Bike Racing Is The New MBA

May 29, 2015
Ken Woods Race

I love bikes. And while I grew up traveling from state to state as a competitive equestrian, I’ve now traded real, flesh-and-blood horses for a small stable of three metal ponies.

In April, I signed up for an outdoor urban training camp through The Fix Studio, where I survive indoor training sessions every week, all year long. After four days of grueling hill intervals – over and over again – and long hours in the saddle, I felt like I could conquer the pavement. So I signed up for my first road-bike race, the Ken Woods Memorial Classic, just south of Cannon Falls. I’d intended to race last year, but life just got in the way. So I’ve put a stake in the ground this year: This is it. This is the year I learn how to play really hard with bikes.

I decided to simply start with one piece of the classic – the 21-mile road race for the “Category 4” women. All bike-crazy women begin their racing experience as Category 4 racers, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect or how my own training would measure up.

On the day of the race, the wind was strong – and since we were racing on county roads surrounded by farm fields, there was no wind block. So the wind would be at our backs on one road, only to blow us sideways when we turned a right corner. Twenty-one miles on my own is no problem; twenty-one miles with breakaway groups peeling off from the peloton and round-after-round of surging is another force entirely.

But I did it. I even caught the largest breakaway group and hung with the fast girls for the last 15 miles.

Now that the race is over – and I’ve competed in a couple of others – I can’t stop thinking about how the unpredictable energy of racing relates so closely to this topsy-turvy world of marketing. Communications. Talking to people in relevant ways. Whatever you want to call it.

Headwinds eventually become tailwinds. In a race, there’s nothing that makes you want to scream more than a strong headwind that JUST WON’T GO AWAY. That’s when you realize that your lizard brain’s primary job is to protect you from the elements. The refrain goes something like this: “My legs hurt. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. Why am I doing this? I really don’t have to do this. This is stupid.”

But then you realize that everyone is facing the same wind. Everyone curses the same wind. And everyone hurts. Then you turn a corner – and then another – and that nasty headwind is now at your back, pushing you down the road.

Similarly, most brands face headwinds at some point. But the brands that have a clear sense of purpose, are open to occasional experimentation and trust that a headwind will become a tailwind win. Every time.

Don’t get stuck on the inside. After a long, winding hill climb, we finally relaxed onto a stretch of flat pavement. But I wasn’t paying attention: The finish line was about a half mile from the top of the hill. When one of the women in the breakaway group suddenly surged forward, I realized I needed to sprint. But I was stuck on the outside edge of the road, and there was no way around the group of cyclists. I picked up my speed just enough to urge my front wheel ahead of another racer to my left. But that was it. That was all I could do. If I had positioned myself on the outside of the group, I would have had enough room to make a break for the finish line. Lesson learned.

Brands don’t want to be penned against the edge of the road, with no room to make decisions. They might still be in the race from that position – but there’s no way to win. In other words, brands that let themselves get boxed in by competitors don’t have enough room to clearly see the playing field. And then they get stuck. Just like I did.

Sometimes you just have to go for it. Because I’d never raced before, I didn’t know what to do when the breakaway group splintered off from the main pack. So I hung back, thinking I should stay close to my two other teammates even though I knew I could step on the gas. A couple of miles later, one rider and then another broke off to chase the smaller group ahead. And I went with them, feeling a rush of nerves. My one and only goal for the race was to avoid getting dropped, and if I burned up too quickly chasing down the breakaway, that’s exactly what could have happened. But then I caught them by sucking on the other two riders’ wheels. And I stayed with them for the rest of the race. It even felt easy at times.

A brand’s competition may not have the most remarkable approach to marketing – but that’s no excuse for said brand to assume it’s okay to be mediocre and blend with the rest. Just because all the brands suck on social media, for example, doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable state of affairs. It doesn’t mean your brand couldn’t and shouldn’t be the one that destroys the competition.