Kristy Scrymgeour: the business of cycling
Kristy Scrymgeour has been a professional cyclist, a journalist, a PR officer for one of the sports biggest teams, and an owner of a highly successful pro team. As they say, she’s seen it all and done it all… but now she’s set herself a new challenge as the founder of a clothing label, Velocio.
Rob Arnold spoke to ‘Scrymo’ about her various roles in cycling to find out what she’s learned over the years and why the sport still captivates her.
Click the SoundCloud file to listen to the discussion and/or read the transcript below.
RIDE: I’m sitting in the office with Kristy Scrymgeour; she’s a cycling vagabond [who] lives half in New York and half everywhere around the world and she’s the CEO of Velocio. Is that what we call you?
Kristy Scrymgeour: “Founder.”
…the founder of Velocio clothing. And we’ll get to talk a little bit about the clothing in a minute but your back-story is quite an interesting one. You’ve been involved for cycling for over 20 years and you still seem to like it. What’s the highlight for you?
“I never grew up in cycling and it was never my plan to have a career in cycling at all. Even when I stopped racing I was planning on coming home [to Sydney] and being a teacher but somehow it’s kept me hooked in so many different ways.
“I think it all comes back to just the love of being on the bike.
“Even in years when I haven’t spent too much time on the bike, it’s like you get back onto the bike and you realise just what a beautiful sport it is.
“It’s just one of those sports that just kinda keeps you hooked.
“And I guess I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had so many different roles in cycling so I’ve always been able to keep it interesting.”
We can try and paraphrase some of those [roles]. You were a professional with the famous Saturn-Timex team back at the end of the 1990s. What did you take from that experience as a rider with Giana Roberge’s team?
“I was really lucky to be on that team. It was a team of superstars and I definitely wasn’t that but it was a good opportunity for me as a domestique to be part of a world-class team.
“For two years we really had a lot of fun racing and we won a lot of races.
“For that time it was a really professional outfit for a women’s team.
“We were all really good friends and we had a great chemistry racing together. But even just the way that Tom Schuler ran the program, it was very professionally done and I guess it was inspiring to be a part of.”
There was a long list of champions on that team but, for me, if I look at the last 25 years of women’s cycling that seemed to be one of the key movers and shakers… would you agree?
“Yeah, I think so – for its time particularly. Like I said it was very professionally run for that time in women’s cycling and maybe it was the start of where things grew from…
“These days you look and there’s a lot of women’s teams that are very professional. In fact, all of the teams [at] the top level are very well run professionally even though there’s still a very limited budget for women’s cycling.
“The sport has changed a lot since those times, in a good way.”
For anyone who didn’t know, you were involved – or you were the owner – of the Velocio-SRAM team last year which, before that, was Specialized-lululemon. That was a few very successful years for you and your sponsors. What was that whole experience like? And would you try and do that again?
“I don’t know if I’d try and do it again but it was a challenge, I’d say. It was fun. We started and had this great momentum with Specialized and lululemon really starting to get behind women’s cycling a lot and we were able to be creative with how we branded the team.
“We tried to make it so that it was interesting to people who did follow cycling but also people who didn’t – and I think lululemon helped with that because they were able to reach an audience of people who really didn’t have much to do with cycling…
“I think it was a good way of making more people aware of cycling and that was one of our goals from the beginning, from all three partners.
“It was a lot of fun actually.”
Again, big personalities involved and you had sort of an awareness campaign driven by Specialized where you had all of the women on the team explaining how they came to cycling, doing some video diaries… when you were thinking of that, it seems to me that you’re trying to foster women’s racing but you’re also trying to foster the idea of getting people onto the bike. What’s your main remit? What are you trying to achieve?
“Cycling did a lot for me and I just really loved it.
“I think that when you do love it and you recognise that it’s a beautiful sport but women’s cycling has just never been really well funded or supported, it becomes your passion – your mission – to try and change that in some way. I think there’s a lot of people out there now who are trying to do that, which is really great, from a lot of different angles.
It is what we need to grow the sport because all women’s sports suffer in that way. But you just have to keep pushing and try to make change. And that was a lot of fun for us because we were very serious on the bike and very serious about the way we ran the team but we also tried to incorporate a bit of fun into it.
“As a group – Specialized, lululemon and ourselves – we tried to make it enticing to people outside the sport.”
You’re still very hands on; you’re at the races when a team manager, every now and again, and you get to see a first-hand reception for the riders and for your sport – let’s call it ‘women’s cycling’, as though it’s different to cycling on the whole. Did you see an improvement in conditions. Is everything that can be done being done?
“I think so. The thing about women’s cycling is that you don’t really do it as a money making thing or a big career move. You do it because you love it, and you do it for the passion. And I think that’s why there’s always people who step up and jump in…
“There are a lot of people who are trying to help with women’s cycling just because they love it.
“But it still suffers from lack of sponsorship. And I think any sport that’s driven by sponsorship alone suffers, so we find the same with men’s cycling.
“In women’s cycling is just a little bit more obvious because there’s way less money involved and it’s way harder to find sponsors when there’s been no real traditional ROI.
“It hasn’t been on television very much over the last 20 years. I think that’s starting to change.
“I think the new women’s WorldTour, which kind of obligates organisers to do more to put the race on TV, will definitely help.
“The other thing that’s really helped over the last five to 10 years is social media because we were able to promote ourselves more with minimal resources and minimal money. I think that movement helps all minority goals – in sports and otherwise.”
I wonder about the WorldTour… just by labelling something ‘The UCI Women’s WorldTour’ is that going to have an impact or is it all the obligations that come with that title that are going to make the difference?
“I think it’s only the obligations.
“We’ve had a women’s World Cup since when I was racing and nobody even knew it existed except the riders and the teams. And for us it was very prestigious because it was called a World Cup… but it still needs to be on television or in the media for it to be a successful thing.
“The WorldTour now will be better, mostly because the race organisers are obligated to do that and to broadcast it in some way. I think that will continue to grow because the race organisers who have applied and have been chosen as part of the WorldTour are very excited about doing that.
“In the end it helps everybody; it helps their own race grow, it helps them get their own race sponsors – which has always been hard for women’s race promoters as well. And then it helps the teams because the teams can go back to their sponsors with some ROI, show some numbers and show some exposure.
“I think it’s really the only way for any sport to grow, to be able to have that broadcast media.”
Through other positions you’ve held in cycling – just to jump back in your career – you did PR for Highroad when Bob Stapleton took over what was the ashes of T-Mobile and you turned that around from a very German organisation to a very American organisation. The perception from a distance was that it was an amazing investment for companies like HTC and Columbia. They came on board and got great exposure through [Mark] Cavendish and Kim Kirchen and a couple of others who were on the team and were very successful. What did you get out of that and apply to your women’s team?
“A lot really. I think the way Bob ran the team was great. What he did best was that he chose really great people – Rolf Aldag and Allan Peiper in the men’s team – and he enabled the women’s team to have good resources as well.
“The way it was set up and the way that it was operated was really professional and he was also super keen to [have it] be a very open team in terms of dealing with the media and working on new things marketing-wise.
“And so it was fun. We tried a few things. And the biggest goal was to try and find a big sponsor. That was difficult to do and we did have HTC and Columbia and a few others but in the end it was still very difficult to find that big sponsor.
“Along the way it was really fun to work in that environment where there was a men’s team and a women’s team. We all learnt a lot from each other, also because it was international – there were a lot of different practices that came together and formed something kind of new and exciting.”
Is that what’s cool about cycling, the cosmopolitan nature of it?
“I think it is. I’ve always really believed that you can actually have more success sporting wise with a very international team because, firstly, you can learn a lot from different cultures and what they bring to the sport… but also [because] it separates it…
“Let’s just say – in the women’s [team] – if you have a bunch of women from the same country, in the end they’re still competing with each other for world championship spots, Olympic spots and all of those other things.
“I’ve always found that if you split it up so that there’s a variety of different nations involved, you get to the pro environment and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is our pro team and we race really hard for each other!’ And there’s not a lot of conflict in there when it comes to the other things that come outside of pro cycling… I think it’s a really good model.
“Sponsorship-wise it’s not as good a model because I think that when you look at the big sponsors that have been around for a long time, they’re very location based.
“Rabobank, for instance, was what? [Around for] 15 years and it was very Dutch oriented. It was the pride of the Netherlands for a long time and I think that’s what kept it going.
“I think it’s easier to have a local presence where sponsors can say, ‘Okay, this is our team and we want to support them…’”
In an Olympic year, does it affect the women’s peloton more dramatically than the men’s? I imagine it would…
“Yeah, I think it does. You’re only allowed to send three women to the Olympics on the road so it’s quite competitive.
“Also, for women, it’s like the Olympics [is what it’s all about].
“There’s not been a lot of money in women’s cycling so it’s not the same and women can say, ‘Well, this is my professional career – I get paid from this pro team and they pay me lots of money so my obligation is always to them.’
“It’s like, no, women do it because they love it and their goal might have always been: ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’
“Then after they’ve achieved what they needed to do in the Olympics it’s like, well they have to quit and go back to get a job which actually pays them money.
“That’s changing and I think there are definitely women out there who are making a pretty good living. That was one of the things I really tried to do when I started my team: to make sure that the women were getting paid a sustainable wage so that we didn’t just have them two years and they had to quit.
“In my day, I was part of a really great team but I wasn’t getting paid very much at all. And in the end it was one of the reasons I stopped [racing] because I had to get a real job.
“I was living on the other side of the world racing my bike and I wasn’t really earning much except prize money.
“Hopefully that’s changing with women’s cycling whereby it can be a sustainable career but for sure, for now, the Olympics is still very much one of the biggest goals of a lot of women who sign up.”
Is the Olympics good for sport or bad?
“I like the Olympics. I don’t think it’s bad in any way. I mean, sure there’s… well, we won’t get into the ethics of the IOC but as a whole I think the Olympics has always brought people together.
“There are people in Australia [who] only watch cycling during the Olympics.
“These days cycling is becoming a lot more popular here, since Cadel won [the Tour] and we’ve got all these great races in Australia. But traditionally people didn’t even know about cycling until the Olympics came around.
“So I think it’s a great awareness, where athletes can show what they’ve been doing the rest of the year particularly for sports that don’t get shown on TV the rest of the year.”
These days you’re looking after a clothing company that you started up. I didn’t know if the team came first… or the clothing company came first. It’s a multi-tiered question but, number one, do you miss being involved in the professional game and, number two, what can we expect from this new ambition – this creation of a clothing company?
“I was involved in professional cycling for a long time: six years with Highroad and then four years running the women’s team. And it was fun. It was challenging and I think that’s enough.
“We started Velocio because even though we had this great team and we had great sponsors it was still a struggle – sponsorship is always a struggle.
“So one of the ideas was, ‘Well, if it’s always going to be such a struggle, we’ll create something of our own and build it up so that it can sustain a women’s team or it can help support women’s cycling.
“You start a small business and that takes a long time but I’m really excited about where Velocio is going – Velocio, the brand.
“We launched two years ago and we’ve been really lucky that people are really liking our apparel. We’ve had great feedback.
“We concentrated in the beginning on women’s apparel just because that’s what I was doing but we did make men’s apparel; my business partner who I started with, Brad, he’s our designer and he used to race bikes as well so we couldn’t have him riding around in women’s clothing.
“We were always going to do men and women’s but we started with women’s and we wanted to make sure that we found the right fit for women’s apparel.
“I’d always ridden women’s clothing and it never quite fits right. It was always men’s that was changed a little bit.
“We wanted to change that. We wanted to make it different and really comfortable and fitting in the right ways. And also looking really great without looking too girly.
“That was really fun to do and now we’ve introduced our men’s line and we’ve got a pretty even line coming up in this [northern] spring. It’s been really well accepted and we’re excited about where it’s going.”
In the 1980s, for example, surf culture made surfwear a big fashion item. It feels to me like cycling culture is now doing the same for cycling clothing. Do you feel like you’re in the fashion game? Or the performance game? Or as a sportswear brand? Where does Velocio fit into it?
“For a sport like cycling you have to both.
“You have to make sure it performs well because that’s what’s going to bring people back: a good riding experience.
“If you hop on the bike and feel great and can ride for 50km or a 100km and still feel really great wearing the clothing then that’s the most important thing.
“To have a really good fit, it has to be high performance – and that doesn’t mean high performance for pro athletes, that means high performance for everybody riding their bike.
“It just has to feel really comfortable and perform really well.
“Then, of course, yeah… these days cycling apparel is, thankfully, looking better.
“People want to look good on the bike.
“People don’t necessarily want to buy their favourite team jersey anymore, or wear fluoro yellow… but they want to look good and they want to be fashionable because you spend a lot of time on the bike. And then you sit in the cafe after and you want to look good doing that.
“I think it makes for a more enjoyable experience: that you can put on something that you feel good wearing and that also performs well. It has to be both.”
It takes us back to the start of the discussion where [I asked] what do you get out of the cycling world? And the fact is, every now and again you get back on the bike and you realise how pleasant it is to pedal. And to do so in your own brand of clothing must be pretty special.
“Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. And I always thought, ‘Yeah, I really need to get fit so I can look good in the clothing too…’
“But yeah, it is nice but it’s also really exciting when I see someone else wearing it – especially when I come back to Sydney… we’re only just starting to grow here – well, we’re only just starting to grow everywhere – but it’s really nice to just be out riding and see someone else wearing Velocio.
“It’s also just really fun being able to create something and to see the finish product each time you create a new garment or work together on a new design.
“My business partner Brad is a really great designer and his eye for detail and his innovative thoughts on apparel are pretty impressive. I really enjoy working with him.”
Without wanting to sound like we’re creating an advertisement, you did speak when you arrived in the office about some innovation that you’d done and, basically, how you started from scratch with this line of clothing. Can you talk through some technicalities for the sake of understanding? Rather than us sounding like a product catalogue, but can you explain the process that you got through…? How did it begin?
“You have to go in stages. The first thing we wanted to do was change the fit so that when you put it on it just always felt good on every different part of the body.
“We changed all the lines of where the seams go and we worked really closely with fabrics to make sure that [the clothing had] the right compression and everything that goes into making a kit.
“But since we launched with women, we kind of wanted to solve that… [problem].
“Our first piece of innovation I’d say, after the fit, was to solve That Problem, where they need to quickly go to the bathroom and not hold the peloton up…
“There’s been a few tries of that and it’s really hard to do that without compromising the fit. We were really excited on working on what we call our ‘Signature Fly’. [Our knicks] has a zipper – it’s a vertical zipper – and you can pull that down and you can do what you need to do without taking anything else off.
“It’s been our best seller which kind of surprised us as well but we’re really excited about it.
“We sell more of those than anything else.
“In those ways we always try to think differently about what we can do for all of our different pieces that are different to what’s out there already.
“There are so many brands out there now which is great in some ways but you have to make yourself different.”
And, unfortunately, your point of difference is something that you have to talk around the topic to get to the point…
“Yeah you can or you just be really blunt about it.”
You can go to the toilet easier…!
“Well, our first advertisement created a little bit of a stir because we showed a woman reading the newspaper sitting on the loo.
“It didn’t reveal anything but it was just the implication that… there she was and… there was definitely some outrage about how ‘crazy’ that was that we would do that but we thought it was great.
“It was tasteful but yeah, you have to be able to talk about these things.”
In an era when it feels like there are no limits in the media – where anyone can do anything or say whatever they want – you still have to tippy toe around some topics…
“You have to make it tasteful but you still can make it fun.”
What’s the next big move for ‘Scrymo’?
“Ah, well, I’m just getting really excited about this.
“Last year I had a lot going on with the team and it’s always a big thing when you’re running a team. It’s always sponsorship, sponsorship, sponsorship… even when you’ve got sponsorship, you have to be thinking about the next year. It takes up a lot of time so now I don’t have to think about that anymore and we can really concentrate on the brand and I’m really excited about that.”
I know you’ve got endless energy. I wish you all the best and thanks for having a chat.
– Interview by Rob Arnold