Why cycling is the new golf

Is the business community really trading their Ping for Pinarello? Swapping their green jackets for a yellow jersey? Well according to a recent Business Insider article it seems that corporate professionals are increasingly exchanging their plaid pants for lycra bibs…

Whilst golf still represents the highest proportion of active participants whose household incomes exceed $100k pa, Reuters have reported that its popularity is clearly on the wane. The number of golf courses in the U.S has declined in the past 8 years as well as the number of golfers – down almost 16% since 2005 given figures quoted by the National Golf Federation. As a comparison, data from USA Cycling indicates that the number of people taking out a cycling license has rocketed by 76% since 2002. But who needs the stats, just go out early on a Sunday morning and witness for yourself the swathes of riders grinding out the miles on the country roads.

So why have these new breed of Mamil’s (in case you are unfamiliar with the acronym that’s Middle Aged Men In Lycra, or Mawil if you are a woman) focused on cycling rather than golf? A report in the Economist suggests that golfs “meditative quality does not suit the frenetic pace of modern life” and that sentiment is echoed by Max Levchin, co-founder of Paypal (and avid ‘road warrior’) who explains:

“this current generation of young executives, they’re not particularly interested in walking around slowly. They want to do something physical, especially outdoors”

He also adds another key element – in this wearable age of Fitbits and tracking apps like Strava, people want to slavishly monitor every aspect of what they do:

“They are very quantified, because that’s definitely a thing now. It’s not so much fitness as they are interested in fitness that they can measure”

But it’s not all just about measurable activity. One element that cycling shares with golf is the opportunity to lavish your hard earned cash on some serious kit. It’s not uncommon for aficionados to splurge upwards of $10,000 on a high end, pro peloton, carbon fibre frame from the likes of Bianchi, Colnago or Trek. Veloporn as it’s commonly referred to (there is even a book dedicated to it). And the spending doesn’t end there of course. You will need a decent group set. Most likely an electronic shifter from the likes of Shimano or Campagnolo for another $2000 or so. And of course it won’t move anywhere without a smoking set of rims. Some funky Zipp Firecrest carbon 404’s maybe? Both wheels for a bargain $1500. Each. Then you need the obligatory multi-function bike computer, power meter, all new disc brakes etc. which will add at least another $4000 to the tally.

We are not done yet though. For your ultimate ‘chunky wasp’ look you will need to deck yourself out in the latest Rapha brevet jersey, pro team aero bib, GT nappa leather ‘climber’ shoes replete with Look Keo carbon cleats, Kask Protone helmet, Oakley Jawbreaker Prizm sunglasses… the list goes on. And on. And how do I know this? Because I’m a corporate ‘firefly’. All the gear and very little idea given the number of accidents I’ve had…

Anyway, I digress. The total bill for the bike and all the associated paraphernalia can easily top more than $20,000. But that in itself is an ideal opportunity to get the conversation going with colleagues, competitors and prospective clients. Although you clearly needn’t spend a fortune to get going, ‘bike bling’ is a big talking point. The aforementioned Mr Levchin makes the same comparison in golf:

“For golfers, it’s about having clubs of some special alloy or whatever craziness… showing off your fitness and your fitness equipment is increasing”

I know plenty of senior business leaders who have also opted for cycling as a business networking opportunity as an alternative to golf. For instance, Jeremy Paul is a 20+ year marcomms expert who has worked for the likes of Activision and McCann Erickson. A regular road racer himself he equates the attributes required for success in the sport of cycling to the characteristics we often seek in the business environment:

“Precisely because it is tough, cycling exposes our character: you see how deep people are willing to dig for a shared goal, you see them support each other by taking time at the front fighting the headwind, you see them fall and get back up again. Commitment? Teamwork? Persistence? Sounds exactly like the people you’d want to surround yourself with professionally or out on the road”

David Hill is an Account Director at Spotify and doesn’t believe cycling is actually better than golf he just thinks it’s more accessible:

“I don’t have the desire or time to devote to a sport like golf. Cycling is more flexible in my day. I can ride to work, ride with a work contact after work or at the weekend. Cycling has become more mainstream and golf has become more niche, the roles are reversed from 15 years ago”

And last but not least is Jon O’Donnell the Managing Director at ESI Commercial who believes that switching to cycling from golf literally helped turn his life around. In an article published in the Independent a few weeks ago Jon talks frankly about metamorphosing from a 16 stone fried chicken chaser (his words not mine) to a serious IronMan competitor in less than 5 years. Apart from the health benefits, I asked him why he made the transition from golf to cycling…

I was never very good at golf, but then I’m not the fastest cyclist either. I still prefer it though. Golf laughs in your face at your shortcomings with every duffed shot. Cycling is more forgiving. Sure, it may take you a whole morning to climb a mountain that Chris Froome bags in 20 minutes but the feeling when you finally get to the top is amazing. There’s no equivalent emotion in golf. Well, maybe when you’ve spontaneously packed it in after the 9th and gone to the bar…

But don’t just take their word for it (or mine for that matter). There is also some proper science to back up the claim that a physically demanding sport like cycling strengthens interpersonal connections. The boffins say that this is largely due to the release of endorphins in the brain released during physical activity which create a sense of wellbeing and reduced stress. But that’s just chemicals. On an emotional level, frankly it just feels good to hang out with people who have a common interest and a shared passion.

So what do you think? Is cycling your executive sport of choice or do you still believe that golf is better for business?

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Steve Blakeman is Managing Director - Global Accounts for OMD based in London / Paris. He was named by LinkedIn as a Top 10 Writer for Marketing & Social for 2015 (Top Voices) and also 'Agency Publisher of the Year' for EMEA. Please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter