Sponsorship: is there an alternative?

I am quite often approached, at networking events for wannabe explorers (like Explore at the RGS next weekend), or in emails via this website, by people who are planning a big ride of their own and, as well as building a bike and planning a route, are trying to figure out how to get sponsorship for their venture. My standard response is that you just email and ask – and that you’re more likely to get a favourable response if a) you have a contact within the organisation, or a personal introduction, b) you already have a few documented achievements – but even then, quite a few of the larger companies seem to have a certain annual quota of freebies or discounts that they’ll give out to anyone with a blog and a plan and the gumption to ask. It’s always worth a try.

A few weeks ago the question came up again. I was standing next to Helen Lloyd and we both paused and exchanged a curious glance, each wondering what the other would respond, and whether we’d just spout the usual party line, or say what we really thought. Emboldened by beer and each other’s evident scepticism, we went for the latter. There’s not really much point, said Helen. For the amount of free kit you’re likely to get from any given company, you might as well just spend an extra day or two at work, buy the stuff yourself, and keep your expedition your own. Bike trips aren’t that expensive, after all.

And at this stage it’s mainly about ego, I added. When I was setting up my own journey, having a few logos on my website made me feel like I was a ‘real’ adventurer, and that people were taking me seriously – both the brands who’d given me gloves and socks, and the fellow travellers who endured boastful references to ‘my sponsors’ being dropped into conversation at every opportunity. Nowadays I actively avoid talking about my sponsors a lot of the time (“I just think it makes me sound like a pretentious twat” I remember ranting beerily at the novice adventurer, who probably wished she’d never asked), and the more time I’ve spent on the road, the more stubbornly independent I become – I want what I do to be wholly mine, rather than relying on handouts and owing part of my achievement to someone else. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that what I write, and where I go, are even the tiniest bit influenced by the need to promote someone else’s brand. I don’t want to end up feeling guilty for not promoting the brand. I don’t want to  go to great effort to build up relationships with people that are based on what I hope to get out of them.

I have to tread carefully here, because I’m aware that many adventurers have embraced sponsorship a lot less cynically than I have, and I don’t want to be seen to criticise. Because I’m not. Although we do things differently, I’ve yet to meet any professional adventurer I didn’t like – and indeed, it’s often easier to admire someone’s work if it differs significantly from our own. We all have different strengths and abilities – I’m OK at blog posts, but I am not photogenic enough to feature in a catalogue, nor am I outgoing enough to pitch for my own TV series, nor am I technically minded enough to write in-depth product reviews.

And we all have different comfort zones, both in terms of how long we’re willing to go without a shower and a square meal and how closely we’re willing to involve partners in our expeditions. Often this will have a direct effect on the kind of expeditions we end up undertaking. I am very unlikely ever to row an ocean or climb Mount Everest, simply because these are such expensive undertakings that almost no one can afford them without a couple of very wealthy backers. Does this mean I think sponsored expeditions are sell-outs? Absolutely not, and I can’t emphasise this enough. I steer clear of big sponsorship, not because of any delusions of a moral high ground, but because I am simply more comfortable operating with fewer commitments. It’s stressful enough living up to my own expectations, without having to live up to everyone else’s as well.

And anyway, you must be thinking, this is all rather hypocritical, given the fact that I actually do have a pageful of sponsors’ logos, and will be riding through Alaska and Yukon this winter on a bike I didn’t buy, wearing clothes I was given and carrying luggage someone made for me. It would be a fair accusation. But I’m happy with my current sponsors. None of them is the result of aggressive self-promotion or of going against my own grain. In fact, most of the people who sponsor me I also call friends. We drink beer and ride bikes together. I wear and (very occasionally) endorse their products not because I’m obliged to, but because I like them, and I like them because I like and respect the people who made them.

Chris from Swrve is my oldest sponsor, and the perfect example of this. I’ve been wearing his clothes since about 2009. Initially the deal was that I tested them – he’d give me a couple of pairs of shorts and I’d spend the next few weeks wearing holes in them, then drop them off at his studio in Brixton, where he’d add them to his files and hand me a replacement. Usually he’d hand me a can of beer as well, and we’d sit around in amongst his piles of boxes and paperwork, swapping tales of the courier circuit and the garment industry. I discovered that the same jacket will vary from season to season, depending on factory schedules and what materials are available, and found myself nodding in reluctant agreement when he told me how he’d had to stop doing a women’s range, because it wasn’t selling – women apparently want trousers that fit and flatter them, rather than just going up or down a size until they find the right waist measurement, as men do. (I found that the men’s shorts fit me better anyway.)

Chris and I are friends more than we are anything else, and I like his brand because it reflects his values, and those I aspire towards myself. In fact, it’s almost an anti-brand. Swrve, unlike many of the other urban cycling labels, does not come with a lifestyle attached, and Chris takes a very minimal approach to advertising and promotion. The reason he sells so much is that his clothes are unshowy, unobtrusive, quietly stylish, and extremely good at what they do. (If anyone ever described me in such terms, I’d die happy.) You are just as unlikely to see Swrve garments in a double-page fashion spread as you are to see me modelling them. They get by on their solid reputation, rather than PR campaigns, arty black-and-white photography and high-profile celebrity endorsements.

Most of my other sponsor-type relationships are similar – borne of a genuine interest in each other’s projects, adventures and ambitions – and a lot of them have evolved out of friendships that already existed. There’s a much keener, happier sense of collaboration than I’ve had in some of my less successful sponsorship encounters, and I think I’d like to keep it that way.

This winter ride is testing my principles a bit though. You can’t travel through Alaska in January without a few fairly expensive pieces of specialist equipment – big warm winter boots to keep the frostbite out, a decent mountain tent, and a sleeping bag of the sort that copes with temperatures down to -40C and doesn’t come much cheaper than £500. I don’t currently have any friends who make down sleeping bags or sub-zero footwear. I’ve still got some savings left from my big trip, and was planning to finish them off on Alaska, and then perhaps give in and get a Proper Job when I come home – and I still might. But I started to reconsider a bit the other night, when I went round for dinner with the charming Fearghal O’Nuallain and met his lovely new North Face winter sleeping bag (and climbed into it), and started talking about similar sleeping bags I was thinking of buying.

You should not be buying a sleeping bag” said Ferg, and started talking me into approaching various outdoor companies to see if I could blag one for free. I left promising that I’d at least try, and then spent a dispiriting morning browsing through the websites of companies like Rab and PHD, realising that to be sponsored by them you have to be climbing an 8,000m peak, or racing to the North Pole, or doing something more newsworthy than following a road (admittedly a rather chilling and isolated one) between two cities. It seemed very unlikely that, unless I was prepared to recast my expedition as something a little more impressive, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance. And I don’t want to start selling myself as the FIRST, the FASTEST or the FARTHEST. I want to go on a bike ride, and see what happens to me, and perhaps write about some of it – and perhaps get paid for some of the writing.

So there are two options really: I can either try to make myself look like a serious professional adventurer in order to blag expensive kit, or I can spend money I was planning to spend anyway, but which still scares me a bit. Or is there a third way?

I had a mini brainwave the other day – why not just borrow the kit?

If it goes against my principles to indiscriminately beg for boots and sleeping bags – well, what are my principles? I realised – remembered – that my bike trips have always been, far more than I expected, about the people. Nothing I do is a solo venture, really, except in that I’m the only one cycling. And although I like to call myself ‘unsupported’, in reality I’ve been helped by hundreds and hundreds of people – by those who feed and shelter me as I travel, by those companies and individuals who’ve given me kit, by all the other cyclists and adventurers and writers who’ve given me advice, by email or over beers, and set the examples that I’m now following.

I am part of a massive, wonderful network of travellers, adventurers and explorers. We support and encourage and inspire each other. Why should we not also share our resources? So consider this both an experiment and a plea. Can anyone I know lend me any of the the kit I’ll need for this winter? In return, I’ll offer up my own kit to anyone who needs it, as long as I’m not using it myself. (And let’s face it – a lot of the expensive gear we own ends up gathering dust for several months every year.) I realize as I type this that I’m actually already doing so, in small ways. A jacket of mine is currently making its way through Colombia. Some down booties I got in Tokyo are currently crossing Canada with Sarah Outen (who, incidentally, is one of the most generous people – with her time, advice, resources, food and smiles – I’ve ever met). The wonderful Helen Lloyd has already offered to lend me her down pogies.

I’ll take good care of it, of course. If you lend me a sleeping bag you can expect me to have it cleaned before I give it back, just as, if you borrowed one of my bikes, you’d replace the tyres and chain if you did more than a couple of thousand miles on it.

I’ve just updated my Kit page with a list of the main thing I still need. Have a look, and if you have any of those lying around in your shed or attic, and won’t be using them for the next six months, let me know. And if there’s anything I can help you with – give me a shout.

Leave a Comment

6 Comments

  1. Helen Edwards
    Posted November 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Be bear-aware. There is a joke in Alberta/Rockies – cyclists are fast food…!
    http://www.bikeforums.net/touring/389211-how-deal-bears-tour.html
    http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/safety/bears.htm
    Have a fantastic trip.

  2. Posted November 9, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to lend you my sleeping bag but while it is too warm for most of what I do – it’s certainly not up to Alaska in winter.

    Borrowing as opposed to buying and sponsorship is a really really great idea! I hope you find someone with what you need – I’ve just checked out the list and, sadly, can’t help with any of it.

  3. Posted November 11, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    What a great idea! I don’t know if you already have these, but I can give you with the ski goggles and mitts, and also the foam mat. I have this ultralight -really good- thing: http://www.arklight-design.com/arklight-design-arkmat-127-c2x3199576 It works wonderful in cold situations and is reaaaally light and foldable. Let me know if I can help you and keep up these good ideas!

  4. kit
    Posted November 13, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got loads of kit. Drop me an email. I can bring it to Explore.

  5. Notak
    Posted November 23, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Are pogies the same as bar mitts (when they’re for cycling rather than rowing)?

  6. Posted November 28, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    This is a great idea! I wish I could help but I don’t have any of the kit you need. Hope you find it all and best of luck. I look forward to reading about the trip!