Australian professional cyclist Jack Haig smiles into his laptop camera as he scrolls through a list of questions on the online chat platform Discord. One question, submitted by a user named “Spacemann_Spiff,” catches his eye.
The inquiry is about the prevalence of doping in today’s pro peloton.
“To be honest, inside the WorldTour, I don’t really think there’s much—it’s been a really long time since someone has tested positive within a WorldTour team,” Haig says. “If it’s happening, then it’s probably happening in the smaller-level racing. In the WorldTour peloton, it’s not really spoken about or even brought up.”
Haig goes on to the next question: Does he prefer newer disc brake technology over traditional rim brakes?
“Definitely disc brakes,” Haig says.
Facing Haig in the video chat room are multiple cartoonish renderings of people dressed in cycling attire. These pictures are the personalized avatars that may someday be owned by members of Bike Club, a digital cycling club launched by four entrepreneurs in November. Originally called Bike Club NFT, the group billed itself as the world’s first blockchain-based cycling club and promoted itself on social media with the quirky drawings. Under its original concept, members would purchase a non-fungible token (NFT) and then gain access to a wide array of perks for cyclists, such as video chats with pro riders and discounts from cycling brands.
The NFTs for sale were a collection of cycling avatar pictures drawn by a British artist named Richard Mitchelson.
In the weeks after its launch, Bike Club NFT generated waves of online criticism. Social media users labeled the club a scam and a Ponzi scheme and chastised its founders for tying the club to the cryptocurrency ethereum. Multiple news sources have reported on ethereum’s energy-guzzling operating systems, likening the blockchain’s electricity use to that of Libya.
“It’s terrible for the environment at worst, a scam at best,” wrote one commenter on Twitter back to Mitchelson.
So swift was the pushback to Bike Club NFT that the cycling media wrote more stories about the backlash than the launch.
“It’s never fun to have people trashing your project,” says Tyler Benedict, one of the club’s cofounders. “And you can’t win a Twitter war with reason or facts.”
The online criticism left its mark on Benedict, Mitchelson, and the club’s other two founders—Shane Cooper, president of cycling apparel company DeFeet, and Paul Willerton, a former pro cyclist. In the months after the club’s launch, they decided to rethink the project.
They scrubbed the word “NFT” from the club’s name and delayed plans to mint and sell the NFT avatars until the late spring. Instead, they distributed a handful of the pictures, free of charge, to select club ambassadors.
The group realized that blockchain and NFTs were of secondary importance to an asset all cycling clubs seek: participants. So the founders shifted their focus from their soaring Web3 ambitions to attracting cyclists for free. They launched a Discord community with chats segmented into categories like pro racing discussion, nutrition, and gear. They brought on sponsors and promoted gear giveaways and discounts on Instagram.
They also launched a series of webinars, including the ask-me-anything chat with representatives from bike brands and the one with Haig, which was held in mid-March.
“Once it clicked that we’re building something much bigger than an NFT project, everything became a lot clearer,” Benedict says. “We’re trying to build the world’s biggest cycling club, and also we have an NFT project.”
By late March, the group had attracted 1,000 club members, all of whom joined for free. And the club did so without using blockchain technology at all.
In fact, the club’s day-to-day operations resembled what you might find with a typical In-Real-Life cycling club, with nary a need for NFT or blockchain. A recent spin through the club’s Discord revealed a spirited debate on the recent outcome of the Tour of Flanders and one user’s photo of a new Canyon racing bicycle. Another thread included advice on buying hemp milk from cyclist Tyler Pierce, known within the bike community as the Vegan Cyclist for his popular YouTube videos.
Bike Club’s relaunch represents one way in which individuals and organizations in the outdoor space are trying—and oftentimes rethinking—ways to leverage blockchain to build community, sell products, and pair brands with potential buyers. Blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that operates independent of any large centralized company or platform. NFTs are digital assets that are recorded on blockchain and often take the form of photographs or artwork.
Some artists and landscape photographers have begun selling NFTs of their work on online marketplaces like OpenSea and LarvaLabs. Professional climbers and other athletes have begun selling NFTs as a way to raise funds for expeditions.
Still other groups have looked to amass huge communities and then sell NFTs directly to their followers as a way to earn special perks or obtain special deals. In December, a group began selling NFT artwork of the U.S. national parks, with each picture granting a buyer access to giveaways of sponsored gear, free passes, and other swag. Outside’s parent company, Outside Inc., even launched its own Web3 community, called the Outerverse, earlier this month.
Benedict sees Bike Club following this type of model when it eventually does begin minting NFTs for sale via blockchain in May.
“Most of what we will do will be free,” he says. “Buying in with an NFT will cost money, but that will give you additional perks and bonuses. We do need a business model in order to do bigger and better things, but we won’t do that at the expense of our members.”
Benedict is a longtime voice in the U.S. cycling scene, and in 2008 he founded the cycling blog Bikerumor.com, where he still regularly writes about new bike gear. Over the summer of 2021, Benedict became interested in the growing NFT trend and blockchain technology and saw an opportunity to apply both to the cycling scene.
Creating a club via blockchain and Discord has advantages over using traditional group platforms like Facebook and Google, Benedict says. Club members can remain anonymous if they want to and avoid surrendering personal data.
“You’re not having some company data-mine your information and package you as the commodity to an advertiser—I think that’s pretty compelling,” he says. “You can be part of Bike Club for your whole life and never have to reveal your identity if you don’t want to.”
Benedict points to other perks that a digital cycling club has over a real-life one. While traditional cycling clubs are often dependent on location, a club built on blockchain and Discord can attract members from around the globe.
“If you’re part of a cycling club in New York City and you move away, then you’re out,” Benedict says. “If you join a club through blockchain, that becomes really interesting. You can be in the club for life.”
But local cycling clubs hold a distinct advantage over one residing online: members can meet in person and ride together. While specific elements of Bike Club are similar to what traditional cycling clubs offer—gear discounts, chat forums, meetups with celebrities—real-life cycling clubs offer the thrill and camaraderie of riding a bicycle, together, outdoors.
For many cyclists, a digital blockchain-based cycling club will never be able to compete with the real thing.
Benedict says he realizes the hurdles that Bike Club faces in winning over these cyclists. Some people find the concepts around blockchain, NFTs, and cryptocurrencies difficult to grasp, while others have a strong aversion to the technology. The club’s work with ethereum and the environmental damage potentially caused by blockchain is a nonstarter for others.
“We wouldn’t have electric cars if we didn’t start from somewhere,” Benedict says. “We believe in the technology and the potential of it being able to change.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Benedict and the other Bike Club founders have a plan to rival the real-life advantages of traditional cycling clubs, and that vision relies heavily on blockchain technology. Under the plan, which has yet to be launched, club members who have purchased an NFT will upload riding data from Strava, Training Peaks, or another training platform to a Bike Club dashboard reserved for NFT owners. The dashboard will tally a rider’s total miles, elevation gain, and other metrics, and each number will become statistics in a game between the users. The idea is to reward the fastest, most dedicated, or longest-riding cyclists with merchandise, cryptocurrency, or—you guessed it—yet to be announced perks.
If Bike Club members cannot race each other IRL, then they can compete in the metaverse.
“Down the road, we could have a situation where people are riding to earn, and we’re really excited about that,” Benedict says. “Where things are headed, there’s just so much you can do.”