When the most winning American downhiller in history ditches a major bike sponsor for a niche, German manufacturer, you have to wonder if all’s well in the cycling world
Two-time World Cup downhill champ Aaron Gwin announced this week that he will ride for bike-sponsor YT Industries in 2016. And while the news finally ends nearly two months of speculation about Gwin’s future, it raises the more curious question of why and how America’s most winning DHer—at the top of his game—jettisoned (or was jettisoned by) Specialized, one of the country’s most influential brands, for a tiny German outfit that’s barely known outside of the gravity world.
Not surprisingly, money was at the heart of the split. “Honestly, it was pretty simple,” says Gwin. “YT valued me and allowed me to build a team on my own terms. They were willing to pay me what I believed I should be paid.”
The implication, of course, is that Specialized wasn’t willing to meet Gwin’s demands.
Gwin said he couldn’t discuss the dollars and cents of his salary requests due to a confidentiality clause, and Specialized was mum, too. However, it seems strange that the company that sponsors three of the most winning teams in pro cycling (Tinkoff, Astana, and Etixx–Quick-Step), simply couldn’t afford a racer who in 2015 alone chalked up four World Cup victories, a second place, and the national championship.
“It came down to what Aaron wanted,” says Sean Estes, global PR manager at Specialized. “We were pretty much okay with meeting his needs, which represented a substantial increase over the current deal. But where we wanted to stick to an incentive system, he wanted most of it as base.”
Beyond money, the split is certainly a question of culture. YT Industries (short for “young talent”) has just three gravity bike models, so the brand is better equipped to cater to Gwin—and capitalize on his expertise. “YT is focused on things that I’m excited about,” says Gwin. “Their priority is downhill and gravity. That means I’m the priority.” He adds that he rode the company’s DH bike, the Tues CF Pro, before signing and is confident he can continue his winning ways.
Gwin’s departure may also reflect the broader economics of the bike industry. Tarmac, Specialized’s dedicated road race bike, is the company’s number one gross market contributor, according to Estes, while Demo, the DH bike that Gwin rode, “accounts for almost nothing.” Says Estes, “We’re a big company. We can find the money to do anything. We found the money to build our own wind tunnel, for instance, which is something no other bike company has done. But we are big, in part, because we put our money where it is going to help us most.”
Road racing gets all-day worldwide TV coverage during the month of July, as well as widespread coverage throughout the year. That goes a long ways to explaining why Specialized is able to support a crowd of the biggest names in pro road racing, including Alberto Contador, Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, Tom Boonen, and Tony Martin, among others. Estes also points out that the company’s road teams represent Specialized’s range of products, including helmets, shoes, and some soft goods, while Gwin also represented Troy Lee Designs, Giro, DT Swiss, and a handful more companies making products that compete with Specialized.
Simon Thomson, director of sports marketing and racing at Trek, for whom Gwin raced in 2011 and 2012 before departing to Specialized, underscores the point. “[Our] road team has 25 riders representing 17 nationalities…and races 220 days a year in five continents in all our major markets,” says Thomson. “The exposure through event attendance, broadcast, print, and online dwarfs the exposure of all other sports combined.”
Then again, Gwin has proven a publicity magnet over the years. In addition to his two World Cup titles in 2011 and 2012, he’s pulled off stunts that have wracked up some serious visibility and cred. In 2014, he rode almost his entire final run at Leogang, Austria, minus a rear tire after he flatted near the top. And last season, when his chain broke on the same course, he took victory without even pedaling, a performance that became an instant Internet sensation.
And, Thomson says, it’s not only about publicity. “The demands of downhill racing ask more of bicycle products than any of the other cycling sports,” Thomson explains. So competing at that level “impacts the technologies we develop and implement across our MTB range of products.”
Specialized agrees, which is why they have signed the reigning World Cup champ, Loïc Bruni, for 2016. “Aaron is one of the best athletes ever, and it’s heartbreaking to go another direction. We made many attempts to continue with him,” says Estes. “But once we knew that wasn’t going to happen, we started hearing murmurs of [Bruni’s 2015 sponsor] LaPierre’s exit from DH, and we got the talks going.” Gwin just edged out Bruni* for the overall title last year. Specialized also sponsors Troy Brosnan, who took third in the World Cup last year, as well as 16-year-old, up-and-comer Finn Iles.
“The investments we make in DH cycling reflect our passion for the sport,” Estes says. And, he insists, the split with Gwin wasn’t personal. “If you look at football, you look at basketball, these sorts of changes…it’s just normal stuff.”
Gwin, too, is gracious. “You always hope that a brand will step up and value you where you feel you should be valued. But it’s their brand, and they obviously have the right to spend their money where they want to spend it,” he says. Looking ahead, though, he sounds a slightly more personal note. “I wish them well, and I hope they do great at the races. Just not as good as me.”
*This section has been corrected.