To kick off the Things With interview series for 2021, it’s time to meet Rally Cycling’s chief creative officer, Sam Wiebe. He spoke with us about the unconventional way he joined the team, his hopes for the future, and what being ‘chief creative officer’ of a bike team actually means.
I used to be a valet in downtown Minneapolis. I saw a lot of famous people. David and Victoria Beckham, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Will Smith, the most famous celebrities in the world. I’d made a habit of speaking to the people I met about how I studied graphic design. Then Charles Aaron came in one day, I told him what I did. “Looking for a job?” I think he said, and I’m like, “sure”. I loved bikes, but I didn’t know anything about the pro sport. I went in and they hired me on the spot pretty much.
Charles had been a valet too. I didn’t know that at the time, but it’s something we’ve discussed a bunch since. Neither of our families had tons of money when we were growing up. It’s a kind of bond, that shared blue-collar mentality.
At the interview, it was me, Charles, and my portfolio. I was 23 years old and carrying around this super heavy wooden briefcase that I built with my dad. I had all my work from design school in there but I don’t remember Charles even looking at it. He just said, “When can you start?”
I think of Charles as my patron in some respects. He has been incredibly supportive to work for over the years. If I want to shoot photos he’s going to say, ‘go do it’. He’ll even buy you a camera. If he likes what you’re doing, he’ll then buy you a better camera if he feels like you need it.
I’ve had some great mentors. Early on, two amazing agency creative directors Eric Sorenson and Hans Hansen kind of showed me the ropes when it came to high-end, polished design and copywriting, they have helped us a ton over the years. We still collaborate with Eric frequently and Hans is still a friend, a decade later. And most importantly, Shawn Michienzi, an amazing mentor, and friend who has always been in the team’s corner and taught me a lot about photography and film. He has always pushed me to be better and do more in his subtle, cool, nice Shawn way.
14 years later, I’m still excited to design jerseys. That’s one of the coolest design jobs in the world, not just in cycling. That’s always going to be exciting when you talk about putting corporate sponsors on a kit and coming up with a color scheme.
Not every bike team has a CCO. One way to think about my role is like a group creative director at an advertising agency at a smaller scale. You’re not only working with multiple creative teams like designers and writers but also the business side and you’re needing to connect with strategy, accounts, financial stuff, and media buying. We have multiple clients, our sponsors, but we have just one product to serve them all with, which is the bike team. To say it’s an amorphous job would be an understatement. And it has grown enormously in scope since 2008.
I didn’t know anything about the sport at first. I remember, the intern and I were in the elevator and I’m like, “Can you help me understand this sport? I like football, basketball, baseball but I was like what are the teams? What’s the league?” Well, he didn’t know much, but he sent me this website with all the continental teams in the US and I began there.
I was steeping myself in this new culture. The Jelly Belly team always stood out as an iconic team back then. Another iconic American team, Toyota United was also great back in the day. Rock Racing, I would have seen Rock Racing the first time and been like “what the hell is this?” I was fascinated by bikes, so that was an easy connection.
The team was so good to me when I joined. The older athletes we had, who were all these proudly clean riders who’d battled through the worst of a dark time in cycling – Jonas Carney, Andrew Bajadali, Alex Candelario, Dan Bowman, Reid Mumford, Scott Zwizanski. Iconic American racers. These guys were all so nice to me and it was very inviting.
We’ve expanded tremendously. A lot of that came with the arrival of our title sponsor, Rally Health. That’s when I think it really hit a new gear. I mean, they helped put Tom Soladay, who was an athlete but now runs our comm department, in an ad with Kevin Hart. Rally’s creative director Jess Tschirki really helped us dial in the look-and-feel of the team.
You can do all the marketing in the world, but you still have to win. 2017 marked a key shift in my job and the size of the team. Evan Huffman won the Tour of Alberta, Rob Britton won the Tour of Utah, and then we won two stages of the Tour of California. Even for a WorldTour team it would be considered a decent year. That year we won a lot and it propelled us to another level.
We want to be in the WorldTour, and we want to do it the right way. I think it’s difficult as an American team, a truly American team with an American sponsor and mission and values, there aren’t many of those. I want millions of people to see it and I want to spread this message of health and wellness and what we’re trying to do.
I admire boldness. Even though I work in cycling and with big businesses, I am fascinated by the edgier designers and artists out there, people trying to push the envelope and innovate in new and crazy ways. I might not be able to incorporate it into a lot of my own work, but it’s something I like to follow and stay connected to, how these trends are moving. Paul Thomas Anderson, Dali, David Lynch, Aphex Twin, these are the artists I truly admire, ones who push boundaries.