Starting a Regional Neutral Support Program

article by Bernard Kocis

critpit1.jpgI have enjoyed working on bicycles and especially supporting bicycle races. The skills I’ve learned, confidence gained and the contacts made led to the creation of a regional tech support program. Chris Clinton asked me to spend some time explaining what it took for this program to come about.

Let me begin by saying that attending the East Coast Bicycle Academy gave me the confidence to explore the possibilities in the bicycle industry. Also, the USCF Mechanic Clinic was the catalyst for me to pursue my race mechanic career as it put me in contact with people from the national technical support programs: — Campagnolo, Mavic, and Shimano.

From those contacts, I entered into the bicycle industry and continued working with the national tech programs as well as operating a small local wheels only program of my own. After four years, I was forced to disbanded my program as a result of being sued by a novice rider who crashed into my vehicle. The race was already over but this rider continued sprinting with his head down to the line. Thankfully, I was completely exonerated.

This experience was a bitter lesson and brought to light a ‘must have’ for every person building a local or regional program…get liability coverage. Even though I never want to experience something like that again, the lure of race support kept beckoning. I decided to attempt a bigger program utilizing the contacts I had made over the years.

I started making phone calls to prospective sponsors in the fall (budgets and decisions are made then) and probed them about their advertising and sponsorship plans and then posed a question to get their reaction to supporting such a program. The information gathering was done through both personal as well as professional contacts. I approached them as a friend asking for an opinion, then based on the answer, I pursued them further or backed off and tried elsewhere. I was amazed at the lack of “No”, “Not Interested”, “Isn’t in the Budget” brush offs.

My inquiries were directed at companies who have both road and mtb products, but who were targeting more of their budgets for mtb than for road. My program outline to them highlighted the value added advantages of sponsoring a regional (mid-Atlantic in my case) neutral support service. Short of sponsoring high maintenance pro and amateur teams, most companies don’t do much alternative marketing. I found companies willing to believe in my idea and back me with product. I would never have come close to building a program like this without the personal relationship I have with most of the companies involved. I can’t stress the importance of that enough.

As I was building the program and remembered additional little things, I realized how expensive it could be to build a neutral program and how essential my relationship is with sponsors. My program’s replacement value hovers around $52,000.00! (an umbrella insurance policy really makes sense). My total cash outlay is under $800.00! That’s a fully functional, on the road program. My vehicle isn’t included in the total. Vehicle sponsorship is on the list for next season.

Offering the service to promoters is another challenge. Most are running on less than shoe-string budgets and don’t see the necessity of offering neutral support. This is one area where your individual overhead costs take over in negotiating fees with promoters. Talk to everyone you know regarding fees for tech support programs. MAC can be of help in this search. If you have only wheels and tools, then you may not be able to charge as much as someone offering bikes, wheels and tools. I offer bikes, wheels, tools, a vehicle and a motorcycle. This allows me greater coverage of any event and also provides ample defense for my fee. I charge a flat fee ($250.00 per stage) plus expenses (hotel, food, mileage @ $.30/mi).

Through sponsorship and fees, I am able to provide:

  • 5 spare MERLIN bicycles in assorted sizes
  • 15 pair CANE CREEK spare wheels with HUTCHINSON tires and tubes
  • SHIMANO 8spd and 9spd cogsets
  • SALSA skewers
  • sufficient tools to make common adjustments and repairs
  • staffed support vehicle(s)
  • a decade of experience in race support and caravan protocol

The promoter provides hotel and food during the event, my fee and expenses, and most importantly, inclusion on the event insurance policy for indemnification of liability. And hopefully, a good reference to take to other promoters.

I am also fairly unique in that I pay experienced licensed mechanics and motor drivers when they work events with me while most programs continue to devalue mechanics by requiring them to work as volunteers. Usually, you get what you pay for!

Promoters who provide only a “wheels in, wheels out pit” do a great disservice to themselves and the racers. The subconscious effect on a rider with a mishap not getting neutral service is a negative feeling about the event for the next year; whereas if there is neutral service and the rider gets back into the race, the feeling of getting something extra will foster a desire to return next year and tell others as well.

Providing neutral support should be factored in just as officials, fencing, PA equipment, staging, police, ambulance and other necessities of hosting an event. Most promoters that canvas team managers to attend their events may also make arrangements and give consideration to teams. They should treat Neutral Support as another team. Promoters want and need top amateur and professional riders to bring legitimacy to their event. These riders expect professional service and neutral programs are essential to a well planned event.

Another facet of my program is providing my equipment to top dealers to offer consumer test rides. My bike sponsor and my wheel sponsor get added value from their support by using my equipment, on non-race days/nights, to bring customers into their best dealers to test ride bikes and/or wheels they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The sponsor (or shop) pays expenses and gets my full program for a few hours. The sponsor gets more exposure and solid sales, the shop gets manufacturer support and solid sales and I get increased exposure to shops (often promoters too) and racers. These can be done once a month, weekly (come to our Thursday night test rides), or for special sales and events. Again, make sure you are covered for liability.

On the liability subject, do everything you can to minimize your exposure to liability. Namely, use and document proper torque values for the various fasteners. Keep a log book for each bike and one for wheels and document each cleaning, check over, repair, service or problem. The more you put into this kind of procedure, the less uncertainty there is when someone sues.

Bernard Kocis
5910 19th St. N.
Arlington, VA 22205
ph:703-536-5122 fax:703-536-5235
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Owner of Promechanics.com and long time professional race mechanic.