SmartWool’s Ride: Employees make ambitious trek across Western roadways
The ride reveals the values and culture of a Steamboat success story
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s note: Beginning today, a two-part series looks at how a 360-mile bike ride reveals the values and culture of one of Steamboat’s biggest success stories.
Supplies used along the 360-mile ride
■ 180 packs of Honey Stinger chews
■ 260 gallons of water
■ 30 lbs. of oranges
■ 30 lbs. of bananas
■ 5 dozen eggs
■ 2 bottles of ibuprofen
■ 2 dozen bike tubes
■ 10 tires
■ 1 spoke
■ 11,000 total miles ridden for a total CO2 reduction of 5.13 metric tons.
Source: Molly Cuffe, SmartWool communications manager
For some SmartWool employees it will be one of the greatest athletic achievements of their lives. For the “Little Guy” embroidered on their socks, the 360-mile bike ride to Utah is just another leg in a 16-year journey as the icon for the Steamboat Springs merino wool apparel company.
It’s late July, and 34 SmartWool and Timberland employees, sales reps and retailers have gathered for the the four-day ride that will take them most of the way to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show in Salt Lake City.
“It’s not painful,” said SmartWool President Mark Satkiewicz, describing the ride he started. “It’s a challenge.”
After the intense journey, they will join about 1,040 exhibitors and 40,000 people at the annual show. The ride is just another example of employees living the lifestyle the company promotes, both in its products and its people.
“It is the embodiment of the brand’s spirit,” said Jeff Swartz, CEO of Timberland, which acquired SmartWool in December 2005.
Swartz, 50, aspires to participate in SmartWool’s ride.
“That ride is the spirit of active mountain lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not talking about it. It’s actually doing it.”
And SmartWool has been doing it well since it was founded in the mid-1990s. The company has grown every year, but skyrocketing revenues tell only part of the story. At SmartWool, business success goes hand in hand with a company culture that stresses personal and professional growth.
Sitting on the saddle of a road bike for 360 miles during four days will challenge even the most experienced riders, who will rely on ibuprofen, muscle rub and diaper rash creams to make each subsequent day of riding across the high desert a little more tolerable. Rumble strips, shattered glass, animal carcasses, semis and 100-degree temperatures add to the physical and mental pain.
There will be exhaustion and illness, and some blood and tears shed along the way, but the companionship among co-workers and new friends make the ride possible and, more important, fun. So much so that even a novice can smile while tackling the 14-mile climb over Wolf Creek Pass that will deliver a downhill reward and drop them near Park City, Utah, from where they will then drive into Salt Lake City.
Norma Hansen, 46, is one of the 34 riders gathered at the Steamboat Springs Transit Center at 6 a.m. July 29 to begin the ride.
SmartWool’s director of special projects has been with the company for six years and just bought her road bike last summer.
“It was a sport I always wanted to get into,” Hansen said. “I always thought road biking looked so nice. A nice thing to do.”
She decided to do the ride after talking to her closest co-workers, who did the ride the previous year and had a great time.
“They were honest that it was hard,” Hansen said.
She started training with shorter rides around Steamboat and built up to a 70-mile ride to Columbine in North Routt County.
“After I did the 70, I figured I can probably do these 100-mile days,” she said.
Hansen’s luggage is stacked along with the others’ into three vehicles that will supply them with food and water throughout the trip. SmartWool employee Tad Huser will drive one of the vehicles and serve as the ride’s bike mechanic.
The mood is almost as if all have put their lives on hold for four days and are headed on summer vacation. But instead of heading to airport security, they are pedaling 25 miles west of Steamboat to their first stop, Hayden.
SmartWool President Mark Satkiewicz gathers the group as riders get ready to depart. After introductions, he gives a summary of the day’s ride.
“One thing I want to emphasize to everyone is it’s not a race,” Satkiewicz said. “It’s 350 miles. It can get hot. It’s a long deal, so really enjoy it. The biggest thrill of the whole thing is enjoying time with all of us. Meet some people. Have a great time.”
The riders casually depart the Transit Center in small groups, passing a few Steamboat residents out on their morning walks and curious about where all these determined cyclists are heading.
The plan is to regroup at the second aid stop in Craig, but the group gathers alongside U.S. Highway 40 just six minutes into the ride when Anna Leavitt, SmartWool’s North America sales operations manger, hits a rock and crashes.
“That’s never happened before,” Satkiewicz says after Leavitt is checked out and arrangements are made to take her to the hospital.
With miles of dangerous road ahead, it’s not a great start to the ride, but it sends a message of caution as the riders continue along the narrow shoulder on a busy two-lane highway. Several cyclists who have done the ride before say this is their least favorite section.
With the Yampa River winding along the left side of the road and the Hayden Station power plant smoke stacks coming into sight, the first stop, GGs Coffee Shop, is just a few miles away.
“That looks like too much work,” says a construction worker holding a “slow” sign.
He probably does not realize the people riding past him are on the clock, doing something they consider one of the perks of working at SmartWool, which in 2010 again was ranked as one of Outside Magazine’s 50 Best Places to Work.
If it’s a powder day at Steamboat Ski Area, Satkiewicz doesn’t want to see you in the office.
A flexible schedule that allows workers to ski or bike during the workday is just one of the reasons SmartWool again received a top ranking from Outside. The ranking is based on figures provided by the company and checked against confidential employee surveys.
“If you want to ride your bike, pick a time. Just get your work done,” said Trevor Walz, who works on SmartWool’s website.
There are other things that keep employees happy.
“My favorite part about my job is I never lie,” said Gardner Flanigan, who came to the company in 1997. “The product does what we say it does.”
Employees receive the typical 401(k), health and dental benefits as well as three weeks of paid vacation a year.
“People enjoy being at work,” Walz said. “People see it as more than a place to go for eight hours and make a paycheck. It’s a way of life.”
During summer, the office closes at 3 p.m. on Fridays, with many of the employees going on group bike rides. SmartWool closes its office during four typical workdays each year. Two of those days allow employees to work some of the 40 hours of volunteer time they are allotted and encouraged to use each year. A company-wide ski day in March lets employees enjoy the day together at the ski area. Summer Recess provides a barbecue at Howelsen Hill Park, rides down the Alpine Slide and team-building activities at businesses and organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club.
SmartWool also provides an activity pass that will pay for skiing, gym membership or activities such as yoga classes. That is in addition to a health and fitness allowance of $125. Employees also are rewarded for biking to work.
“We promote the active mountain life and anything to get people outside,” Satkiewicz said.
“We offer a career; we really want to run a long-term, profitable business that is going to be here for a long, long time.”
Nurturing the company’s culture will remain important as SmartWool tackles ongoing challenges such as acquiring young talent, like 28-year-old Walz, who can grow with the company, Satkiewicz said.
Walz, an avid cyclist with a bike chain tattoo on his ankle, is one of the 34 people biking to Utah. The Minnesota native wanted to move to the mountains but only if there was potential for a career.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better,” Walz said. “My work-life balance is pretty premiere.”
After a pit stop in Hayden, riders mount their bikes and pedal 20 more miles along U.S. 40 before heading south on Colorado Highway 13 to Meeker.
The sound of gravel ricocheting off the guard rails and carbon bike frames creates the soundtrack for the ride. Rion Smith, a sales rep who represents SmartWool and other brands, clips a dagger-shaped piece of pine that slices through the valve stem of his tire and shoots past the riders behind him. Many of the riders manage to avoid or ride over a thick pane of glass, but Scott Belisle, SmartWool’s men’s apparel product line manager, hits it, slicing his tire.
After a stop in Craig, the riders begin to form packs according to their ability level and who they want to ride with. Riders take turns in the front of the packs, blocking the wind and creating a pulling effect for the riders who follow immediately behind.
A 13-mile gradual climb becomes the biggest challenge of the day, which turns out to be perfect for cycling, with an overcast sky and little wind.
The riders arrive in Meeker within about an hour of one another. After stretching and eating, they cool off in the frigid waters of the White River. Smart phones are used to update Facebook statuses. Some call home.
“You know what I saw today? Cows,” SmartWool retailer Marshall Merriam, of New England, tells his 3-year-old son, Baxter, while lying in the park grass.
Day One is in the bag, with a couple of hours to kill before the group takes over the Italian restaurant next to the hotel.
The brutal chip-and-seal
Friday presents the opportunity for a few of the riders to cross a century ride — a ride of 100 miles — off their cycling to-do list.
And the 113-mile ride to Vernal, Utah, would prove to be a memorable century.
The clouds have cleared overnight, creating the potential for a hot day.
The first taste of real heat comes in Dinosaur, 77 miles into the day’s ride. With 33 miles to go through the desert along U.S. 40, temperatures reach 100 degrees. Some of the riders already are exhausted from the gradual 17-mile climb north into Dinosaur along Colorado Highway 64.
Resuming travel along U.S. 40 means the return of debris, rocks, traffic and rumble strips.
In the lead pack, a few of the riders break away to race to the Utah state line. Rumors of construction on U.S. 40 prove to be true, and a fresh, smelly coat of tar and gravel greets the riders. The ride alongside Dinosaur National Monument is gorgeous, but the road conditions are treacherous. And it’s hot. No shoulder has been painted on the freshly chip-and-sealed road, and the rumble strips are hard to see.
“You’ve got Mack trucks and oil trucks coming by you at 70 miles per hour, and it’s extremely hard to keep focused, plus you’re really tired,” Satkiewicz later recalled. “It’s hot; you’ve been on your bike for four hours or more. It’s a tribute to everybody to just get done with days like that.”
The ride claims its second casualty when, with 10 miles left, SmartWool employee Kate Schneider loses control and crashes.
Ken Sung, co-owner of Gazelle Sports in Michigan, gets three flats along the stretch of highway, has to replace a tire and is forced to end the day’s ride at a 7-Eleven outside Vernal when he runs out of tubes.
“Final stretch, baby,” shouts Timberland employee and former professional cyclist Tim Reinhart, with less than 10 miles to go.
Neither Reinhart nor any other rider makes a move to race for Vernal city limits. It’s been a long day.
After pulling into the shade below the hotel roof at 1:30 p.m., Leslie Mittendorf looks at a 102-degree temperature reading on her bike computer.
“I really want an Icee or slushy or something like that,” she says.
Walz dips his head under a hose next to the hotel entrance. His bike computer shows the riding time was five hours, 25 minutes with an average speed of 20.3 miles per hour.
Riders arrive at the hotel throughout the next three hours, hot and exhausted.
Kelly Gorder, SmartWool’s director of key accounts, along with other riders chose to take what would turn out to be an ill-conceived detour into Vernal. “The death march” is how Gorder described the road.
“I think today was great preparation for the last day,” she said. “It makes your skin a little thicker.”
Hansen, one of those riding for the first time, arrives at about 4 p.m. with Bruce Gordon, a SmartWool sales rep who works for Mountain Source.
“I think I was so happy to be at the hotel that I didn’t feel any pain,” Hansen recalled. “I’m definitely the last one in every time, but everyone is there cheering. I wouldn’t be able to do it without their support.”
Schneider gets a ride in after her crash and sits in the lobby waiting for her luggage. Her white jersey is covered in tar. She has removed most of the rocks that had dug into her skin. Scrapes cover the side of her legs.
“It just really sucks. This is not good,” she says, looking at her stinging, injured hands.
“It happened at a century, so I’ve still done more than I’ve ever done before,” said Schneider, who will get back on the bike for Saturday’s “rest day,” a relatively easy 50-mile ride to the LC Ranch in Altamont, Utah.
Relax and reminisce
About three hours and 50 miles of cycling offer the promise of relaxation at the LC Ranch.
Leavitt, who crashed just minutes after the start of the four-day ride, is back on her bike.
Satkiewicz takes the opportunity to break away from the lead pack and visit with some of SmartWool’s friends and customers he has not yet ridden with.
After breaking a spoke on his rear wheel during the last short climb of the day, he sits on the back of a support vehicle eating leftover Pizza Hut. The wheel is switched out, and Satkiewicz leisurely pedals the last 10 miles to the ranch and talks about the ride.
He pitched the idea of riding to the trade show in 2007, in part as a way to join the outdoor industry’s green movement.
“The other element that was going on in my head was the camaraderie or the team building that group rides do, and so we figured we’d kill two birds with one stone and see how it went.”
Timberland had acquired SmartWool in December 2005 for $82 million.
“As in any acquisition, you don’t know how that’s going to play out,” said Satkiewicz, who came to the company as vice president of sales seven months after the acquisition.
That first ride, in which 22 people participated, ended up playing a key role in joining the companies.
“We had a couple of those Timberland folks on the ride who we didn’t know all that well,” Satkiewicz said. “After the ride was over, we actually all said that the … relationship that you want from that group started to be fostered, and I put a lot of that onto those four days.”
More than halfway to Park City, Satkiewicz says this year’s ride is shaping up to be the best yet.
“Yesterday was an interesting day because it was 110 miles and you have a group of 34 riders with varying ability, and they go into each day much differently. The unique bridge is the strong riders here all recognize the effort it is for someone who is just getting started. When the last two in our group came in yesterday, a lot of people were outside waiting for them and congratulating them on such a tremendous accomplishment.”
Most of the riders have made it to the ranch when Satkiewicz pulls in. Some already have changed into swimsuits and are headed to a nearby waterfall. Huser sticks his head under the chilly falls. Others wade in a pool below, where leeches are found, ending the waterfall party.
Fruit, deli meats, cheeses and junk food are spread out on a picnic table in a pavilion. The refrigerator and cooler are stocked with beer.
Clouds roll in, bringing a steady rain, the kind that is perfect to nap to. Some riders retire to their rooms. Some explore the ranch. “Tommy Boy” is playing in a cozy cinema room packed with chairs, couches and animal mounts. A group of younger riders plays Pass the Pigs, a game that involves rolling two plastic pigs. Laughter erupts every time the pigs land touching in an inappropriate position, causing a player to lose points.
Later in the afternoon, Satkiewicz grills burgers and chicken for dinner.
Tomorrow is the final push to Park City.
After dinner, Satkiewicz meets with the support crew to talk over logistics for the final day.
“Tomorrow is 100 miles. There is a 14-mile climb in there. It will be hot. It’s hard, but it’s the last day.”
Hansen admits she is nervous, but she is not alone. After organizing gear and looking over their bikes, most of the cyclists are in their rooms before dark.
“For many people, I think their energy and motivation will be high, but there will certainly be some trepidation for sure,” Satkiewicz said.
The riders make their way to Salt Lake City, where SmartWool will again flex its merino wool muscle as one of the elite outdoor apparel companies at the annual Outdoor Retailer show. Despite difficult economic times and changes in ownership, success has been consistent for the Steamboat Springs company.
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