Sunday, September 06, 2020

Trans Iowa Stories: A Tool For Marketing

Part of a trade show booth put together by Salsa Cycles in 2014.
 "Trans Iowa Stories" is an every Sunday post which helps tell the stories behind the event. You can check out other posts about this subject by going back to earlier Sunday posts on this blog. Thanks and enjoy!

By 2012 or so, the gravel riding scene had generated enough interest from participants that bicycling related companies started to take notice. Salsa Cycles being perhaps the first to do so by introducing a purpose built gravel bike in the Warbird. Although it could be argued that the Titanium La Cruz was really the first effort they made to get into the gravel scene.

Of course, when you make a new category of bicycle you are going to need tires to work with it. There were basically none up until Salsa Cycles convinced Donn Kellogg, then running a tire brand called Clement, to produce some. The MSO became that tire, and then with the introduction of the Raleigh Tamland series, it was on from that point. Then, when that happened, well the marketing was sure to follow, and it did big time.

As it related to Trans Iowa, that all could have happened a lot sooner than it did. Jeff Kerkove, who was a big name in solo 24hr racing at the time we started Trans Iowa, had many connections stemming from the endurance mountain bike racing community. One of those relationships was with Red Bull, who sponsored mountain biking events and several athletes in mountain biking. Red Bull agreed to sponsor the first Trans Iowa. It wasn't some token effort either.

This 40ft tent was only one facet of the Red Bull sponsorship of T.I.v1 (Image by D. Kerkove)
Red Bull made a plan to activate their sponsorship across the entire route of the point-to-point event. Remember- that's over 300 miles of Iowa! Their plan was to send out 40 foot tents to the mid-point mandated time cut point and to the finish. We kind of dissuaded them a bit on the tent deal, but they ended up doing the Algona checkpoint nonetheless. Another facet of the sponsorship was to provide event participants with Red Bull energy drink.

That plan was not well thought out, and with all Jeff and I had going on, Red Bull's efforts got lost in the haze. Not many people know this, but two young employees of Red Bull actually traipsed across Iowa handing out Red Bull product to confused Iowans along what these two young people thought was the route. They didn't quite understand we were out on gravel roads, and yet it didn't seem to matter to these two folks. I heard vague reports of them standing along the main drags of Forest City and Cresco handing people cans of Red Bull and yakking about some crazy race called "Trans Iowa" and would it be coming through here?

People must have thought they were aliens.

But the Red Bull thing could have been huge had we pursued that angle. I know they didn't understand what they had gotten themselves into, and if we knew what we had gotten ourselves into, we could have sold that to Red Bull easily. How do I know this? Well, Red Bull was a long time sponsor of the DK200, that's how I know. But it wasn't to be, and maybe that's a good thing.

Of course, the Salsa Cycles thing kind of snuck in there when they started offering prizing to Trans Iowa event participants and then started testing product at the event. By Trans Iowa v9, they had the Warbird officially released. To market the bike, they concocted a plan to get riders on Warbirds into Trans Iowa and the DK200. At that time, these were considered to be the two plumbs of the gravel cycling world's pie.  If the Warbird could be shown to be able to compliment a rider's efforts through these long endurance grinders, then it would be good enough for anybody.

Raw camera imagery from Jason Boucher from T.I.v9
So, I knew that Salsa wanted to get certain riders in for Trans Iowa v9, and a soft request was made to see if I might be amenable to ushering through a few guys in the registration, but you know where that went, I'm sure! Regardless, they pretty much ended up with the guys they wanted, mainly Tim Ek, then a sponsored Salsa Cycles athlete, and a guy by the name of Paul Errington, of the U.K.

Prizing and arrangements to have Jason Boucher, former head of Salsa Cycles but still with the parent company, QBP, along to take imagery, were set. But at the last minute, (two weeks or so out), a request was made to allow another QBP photographer access to the event. His name was Scott Haraldson. This was not what I had envisioned, but after a few tersely stated emails from me wanting specifics, it pretty much came out that Scott was there from a QBP/Salsa marketing standpoint only.

That headache was eventually navigated and to be honest, I don't think I even saw Scott at anytime out on the course. Come to find out he basically shadowed Ek and Errington only. This rubbed me a bit the wrong way, as it could have been "outside support" from the standpoint of cheer leading/outside encouragement. I don't know that this actually happened, but I wasn't about to have that situation potentially happen again in a Trans Iowa. Fortunately, Trans Iowa fell way down on the lists of marketing folks to target for their products and requests like that of QBP were not endured after T.I.v9. Only WTB really used Trans Iowa as a marketing tool after this, and they did it in a very organic, sincere way.

When WTB came a-knockin', it was by way of sponsoring the event with tires. When I say tires, I mean cases of tires. They sent Nano 40's one year, which many folks got their hands on. For T.I.v11, they sent about ten cases of Nano 40 TCS tires that, due to the situation of T.I.v11, I had to hand out in a bar in Grinnell, and the left overs were used for sponsor prizing the following year. Then there was the way WTB used Trans Iowa in marketing.

Will Ritchie, then of WTB, in T.I.v12. Image by Wally Kilburg
WTB had a gravel cycling, and more specifically, a Trans Iowa advocate, in Will Ritchie. Will, believed in what Trans Iowa was all about so much that he pretty much went full immersion and not only asked for, and got, tires made for gravel racing/riding, but attended and rode in Trans Iowa. He basically lavished Trans Iowa with sponsorship unheard of before or since.

Trans Iowa got rare pre-production tires for the winners of V-12. Trans Iowa got a piece of a shipment of tires meant for OEM's to test ahead of them being for sale. Trans Iowa got tires from the first batch of tubeless gravel tires ever made for sale and which were so much in demand that I was receiving calls from bike shops begging me to sell them tires from the prizing stash.

Will and WTB got valuable exposure, testing time, and came up with at least two designs directly coming out of their Trans Iowa experiences. Those tires being the Riddler and the Resolute. The Riddler, a variant on a theme first released as a mountain bike tire, is a perennial spec on many gravel bikes while the Resolute, a purely Trans Iowa derived design, has gone on to become my favorite tire for gravel. It is criminally underrated in my opinion.

But getting back to the marketing- WTB never really overtly called out T.I. in their marketing, nor did they overtly use Trans Iowa in their imagery. Not a big deal to me. I suspect that was mostly done out of respect stemming from Will Ritchie's deep feelings toward the event itself. Will penned a couple of heartfelt blog posts once on the WTB blog. You can see those here and here. I don't know how many folks actually read blog posts on brand websites, so those may have been mostly under the radar for many cyclists, but they are well worth reading. Will has a way with words, and they are good reads. But the point is, you can see the deep respect that Will had for Trans Iowa, and it seeped into the way WTB went about doing gravel specific tires and in their marketing.

A view of the Trans Iowa inspired panel in the Salsa Cycles' booth from Frostbike.

Salsa, on the other hand, actually put images and words about Trans Iowa into one of their catalogs and into their trade show booth appearance for a couple of seasons. I got to experience the trade show booth at Frostbike and it was impressive. I cannot say that ether Salsa's or WTB's way of marketing T.I. was right or wrong. It was good. It was good for gravel grinding in general. It didn't do anything for Trans Iowa because I was not doing the event in such a manner that capitalizing on the attention would make sense.

 So, it was flattering, for sure, and I was grateful for the momentary spotlight, but in terms of bringing more prestige, glory, and probably most importantly and obviously, monetary benefits? Nah.... not so much. I wasn't geared toward making coin off Trans Iowa, and that wasn't what it was about. So all the marketing and whatnot was a tool for the brands that participated in Trans Iowa with me. And that is okay. In the end, what they did with Trans Iowa benefited gravel riding overall, and to me, that was the most important thing. Bringing this style of cycling to more rider's attention. In that, the marketing done out of Trans Iowa was somewhat successful, I hope. 

Next: Let's get on with the show.......

1 comment:

blooddoc23 said...

The Riddler is a great tire!