“Do you want to follow me down this trail?” The words came from Anneke Beerton. The two-time 4X World Champion and BMX Olympian is a phenomenally skilled rider, one I admire a lot. I didn’t hesitate for a second to accept such an unexpected offer.
The trail was Challenge Roadside. A fun little track in Rotorua’s famous Redwoods forest. Built in an area cleared by logging, it’s full of table tops and little jumps.
Challenge Roadside isn’t a trail you ride for PBs, it’s built for practicing your skills. I followed Anneke’s lines learned more about jumping by watching her body position, and soaked up the moment.
I was on a brand new test bike I knew little about, bordering a fine line between pushing my skills into new ground and being “that journalist,” the one who got so excited on day one of a media camp they ended up with their arm in a sling. I reminded myself that so many people get overexcited on this trail that the locals call it ‘Hospital Hill’.
This blog is a little different to other blogs. It’s not an in the moment reaction to a topical event. It’s written to provide an insight into an event that took place almost two months ago. While we’ve been focusing hard on the Giro d’Italia this month, the embargo lifted on the bike I was in Rotorua to test. The Specialized Rhyme, a new 150mm travel trail bike for women. If you’re curious, you can read the in-depth review over here.
With one foot on the trails and the other in the media world, the behind-the-scenes of product launches are something I’ve always been interested in. What goes on? What’s it like? How do different journalists tread the line between the hype and excitement of the event and producing content that’s objective and fair?
The ‘Destination Trail’ global media camp for the Specialized Rhyme and Stumpjumper FSR was what I expected in some ways and full of surprises in others. Riding Challenge behind Anneke Beerton was surprise number one. Over the course of the camp she impressed again and again with the way she would encourage other riders to enjoy the trail as she’d take the lead and share tips; never too pro, never in a rush.
Media camps must be far from the most exciting part of a pro calendar, and yet Anneke’s actions seemed genuine rather than forced. I admire the professionalism of the Specialized athletes at the launch in terms of racing, but it was their conduct away from the race track that gave a real insight into a life working hard for their sponsors, a life lived on the road.
The lack of over the top hype was surprise number two. Specialized are known for their careful and controlled approach to marketing. But, while this event was carefully planned and executed, most of the team were at the end of a month long trip to New Zealand. They’d arrived before Crankworx and the opening round of the Enduro World Series in March, and they had already been through media camp one, before we rolled in for camp number two.
It’s fair to say that everyone was pretty relaxed by now. Conversations at dinner and on the trails were about life rather than bikes. Which leads me to the third revelation: Everyone there was a rider for life. Whether working in the industry, the cycling media, or as an athlete, it’s a love of bikes and riding that had driven each person to work in their respective fields.
The majority of this crew had been living the mountain biking lifestyle for long enough that there were a whole lot of things that didn’t need to be said when out on the trails. It was a given that you helped others to enjoy the experience as much as you were. If someone was struggling, someone waited.
Trails were picked that offered something for everyone, regardless of their skill. We celebrated people’s achievements when they cleared something beyond their comfort zone. While rain on the final day wasn’t for everyone, those who went out laughed, slid, got some expensive bikes very dirty and made each moment count.
The fourth surprise hit me once I returned home. Journalism is an increasingly solitary gig, especially in cycling. Most websites and magazines are managed by a very tight team, and freelancers, like me, work independently for several places at once. To get together with a crowd of people living a similar lifestyle, with similar interests, instincts, passions, perspectives, worries and curiosities was so valuable. It’s motivating, reassuring, good for confidence, and it spurs on innovation and ideas.
Marketing has taken an experiential turn and it’s no secret that if a company provides a group of media with an exceptional time, it’s going to impact the way they see, think and report. At the same time, we’re all there because we have a job to do, and do well. Or we wouldn't be there at all.
I’ve enjoyed reading different articles on the Stumpjumper, the Rhyme, and the associated equipment that was the topic of the launch: Atlas knee pads for all day use, lightweight trail helmets (the Ambush) and 'SWAT' bibshorts and mesh vests with extra pockets for storing your goods.
I've liked learning more about how others reflected on this experience; how they practice their craft. And, after seven years working in this industry, I really enjoyed what this time offered as an opportunity to reflect on, and to continue to develop, my own.