It’s tempting to go straight for the big stuff: five bikes, ten pairs of wheels, a boatload of cash. But if you’re just starting out, step back and think critically.
First, assess what you really need to make it through a season. Write out your race calendar, with all the relevant info on each race: date, place, nearby airport, if you need a car rental or housing, and a bit about the race itself. How prestigious is it, have you done well there in the past, what’s the feel size like, et cetera. Details like that might help convince sponsors that helping get you to that particular race is worth more than a local grassroots race.
Write out a budget, thinking about airfare, race entry, bike maintenance, food, housing, car rentals, paying a mechanic (if you’re racing mountain bikes or cyclocross), and general maintenance of you (sports massage, supplements, nutrition). Once you have that—make it as bare bones as you can for right now—you have an idea of how much the season is going to cost you, which helps give you an idea of what to ask for… Or what your starting point is. While it’s not a bad idea to take what you can get, it’s not wise to get excited about a $300 sponsorship when each race weekend is costing $1500 in expenses. (See the chapter on buying the damn sunglasses for more on this.)
When you are making your ask, it’s helpful to be specific when asking for product (or letting a company know that you’re asking for money). Otherwise, you might end up with a great response… that nets you a bunch of stuff that you didn’t really need.
Make your wishlist well ahead of messaging sponsors, so you aren’t caught out when they offer to send you “what you need,” and you then have to quickly decide what you need and rush the process. For bigger ticket items, like a full bike, have a few models that you’d be happy with decided on, and be familiar with the specs, the geometry, and enough details that if you’re asked for your preferred stem length, or the marketing manager wants to talk to you about why you love the specific model, you’re not completely tongue-tied. (Sponsors can smell BS from a mile away, so having a real reason you love this year’s geometry is a smart move.)
And think long term, not just racing needs: What will you need to get through a season? Do you need more than one type of bike? “Boy, is this one misunderstood!” says Jeff Rowe. “Gear goes without saying if a brand is sponsoring you. If a brand sponsors an athlete for mountain biking, the last thing the brand needs is the athlete doing her road training on another brand’s bike. Now, in cycling, that may mean that the road bike is on loan for the season and comes back, whereas the MTB or several are the rider’s to keep. This is all in the contract, or should be. The bikes that remain the property of the rider should be considered part of the financial remuneration.”