ONCE CONSIDERED an obscure sport for kids, commuters and hardcore fitness fanatics, cycling has evolved in the past few years into both a powerful networking tool for executives and an activity that corporations are increasingly using to connect with their client base. One example, Adobe Systems, the San Jose, California-based maker of design and publishing software, organizes formal cycling events for clients and partners at many Adobe and partner conferences around the world. They’ve become a big draw.
“I have executives say, ‘Send me your cycling calendar.’ They’re using it to decide which conferences to attend,” says Ben Rabner, Adobe’s head of experiential marketing, who founded the bike program five years ago. The company hosted 15 group cycling events in 2017—ranging from short beginner coffee rides to challenging multihour suffer-fests (including a ride up the challenging Mount Ventoux in France before Adobe’s participation in Cannes Lions). The company provides bikes and helmets for those who don’t bring their own and offers a postride social, all accompanied by a specially tricked-out, Adobe-branded Mercedes Sprinter van.
Michelmores, a 130-year-old law firm with offices in London, Exeter and Bristol, England, hosts a monthly cycling event that targets clients and potential clients. The cycling club’s founder, Louise Edwards, director of marketing and an avid cyclist, started the program in May 2016. “When potential clients are choosing a law firm,” says Edwards, “chemistry is important. If we can get to know them in a more informal setting, like on a bike, it’s a good way to find out if you get along.” Clients are invited to join the morning rides, which push off at 7:30 a.m and end two-hours later back at the Michelmores cafeteria with a hearty breakfast.
Aside from the health benefits and accessibility to anyone with a bike (no memberships required), early-morning group rides are the sport’s norm. This makes it a good workout for executives with packed daily schedules. It’s also an inherently social sport, thanks to drafting—following in a tight “pace line” formation where a lead cyclist (or two, side by side, in a double pace line) cut the wind for the cyclists behind them. Every few minutes, the lead rider moves to the end of the paceline and the second rider moves up. Each rider shares the work and spends less total energy than they would if by themselves. However, in a pace line, one wrong move by the rider ahead could mean disaster for all who follow. As such, there are few bonds greater than finding a “good wheel,” that man or woman you know you’re safe cycling behind because he or she is predictable, consistent, and strong. And it’s a lot easier to chat on a bike than it is with other sports, like running. It’s no wonder cyclists have been praising their sport as the “new golf” for business networking.
This is why a raft of new companies have sprung up to cater to executives who want to ride and network with other power-brokers wherever they go. International Cycle Executives, or ICE, was founded by former consultant and triathlete Ryan O’Neill after he realized, while still a consultant, that the conversations he had with potential clients while cycling were “deeper than what I’d experienced in other business settings. We could pitch and win more work more successfully more often.”
O’Neill quit his job to build out ICE, now 1,000 members strong. Sponsors (like Vodafone Global Enterprise and EY’s Data and Analytics Practice) get their brand on the club’s “kit” (cycling gear), website and social-media presence and have the chance to offer sessions at the breakfast that follows the rides. Sponsors can also seed the club with a couple of their own cycling employees. (O’Neill says sales talk is frowned upon by sponsors unless it springs up naturally.) There are ICE chapters in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the U.K., and there are plans for seven more cities by 2023, including at least two in the U.S.
The Rapha Cycling Club, created by cycling apparel maker Rapha, offers members of its 25 chapters access to group rides based out of their 19 global stores, says Hillary Benjamin, director of North America sales and marketing. There is a bicycle coordinator in each city, who can find members the best rides wherever they travel, or connect them with a local group that matches their ability. High-end Canyon bikes can be rented daily for $25; an annual membership costs $200.
“You spend so much time together when you ride with a club,” says Cedric Tonello, a regional manager for an international luxury brand and a RCC member. “Some of my best friends are people I’ve met cycling in new cities.”
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Strava, the social-networking app for athletes, has some features that are custom-made for the traveling cyclist. On the web, anyone can search a specific location for local cycling clubs and their scheduled rides. By tailoring your search to corporate clubs, you can find fellow riders in your industry, or in the industry where you fish for clients, says Strava CEO James Quarles.
Be warned—it’s bad form to join a ride with a posted average speed that is either well above or below your abilities. You can check out the skill levels or the average speed of a club ride through the Strava’s club leaderboards, says Quarles. And when you hop into a new club or group ride, don’t start talking about yourself or your company or what you sell. Just ride. Cyclists like doing business with each other, but they hate talking about business while they’re trying to hit a P.R. Connections will form over time and over miles.