The woman started swearing about four hours into the five-hour flight. I could see little individual wine bottles rolling around at her feet, her companions tray tables full of empty Miller Lite cans. When the plane finally landed, she attempted to stand and push into the aisle before we were anywhere near the gate. "Let's go, let's go!" she shouted at no one, mumbling expletives to those of us nearby. I guess she had some gambling to do and was restless to get started.
Welcome to Las Vegas.
Photo Credit: Katherine Fuller
This is not the story of Interbike's product show - that you can find on any one of a myriad of cycling websites and pro cycling blogs complete with glossy photos. When I wandered the crowded bowels of the indoor show, I didn't even take my camera. Instead, I observed and absorbed. Instead, this is one person's virgin Interbike experience under the neon lights of Sin City.
You may have heard that the behemoth trade show is on its way to Anaheim, Calif., next year and will run the first week of August, a move that - from what I heard - makes sense to almost no one. But I will say this: Las Vegas is completely the wrong place for a huge crowd of cyclists. We make very little money and therefore can't afford to gamble, or at least not at the high-stakes level that would make our kind desirable on casino floors. Besides, if we have any free time during the show, we'd rather go for a ride.
What is Interbike? For a non-profit, it's a chance to register new members, raise money, meet and thank major corporate sponsors and entice individuals shops to join the ranks. More than 200 people joined the International Mountain Bicycling Association last week and thousands of dollars were raised thanks to generous donations from Camelbak, Shimano and New Belgium Brewing.
Interbike is a learning experience. How many ways can you sell the mission to skeptics and curious onlookers alike? I had the opportunity to be harangued by an irate IMBA member for a solid 15 minutes on why "IMBA is solely responsible for the loss of mountain biking in wilderness." But I also got to spend three days telling enthusiastic shop owners about the myriad of ways they can become a part of the mountain biking community beyond just selling mountain bikes.
Interbike is a bonding experience. The days are long and intimate: small booth spaces, 16-hour days and shared meals mean you're on top of your coworkers much more than usual. After several consecutive nights of getting three to five hours of sleep and several consecutive days of drinking more than one's fair share of alcoholic beverages, conversations drift toward the very interesting and highly entertaining.
I started the week working IMBA's little booth at Outdoor "Dirt" Demo up in Bootleg Canyon, a place about 25 minutes away from the Strip. Dirt Demo is all about getting it done and getting out in time to swim, shower and find something tolerable to eat in the little town of Boulder City before falling exhausted into the suspect sheets at your dingy, old hotel. Confessing how much I loved the experience probably just bought me a ticket to Interbike every year, since I doubt anyone else enjoys spending 10-hour days in the dust, hot sun and 100-degree heat selling IMBA memberships.
But it was exactly the grit of Dirt Demo that I loved. Yes - the days were long and the red dirt coated everything, but the icy-cold beer flowed free and most people spent the day riding bikes, meaning most people were as happy as could be. One by one, they rolled up to the IMBA booth sweaty, thirsty and full of joy - giddy like little kids astride brand-new road and mountain bikes. Even the vendors seemed more relaxed in the sun and casual atmosphere. When Interbike goes indoors, nicer clothing, a more serious demeanor and bigger deals come into play, but Dirt Demo is a big, sweaty party in spandex, baggies, helmets and jerseys.
Vendors, corporate partners and old bike-industry friends mingle more at Dirt Demo, wandering over to chat or see if you have free beer - or both. We were stationed next to Camelbak and got to know those guys pretty well, relaxing on their outdoor couches and spinning the handles of their foosball table. They shared their ice and we shared our bottle of Jack when the day was done.
When Dirt Demo ended on Tuesday night, we grungy bikers packed up our booths and headed for the bright lights of Vegas. My team's evening arrival at the Venetian was a sight to behold: four bikers coated in red dust carrying backpacks, duffle bags and dirty mountain bikes muscling our way through the throngs of well-dressed foreigners, greasy high-rollers, little old ladies and endless slices of Americana pie. I noticed a guy from Felt and another from Mavic looking rather overwhelmed and antsy amidst the casino scene. We were totally out of place, and never more than in that moment have I felt so proud to be who I am.
Indoor Interbike is a spectacle that can't accurately be grasped just by looking at photos. Not only is it huge and impressive in its size and layout, but the pace is frenetic. Activity at the booth slowed down (the non-profits are stationed in the hallway outside the main expo center), but IMBA's larger staff presence was fanned out all over the show floor for meetings and greetings. I spent several hours on Wednesday scampering around handing out "IMBA Corporate Supporter" signs, shaking hands, making small talk and collecting a few free T-shirts. Other than that, I ran errands and ran interference for our guys from SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association) when disgruntled mountain bikers needed someone to chew out and the SORBA guys couldn't answer specific complaints about the doings of "corporate." I discovered that asking a person, "What are YOU doing for the cause?" usually quieted them. A handshake and a wink once it was all over helped smooth parting relations.
I left Thursday morning after the Interbike-IMBA industry breakfast. My final show job was to stand in the atrium outside the hallway that led to the breakfast room, flagging down those who looked lost, tired, hungry and hungover and direct them to the right room, after which I dragged myself - tired, hungry and hungover - back to the airport for a quick flight home to Denver. Along the way, my cab driver informed me that he once married a girl he met in his cab. After 45 minutes of acquainting themselves with one another, they drove off to wed in Elvis-themed bliss. The marriage lasted a whopping two months, and he could not have been more proud.
Such is Las Vegas for you. What Anaheim has to offer us next year, I look forward to discovering.