When Bonnie Ford leaked news of Lance Armstrong’s new sponsor, many an eyebrow was raised. Radio Shack? It would be like Manchester United getting sponsored by Poundstrecher, noted one British commentator; it just doesn’t make sense.
After all, a surprisingly large number of pixels has been scattered on the notion that cycling is the new golf. Rapha Condor, their stylish wardrobe notwithstanding, is largely irrelevant as far as international cycling teams go— yet they’ve just managed to add a bundle of new, higher-end sponsors, including Sharp Electonics and Malmaison hotels.
Cyclists, conventional wisdom seems to be, are well-heeled consumers who are willing, and indeed want to pay for the total package. Years of purchasing things in gruppos has conditioned them to go to Best Buy and get the whole entertainment center. So long as the Geek Squad takes care of all the dirty work, and they’ve got a nice system to show off to the neighbors, who cares if the HDMI cables cost six times as much?
But the cyclists I know—”real cyclists”, to adulterate a notion of the erstwhile Alaska governor—are scrappy Cat 4s, 3s, and 2s with weekly incomes roughly equivalent to their watts at threshold. These are the sort of people who can scarcely afford the buy-it-all approach of a Best Buy—or a Competitive Cyclist, for that matter—and resent the attempts of retailers to force it on them.
Oh, sure, these cyclists love doing business online, but it’s not the full-service, total package variety. It’s three-moths-worth of long-overdue gear crammed onto someone else’s Performance Bike account to save on shipping charges—or would be, if not for the local shops feeding them parts at employee or team purchase prices.
And this is where Radio Shack comes in. Who among you—other than Ryan Kelly—can say that your Chipotle intake hasn’t increased dramatically since their association with Slipstream in 2007? Lance’s previous team sponsors were clearly not looking for consumer dollars; for personal mail, USPS has been dominant for years, and in most cases, Discovery Channel is free with your monthly cable payment, whether you choose to watch Shark Week or not.
Radio Shack, on the other hand, has done quite well for itself recently by appealling to the cheap, smart, scrappy DIYer; the sort of person who can’t look at a Best Buy price tag without scoffing, and who’d be more than willing to jack down a limit screw and ride single-speed for a week, if it means undercutting retail cost on a new derailleur.
Sponsoring a cycling team puts Radio Shack—and its store full of thrifty electronic workarounds—front and center in the ever-spinning, cost-saving minds of citizen racers. Sure, they can still get a six-foot stereo cable (to hook their AirPort to the beat-up stereo they just bought off Craigslist) for three dollars less online. But after this sponsorship announcement, buying at Radio Shack—where they don’t have to wait or pay for shipping—just acquired an additional level of appeal.
And once cyclists get in the door, they’re that much closer to buying a power inverter to power/charge laptops on their way to and from races, and maybe even getting an s-video to RCA adaptor to watch the Vuelta in full-screen on their crummy old TVs. Tech-savvy has been a de facto requirement to enjoy cycling in this country for some time; Radio Shack might just be the first company to successfully monetize that.
Lastly, the Armstrong/Radio Shack association is mutually beneficial. In case you’ve never read the comments section on this blog, serious American cyclists tend not to be Lance Armstrong’s most fervent supporters.
Seeing the seven-time Tour winner as a billboard for practical, even clever solutions—instead of the inspiration for hairy-legged guys on SRAM Red-equipped Madones that let gaps open on fast group rides—can only improve his standing in the eyes of most cyclists I know.
So surprising? Yes. Radio Shack certainly doesn’t fit the high-gloss legacy left by Thomas Weisel Partners, nor the now-generally-accepted image of cycling in America as a sport of elites. But times have changed dramatically since 1999, and everyone, even Lance Armstrong, has had to adapt.