Get on a bike with Smartwool, or head into the backcountry with other brands to lay the groundwork for the outdoor industry’s strongest relationships.

Smartwool's Ride to OR.

Cyclists on the Smartwool Ride to OR glide through a mountain valley. Photo by courtesy.

My quads and my knees burned like hell as I rolled along Utah’s high desert roads west toward Wolf Creek Pass, eventual destination Salt Lake City. It was the kind of ride where the stench of hot asphalt sticks in your throat and sweat-mixed sunscreen stings your eyes. Alone, this might have been misery. But I was in good company.

Seventy of us—brand leaders, retailers, media—joined the 10th annual pilgrimage from Smartwool’s headquarters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and continuing some 400 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing to Park City. And now 70 of us were up-shifting in silence as we ground our way toward the pass.

Nearing the top, the cheers and clapping of the fellow riders came into earshot. The mood lightened as we rolled into support tents offering respite from the heat.

Smartwool’s Ride to OR is one of a handful of long-standing brand events that are the basis of relationship-building in the industry. When the president of Smartwool tells you that the Ride is the four most important days of the year to him, that tends to get your attention. It also raises a question: What, exactly, does a 400-mile sufferfest of sweating together and eating together have to do with selling socks?

Ask anyone who’s been on a difficult outdoors trip and they’ll tell you the strength of personal bonds increases with hardship; sweat sticks people together.

“There’s nowhere to hide out there,” Mark Satkiewicz, former president and general manager of Smartwool, told me at the end of the third day. “When you’re tired, maybe you’re hurting, and you’re working together with your fellow riders, your true self comes out. There’s no better way to come together than an event like this.”

That was true when Satkiewicz started the Ride 10 years ago and it’ll remain true as Smartwool transitions to new leadership. “The fact that it remains relevant and a must-do for a lot of people speaks to the truly authentic nature of a business based on connecting with people outside, which in my mind is the very foundation of this industry,” said Smartwool global brand marketing director Molly Cuffe, who confirmed Smartwool’s intention to continue the Ride in the future, even without Stakiewicz at the head of the peloton.

That’s the big picture, but what happens between people on the bikes rarely stays there. “There’s not much better than working hard at something together in terms of bonding, and cycling especially has that ability,” said Joe O’Connor, director of operations for VF Outdoor and Action Sports Canada, during the Ride. “The group is stronger than the individual. These are great memories for people, and that can really secure a relationship.”

Conversations begun on the bike lead us out on the trade show floor. During long stretches of false flats, retailers, material experts, execs, management, data folks, reps and media from around the country bump shoulders while exchanging tales of the trade. The result is something more than industry banter.

“The Smartwool ride allows retailers, the brand  and friends of the industry to connect for four days in a unique chance to get to know the brand from the human side,” said Ken Sung, a six-time Ride participant and partner at key Smartwool retailer Gazelle Sports, in Michigan.

And Smartwool isn’t alone in this thinking. From Yakima to The North Face, SCOTT Sports, Osprey, Big Agnes and others, the dealer event is de rigueur for many top outdoor brands. Many events stretch back to the early days of these companies and have become key parts of their identities.

In 1972, the late Skip Yowell launched a dealer-focused climb of Mt. Rainier, and today, it holds the record for the most consistent group climbs on the mountain. “This is an event I would go down on the sword over,” said Ann Daw, vice president of marketing at JanSport and now the brand’s longest-standing employee. “JanSport DNA is about the experience and the journey and not taking yourself too seriously, and this climb is very much the equivalent of that.”

Shuttling down into Salt Lake City is like pulling away from summer camp, looking longingly out the back window of your parents’ sedan as all your friends move on to their separate lives.

Reconvening on the show floor, we are reunited by our still sore and shaking quads and the conversations shared, carcasses dodged, miles covered. It’s the most unique way to build relationships across the industry I’ve experienced in my two decades attending Outdoor Retailer.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Jon Dorn, SVP of digital and creative services for Active Interest Media (the parent company of this publication) has also done the Ride and climbed Mt. Rainier with JanSport. “I love how our industry works—adventure leads to friendships, and friendships lead to meaningful work, and all three virtues come together in some pretty magical experiences,” he said.

Zach Branson, an independent sales rep and co-owner of rep agency Mountain Source, based in Denver and Park City, completed his 10th year on the Ride this week. He bought his first road bike just for the occasion back in 2007, and now cycling makes up 90 percent of his outdoor time. “I was a mountain biker before but not a very serious one, and now I pretty much get up in the spring and summer every day in fear of not being in shape to do the Ride,” Branson said at the end of day three in Duchesne, Utah.

He has invited a number of his retailers on the Ride over the years, and some come back every time. “The thing that’s so cool about the Ride is it creates relationships that are bigger than just selling socks. We’re really fortunate to work in an industry where it’s more than just business; it’s more than transactional. You can’t do this ride and not get closer to the people who are around you.”

The wind and heat at the end of day four kept no one from reaching the Olympic Training Center in Park City, putting us just shy of four century rides in four days. All but a few of our tribe were slightly worse for wear, but I didn’t hear anyone say they would never do the Ride again.

The power and authenticity of connecting with industry partners in the activities that inspire us makes four days in the air-conditioned Salt Palace feel like a walk in the park.

This story first appeared on p. 20 of the Day 3 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.