Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The Big Easy
I was visiting the folks at Specialized for a writing project unrelated to BKW last fall when I got the invitation to join Mike Sinyard and some Specialized staffers for Mike’s weekly abuse session called the Big Easy. To the degree that one can reasonably expect truth in advertising I think the Big Easy strikes the right balance. It was certainly “big” but it was anything but “easy.” Starting in Morgan Hill at Sinyard’s home, the ride takes in a clockwise loop that heads over the mountains for the coast through Aptos and Soquel, and then back over the mountains before dropping back into Morgan Hill.
No one had a GPS unit on their bike, so my route notes are limited to estimations by those present. I’m told the loop was 80-85 miles and had 10,000-11,000 feet of climbing. We were gone roughly five hours.
I’ve been hearing about this ride for some years and have been very curious about it. I knew if I ever had the chance I would move heaven and earth to attend. Sinyard rides a Roubaix exclusively; I suspected that the roads used in this ride might have something to do with it.
Our route took us over three significant climbs and by significant I mean they were all long enough to make a Cat. V cry. The first climb turned to dirt less than half way up and demanded steady power, careful steering and a light touch through the loosest of the gravel. The descent down the other side was steep, narrow, occasionally rutted and as twisty as the plot of a Hollywood thriller. It was, in short, hairy enough to take the edge off the fun.
We rolled into the hamlet of Corralitos and stopped at the tiny market to refill on water. Sinyard has an utterly charming habit of referring to everything that’s not water as juice. It reminds me of something my dad would say, but his habit of looking after all those present had a warmth and caring that was more maternal than paternal. Andrew Hammond, one of the instructors for SBCU (and a very strong rider) said with forboding tone of finality, “Well, that’s it; no matter which way we go, we have to climb to get home.” His voice rang with horror picture doom. I was delighted.
Our route took us through Aptos, Capitola and to a small market on the old San Jose-Santa Cruz Highway that Sinyard said he’d been visiting on his rides for 30 years. He told me of how the market recently sold and the new owners had taken down the old sign; he was genuinely sad about the loss of the little piece of local history. Leaving the market we ground our way up a long, shallow grade toward our rendezvous with Los Gatos. After topping out on the climb we had a short descent to a detour that forced onto a gravel path descent.
On the edge of town the group faced a decision. Or rather, it would have been a decision any other day, but this time, with a guest present, there was no choice. We would do Hicks, a road that skirts Almaden Quicksilver Park and an ascent of such ferocity that Andrew told me he had no idea how long or steep it was, only that after the first 100 meters he goes to his personal happy place and waits for the torture to end. Turns out, I went to my happy place as well, which was a bit back down the road from his.
As we spun back to our start point, Sinyard’s home, I played back the day’s events as much as I could in my head. I wanted to make permanent as many of the day’s features as I could. The upshot of my mental replay was that I was filled with a sense of mortal envy. I couldn’t believe how lucky these folks were to have such extraordinary riding so close to home.
Leadership works best when it is credible and has the ability to inspire. Sinyard wasn’t the fastest on each of the climbs, but he was rather conspicuously not last, either. It was evident from attitudes of the employees present that each had brought his A-game that day. Perhaps what was most impressive is what didn’t happen: Sinyard didn’t race the course. He rode at his own pace, enjoying himself and didn’t try to prove that he was still alpha dog at the top of each climb or in getting to the bottom of each descent.
Sinyard has a peculiar habit whenever he flies back from Asia; he meets a van driver at the airport who has his bike and a change of clothes for him. He then, despite the jet lag, rides the nearly 100 miles home.
It would be foolhardy and inaccurate to suggest that for a bike company to find success its CEO should be a serious cyclist. But it was evident in talking with Sinyard that being a rider and having products that made each ride more enjoyable was clearly no less a priority in 2008 than they were in 1974. He rides a Roubaix; that’s his road bike of choice, rather than the company’s flagship Tarmac SL2, which bolsters the argument that the bike isn’t just a hybrid with drop bar.
Back at his home at the end of the ride he made us smoothies, salad and spaghetti. It would be easy to take the cynical view and chalk his hospitality to a CEO turning on the charm for the media, but I can’t accept that idea. His charm was too natural, his hospitality too genuine, his love of hard roads too real to improvise.