Words by Jeffrey Stern. Photos via blackriver.
On a brisk spring morning we navigated our rental van from Chicago to Madison in search of the best charcuterie we could find, rolling country farm roads and more information on the mythical blackriver—the ultimate place to create, find and share cycling experiences, or so we’d heard. We pointed our GPS to a local bike shop that was once a train stop and headed to the basement to share a beer and learn the basics of the blackriver idea with Tobie DePauw and Eric Lynn. That first meeting last May sparked my interest in what these two were cooking up and I’ve wanted to learn more since. After gaining traction over the last few months with retailers and partners around the country, I sat down again with Tobie to learn a little more about his journey in the bike world, his love for adventure and how connecting with Eric led to this story-forward route sharing interface for cyclists less concerned with competition and more interested in sharing their journeys with others.
Can you tell me about your history with the bicycle, from a kid, to where you are now?
My experience with bikes as a kid was pretty typical; plywood jumps and trips to the pool. My strongest memories associated with bikes are memories of places they took me.
A defining experience was the first time I rode my bike to high school as a freshman. We lived in the next town over so I always had to take the bus. I decided to try riding my bike instead. To avoid riding on busy roads, I rode a few miles through private property on hobo singletrack. There was this delicious element of danger to it. I distinctly remember putting my foot down when I arrived and feeling a rush of liberation. The school was maybe nine miles away, but as a kid it felt like crossing a continent. I couldn’t believe that I had translocated myself that whole way. After that year, bikes faded into the periphery until I started riding in college, mostly as transportation. At the time I also started riding some trails, too.
How did blackriver come to fruition?
Eric and I met in Madison a few years ago when blackriver was just beginning to take shape outside of his head. He knew there was going to be a component involving bike shops and brands, so he was looking for retailers who might be interested in the concept. At the time, I had been running a bike shop in rural Illinois for over a decade. We had built a strong community there and the shop had become a destination for a number of unique brands. I was also hosting a number of gravel events through a non-profit I co-founded called Axletree. Eric had heard about me from a friend so we met for coffee and spent the better part of an afternoon talking about blackriver.
Eric had resigned from his role as Senior Creative Director after 20 years at Trek to start something of his own. He decided to create a digital platform where people could easily share routes with pictures and stories, and build community around riding experiences.
The potential of the platform was clear to me right away. As a retailer, I was constantly juggling social media, blogs, email, route sites and other platforms in order to get information out. It was exhausting, but I knew that I had to offer my customers more than just products to stay relevant. blackriver was as a route library, event calendar and social network rolled into one. It would be a one-stop-shop for people looking to get involved.
Just over a year later, I had resigned from the shop and moved my family to Madison to help Eric launch blackriver. I saw the opportunity as a continuation of the arc I was already on, gathering people together around bikes and working with independent retailers.
Eric and I work well together because we have fairly different professional backgrounds but we overlap on the right things. He worked from the bottom to the top in a big corporation as a designer and I worked as a retailer and a promoter on the front lines. We both believe bikes have an incredible ability to improve personal well-being and bring people together.
The first time you told me about blackriver you called the platform “story-forward route sharing.” What does that really mean to you as a rider?
When I’m looking for a good place to ride, I want to see photos and read about it, not just see how fast people are riding. By putting the story forward, people get a much better idea what the experience will be like on that route. blackriver is a paradigm shift away from metric-focused riding platforms and towards sharing experiences. It’s about sharing more than just numbers and lines. blackriver is a canvas, not a calculator. If you find a calculator, you’re going to punch numbers into it. A canvas is a place to create and communicate. We make it easy for people to track their rides, add images and anecdotes and share their riding experiences.
What about Blackriver will help set it apart from other sports driven social networks?
blackriver is differentiated by our emphasis on story over speed and a unique relationship with retailers and brands. It’s a resource for riders, regardless of category or skill level, who want to find a good place to ride their bikes. Everyone knows bike shops are a great source for local route knowledge, so we’re offering shops and brands a simple and effective way to tout that knowledge and encourage people to ride. One of the best things a bike shop can do to encourage new riders is suggest safe routes.
We’re also redefining the concept of challenges. blackriver’s patent-pending technology allows local retailers and brands to host route-specific challenges and offer rewards to riders who complete them. When a rider completes a challenge, they receive a notification to visit the retailer or notify the brand to redeem their reward.
You’ve ridden your bike in a lot of spectacular places. Do you see blackriver as providing the opportunity to share those experiences and inspire others to pursue their own?
That is the exact reason blackriver exists. A friend of mine called it an “Inspiration Engine,” which is a term I like quite a bit. If I see a route I like on the platform, I can save it to my Planned Rides and navigate from it when I want to. Or I can jump it to a GPS device. I can follow people and see where they ride, along with their stories.
It’s also great for traveling. If I’m planning a trip to Portland, I can search the Classic Routes there and decide where I’m going to ride based on what the locals say are the best routes. And if I’m inspired by a route, I’m going to share my own ride story when I ride it and potentially inspire other riders.
Tell me about your trip up the west coast last year. What did you learn? Who did you meet? What was the perception like on the ground, in the shops?
That was a great trip. We met with a number of incredible shops and brands along the way; Golden Saddle, Omata, Topanga Creek, Huckleberry Bicycles, River City Bicycles, Benedicto, Path Less Pedaled, and more. We were able to share our vision and hear what features people wanted. The reception was really encouraging. The general consensus was that the time was right for a platform that was open and encouraging to riders of all styles.
Where do we draw that line of quantifying everything we do and just enjoy the ride or experience for what it is?
On a ride, technology should enhance, not inhibit, the experience. Rhys Newman told me that when they were designing the Omata One, they wanted to create a device that didn’t compete with the “primary experience” of riding. I really appreciate that philosophy.
Headspace is valuable realty. If I’m worried about my speed or a segment, with my eyes anchored to a computer, I’m distracted. I’m not enjoying my ride. The metrics can be consuming, especially when the id is pricked and pride is at stake.
But if I’m riding along with my head up, thinking about what I might want to share about the ride, or thinking of other people who might enjoy the route, my head is in a different place. That internal experience is very different from racing ghosts.
What is it that you enjoy most about the ride?
I do my best daydreaming on the bike. I can point to multiple creative and cognitive breakthroughs I’ve had while riding. It’s really good for my head.
Where do you see blackriver in 5 years?
Our mission is to share every great cycling route in the world, so we’re going to continue to build the best platform for riders, retailers and brands to share routes and build community. In five years, blackriver will be the premier digital cycling platform at the nexus of creativity, community, and commerce.
In an era where retailers are feeling the struggle of continued economic woes across the country fed by stiff online competition, having the ability to offer a platform for customers to share bike experiences and engage each other brings increased value to the sales cycle—ultimately and hopefully leading to lasting relationships.
The growth of blackriver is still on the upward trajectory. They are currently rolling out improvements to their patent-pending Challenge technology, so we’ll see partners across the states hosting custom, route specific challenges in their geographic areas to help drive cycling interest. Among this and a feature called RideCards, the blackriver platform is changing and evolving nearly everyday. With so many features to cover, one interview isn’t enough to cover the breadth of all this cycling, social network hybrid platform has to offer. We expect big things from this ambitious duo and look forward to telling more of their story in the near future.