Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Real Interbike - Part Three: Attack Of The Bike Clones

Regardless of any formal training or specialized credentials, I consider myself something of a Scientist. Not traditional, lab coat and Bunsen Burner science mind you, but more of the psycho-social, holier-than-thou kind of science that usually involves a healthy dose of self-indulgent over-analysis, qualified speculation and inactionable conclusions. Perhaps it is for this reason that my degree from the University of Colorado has the initials B.A. and not B.S. on it. Although one could argue that a Bachelor of Arts degree merely reflects the ability to make B.S. an art form. And I am determined to put that diploma to good use.

So it makes sense that Interbike, for me, rapidly devolved from a Bicycle Industry trade show into a Bicycle Industry freak show of sorts, a global bike-culture circus of one-upmanship and false posturing for me to document, recount and ultimately ridicule. Just like a good scientist should.

Perhaps viewing Interbike attendees as a Species is more accurate, if not, at the very least a little more sympathetic. This perspective then makes it easy to break down various sub-species according to the kind of bikes they ride or if they even ride at all. Further analysis of physical features such as hairstyle (both head and leg, male and female), visible tattoos/piercings and wardrobe can then be cross-referenced with a linguistic database of words like "sick" "chamois" and "resistance" to create a complete taxonomic map of Interbike attendees. With some additional funding from the National Science Foundation and Trek Bikes, it is my assertion that this data can then be used to create a formula to accurately predict behavior patterns in this population during at least 85% of normal daily activities. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The point is that the Bicycle Industry, as much as any other I can think of, contains people that really look like they are in the Bicycle Industry. For better or worse. There are a number of individuals (usually with titles like Vice President of Something or Whatnot Director) who looked like they could have been in another industry (and probably have been at some point) but with the exception of many similarly logoed shirts, the crowd at Interbike tends to look like the crowd at the Solvang Time Trial in the Tour of California. Only slightly younger and less well-dressed.

Don't get me wrong, I think this is a good thing. I was never able to wear shorts and running shoes when I worked Laser Industry trade shows and am admittedly bitter that I was grilled on technical specs by physicists and engineers, not bearded bike shop managers from Vermont named Grizz. Again, the fact that wearing a suit and tie at Interbike would be the equivalent of wearing cut-off jeans to Photonics West is not a bad thing at all. Although I am certainly not advocating cut-offs, but that is kind of missing the point. It's the freedom to wear them that makes the bike industry cooler than most...albeit, more prone to otherwise-inexcusable wardrobe choices and guys with strange nicknames.

One of the things that I have noticed about Interbike and cycling culture in general, is that there is often very little visible difference between the best athletes in the world and some random, relatively fit person with shaved legs, colorful athletic shoes and a Lance Armstrong wristband. To the untrained eye, it must seem like there are at least 20,000 professional cyclists in Boulder alone. But the interesting thing is that most of the professional cyclists at Interbike (at least the Road and Mountain riders - BMX is a whole different beast) actually seem to dress the most normally, often in a manner that shows no signs of aforementioned casual bike-wear conformity seen on so many non-pros. But ironically, by dressing so normally they almost stand out more. It is an interesting phenomenon.

As I mentioned earlier, the BMX scene is a very unique sub-species in the Biker Kingdom. Possessing the most youth appeal and highest ratio of ink and metal-to-skin at Interbike, the BMX Zone was pretty cool to walk through at a brisk pace. Even though I started riding similar bikes at a young age, the haunting memory of having my Predator stolen from out in front of Der Weinerschnitzel in 1986 was just too much for me to handle. Especially with so much caffeine, guarana and B-Vitamins coursing through my veins, causing horrible flashbacks of corn dogs, root beer and that sickeningly empty bike rack at the corner of Camino Alto and East Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley.

BMX has changed a lot since back then though. I thought I was badass when I would ride on my pegs and get more than 6 inches of air on any jump. Now guys are doing flippity-flips, tumbly-twists and other stuff that could be considered far more athletically challenging than riding up or down a hill quickly. It's too bad they all look like felonious thugs wearing shirts that are too small, pants that are too big and hats that look like they will blow off when the air conditioning kicks on. I actually thought a lot of the bikes and equipment were pretty cool but sadly, the collar on my shirt and plaid on my slacks made me feel uncomfortable in the BMX Zone and I had to hastily retreat to the safety of the Media Room for a cup of coffee and some stale pretzels.

The Media Pavillion at Interbike is basically a big room in the middle of the show floor with glass walls, a bunch of lunch tables and so many chairs that it's impossible to walk through without banging your shins repeatedly. There is another stage room where televised interviews take place but the main draw for most of the writers is the snacks. Every so often someone re-stocks the coffee and if you are incredibly lucky you can actually get a bagel or a cookie to nibble on. There were rumors of brownies and fruit but I never saw them and think the whole story may have been exaggerated for the sake of a few gullible and hungry journalists. With no brownies or cookies, I was left to sit alone at a table in the middle of the room, staring out through the clear walls at the Interbike population - taking notes, laughing to myself and furiously adding data to my taxonomic ranking of the Biker Species as I finished off the remaining coffee and pretzels.

Check Back for The Real Interbike - Part Four: It's A Small Interbike World

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Real Interbike - Part Two: The Best Little Bike House In Vegas

As I entered the exhibition hall, momentarily paralyzed by the neon lights and smell of new Lycra, I experienced my first flashback of the trip. In my professional life so far, I have somehow managed to find myself at no fewer than eight trade shows, each passing quickly through my mind as I sternly pretended to look at the exhibitor list. These past experiences have varied greatly, depending on vital factors associated with the particular industry, organizational affiliation and, perhaps most importantly, the location of the event. However, none of the aforementioned conditions holds a candle to the importance of whether you experience the show as an Exhibitor or Attendee. It's almost like the difference between being a Prostitute or a Pimp. Or so I've heard...

Considering that this is Las Vegas, it is understandable that one would be so desensitized by the billboard-scale public nudity and fleets of Hooker Trading Card Distributors on every street corner that he or she is either unwilling or unable to identify the similarities between what is going on out in the streets and what is taking place in the air-conditioned rat maze of Interbike. Sadly, this psychological avoidance is understandable, since the majority of people in the bike industry are exploited even more heinously than those within the other, slightly less-dysfunctional profession. But the health and benefits packages are strikingly similar.

Seriously though, this is a town where you can never really be sure if that late-twenties to mid-thirties woman in the mini skirt being paraded around on the arm of the strutting 50-70 year-old schlub in the Tommy Bahama shirt is really his wife or girlfriend or simply a short-term business associate, and there is an unavoidable synergy to the whole Trade Show/Flesh Trade relationship. The fact that Las Vegas proudly boasts a devotion to both excess and the almighty dollar bill acts like lighter fluid sprayed on a stagnant barbecue, exciting the flames of greed and moral sacrifice beneath the Big Burger of Capitalism. Because of this, there really is no better backdrop for an Industry trade show than Las Vegas, although it is unlikely that these observations will ever make the pages of your favorite bicycle-related media outlet or marketing campaign. "Come to Interbike in Las Vegas! Where obscene greed and unsolicited exhibitionism are not only accepted, they're encouraged!"

At this point, it should be acknowledged that I am using this inflammatory analogy in specific reference to the relationship between the Exhibitors (Manufacturers and Suppliers of Goods and Services) and Retailers (Resellers of Goods and Services), since these groups comprise the majority of Interbike participants. Operating somewhere on the fringe are the Media and a handful of Pros and Personalities, doing everything from on-site product reviews and interviews to networking with sponsors and signing autographs. Or just kind of walking around, taking pictures of cool things and occasionally talking to people, like I did for hours on end each day.

Strangely, I have had a full media credential for two years running and have still yet to perform any of the aforementioned activities in a formal capacity while I was there. It seems that anything truly important should be followed up on after the show, so the extent of my on-site analysis was a reckless pillaging of various weakly-monitored booths containing a plethora of substances promising to elevate energy levels. Unfortunately, the lack of a predetermined scientific hypothesis and properly qualified control group will probably render my experiment/overdose unfit for academic publishing but there may be some use within the fields of Chemical Toxicology or Clinical Psychology, depending on the severity of my current laundry-list of post-Interbike, free sample-induced health concerns.

Regardless, it should be recognized that there are two primary goals for most of the people and companies attending Interbike, depending on which side of the so-called Pimp and Ho/Retailer and Supplier Fence you happen to fall on. Understandably, these are often complicated relationships, fraught with potential conflicts of interest and guarded communication. Especially in the bicycle industry. Being dangerously juiced up on Sport Beans and GoFast only exacerbates the tension.

On one side, the Exhibitors go out of their way to make themselves look as superficially attractive as possible, slathering a thick layer of makeup on blemishes in recent product offerings and hoping no one notices the nasty scars and burn marks they have likely accumulated over a lifetime in the business. It's not exactly the Red Light District in Amsterdam but there is certainly a come-hither vibe emanating from many of the booths. After a while I would just refuse to make eye contact with anyone, for fear that they would ask me if I wanted to hear about their latest product line or whether I was looking for a good time.

You see, the Exhibitor's best hope is to align themselves with competent and proactive Retailers, aggressive and reliable business people who will pursue new business while providing a certain level of protection and support when things get a little freaky. The best ones will even step in when some customer needs to get slapped around a little bit, but this is not as common as it once was. It is also important for the Retailers to determine the suitability of a certain Exibitor's Product for his or her market. For example, the big names like Specialized and Oakley know that they appeal to a large audience and can command a premium. But there are always those weirdos and fetishists who are into freaky stuff and like certain features, proportions, colors or recumbents. The Retailer must know the desires of the customer and have the necessary inventory in stock.

While the Exhibitor controls the Product, it is the Retailer who assumes the position of power in the Interbike relationship. As a result, there is a noticeable stench of desperation permeating the Sands Expo, the byproduct of hundreds of businesses realizing that their success or failure is largely dictated by Retailers who may or may not ever consider using their product and may or may not have multiple facial piercings and a neck tattoo. Apparently these features guarantee that you are fit to represent the industry to the general public and are the Interbike equivalent of leather and denim at a Hells Angels rally.

Just as it is difficult to determine if the blonde in the high heels is a wife or an escort, it is nearly impossible to tell if the guy in the ripped jeans and greasy t-shirt is the store owner or some guy who snuck in the service entrance. It has been said that Las Vegas is not all that it seems on the surface, so it makes perfect sense that the same can also be said for Interbike. But after some more thought, all these flashing lights and tight clothing really do remind me of the Red Light District, only with carbon fiber and chrome as the bait. Perhaps there is more truth on the surface than we were told.

Check back for The Real Interbike - Part Three: Attack Of The Bike Clones

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Real Interbike - Part One: Where It's At

On the surface, Interbike is the biggest bicycle industry trade show in North America. But beneath this glamorous exterior, it is a bubbling cauldron of gratuitous bike porn, blatant posing and institutionalized class discrimination...among other significantly less-distasteful things. I understand that this may sound a bit heavy to the casual observer (considering that it really is a very pleasant and well-run affair) but after reading numerous safe/bland descriptions of the event recently, this seems like an opportune time to provide an in-depth look at what The Show is really like. However, it should probably be noted from the outset of this personal account that the consumption of a near-fatal mixture of energy drinks, gels, bars, chews and beans over the course of my 48-hour Interbike experience has left me in a hyper-paranoid, borderline-psychotic state from which I may never fully recover. As in all tales, both fact and fiction, there is usually some truth to all sides of the story.

Let me explain...

I arrived in Las Vegas at approximately 9am on Thursday, after a whopping three hours of restless sleep. Since the Divine Airline Math Network (D.A.M.N.) determined that it was somehow cheaper for me to fly through Phoenix first, this meant a 2:45am wake up call in order to get to Denver for my flight. There is something unnerving about drinking coffee at three o'clock in the morning but I knew it was better to start warming up the system early since it was sure to be a marathon/death march of epic proportions in Vegas. I couldn't check in to my suite at the Bellagio (or was it a Standard room at Bally's?) until much later in the day so the plan was to catch a shuttle to the Venetian and head over to Interbike at the Sands Expo immediately upon my arrival. Certainly not ideal, but that was the plan.

The sensations of arriving and departing any big city are unique but McCarran Airport in Las Vegas probably has a wider spectrum of energy and hygiene between "coming" and "going" than any place I can think of. The people coming in look like they are getting ready for the best time of their lives and the ones going out either look like the worst rejects from the Real World or undercover junkies and coke-dealers from a lost Miami Vice episode. There is a tangible excitement among the recent arrivals - usually an inexplicable assortment of people from all over the world who curiously decided that spending their money and time in Sin City was a good idea - which inevitably rubs off on you somehow, even if, like me, you are already anxiously awaiting a return to the sanity of home before you even get off the plane. As for the people leaving...honestly, I'd rather spend the night in a graveyard on Halloween than a departing gate at McCarran Airport on any Sunday of the year. Grim is not a strong enough term.

Strangely, even though I have voluntarily traveled to Las Vegas on multiple occasions, I still can't help but wonder what possesses most human beings to actually want to fly there. At least I had work* as an excuse this time, and therefore avoided most of the unpleasant internal arguments over situational morals, ethics and economics which have tended to plague my voluntary visits. Sadly though, possessing a conscience is clearly a detriment to fully enjoying any Vegas experience, regardless of circumstance. *Definitions of "work" may vary.

So after dodging multiple limping Del Boca Vista Retirement Community refugees in matching sweat suits and trying desperately to rationalize the fact that I had recently overheard TWO separate conversations about fake tanning products (including an impressively detailed comparison of application procedures and unwanted side effects) I finally made it through the terminal and into the brisk 90-degree heat of mid-morning in the desert. Apparently there was some kind of contest going on in town where being tan was a huge concern but unfortunately, I was unable to identify a particular skill or talent among those discussing it. Other than being really, really tan of course. Keep in mind that I came in on a flight from Phoenix.

After identifying the proper shuttle, it was a pretty quick jump to the Venetian. The best part of the ride from the airport to the Strip is that it passes numerous super-cheesy billboards for an array of humorously outdated acts, providing ample opportunity for jokes about Donny and Marie Osmond or seemingly anyone who may have been on TV between 1978 and 1984. Donny and Marie are the easiest though. Apparently, what happened in Vegas (30 years ago), stayed in Vegas (and plays 5 shows a week at the Flamingo).

It was almost 10:30 when I finally got to the Sands Expo, seemingly located within the bowels of the still-impressive Venetian Hotel. Entering the main doors of the Venetian, it takes about 15 minutes of snaking through the noise and lights of the casino floor to get to the show area. Thankfully, there are signs hanging from the ceiling with arrows pointing to various places of interest within the maze. Not so thankfully, they are placed in such a manner that you almost inevitably end up running into a cocktail waitress, drunk guy in a tank top or elderly person holding the equivalent of their next Social Security check in a giant plastic cup of quarters as you are trying to read which way to go. If you are very lucky, you can make it through the labyrinth without being cursed at or assaulted (much) and will hopefully manage to avoid being run over by someone recklessly driving one of the 150cc Rascal Power Chairs that the hotels seem to give out to anyone who asks - regardless of any apparent handicap other than inebriation. You could easily lose an Achilles Tendon or blow an ACL from one of those things.

For the record, later in this very trip I witnessed an old man knock another less-old man all the way to the ground with his Power Chair as he sped down one of the faux-cobbled streets at the Paris Hotel. He hit this poor pedestrian so hard his rear wheels nearly came off the ground and then he just took off like he had merely grazed a curb or something. But even as the victim was cursing and picking himself up off the ground after being struck in a blatant hit-and-run Rascal violation, everyone just kept going about their business like it was totally normal. I wanted to help the guy out but I was eating a $10 crepe and didn't feel like picking up all of the coins that he spilled out of his giant plastic cup after getting drilled. Vegas is freaking crazy.

Anyway, I knew I was in the right place when I saw Tyler Hamilton standing in the hallway outside the main entrance, smiling and pleasant as always. Various other "industry" acquaintances began to appear and suddenly the sloppy, glitzy buzz from the casino dropped down to the slightly less-sloppy, slightly less-glitzy vibe of Interbike. A quick trip to bag-check and the media room for my pass and I was ready to go. Or so I thought.

Immediately outside the showroom doors was a display of Pro bikes from Thor Hushovd and Denis Menchov which halted my progress even before I entered. I'm always curious about how people set up their bikes and Interbike is a cool opportunity to see some race-ridden rigs up close, so I stood there for a few minutes checking out the little details that set these machines apart from most. Then, after admiring Thor's green-highlighted Zipp wheelset for one last time, I showed my media pass to the clearly unimpressed security guard, pulled open the door, and anxiously stepped into the two-wheeled madness of Interbike 2009.

Check back for The Real Interbike - Part Two: The Best Little Bike House In Vegas