Locating A Niche

Olathe-based Garmin is renowned stateside as a titan of navigational devices. But in Europe, there’s a contingent of people who know Garmin not as a GPS brand but as a cycling brand. As the world’s elite riders traverse through the 3,360 kilometers of the Tour de France and glide into the Champs-Elysées in Paris this month, cycling devotees can instantly recognize the blue argyle of the Garmin-Sharp team.

“The Garmin brand was not well-known in Europe, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to let billions of cycling fans see the Garmin brand consistently,” says Jon Cassat, Garmin’s vice president of communications.

Brand awareness is just one of the reasons the company wanted to build a relationship with the international cycling community in 2007. Garmin also sought to embed its GPS-enabled cycling computer products into the sport at the highest echelon, and of course they also wanted to sell stuff by leveraging the sponsorship of a team. In 2008 Garmin signed on with Slipstream, which wasn’t widely known at the time, to become the team’s title sponsor. And in a few short years, those objectives are being met as the Garmin name on riders’ jerseys has broadened the appeal of the brand.

There have been second-tier sponsors with Garmin all along, including Chipotle and the eyeglass lens specialist Transitions. And in 2012, Sharp became interested and invested in a sponsorship.

“I think it was a real endorsement to the sport to have two significant electronics companies sharing space on that jersey,” Cassat says. “They’ve been great to work with, and they bring a lot of technology to the team. Obviously we bring a lot of technology to the team, and cycling you wouldn’t think is a high-tech sport. But it’s become that with a lot of science and a lot of physical evaluation. And we bring a lot to the party, as does Sharp, just with the information technology that we have.”


Maximizing endurance

Riders rely extensively on Garmin products for race preparation. Data collected from Garmin Edge computers is important in evaluating how they’re training. There’s the “how far, how fast” basic information, and ways of measuring other factors like heart rate, power, cadence and under which circumstances a rider stresses more or stresses less.

Based on the data collected from Garmin devices, the physicians and scientists on the team’s support staff then develop training programs for the riders to maximize their endurance capabilities.

Other than being a test group for the technology, these guys can race, too.

Led by coach and chief executive officer Jonathan Vaughters, Team Garmin-Sharp is asserting itself as a formidable foe on the professional circuit. With multiple races that may be contested simultaneously, Garmin-Sharp’s 30 riders are spread throughout the world, and there aren’t many weeks when they don’t win a race or a stage somewhere. The same day sprint specialist Tyler Farrar won Stage 4 of the Tour of California in Santa Barbara in May, Ramaunas Navardauskas won the mountainous Stage 11 of the Giro d’Italia.

With Bradley Wiggins unable to defend his 2012 Tour de France title, there are several Garmin-Sharp riders that could contend in the Tour’s general classification. Ryder Hesjedal looks to be in good form with a course that sets up nicely for him at the Tour. Dan Martin has also been racing solidly, as has 2012 Tour de l’Ain winner Andrew Talansky.

And in a sport embroiled in controversies, the team is also known for its anti-doping code of conduct. Vaughters has adopted a zero-tolerance policy in which the riders are committed to clean racing. That declaration was a huge factor for Martin, who is a strong figure in the anti-doping campaign, when he decided to join Slipstream.

“This team has a very, very high degree of integrity in that they really do assess character when they’re bringing somebody onto the team,” Cassat says.


Powerful partnership

Garmin doesn’t want to distract the riders too much from their racing and training schedules, but at the conclusion of the Tour of Colorado in August, they pay a visit to the company’s Olathe headquarters to mingle with employees. There’s also a Q&A session with people from the community, and a few hundred people get to join the Garmin-Sharp members for a group ride.

“We catch them right after a grueling, week-long race in the Rockies,” Cassat says, “so they’re pretty happy to be in the flat land of Kansas for some fun rides with our staff.”

Garmin returns the favor as representatives from offices around the globe attend races and meet with leaders of the team. When the Tour de Suisse is held in June, for example, it’s an especially good opportunity for employees in the Switzerland office to meet everyone involved with Garmin-Sharp. Cassat is a regular for a portion of the Tour de France each year. It’s basically the coolest business trip you can take, as he talks with the team about what Garmin can do to further enhance the sponsorship.

It’s a multimillion-dollar and multi-year investment that’s paid big dividends for Garmin since Cassat started snooping around at the Tour of California six years ago and inquiring about sponsorship possibilities. He had little knowledge of cycling at the time, but as it grew into an important part of the Garmin portfolio he got more captivated by the sport, and he’s now an avid bike rider around Johnson County.

Garmin cycling products: Garmin Edge 510 and Garmin Edge 810

“I think the folks at Slipstream wanted Garmin involved as badly as Garmin wanted a team to sponsor,” Cassat says. “It’s been a nice little marriage to bring a lot of technology that makes their riders better, and they bring a lot of branding exposure that makes our brand better. We’re good for each other.”

photos: courtesy Garmin