At the time of Wellington’s departure, TBB had a handful of sponsors, including bike company Cervélo. But none of the marketing agreements included bonus structures that would allow the team to pay its athletes up to market value, should they win a title. Alex Bok, the Dutchman who owns The Bicycle Boutique (TBB) bicycle stores and co-owns the team with Sutton, says the team’s new sponsorship agreements have incentive plans to pay the athletes based on their market value. Caroline Steffen, Bok says, will earn approximately $150,000 a year as a base salary—with winnings and prize money pushing that number substantially higher.
“Brett told me we had to double the budget for this year because he doesn’t want to lose athletes,” Bok said. “We will get that done.”
But Bok says the goal of the team is to retain its collection of both top-end and up-and-coming professionals. Just having stars, Bok says, does not give age-group triathletes an incentive to follow the squad. In July he unveiled a dealer affiliate program that would allow the lesser athletes to boost their salaries by referring age groupers to purchase sponsored product.
“We could have another million in sponsorship if we just kept the top six athletes and sent everybody else home,” Bok said. “That’s not our structure.”
Bok also wants to groom a new generation of coaches to pass on Sutton’s methods to age groupers, so the prospect of being a future TBB coach is also an incentive for the newer athletes on the squad. Bok and Sutton have ambitions of growing the TBB brand into a large-scale training umbrella for amateurs, with the most talented amateurs being funneled upward into the elite squad. Sutton has his American athlete Scott DeFilippis oversee the amateur TBB network, which currently has eight coaches and about 50 amateur athletes.
“I think we could have 500 athletes in the U.S.,” DeFilippis said. “We’re not selling some cookie-cutter 12-week plan,” he said, explaining that in the TBB model, the plan isn’t laid out from the beginning. Rather, it’s adjusted throughout the season based on an athlete’s performance in training and racing. “We look at coaching as an art, not a science.”
It’s an ambitious plan for the squad, and one that Sutton doesn’t have the time or energy to directly oversee. But Bok says all TBB brand extensions—be it through dealer incentive programs, a blog network or coaching—are what will help the squad prove its value to sponsors, and ultimately survive.
“Just buying top athletes doesn’t sell more bikes,” Bok said. “We want to provide hope and opportunity to age-group athletes.”
The model of hope is working. Since Wellington’s victory, Sutton’s been sought out by an army of young pros and age groupers, and he has developed a system for weeding out the chaff. He asks for a racing résumé and a detailed history of their athletic past, all the way back to high school. (“The guy was a champion swimmer? I can knock the rust off of that.”) He wants to know about their current training, their hobbies, even their personal life. (“Married? With a 2-year-old? Sorry mate, it’s never going to happen.”)
Athletes who survive the weeks of communicative scrutiny are invited to a two-week trial period in Leysin. Sutton sends the recruits on crushing rides up the nearby Col de la Croix Jura and the other monster passes dotting the surrounding Alps. He says the coup de grace usually involves a lengthy running session at the track, followed by a run back up the mountain to Leysin.
“They turn up here and after two days they’re gone,” Sutton said. “They tell me this type of riding isn’t good for them. They say, ‘Oh, track workouts aren’t for Ironman.’ I just say bye-bye.”
Not all of them leave. Every few years, some unknown turns up and guts it out through the bike rides in the Alps, the hellacious track sessions and the endless climbs back to Leysin. He usually shows up, just like Carter, with little cash in the bank but an endless desire to test himself against the world’s best triathletes.
But the real test, they’ll learn, is Brett Sutton himself.