Innovation, Women and Happiness. In Conversation With Gary Fisher

Sitting in the canteen at the Trek global headquarters in Wisconsin, I’d been given the heads up that an interview with Gary Fisher isn’t like an interview with anyone else. To expect tangents, to see where it goes. Consider this more of a conversation: about growing the sport, about mountain biking’s most underrated innovation, and about his vision for the future.milner_trek_garyfisher_portrait021

It’s been about 40 years now since you started turning road bikes into mountain bikes.

It’s been a long, long time. I really enjoyed when I was 63 because I could say I’m 21 three times over. [He stops and laughs a huge laugh. He turns 66 this year. Sitting there in his riding kit, still wearing the bandana he uses underneath his helmet, and exposing molars full of gold fillings, he looks like a pirate.]

I’ll tell ya, I’ve had an unfair amount of fun. [He laughs some more. I get the sense laughter is never too far away when you hang out with Gary.]

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But you seem to enjoy it.

Oh yeah, I mean, come on. I’m a lucky man you know. I get to come to…I mean, I tell my wife, I’m going out to Madison. What are you going to do out there? I’m going to be out there with 50 women. She goes, ‘Ah, that’s typical.’

What gives you the biggest buzz nowadays?

Changing things. You know? That’s the biggest buzz. My excitement at this moment is [he gets serious all of a sudden] we are going to get in every single high school in the United States and I’m convinced that we can do it.

There are 179,000 high schools in the United States. Imagine if we got 10-20 riders in each one of those schools? This would be a bigger influx of bike riders than ever in the history of the United States. Now THAT is an exciting project.

Is that with NICA [the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a group doing incredible things in schools in the USA]?

Yeah, that’s with those guys. They’re good people and everything, but we have something to bring to the party; we have an awful lot of business experience and experience with politicians and all that minutia to make this happen.

I am fully confident that we’re going to pull it off [he says convincingly]. It might take 10 years, but we’re going to pull it off.

Did you ever think you’d see something like this Trek Women’s Advocate program happen?

The women’s thing? It’s really funny because last night at [Trek President] John Burke’s house it was a completely different dynamic from the normal get together there. Normally there’ll be guys there, and they don’t talk to each other so much. They give each other a lot of space. That whole thing [the contrast] was not lost on John Burke.

‘THEY’RE JUST COMMUNICATING!’ THE FUTURE OF CYCLING AND HOW WOMEN ARE KEY.jeff-kennel-gary-fisher-interview-2

He said exactly the same thing.

He really recognised that these personalities are different. And now I’m talking to people around here and saying, ‘Well, look!’ You see how the dynamic totally changes when the men are totally outnumbered by the women.

Imagine, the women have always been outnumbered by the men in all these meetings we have within this building [the Trek Bikes Global HQ]. Could we have more meetings where the women decidedly outnumber the men?

Just to see what happens?

Well, I KNOW what’s going to happen. Things will be worked out better in that whole category. We, as a business, have really failed to engage even a good majority of women. I mean a real minority is what we’ve got.

Not many women like going into the man cave. It’s building this whole other environment that a woman feels comfortable going into and working with it.

Why do you think it’s changing now?

Because we’re looking at the obvious. You look at all the stats, like, how many of your subscribers are men versus women? With bikes, with races, with all this, it’s been hovering around 10 per cent. 10-15 percent. Maybe 20 in some good situations. But that is completely unrepresentative of the amount of women that want to ride and enjoy riding.

Sometimes I think women, in general, hold themselves back in growing the sport.

Yeah. We all find that. We are our own worst enemy. In the bike industry, we’ve got real problems. We’re not a force that we deserve to be. You look at Madison Avenue [in New York City, not the band]. All the advertising agencies, they use the bike as an icon of the good life. And it’s one of the top five icons of a good life.

When you’ve made it, you’re going to go out and ride your bike and have a great time. This is real freedom and everything. While that’s great, and we get, in a way, this free advertising, we as an industry have never controlled it, that message.kath-bicknell-gary-fisher-interview-3

We are always doing this whole guerrilla advertising sort of thing, and we’re not a big force. Especially in the United States. Only 40 per cent of people in the United States even owns a bicycle. So there’s a 60 per cent majority that has no idea how much fun we’re having! And that’s really the crazy part.

People look at us riding up a hill and go, ‘That guy’s gotta be miserable.’ And nothing could be further from the truth.

So how do we share the fun?

We start with the kids. [That massive laugh returns again as he switches to his pantomime voice.] Now you see my wicked plan!

[More wild pirate laughter. His expression says this is so obvious and excellent, that we switch instead to a different topic.]

I have another question, one that my brother was wondering when I told him about this trip. When I asked him about innovation in cycling, he commented that bike has basically looked the same for about 100 years.

Given your history in reshaping what a bike can do, what do you think are the most underrated innovations in bike design?

Hmmm. That’s a really good question… The most underrated innovations in bike design…. [he says, thinking…] because they’ve all be rated pretty high…

kath-bicknell-gary-fisher-interview-5I know what it is! For mountain biking, it’s the trail. A good trail makes you look like a genius! [That infectious laughter again.]

I had this experience two years ago – we went to the 25th anniversary of the European World Championships. They were in France and they were held in a ski resort. It was on hiking trails, basically. We were given the opportunity to ride the original course. It hadn’t been ridden in years. And here I am riding this course and we’re walking all this stuff. It was just unrideable. It was ridiculous.

Because it hadn’t been maintained? Or because it wasn’t ridable in the first place?

It wasn’t built for mountain bikers to start with and it wasn’t…it was a really crummy trail. And quite honestly, in the beginning days of NORBA and all that we held all these races, especially up in ski resorts, because they were willing to pay for us to come up. [NORBA was the National Off-Road Bicycle Association and ran from 1983-2004, a bit like Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA), but more NORBA-y]

They loved us. They had a famous event and they didn’t have many spectators. It would fill all their condominiums for a week and they wouldn’t have to deal with the public.

I used to be on the NORBA Board of Trustees. And I used to be complaining all the time saying, ‘Can’t we make a course that’s actually faster with the bike than without the bike?’

Such a crazy idea!

Yeah! And I rode this course. And I’m going, this is a miserable piece of crap. It’s a miracle that anybody got beyond riding stuff like that to actually enjoy the sport.

What do you think are the big limitations that we have to overcome now?

In the States, acceptance from the other 60 per cent. And those are mostly guys like me. Old white guys. And they’ve got the money and the power and everything. And they’re the ones that are saying ‘no, never, you’re going to have to pry my cold, dead fingers off my steering wheel. The car is the answer and it’s the only way.’ And they’re entirely wrong.

[The conversation detours as we take a tour around the world, the history of transport, health, the medical system and lots and lots of un-fact-checkable-but-very-motivating stats.]

What advice would you give to people who are already part of the riding community now?

To go out and teach somebody how to ride right. And tell them what it’s all about. And talk about all the…all the medical papers, peer reviewed, that say what we’ve been saying all along: I’m very happy when I ride a bike. I’m healthier. I’m more intelligent.kath-bicknell-gary-fisher-interview-2

There’s also this thing where you’re doing this thing. Skaters do it, surfboarders do it, skiers do it. And you’re doing this motion. And this motion has been proven to create happiness in your brain.

Flow.

Yeah! It’s why we dance! It’s why we do all this stuff you know! It creates happiness.

And after all, at the end of the day, what are you really after?

What are people really after?

Well, OK. The top five death bed regrets, right?

Which are?

Which are…

I should work more!

No, it’s never that!

No, it’s…people don’t lie [at that point]. They look back on life and they say, I wish I’d taken better care of myself, my health. I wish that I kept my friends. I wish that I told everybody around me how I really felt. And I wish I had tried to do what I really wanted to do.

[As we wrap up our interview, I can’t help but think that Gary is a man who has certainly done just that. And in the processes, he’s swept along a whole wave of people who can now call themselves mountain bikers with him.]

Thank you.

 

‘They’re Just Communicating!’ The Future of Cycling and How Women are Key.

Last week, Wisconsin was the destination for around 60 bike-mad ladies, including seven working in media. We were there for the first ever Trek Women’s Summit at the company’s sprawling global headquarters. Based in a small town called Waterloo, and with a series of rooms for every part of the bike design and manufacturing process, the impact of the company has extended far beyond the walls of the shed.

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Jim Colegrove who’s the man behind Trek’s OCLV carbon fibre process.

I’ve long respected Trek’s approach to women in cycling. They’ve invested in the women’s market since the mid-90s. They offer scholarships for women to skill up in the workshop. And the riders headlining their Factory Racing teams are women. Not just racing, headlining: Emily Batty in cross-country, Rachel Atherton in downhill, Tracey Mosely (now retired) and Casey Brown in enduro and Katie Compton in cyclocross.

‘It’s a woman’s bike if a woman is riding it,’ Trek said last week, one of the most sensible things that’s been said about bikes for women in years.

While Trek lay claim to developing the first ‘women’s specific’ bike, today, with better research into what works and doesn’t for riders of all types, data from bike fits is also supporting person specific contact points rather than a unique frame. This is something that stands out in the 2017 product line and the bikes ridden by their factory riders.jeff-kennel-trek-summit-12

‘It’s a woman’s bike if a woman is riding it,’ Trek said last week, one of the most sensible things that’s been said about bikes for women in years.

I arrived at the summit curious to learn more about the company, their ethos and how they see this sport developing in the future. I was also curious to meet their new advocates, and learn about how the cycling scene in the USA overlaps and contrasts with our own.

Trek’s Women’s Advocate program

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In recent years, women’s advocates and ambassadors have become a central part of successful marketing strategies from several companies in the bike industry.

The aim of the summit was to celebrate and educate the company’s newly announced women’s advocates. In whittling applications down to just over 50, Trek selected ladies from all over the USA and Canada, including a couple from Brazil and Mexico. Most are already working in the cycling industry, with the majority working in shops, or teaching clinics. They’re supported with some product, but the real value for these women is in networking, resources and being skilled up and empowered in how to do what they do even better.

Ambassadors can build participation in their local communities through regular rides, skills clinics, social media, and being a point of contact for riders new to the sport.
Ambassadors can build participation in their local communities through regular rides, skills clinics, social media, and being a point of contact for riders new to the sport.

I could happily write you a feel good piece about how wonderful these advocates are, but I’m not going to. Like ambassadors for other brands in Australian cycling communities, the fact that these ladies are pretty special is as obvious as saying bikes have wheels. With so many extraordinary people gathered in one place, I found myself asking three questions about the bigger picture:

What’s one thing you would like to see change in cycling over the next 5-10 years?

What do you think it would take to make that happen?

How do you think these women are part of that change?

The answers people gave revealed as much about what makes them great in their own roles within the sport as it does about the role of women in taking this sport to the next level.

John Burke, Trek President

John’s response was that he wants to see an increase in safer places to ride. ‘If you do that, you’ll get a lot more people to ride,’ he said.

‘I think we’re at a very interesting place where we’ve got huge environmental issues that nobody even knows how big the environmental issues are. And that will continue to rear its ugly head, and that will spur people to action.

‘You’ve got congestion issues in the cities which aren’t going away. And then you’ve got health issues because people are getting unhealthier. Cycling is the only thing I know that addresses all three.’ A powerful pitch for the future of cycling indeed.
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John’s response was that he wants to see an increase in safer places to ride. ‘If you do that, you’ll get a lot more people to ride,’ he said.

So how are these women part of that change? This, from John, was the most telling response of all. He started off referring to the welcome drinks held at his home, which the summiteers had shared the night before.

‘So I’ve had a lot of events at that house and a lot of them are 80 per cent guys. It was fascinating just doing the people watching thing last night,’ he said.

‘One of the things I found to be very interesting is that when you have all these guys come to the house, they don’t know anybody so they just sit there and they’ll find one person and talk to them in the corner. And that’s their night.

‘When you take a look at women, they didn’t know anybody either and it was just…’ he makes a sound kind of like a fizzing rocket taking off and heading into outer space. ‘And you’ve got groups of six and eight and 10 and they’re just communicating!’ Talking with John, you could see the cogs ticking as he recognised the value of this to the sport as a whole.

‘You’ve got all this stuff going on and when men get involved in cycling, they do it for themselves. When women get involved in cycling, they do it for the group. So, the more women you can get involved in cycling, they can spread the message more. I also think, the more women who press the issue of safe places to ride can have a huge influence.’

Gary Fisher, the man with the moustache.

Gary Fisher is one of the people who invented mountain biking in the 70s. He’s seen a lot and done a lot. He, too, suddenly became aware of the possibilities that come from switching the balance of women to men. His vision for the future of cycling? ‘To be more available.’

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What do we need to do that? ‘More safe places to ride and more education,’ he said.jeff-kennel-trek-summit-17

And how are these women key? ‘These women? Come on!’ he said with a thick accent I’d oddly never imagined when pouring over historical images from the sport.

‘Women talk. Women have intellect. Like crazy. And women actually control much more than men will give -’ he stops mid-sentence…

‘We try to be complete here,’ he said next, talking about Trek more broadly. ‘We’ve focussed on guys for so long. It’s been our bread and butter. Old white guys, in the last 10 years have been the industry’s bread and butter.’

In a separate interview we’ll publish later, Gary spoke about his curiosity to see what happens when switching the balance of women to men in company meetings to see what insights arise and decisions are made.

Candace Shadley. One of those women who create a massive wave, and is simply excited to see more people jump on (a) board and surf it.

Based in Whistler, Canada, Candace runs the Trek Dirt Series mountain bike camps. She’s seen as a pioneer in this area, coaching over 1000 riders a year. This is an impressive amount when you consider the number of months when the country is covered in snow, and the gnar factor of iconic Whistler trails.

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Candace would like to see ‘more women integrated in to the sport and respected for what they do.’ She’d also like to see more people crossing disciplines. More cross-country riders hitting up the bike park for instance. The bonus is she can already see all these things happening. The sport is exploding and riding one discipline only is becoming a thing of the past.

‘There are so many people that are drivers and doers and shakers and motivated,’ she said. ‘And bike technology always gets better so you can take the same bike in various areas and that helps. We’re going in such a good direction. We just need to keep going there,’ she said.

So what happens next? ‘We’re sitting in a room of 50-something super motivated women,’ Candace said. ‘At a company that’s made a massive commitment to that.

‘I think that having the people here shows that they can go further because there are more people, more empowered, with more resources and more support to keep doing what they’re doing and do it even better.’

Kate Nolan, one of the Trek Women’s Advocates based in Indiana, but helping people to fall in love with the outdoors everywhere.

Kate Nolan co-owns an adventure company with her wife, called DNK Presents. Given her new advocate role and the context of the summit as a whole, she said she really just wants to see more women on bikes.

She sees education and awareness as key to creating this change, but phrased it in terms of making ladies feel more comfortable. ‘Women apologise more than men,’ Kate said. ‘You always hear women like, ‘Oh I’m sorry, my backpack’s not right,’ or, ‘Oh I’m sorry I’m going too slow.’ Giving them a safe place just to get out and have a good time and be surrounded by other women.’

While we need industry driven change at a higher level, it’s people on the ground, like Kate, who know how to cater to the riders who don’t already feel comfortable on bikes. This is central in shifting the gender balance too.

For Kate, as well as a lot of the other skills coaches I spoke to, they were quick to speak about what cycling gave people in their lives away from the bike too. Better health, a stronger sense of self, more assertiveness, able to tackle bigger life problems and challenges in the workplace. It was these bigger benefits of participation that appeared to be what motivated these ladies the most.

On diversity, confidence and change

So where does that leave me? What were my thoughts?

I often find myself straddling a fine line working in cycling media. On one hand, being female means I’m often asked to write stories and reviews catering to a much broader range of women than the industry often acknowledges.

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We’re getting better at acknowledging the diversity of women in the sport. We’re seeing women and girls as people, as leaders, as articulate, as wanting to do different, compelling and passion-driven things.

In trying to grow the women’s side of the sport it’s important to balance a narrative that’s welcome and inclusive to people who’ve only recently discovered the bikes, but also speak to riders who have been in the sport for a much longer time; riders who don’t always identify with this nurturing, developmental narrative, or bikes developed as part of this stance. Many of these women, by contrast, want to ride things that are steep, challenging and technical. And ride it fast.

This is not to say that Trek, or other brands, haven’t been advancing the women’s side of the sport. Swap ‘women’ for ‘wheel size’ and you’ll see that there’s no right answer or single way to move these debates forward. But, as Gary Fisher later said, ‘Change happens very slowly and then it happens rapidly. And then it happens slowly again. And we’re going into a rapid change period.’

I left the summit feeling lifted. I feel like the industry has finally started to talk about women in cycling the way women do. As multiple, diverse, as having different aims and opinions, as sometimes being more comfortable on a nimble-handling or high-performance bike with modified contact points, as sometimes being better suited to a unique frame. As wanting to shred, as wanting to travel, as chatty, as ambitious, as articulate, as influential. As part of a much bigger picture. As confident. As valuable. I can’t wait to see where this takes the sport next.