How to grow your brand by racing bikes: Jake Duehring and Felt Bicycles
Looking around the American peloton this season, I’ve noticed something. Every road race and criterium seems packed with riders and teams sponsored by Felt Bicycles. Of course, Felt has always played an important role in the American peloton having sponsored Team Slipstream (now EF Education First Pro Cycling) in the 2000s as Slipstream was famously challenging the pro peloton with their anti-doping message. More recently, Felt has made headlines winning world championship after world championship with USA Cycling’s track team. But in recent years, Felt’s presence in the peloton has been very similar to other bike manufacturers in that they only sponsored one or two teams at a time. That’s enough to keep the brand in the back of the average rider’s minds when they’re considering their next bike purchase, but nothing earth shattering. However, this year, Felt has significantly changed their level of sponsorship. Of the four pro women’s teams in North America, Felt now sponsors two of them: Sho-Air TWENTY20 and Rally UHC. On the men’s side of the sport, Felt has returned to the Pro Continental level with a bullish campaign with the Rally UHC men’s team. Felt is even sponsoring a couple of elite amateur teams in Gray Goat Mobile/Bullseye Total Media’s growing program and the nationally-renowned Piedmont College cycling program. With such a diverse and high-profile sponsorship portfolio, it’s been hard to find a race where one of Felt’s riders hasn’t landed on a podium this season.
I was intrigued with this unprecedented investment in the North American peloton, so I reached out to one of the masterminds of Felt’s racing program, Jake Duehring. Jake is Felt’s Director of Sports Marketing and a former pro cyclist whose palmarès include gold medals at the 2014 and 2015 Pan American Championships. Jake has an intimate understanding of how to leverage cycling to promote and grow a business.
According to Jake, each sponsorship has its own unique story, but one of the keys to understanding Felt’s current racing investments is related to Felt being acquired by the French Rossignol Group in 2017. In the years since the acquisition, some cyclists have been confused about what the acquisition would ultimately mean for Felt. According to Jake, “A lot of people thought that Felt had relocated to Europe after the acquisition even though we are and always have been based in California. We’ve been implementing a lot of initiatives to correct this misunderstanding. One of these initiatives has been to increase our investment in domestic racing and shout loud and proud that we’re a California-based company.”
Felt’s marketing program also harkens back to the old auto racing adage “race on Sunday, sell on Monday.” One of the stated goals in the Rossignol Group’s acquisition of Felt was to increase the number of bikes sold in North America and around the world. To reach that goal, sponsoring cycling teams is a must. Jake said, “When we were sponsoring a fewer number of teams these last few years and especially when we were in limbo between sponsoring the Hincapie team and where we are now, we had a lot of bike shops and distributors telling us, ‘If you’re not present in the peloton, we’re not getting people coming asking for your bikes.’ When our sponsored teams are getting coverage in the media, it makes potential riders start asking about Felt. Customers want to buy bikes that they see competing against and beating the best the cycling industry has to offer.”
It’s a strategy that just makes sense for Felt whose philosophy has always been to design their bikes hand in hand with athletes. “Everything we do is because of racing, it’s in our veins,” Jake says. “We take our athlete’s feedback to heart and try to continually push the envelope in what we’re doing. We put in a lot of time and analysis with every bike we design, and it’s all done in-house at Felt. We don’t outsource anything in the design department. Once we’ve produced a prototype frame, we’ll put our athletes on it to get rider feedback right away. Then it’s back to the drawing board to make improvements.”
“Whether someone is lining up at the National Championships or just getting ready to ride to work, it’s important that they can have confidence that their bike has been tested, tested, and tested again at the highest level. Unlike what you see with some companies, Felt doesn’t do custom lay ups for athletes. Everything that is developed and raced by our athletes can be bought in stores. We want all riders to know that when they’re at the start line that they’re on a product that they can be confident in and a product that will help them reach their dreams.”
With such lofty goals for sponsorship, Jake and Felt take every marketing decision seriously. According to Jake, “The biggest reason that we sponsor teams is because they come to us and they want to ride our product. I don’t believe in going out and paying the most money to sponsor a team; we’re a small company, that wouldn’t be realistic. We really want teams to approach us and tell us why they want to ride our bike. We really need people who truly believe in our product.”
Unsurprisingly, Felt’s current relationship with Rally UHC Cycling developed this way. At the end of last year, Rally UHC’s longtime bike sponsor, Diamondback, stepped away from road cycling to concentrate on their off-road bikes. The team’s owner, Charles Aaron, approached Felt about Rally UHC riding Felt’s bikes in 2019. Having been out of the Pro Continental scene for a little while, Jake was thrilled to align Felt with one of the most respected teams in the peloton. With an audible smile, Jake also noted that “With Rally UHC being an American team with a North American roster, it’s a great way for us to show the world that we’re an American company.”
If media headlines are any indication, the investment is paying off as the Rally UHC men’s team has continued the strong, upward trajectory that defined their 2018 season. The highlight of the season so far has been 21-year-old phenom Brandon McNulty winning a stage and the overall at the Giro di Sicilia while racing against a strong field which included World Tour team UAE Team Emirates and European Pro Continental stalwarts such as Israel Cycling Academy, Wanty-Gobert, Bardiani-CSF, and Neri Sottoli–Selle Italia–KTM. This breakthrough win has also been supplemented by the team taking major stage wins at Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay and the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour of Luxemburg. With only half the season under their belts, it’s hard to say what Rally UHC has in-store for the rest of 2019!
Rally UHC’s women’s team has brought equally impressive exposure to Felt thanks to the most stacked squad in North America. Thanks to Rally UHC’s triumvirate of young guns, Felt’s white and orange bikes have been winning coast to coast and at Athens Twilight Criterium (Summer Moak), Redlands Bicycle Classic (Megan Jastrab), and USA Crit Nationals (Emma White). And even though media-savvy, fan-favorites like Sara Bergen and Erica Carney (Allar) haven’t been able to seal the deal with the major pro wins their skills deserve, they have certainly drawn the eye and sparked the imagination of countless cycling fans to imagine themselves on a Felt FR road bike.
Of course, Rally UHC isn’t the only women’s team that Felt is working with! In fact, unlike some bike brands which have been leery of promoting women’s cycling, Felt has been all in since the beginning. According to Jake, “Felt’s first sponsored athlete was 24-time Ironman winner Paula Newby Fraser and Felt has invested in women heavily ever since. Women do an excellent job not only promoting the bike, but also providing strong feedback on the bike too. Female cyclists are a fast-growing market in the USA, so we love the fact that we are able to support women and propel our products through them.”
The Felt-sponsored rider that has probably garnered the most attention this season has been Chloe Dygert Owen. Although Chloe’s track racing palmarès are well-known as an Olympian, world champion, and world record holder, the 2019 season has been a break-out year for her on the road. From the start of the season, Chloe has proven herself to be a triple threat able to win time trials, sprints, and stage races. Having spent her entire pro career riding Felts, Jake Duehring is no doubt hoping that he has a franchise rider on his hands. “Chloe is just a phenomenal athlete,” Jake adds. “We’ve been lucky to have her as a member of the Felt family. She isn’t only amazing for the brand, she genuinely and truly loves the product. And that’s not just me wearing my Felt hat. If you approach her and talk to her about her bike, she’ll tell you all about it. To have someone at her level representing our brand is amazing. She’s a superstar, the Michael Jordan of women’s cycling for sure.”
Reminiscing on Felt’s special relationship with Chloe, Jake says, “We were fortunate to be able to connect with Chloe so early in her career; a lot of it came down to being at the right place at the right time. We’ve been working with Sho-Air Twenty20 coming up on nine years now. Chloe joined that program and got onto our bikes through Nicola Cranmer. And since we’ve been sponsoring the USA Cycling’s women’s track team since 2012 we’ve been able to work with her there too. We’ve been very lucky to have a talent like her racing for us in both programs.”
As special and inspiring as Felt’s programs are with the top athletes in the world, what might be the most impressive thing about the company is Felt’s commitment to smaller elite amateur programs and its dedication to helping develop the next generation of World Tour riders. A prime example of this would be the Gray Goat Mobile/Bullseye Total Media team that is racing in USA CRITS this year. Associated with Gray Goat Bicycle Co., a series of bike shops in the Indianapolis metro, the team has been a dominant force in the Midwest for years and is looking to increase its profile on the national stage. “We love sponsoring teams that are associated with a shop because it drives business into that shop,” Jake says. “Basically, all the riders that ride on that team are not only promoting the brand, they’re also promoting the shop that they’re riding for. Because they’re a crit team traveling all over the Midwest, they get a lot of coverage too. Having a localized team definitely increases sales in the region. It is a great grassroots marketing program.”
The last partnership that I discussed with Jake is probably the most innovative of them all. A few years ago, when cycling legend Jame Carney was setting up a new collegiate cycling program at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, Jame had big plans for rapidly growing the college into a cycling powerhouse. Part of this plan was to increase the ease of access to the sport. Since the average college student doesn’t have access to a high-end race bike, collegiate cycling program’s recruitment pools can be dramatically narrowed. To counteract this, Jame partnered with Felt to provide the college with an entire fleet of Felt bicycles at rock-bottom prices that can be loaned to the program’s athletes. According to Jake, “The fleet of Felt bikes allows Jame to go out and recruit athletes from different sports without having to invest the athlete’s personal money into a bike. A lot of talented collegiate athletes who don’t have a bike or have never raced a bike can accomplish a lot if they’re just given the opportunity. I think that Jame Carney’s strategy is one of the smartest things that he can do. Since cycling is so low impact, athletes who blow out their shoulders or have had other major injuries are able to get on the bike and perform extremely well. Now that Piedmont has proven that their model works, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing more colleges adopting similar programs soon.”
With such a diverse portfolio of athletes racing Felt’s bikes this year, I think that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Felt’s bikes riding America’s backroads and bike trails soon. But with one of the largest domestic sponsorship programs in recent memory, fans have to be wondering what’s next for Felt. With a laugh, Jake told me, “The goal of the brand is to be more recognized, not just in North America, but globally too. Historically, we kind of let our products speak for themselves and we didn’t really push marketing as much as we should have. Now we’re focused on telling the story about what makes our bikes and our athletes so special and really grow the brand so that when people think about a bike, Felt pops into their head. We’re going to keep our foot on the gas, that’s for sure!”