Becoming a pro mountain biker
What’s up Lee? I’m Scott from Lake Tahoe. I love to ride downhill and freeride, I live for it, and I am really thinking about making it what I do for a living, so I’m curious, how much do the pro’s make? take someone like Cedric Gracia or Brian Lopes, I am really interested in finding out, because not only would I love to race and ride my bike pro, but I would really love to make a living out of it. Thanks Lee, you rock, I look forward to getting a reply back. Peace out.
Scott, a lot of us dream about riding our bikes for a living, but very few of us make it happen.
The top-top-top riders like Lopes, Gracia and Peat do very well. These guys were all in the sport when it was flourishing from a sponsorship standpoint, and they’re still reaping the rewards. I believe these guys are rolling in the low six figures. Back in the late nineties a guy like Lopes did even better than that. His base salary with Cannondale was over $100k, and other sponsorships, prizes, TV appearances and contingencies stacked on top of that.
Prize money is a tiny part of that equation. Successful riders have multiple deals with companies to run their colors, do promotional activities, help with development and do whatever else must be done. Lopes is on salary with Oakley, and because he helps to design products, he’ll stay on the payroll even after he finishes racing. Peaty owns Royal Racing. So for these guys, winning races has been a key that opened other doors. Oh, another thing: Lopes is very shrewd with his money, and he’s made some smart investments. That is key as well.
This is a huge exception. Some of the fastest riders in the world ride for dirt. I believe top guys like Nathan Rennie and Chris Kovarik have salaries in the low twenties or thirties. Curtis Keene, one of the fastest guys in the U.S., gets no salary. He gets some help with his bikes and race lodging, but that’s it. He works as an electrician all winter to finance his bike racing. And Steve Wentz, another fast American who is well liked and who gets lots of press, had the best season of his life last year with Honda-Turner. Well, that didn’t stop them from dropping him from the team. They ran out of money, plain and simple, and he rated lower than his teammates. So Steve trains like a fiend and sells windows to pay the bills.
Freeriding is a similar story. You need the talent, the savvy and the timing. Guys like Richie Schley, Wade Simmons and Dave Watson make comfortable livings with their riding. But remember that Watson founded Sombrio clothing — another guy parlaying his riding success into a business — and Schley was already a freeskiing star. By the way, every time the drinks start flowing in Whistler, Richie complains that he doesn’t make as much as Lopes and Peaty.
So very few people make a living actually racing bikes. For most racers, the word “pro” only means they’re faster than the “semipros” and “experts.” Aside from a few fortunate people, most “pros” spend money racing. It’s an expensive hobby.
If you are the fastest of the fast, and you know how to market yourself, behave like a professional and take care of your sponsors, you MIGHT become a professional racer. Your chances are much better if you broaden your notion of what it means to ride bikes for a living. Here are some options:
Get a real job and make biking your hobby. A lot of people are very happy like this. Advantages: You make real money in a real job. Your biking time is your own. Disadvantages: Lack of flexibility to ride where and how you want. If you are truly passionate about the sport, the internal conflict will slowly turn you into a hateful bastard. (I know — I was heading that way myself!)
Get a real job in an unreal industry. My friend True, who worked for Specialized, used to say this, and I like it. Basically, if you’re interested in engineering, get an engineering degree. If you’re into business, get an MBA. If you’re into marketing, get a marketing degree. If you’re into selling, get any degree you want, then build up your sales resume. Biking is an industry like any other, and it needs skilled professionals. An outside sales rep for a major bike company can make more than $50k per year. A product manager like Brandon Sloan (who manages all of Specialized’s high-end mountain bikes) makes a good living and gets to ride a lot in very cool places. He was in Whistler last week “testing products.” I must say that Brandon works like a dog. His job is tough, but he loves it. Another example: Jon Watt is one of this area’s top pro-class BMX and mountain bike racers. He has a degree in biomechanical engineering, and he designs exercise equipment for Schwinn Cycling and Fitness. He isn’t exactly a professional bike racer, but he enjoys his job and his time on the bike. One more: Rich Houseman raced pro for a long time and has done pretty well, but now he has a day job with SponsorHouse. He still races, but he collects a real paycheck. See? A real job in an unreal industry.
I spend 12 years working jobs I didn’t enjoy but that paid well and gave me a Swiss Army knife of skills. When I finally got the balls two years ago to do my own thing, I had everything I needed to start creating my dream life. I had a lot of regret that I didn’t choose my passion right after college, but at this point I know my life path has been exactly what it was destined to be. The book would have been impossible to complete without all my experience, and I’m sure I appreciate what I have now because I spent years digging holes, fixing cars and working in cubicles.
That said, if you’re young and you have a passion, GO FOR IT! If you think you can be the next Lopes, treat bike riding as a profession, and do your best. But realize the chances of success are very low — plus no matter how successful you are, you’ll need an exit strategy — and make sure you leave yourself other options.
I hope that helps. When you’re rich and famous let me interview you!
BTW: Pro-level racer Joe Lawwill has really struggled to make racing a career. Here’s an interesting interview.