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Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of women’s cycling go round.
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“I got to make an entire career because I fell in love with bikes. This was not a plan. I had no road map. I had no idea that you can make a career out of it”
–Sky Yaeger, designer, bike industry veteran.
When Sky Yaeger entered the bike industry it was 1973. She was an art major living in Oshkosh Wisconsin, but she had caught the cycling bug. She walked into the only bike shop in town, and went straight to the man behind the counter. A sign behind the service desk read “no girls allowed,” but she couldn’t care less.
“I know everything there is to know about bikes, and I want to work here,” she boldly told the shop owner. And with that her 44 years in the bike industry began.
Since then Sky has done it all, from sales to bike design, marketing, production management, purchasing and supply chain management. During her 17 years at Bianchi, she introduced the now classic models like the “Pista”, “Milano” and the “San Jose.” At Swobo, she designed bikes in such a way that they can be shipped directly to consumers – derailleur-free with little assembly required. Today, she’s the director of bike development at the upscale, design-based brand Shinola, where the steel bikes are just a small asset of an all made-in-the-US product line that also includes watches, leather goods, journals, turn tables, speakers and headphones later this year.
We caught up with this industry veteran to talk about how she made her own path, and how women wanting to get into the industry can do the same.
Anne-Marije Rook for Ella CyclingTips: Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. How did you get into bikes?
Sky Yaeger: “I don’t know how this happened, honestly. It’s hard to imagine now that you can grow up and not be surrounded by bikes all the time. But I was in a town of 6000. There was no Internet, no bike shop, there were no bike magazines and there was nobody riding bikes. Riding bikes was considered the geekiest thing ever. At 15 and a half, you started Driver’s Ed and got a car. You did not ride a bike. That was weird. So maybe I enjoyed that part of it, too, – just being different.
But I got my first 10-speed in 1971. I bought it off somebody for $60. And for some reason I was hit by lightning. When I went to college, I met other people on bikes and I started racing and then the rest was all, well I wouldn’t say easy, but I had a path.”
Ella: A path you blazed for yourself.
Yaeger: “I’m the luckiest person in the world. I got to make an entire career and life because I fell in love with bikes. This was not a plan. I had no road map. I had no idea that you can make a career out of it. No one told me I could be a bicycle product manager one day. I was an art major. I just needed a job to get myself through school and I didn’t want to be a waitress. I thought it would be cool to sell bikes. Not for one second did I think I could make a career out of it.”
Ella: But the passion was there…
Yaeger: “The passion was there. It was something about the combination of the riding and then also the technical nature about bikes that I love.”
Ella: You were engineering minded from the get-go?
Yaeger: “My dad was an engineer but I was never taught engineering. I was an art major and I was also interested in mechanics. It’s a weird combo. I am fascinated by the engineering side but at the time I never even thought of going to engineering school because I was an artist.”
Ella: Tell us about your racing career.
Yaeger: ”I started racing on the road and on the track, in college. There weren’t a lot of women and I was somewhere in the middle. I did go to nationals on the track in ’82. But we had some world-class riders from Madison and I couldn’t stay with them. They were world champions, and I was in awe, racing next to someone wearing the rainbow stripes. I really enjoyed racing mountain bikes, once they were invented and wish they were around, when I started racing.”
Ella: Eight years of art school and three degrees later, you graduated and then what?
Yaeger: “I had no clue! Absolutely no clue. That’s probably why I went to school for school for years –just putting off reality.”
“I tried to be an artist for a while. I don’t know what concept I had. I moved to New York and I moved to Japan. But I ended up always coming back to Wisconsin because you could ride these glorious county roads. And I didn’t really enjoy living in New York City and just riding around in circles in Central Park. So I moved back to Wisconsin, went back to the bike shop, with eight years of college loans to pay off.”
Ella: That shop job, however, soon led to a marketing role at Suntour Components and then to your career-defining job at Bianchi. When you look back at your time at Bianchi, what are you most proud of?
Yaeger: “There were some early to market ideas I’m really proud of like the Milano, the Pista, the cross bikes and the ten model years of single speed mountain bikes.”
Ella: Your name and the Bianchi Pista are frequently said in tandem. It’s also a very iconic bike as so many of us started urban fixie riding or track riding on a Pista. What’s the story behind the Pista?
Yaeger: “When I was living in New York in ’81 I had seen messengers on fixed-gear track bikes and I thought, ‘this is crazy’. I had been a track racer but I would never ride a fixed gear in traffic. I was super impressed. And then in ’96-’97, I started seeing them in San Francisco, and I was inspired to make a track bike that was affordable.”
“I wanted people who want to get into track riding to be able to buy a cheap bike, a bike that kids could get started on and also for tracks that have a fleet of bikes that they lend to new riders. So the first Pista was true to the track bike racing concept, which is a steeper seat angle, steeper head angle, shorter fork offset, higher bottom bracket, etc. I wanted to create a bike that hit all those data points, but then could also be the messenger bike if somebody so wanted to do that. At that time there were only high-end Campy and Shimano track components, so I had to try to convince the Taiwanese to make us some cheaper hubs and cranks. They had no idea what I was talking about.”
Ella: Do you she still own one?
Yaeger: “I don’t. I worked on like a hundred bikes at Bianchi so if I kept them all I’d literally have a garage full.”
Ella: But I do hear that you have quite the collection?
Yaeger: “It’s all funny stuff and I’m trying to whittle it down. I think I have 27 or 28 bikes in the garage. I am on this new kick where I think you should ride the bikes that you have. So I am starting to cull the herd. But I’ve got a couple unique bikes that I just simply can’t get rid of.”
Ella: Like what?
Yaeger: “Some mountain bikes that were really early in the development from when I raced mountain bikes. They don’t mean anything to anybody but me.”
Ella: You left Bianchi to start something from scratch, and to do something quite different. Tell us about Swobo and the direct sales model.
Yaeger: “At Swobo my focus was trying to understand if we could develop bikes in a way that we could sell directly to customers. And I think we were one of the first companies that figured out how to sell bikes directly to customers.”
“So the first three bikes I designed were specifically designed to show up in box on your doorstep after it was bought on the internet, and you’d be able to put them together.”
The key? “No derailleurs.”
“There was a 26-inch wheeled, single speed with coaster bike, a Sanchez like the Pista but for the road and with brakes, and an internal three-speed. So none of them had derailleurs, which allowed the end user to put them together and be safe.”
Ella: But why? Why sell direct? Why cut out the bike shop?
Yaeger: “Because of the internet. The horse was out of the barn, so we thought let’s get on top of this because this is where it’s going to go. The end user makes the decision as to where they are the most comfortable buying from. We didn’t cut dealers completely out of the equation, but we wanted to engage the person who feels totally comfortable buying a bike on the Internet at 1 in the morning if they want to. I wanted to learn how to do that.”
Ella: And so would you say it was successful?
Yaeger: “It was. We learned how to do it and by the time we sold the company, there were 10 models of bikes so I am very proud of that.”
Ella: You’ve been at Shinola for five years now. Tell me about Shinola and the bikes you’re doing.
Yaeger: “The larger presentation of our brand – which is not a bike brand – is an American brand, heavily-design and craft based, with the goal of trying to make as many of our products in the U.S. Our amazing leather goods, our audio, our jewelry and our bikes all fit into that same overall brand presentation.
“We’re exposing people to bikes that would never go into a bike shop. Our customers want to be part of our story, which is bringing back US manufacturing, especially to Detroit. So there are a lot of assets in the story that people can get behind. Bikes are just part of that overriding design.
“The design sense of this company is something that just blew my mind away. It’s so strong. With my art background that’s something I can appreciate. At first you might see these watches and leather goods and turntables and bikes and wonder what ties it all together, and then you go into one of our stores and see the overall strong design language and you get it.”
Ella: The steel bikes fit well with the whole classic, mid-century feel of the Shinola brand. Playing devil’s advocate here, why buy a new steel bike when there seems to be a resurgence of buying old, 1980s steel bikes?
Yaeger: “The technology today is so much better! I remember the low-end 1980s French bikes and how crappy they were.”
“What cracks me up is that you see a lot of these old bikes riding around but how many people ski on skis they had in the ’70s? Likewise, you would no more use a 20-year-old computer. And that can’t kill you!
“The bike is a piece of sporting goods and you don’t know the five owners and what they did with that bike. If you could strip it down to the raw frame and you could x-ray it, you could maybe find out where the stresses are. But sometimes things fail catastrophically and you don’t have a warning. And aluminum is one of those things that fails catastrophically. Steel at least will usually give you a little bit of a warning.
“If you want to ride an old bike, that’s great! Just keep looking at your frame to make sure there aren’t any hairlines or fractures. And I would definitely replace the handlebars, stem too. And check the fork! Because if a fork breaks….
I get it, though; every generation romanticizes some things from previous ones.
Ella: You’ve got 40 years of industry experience under your belt. It was male-dominated world then and it continues to be so today. It can’t have been easy. What’s it been like for you, as a woman, coming up in this industry?
Yaeger: “When I got my first shop job it was 1973, and I make fun of it now, but at the time I just thought, well, girls aren’t allowed in the back of the shop, ok, but I just walked through the gate’.”
“But I made a point of really knowing what I was doing so I could talk the talk and more or less stay on [the guys’] wheels when we were riding. Just so that there was a little bit of respect there.”
“Of course I know the challenges. I worked for an Italian company and it was really hard. I worked for a Japanese company and it was the same thing: you’re sitting in a meeting with 15 guys, you say something and they don’t even hear you. A guy says the same thing 10 minutes later and they’re all clapping their hands. I get it. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just saying that, if this is something you want to do, let’s do it!”
Ella: So how do we get more women in the industry?
Yaeger: “I think people respect anybody who does their homework, and knows their sh$t. To get into a technical field, you have to be able to prove that you know what you’re doing.”
“So this is what I tell anybody wanting to work in the industry: you’ve got to start in a shop. You’re going to learn how the industry works, you get to learn a little bit of mechanics, you’re going to learn all about bikes, and you’re going to meet people through that shop job who are in the industry. So you’re going to hear about the opportunities in companies from reps and at trade shows.”
“The shops need women and we, as women, we have to go in and just get over feeling intimidated. We have to take responsibility to show that this is what we want to do.”
Ella: But shops are struggling as we’re selling more and more product online…so now what?
Yaeger: “True. But that’s a good thing, right? Because shops have to adapt. They have to understand the new retail environment, which is service based, and they have to become more welcoming –to women, to older folks and to kids. We have to realize that service is the most important thing we can do as an industry, and make people that are typically uncomfortable in shops feel comfortable.”
“Like I was saying before, the consumer decides which channel they want to buy from. So the fact that the bikes are now being sold over the Internet is a fact, a reality. The shops have to recognize that what they can bring to the table is an amazing level of service. Because all people who buy a bike need service.”
Ella: Do you still ride?
Yaeger: “Yes, I still turn the pedals. It’s essential. I live in a great place called Marin County where you can ride on the road, on the mountain and everything in between. Riding preserves whatever tenuous grasp I sill have on sanity.”
Ella Question: what is one thing that you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started riding?
Yaeger: “That I could make a career out of my love of bikes.”