but I have put it on hold for a while. I’ll explain why, as the reasons deserve some discussion.
Imagine the following entirely hypothetical situation.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
Kona have just announced their bike line-up for the 2013 season. While I don’t usually post on product launches, Kona have supported my adventures for half a decade, and last week they reminded me why I’m glad to be working with them (aside from getting to ride their bikes for free).
I wrote a detailed review of the 2012 Sutra touring bike after riding it from Vancouver to San Francisco in the spring. In the review, I pointed out a couple of big improvements I’d like to see made to this very capable long-term expedition tourer. Several other owners echoed these sentiments in the comments, and I sent the feedback to Kona’s designers in BC, Canada.