Good things come to those who wait and you’ve patiently waited for the newest edition of Ted’s Talk, this edition with former professional cyclist and now two-wheeled industry maven Jon Hornbeck. I could go on at length about Jon’s involvement in the sport, his views on the direction cycling is going, and his time racing bikes of all kinds, except that’s precisely what follows in our conversation. Jon and I have raced against each other, raced with each other, ridden fondos and product launches and all kinds of gravel together, and even casted pods together a long time ago in a far away land (last year in Italy).
A mutual friend first told me about this Jon guy and his atypical entry into the sport, more so the creative ways he made ends meet. He did things differently in cycling from the very beginning. I meet a lot of people in cycling and I’ve been nothing but impressed with Jon.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
What’s your name and where you’re from, please?
My full name is Jonathan David George Hornbeck but that’s mouthful so I just go by Jon or Hornbeck. I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Temecula for motocross at fifteen. When I stepped away from racing bicycles full time I moved to Costa Mesa to be closer to the beach and have a social life.
You just alluded to your start into cycling by way of another set of two wheels. Tell me about your entry to bike racing.
My dad used to race dirt bikes so I started riding those from a young age. We were getting serious, trying to make it a career, and traveling the country hitting the amateur nationals to move up in the sport. Around 2007 I started racing the amateur expert/pro class with the plan to spend the year getting ready to turn professional the following year, jumping into Supercross. At that point I started working with a new trainer and started riding a bicycle for recovery purposes.
Then in 2008 everything changed with the economy and my dad’s business went under. I lost a lot of my support and basically had to stop racing right there. Motocross is ridiculously expensive. I moved out, got a job, I was pretty over everything from having to quit. People would tell me I should try to race bicycles but I wasn’t eager to jump into another sport and start at the bottom. I wasn’t young either. Finally in 2010 at the age of 20 I signed up for some cat 5 races and was hooked.
A lot of cyclists reach the end of their career and then scratch their head asking, “what’s next?” You didn’t just land on your feet, but you hit the ground running! Tell me about your entrepreneurial exploits and where you got that fire under your butt.
It’s funny, in 2008 when I had to quit racing motocross, I was there scratching my head saying “what’s next?” Having been there once before, I knew racing bikes wouldn’t last forever and I didn’t want to have the same feeling of having nothing when I stopped.
I wasn’t living at home so I needed to work and make money to keep the second racing dream going. You learn to be pretty crafty as a normal 9-5 doesn’t cut it if you want to be a professional cyclist.
I was living with some buddies and we planned my birthday, the day before Halloween, to be a big house party. The next year maybe 400 people came. The next year I rented a venue and charged at the door which brought just over 700 people. The event kept getting larger and larger, attracting more then 1,000 people. I turned professional in 2014 with 5 Hour Energy p/b Kenda for a whopping $0 contract. My event in October we had just over 1,400 guests and what I made off that party basically funded my season.
The following year I changed my whole dynamic and put some real money into it — by that I mean I maxed out four credit cards. The party was a flop and I woke up the next morning with $13,000 of debt. I signed with Hincapie-Holowesko for 2015 for $15k so I basically was in debt my entire salary.
All because of that one night where I lost everything, I learned how to maximize expenditure when hosting events. I went back to my roots with the Halloween party the next year with another 1,400 person guest night and the next weekend was my first SPNDX Stampede road fondo.
Geeze, that’s trial by fire. I want to get to SPNDX in a second, but let’s jump to the here-and-now. You’re an editor for Road Bike Action magazine which is super cool. In that position, you’re presented with the newest equipment, you’re riding fondos, product launches, and events around the globe. From the outside, it’s not unlike the life of a professional bike racer, so compare life now to that of a pro bike racer.
It was a good transition from racing and I am very thankful RBA gave me the opportunity to come on board. It’s great riding all the different bikes, trying new products, and not be tied down to one brand — something you do racing. I’ve really enjoyed working with the other side of the industry. For example in racing you know your teammates, other racers, and team staff. Sometimes you’ll meet sponsors at camps or races but it’s minimal. Now I’m talking 90% of the time with those people and finding out the back stories of these products, events, and learning how the industry really works. It’s fascinating.
I know from the outside it looks like I still ride, but when I do it’s pretty minimal and I don’t do any structured efforts. My fitness has definitely taken a massive dip but that doesn’t bother me.
So you’re not out doing intervals, but I see the SPNDX Stampede kit all over southern California. Give me the tell-all of where SPNDX Stampede came from.
That began in 2015 with the first road fondo I put on. I wanted to host multiple events but it’s difficult to take an event that’s called the Temecula Road Fondo, for example, and use that in a different area. I needed a name that I could build a following around which could go from Temecula to Arizona to really wherever when the time is right.
The unicorn came a year later. I needed a logo to put towards kit and everything else it is that I do now. Unicorns were already popular but more in a cute, cartoony way. I wanted something that was already relevant, that both men and women like, but add my own twist. I went to a designer buddy, told him I want a unicorn outline logo but something that looks cool. He came back with the current logo and we’ve been plugging away with it since.
And better yet, now and again I see the actual rainbow’ed unicorn modeling in the real world. Please explore that?
That $10 rainbow mask was probably the best investment I’ve ever made!
The reasoning came from a marketing book called Purple Cow. Being such a small brand I wanted to find a way to stand out from the crowd — to be the purple cow in the sea of ordinary black and white cows. When you scroll through your instagram feed, it’s all the same photo, a rider climbing up with a great back drop, drinking a coffee or just sitting there on their bike. I knew people liked the unicorn so I thought I’d do all of our new kit drop marketing campaigns with the unicorn head doing not-so-normal cycling poses. Something that really stops you and makes you look which can turn into a conversation and leave an impression. It’s been fun so far and you can never run out of ideas.
Bold Jon, I like it.
I just want the SPNDX brand to have a cool vibe whether that’s events, clothing, or style. If I can capture that I believe it will grow. Not a stuck up “I’m cooler then you” elitist vibe that exists already and I can’t stand.
You and I raced against each other professionally, but have done even more together in retirement. Two weeks ago, we went toe-to-toe at Belgian Waffle, we spent a lot of time drafting each other in both Dirty Kanza and Leadville. There’s no escaping it, gravel is a thing! Where do you see the entire sport of cycling going in the next few years?
First off I’d say we went toe to toe for the first fifty miles at this year’s BWR and then I decided it was time to pack it up and cruise for fun. Ha!
We’ve had some good times together whether in Leadville, Alberta, or Kanza. As a whole I believe this is more of a question effecting American based riders. Racing is as strong as ever in Europe and I don’t see that taking a dip anytime soon. Cycling is just part of European culture. That’s not the case here in the states which is why I believe we’re seeing such change and diversity. I think we will see more mass participation events like marathons or triathlons as traditional road races are going away.
I believe there are two parts here that are simultaneously adding up causing the change. One, it’s costly to put races on where you need to obtain permits, hire police or highway patrol, and so forth. It’s costly too for the athlete — you pay X dollars to race for an hour and then pack up and go home. Alternatively, you spend a bit more money at a fondo style event, ride with all of your friends, have a longer course that is supported with stops, and follow it up with a meal, drinks, and whatever else is being offered. If you’re a Masters Cat 3 for example you go to a crit, spend $45 dollars to race for around an hour with 30 other riders exactly like you. After that, you just go home. If you do a larger fondo style event you pay twice that much but ride with professionals, juniors, women, and get all sorts of perks from the event.
The other part which is the new gravel, mixed surface style. A big upside in this is getting away from cars and traffic. It’s such a great feeling to ride on a dirt road or trail with your friends and not worry about cars. It’s funny, when a car does approach on these barren roads, they are driving much slower and typically wave.
So you have this combination of road races diminishing, more rider friendly fondo style events popping up, plus the introduction of gravel which is a whole new challenge that gets you away from traffic…
I could see within a few years you have these large events that the 10% of riders show up to race and go for the win, but the other 90% show up just for the challenge to finish and say they started and rode the same course as the top pro’s on hand, and then had a beer with them after talking about the day.
So speaking of events, BWR already this year, we’ve commiserated whether we’re going to suffer through another 200 miles in Kansas, I think you ripped around Ireland last year. What events are you excited about in 2018?
Oh, suffering will be had at Kanza this year! Last year I was still able to fake it a bit as I wasn’t too far out from my racing fitness, but not this year. I’m completely good with that; I’m looking forward to ride it and document the experience with my camera as I talk to other competitors or volunteers to show off the whole experience.
Other events though I’m really looking forward to my trip to Italy during the Giro. I’ll watch some racing and then do one of the Italian fondos which I hear are just absolutely nuts. I’d like to give Grinduro a shot, this looks like my style event with the atmosphere, gravel and skill level needed. Anything that has an adventure attached to it that I can document, I’m all for it! A lot of these trips come up last minute though so next week I could have a completely different set of events I’m hitting which I’m not complaining about.
Sounds very familiar. Thanks for taking the time Jon. See you out on the gravel road.