The past two weeks have seen Velo Jones traipsing all over the Central Rockies and points east. Ever wonder about that lone exit dubbed “No Name” off I-70 just before you pull into Glenwood Springs? Stayed there. For 2 nights. In what could charitably be described as an “eclectically heated” short-term rental with mom-in-law, huge dog, 2 crabby kids and patience-challenged wife (lack of sleep stirs her inner Linda Blair). Velo Jones does not require sleep himself, but it’s really a matter of dialing down any sort of requirement to perform anything resembling higher brain function that makes that statement possible. In other words, when you have two little kids, if you want to preserve any shred of self-esteem you just have to learn to aim low.
That trip to the Roaring Fork Valley to look at potential homes for the VJ clan was probably the low-point of my/our travels; I enjoyed it (probably because I’m a bit of a whackjob), but I’m pretty sure nobody else did. There were two other trips that qualify as high points over the past two weeks though and I thought I’d take a few minutes to tell you about them. I’m always interested in learning about how others approach training through challenging winter months and over the course of two tripsI got to spend time with some of the folks who are among the very best at it. First up were Kent and Jay from Midwest Cyclery, the parent organization behind four kick-ass multi-brand Trek Concept stores in Omaha, St. Loius and Kansas City. The astute among you (or Kent and Jay’s families) also know these guys as the new owners of VeloGear. I also spent 8 solid hours with Len Zanni, four of them riding shotgun in his pickup and the other four touring the Honey Stinger and Big Agnes operations (of which Len is marketing guy and part owner). That story is upcoming in part 2 of the “VJ on Wheels” travel series.
Nebraska was first, so let’s start there. I flew into Omaha from DIA a couple of Mondays ago. In my mind I see myself as a person with few preconceptions. I’m generally delighted by seeing new places and things, but looking back and realizing that I was so off base in what I thought I’d see as opposed to what I actually did see it’s clear that living in Colorado has made me a little myopic. Coloradans, especially ones that live in ski towns tend to look at the rest of the world like Americans look at Canada – shallowly. Maybe a bit dismissively. Or maybe that’s just me – I’m willing to concede the point that I’m not really a deep thinker. I’m not saying that it’s right, just that that’s sometimes how it is. Mea culpa.
In any case, Omaha (and its airport) were bigger than I had expected. In my mind I was prepared for something the size of Madison’s airport – where you could look out the front door and pretty much see your house from there. Mistake. Omaha’s airport, while certainly not O-Hare, LAX or LaGuardia still isn’t small. I had an “Oh crap” moment when I realized that my deeply embedded lack of orientation skills (again Dad, sorry), were brilliantly showcased through the spotlight of a completely foreign environment. I was kind of lost. And with too many options. With lots of signs shouting at me; “Ground Transportation!” “Rental Cars!” “BAGGAGE CLAIM!!!” Well, maybe they’re just signs to you, but in moments of low-grade anxiety it always seems like they’re shouting to me. A little bit like Alice in Wonderland. Kind of creepy.
The problem as I see it is that when you enter an airport by car your choices are clearly defined into “Arrivals” and “Departures”. Shoot – I can deal with that. What I had a harder time with was finding the sign that said “Here’s where your friends are picking you up, you silly monkey”. If only the Omaha airport would have the common decency to erect appropriate signage for sleep-deprived and brain cell-challenged travelers. And bumbling amateur orienteer-ers. As I was about to engage ‘Commodore 64′ (this is how I’ve come to think of my brain and its mental capacity) and apply it’s frustratingly limited bandwidth towards figuring out an appropriate exit strategy from this fiendishly conceived mass-transit rat maze, lady luck smiled upon me. I looked out the front windows of the airport and saw a black Volvo station wagon parked outside, the silouette of big-haired person sitting behind its wheel. Two possibilities crossed my mind – it was either my mom circa 1988 with a big old can of CFC-rich Aqua Net hairspray at the ready, or it was Jay and his white boy ‘fro.
Apparently Omaha’s airport lacks the ability to bend the linear concept of time because I was not transported back 20 years to that awkward period of Forenza sweaters, leg warmers and acid-washed jeans. Instead it was Jay out there. And Kent. Double bonus for me, who if pressed into service as a French Legionairre or forced to embark upon an African Safari would surely be the first among the pith-helmet crew to be mangled by tigers or molested by naughty monkeys. Seriously – I can barely find my way to my own garage. Disaster averted.
Snuggled comfortably in the warm confines of Jay’s car, he turned the igintion and a husky, cultured feminine voice blurted out “Jay Thomas…IS CONNECTED”. I started laughing. Then so did Kent, and finally so did Jay. Apparently the Volvo syncs with his phone so that he can talk hands-free while driving. Think about that for a minute. Now think about the first cell phone you ever owned. We’ve come a long way, baby.
First order of business: food. We left the airport and much to my surprise, Marlin Perkins from “Wild Kingdom” did not make an appearance. Now I know for a fact that there are not cheetahs and gazelles romping about the plains of the midwest. I know this. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that Omaha did not look like the African savannah-like image that’s always lived in my head when thinking about Omaha. Soldier on, Velo Jones. Disappointment aside, Kent and Jay did create a parallel – they led me to food. I haven’t actually eaten red meat since Interbike last fall, but today seemed like a good day to break the streak. I heart you brown cow. You are delicious.
From there we took a tour of their stores. They have two in Omaha along with one each in KC and St. Louis, all of them Trek concept stores. Now I don’t know about you, but my inner nerd starts to ping when I wlk into certain places – a William and Sonoma (I’m a kitchen-nerd), any decent Home Depot or Tru-Value, and bike shops. Any bike shop. All of them. It’s like witnessing someone else’s interpretation of bike culture. From a sociological standpoint, it’s pretty cool to see it through someone else’s lens. And their shops are cool – and not just because of all the swank product displayed around the respective sales floors (Project One road stuff, fixies, townies, kids bikes and one BOMBER tricyle – talk about coming a long way – nice job, Trek), but because of the employees rolling in and out on a bitterly cold Midwestern day with their driveside pants-legs pegged, bikes all fendered-up and icycles frozen and hanging from their whiskers. These shops and the folks that live there are core…in the best possible way.
Jay and Kent walked me through their shop systems, pointed out other lines that they carry (Capo, Cervelo, Gary Fisher, Serotta, Mirraco BMX, Campy, Castelli and many, many others), and finally we ended up back at the mothership – their office and warehouse facility. It was there that we got into the meat of “The VeloGear Project”. It’s probably a long and boring story for anyone not actually in the room, so I’ll try to make it short – we talked about how to transition this little company from its roots as the premier place to go for a Park Tool Pizza Cutter to a vibey, cool online retailer that offered all of the hard to get stuff from here and abroad. We talked about how best to get that message across. We talked about great service, value and follow through. About how to provide information and useful consumer reviews along with a broad range of products. We talked about what being a good corporate citizen in the bike world meant in 2010…and we talked about bikes, bike stuff and bike races – the comfortable conversational terrain of lifelong bike geeks.
The fruit of that conversation from a professional standpoint is, well…a little daunting. It’s a tough economy to make “the little engine that could” model work. The competition out there is sophisticated, and in most cases able to call upon far greater resources. But I like our chances. Why? VeloGear wants and needs to be successful. That’s the American way, right? In the words of an old boss of mine “We ain’t here to donate.” Crude, but true. A business has to run in the black. What inspired me about this series of conversations held over the course of two days can be summed up in two sort of generalized observations;
- Kent and Jay and just about everyone that works for them or alongside them, whether at retail, as a buyer or as a vendor are cyclists. The Nebraska crew have the bug – and have it bad. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. These guys are core riders; road, ‘cross and MTB. They ride in winter. They ride on gravel roads. They strategically “pre-bonk” in the late winter and spring to simulate race conditions (thanks Kent – that story has generated more laughs than I can tell you). They laugh at their relative isolation from the “hotbeds” of cycling culture and are content just to keep putting in their miles, rain, snow or shine. They walk the walk.
- They also care deelpy about doing the right thing for the local, regional and national cycling communities. They want to stay profitable, but they’re committed to providing better-than-fair value to the consumer. It’s completely obvious that they take their obligation as a cycling organization very seriously – they have a loud and powerful voice among manufacturers and they’re not afraid to use it. Put simply, what you guys think about them and the way that they conduct business matters to them.
After a full day of talking shop Jay and I headed off to Lincoln for Indian food (real Indian, not Native American) with his family. The list of deeply held misconceptions about Nebraska continued to grow. Did you know that Omaha is larger than Lincoln…and by a lot? Omaha is roughly the size of Milwaukee or Sacremento. Lincoln on the other hand is about the size of Madison or Boulder (and has a lot in common with those two hipster cities). Also, Lincoln and Omaha are roughly 45 minutes apart. I never knew. Know what else is weird? Trees. TONS of ‘em. After getting over my intial disappointment of not seeing lush, waving grasslands filled with loping giraffes I was actually pretty blown away by how many trees there are – and how undulating the terrain is. I’m not sure that the thumping drums from the opening of Wild Kingdom will ever really leave my subconscious when considering Omaha, but the reality was still pretty cool.
Dinner with Jay’s family went about as expected. Jay’s wife is still one of the smartest people I know. His kids are charming – they’re polite and engaged. They look you in the eye when they talk and their not really self-conscious about being kids. And yet at the same time you can tell that they’re the cool kids at school, but without the attitude that sometimes accompanies that particular mindset. Living in a resort town we see a lot of sullen teenagers that project attitude in place of actual confidence. That’s part of being a kid I know, but I really hope that my two kids can look a little bit like Jay’s as they grow up.
Remember how I told you that I don’t need sleep? Jay put me in a guest room on an air mattress with about 10 blankets. I didn’t think to ask why, but I was glad to have them when the temp in that room dropped to absolute zero that night. Strangely, those are ideal conditions for me and minus the omni-present background noise of coughing and crying toddlers (always a fixture at my house), I slept like the poster child for Ambien. I woke up to a fragrantly powerful pot of fresh-brewed Peet’s then jumped into the kid’s bathroom for my morning constitutional errr, shower. Despite the curiously fossilized bar of soap (apparently it’s ornamental – the kids use liquid soap), the shower was awesome. Nobody screaming or crying, TONS of hot water and time, sweet time.
From there we headed back to HQ in Omaha, but first we stopped at DeLeon’s, a 24-hour Mexican food drive-through. I liked Nebraska before, but DeLeon’s will make me come back. Breakfast burritos with homemade red chile salsa = awesome. I’m pretty sure that if I lived there I’d weigh 400 pounds. The DeLeon’s folks can burrito-ize properly. Dang.
We met back up with Kent at the warehouse and got back into the meat of the conversation about how to move forward with VeloGear as a brand. How to remain true to ourselves and our friends as cyclists and how to draw more core cyclists to the website. Out of that day came some of the most innovative, consumer-involved thinking that I’ve been a part of since I joined the bike biz over 20 years ago. We plotted out a multi-faceted strategy to support the community, to underwrite events and riders, to upgrade creative elements and communitcations and through all of that, to maintain the brand’s unique voice and to provide you the consumer with better, more relevant and more entertaining information.
So keep your eyes open. There are some big announcements coming from our camp – stuff that’s so cool that it’s really hard to keep it under wraps until it’s finalized. What I can tell you is that it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun – for all of us.
Thanks for hanging in there through this lonnnng preamble about our plans for world domination. Stay tuned for a complete recap of my road trip with Len Zanni, Lance Armstrong’s soft-spoken and good natured mountain goat henchman. I took a trip to Steamboat Springs with him earlier in the week to see the Honey Stinger and Big Agnes facilities and got the firsthand poop on what really happened at Leadville this past year.
Oh yeah. An edict handed down from the new bosses is that we give TONS of stuff away to VeloGear loyalists. So “fan” us on Facebook. Or follow us on Twitter. You’ll be happy that you did. Winner, winner chicken dinner.
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