Gwin, Specialized, and the Business of Mountain Biking

The rumors that have been circulating all fall have been confirmed today: the All-American boy is leaving the largest American bike company. After Aaron Gwin’s most dominating season to date, he and Specialized bikes have parted ways.

And there’s no secret about the “why?” Gwin has been very forthcoming about the fact that he wanted more money, and Specialized wasn’t willing to pay. With the dollars that have been freed up by Gwin’s departure, Specialized has picked up some new talent on their roster, most significantly Jared Graves on the enduro side of things. And it’s not a stretch to think that we’ll be hearing about other new additions to the Specialized roster in the near future (possibly Mr. Bruni?).

As for Gwin, his future sponsors remain unrevealed, but rumor has it that he’s signing on with a yet-to-be-specified German brand. YT? KTM? Hofbrauhaus?

It’s reasonably well known that Gwin has a cozy relationship with KTM, so maybe they’re interested in putting together a downhill squad. However the YT brand is doing impressively well, and they would seemingly have a lot to gain by getting their TUES on top of the podium.

But more interestingly, for the second time in his career, Gwin’s departure has sparked a discussion about contracts and payment for top-level racers. Details of compensation for top level mountain bikers has historically been kept under wraps. And mostly that seems to be due to the fact that most high level mountain bikers seem to consider themselves riders first, and professional athletes second.

Aaron Gwin’s impressive chinless win.

The vast majority of pro riders got to where they are by riding their bikes a lot. And they didn’t spend all that time on the bike because they had high expectations of becoming millionaires on two wheels, they did it because they really like riding bikes. And this isn’t to ignore the fact that they all, at some point, committed to putting in the time and effort to ride at a pro level and make a living of it. But I highly doubt that most of them got into the sport with financial gain in mind.

But over the years, there have been a few riders that bucked this trend. Palmer was arguably the first – he was dominant as a skier, snowboarder, drinker, and a few other activities. It turns out he was dominant on a bike as well, but it was equally clear that he didn’t approach professional mountain bike racing in the same way that most of the other riders did. He commanded a higher salary, and he had the talent to get it.

Gwin abandoned a moderately successful career in motocross to ride mountain bikes, and like Palmer, achieved significant success. Also like Palmer, he was able to demand a significant salary. But unlike Palmer, Gwin has been strictly business from day one.

This was first put in the public eye when he dropped Trek as a sponsor – Trek was a bit slow in locking Gwin into a new contract, and in the meantime, Gwin was in talks to get more money out of Specialized. Much to Trek’s surprise (and chagrin), their poster boy downhiller got in bed with the competition because Specialized was willing to pay him more.

While it isn’t all that noteworthy that a top level rider switched teams, the fact that it came across as somewhat underhanded, and the fact that it was the athlete dumping the sponsor was new, and at least for the masses on the internet, exciting. Gwin’s dominance (with a few fits and starts) has continued, and now he’s too rich for Specialized’s blood.

So this begs the question, are we seeing mountain biking move into the world of “real” sports, where the professional athletes are just that – business minded professionals? Gwin is quick to point out that, in larger professional sports, business decisions like this happen all the time. Athletes are traded from team to team, and money drives everything.

There’s no question that’s how Gwin sees his position in the sport, and I certainly can’t hold that against him – he’s taking significant risks and his career will likely be as long (or short) as any other high level athlete’s, which is to say that he’ll be washed up well before he’s 40. So he better make a lot of money now if he wants to live comfortably through the second half of his life.

But at the same time, a large part of me hopes that, like Palmer, Gwin’s fat paycheck is an anomaly. Sure, I’d love for pro mountain bikers to make tons of money – it’d be indicative of a strong industry, and if nothing else, I have some friends that I’d like to see do well with their racing endeavors.

However, ultimately, more money means more competition for the top racing spots. And that’d likely mean that gone are the days when the top racers are guys that are, first and foremost, in it for the love of riding bikes. When our sport’s fastest racers’ top priority is money, we’ve lost something.

Michael Jordan famously had a “for the love of the game clause” in his contract, which dictated that he was allowed to play a basketball game anywhere, anytime. Which kinda sounds awesome, until you take a step back and realize that it’s completely ridiculous. When a sport reaches a point where the athletes need to contractually protect their ability to play the sport that they’re getting paid to play, any pretense that the “sport” is something other than a money generating machine goes out the window.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’d rather that mountain bike racing stuck to its homegrown roots. At a glance, that sentiment comes across as curmudgeonly and anachronistic, but I see it more as an economic reality. The mountain bike industry, in the grand scheme of things, is small and poor. So I’d rather see the industry’s relatively meager capital contribution to racing come in the form of supporting the riders that love the sport for what it is. Sure, there’ll be the occasional guy who’s blazing fast and in it for the money, but the less we humor his requests for absurd salaries, the better the racing scene and the sport as a whole will remain.

4 comments on “Gwin, Specialized, and the Business of Mountain Biking”

  1. I couldn’t agree less! We are talking about bike RACING, every rider comes to it for the love of racing, and they risk their life everyday on the job, time they got paid more in line with what they are giving. Good for Aaron!!!

  2. I couldn’t agree less! We are talking about bike RACING, every rider comes to it for the love of riding, and they risk their life everyday on the job, time they got paid more in line with what they are giving. Good for Aaron!!!

  3. I’d like to see some of the huge money commanded by the top few riders spread downwards.

    I don’t think the pros that are knocking on the door of top 10 are killing it financially.

  4. I disagree. More competition may increase the number of riders who race for the love of the sport. The focus and commitment needed to reach the world cup level requires a desire to ride bikes. Of course, I’m sure there are exceptions.

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