There’s a difference between being riding a bike as a sport and riding one as part of your everyday lifestyle, and for all too many of us, those worlds never intersect. But for Kate Powlison, it’s all just part of being a cyclist.
Her passion is riding bikes, period, and not just when there’s a finish line or training goal.
Powlison has been the road brand manager for SRAM for the past two years, figuring out how to communicate to the buying public what she feels is exciting and meaningful about the company’s vast array of road, cyclocross, and triathlon products. In many ways, it’s a dream job for her as it combines her many years of experience in communications in the industry together with her enthusiasm for cycling.
Like many cyclists, Powlison is an avid amateur racer, having spent countless weekends competing in cyclocross and on the road, and earning a healthy stack of top finishes along the way (including a US master’s national cyclocross championship in 2015). In 2012, she was part of the Rêve Tour, a six-woman team who rode the entire Tour de France route a day ahead of the race— the first time a group of women has achieved such a feat — partially just to prove that it could be done, but also to help raise money for cycling advocacy.
For Powlison, bike racing and bike advocacy work have always played key roles in her life. In fact, for quite a long time, advocacy work was her career. Before starting at SRAM in 2015, she had a long tenure at People for Bikes, the premier cycling advocacy organization in the United States — first as a researcher, but eventually becoming the group’s senior marketing and communications manager.
“I spent almost eight years there,” she recalled fondly. “It’s a really great organization and a great cause. Even though I’ve moved on from People for Bikes, the cause is still near and dear to my heart. Whether living in a cycling paradise like Boulder or a big city like Chicago, you can see what happens when you make it easy and convenient to take short trips by bike.”
It should then come as no surprise that when the thought of getting a fancy custom bike arose in 2012, Powlison decided that the most logical decision was a town bike, not a road or ‘cross racer.
“I was trying to figure out what type of bike would make the most sense,” she said. “When you think about all the time you can spend on a bike, a city bike was where it was going to have the biggest impact on my life. If you look at all the trips Americans take, something like 40% of all trips are three miles or less, and sometimes hopping in a car isn’t the easiest way to get there; it’s way better to do it on a bike. But let’s face it, a lot of our carbon road racing bikes — or even the new gravel bikes — aren’t ideal for getting around town. There’s something really simple and beautiful about investing your dollars in a really nice townie.”
And so the idea was set into motion, but as far as Powlison was aware, it was just that: an idea. Little did she know that her husband, Spencer — web editor for cycling publication VeloNews — and her father conspired behind the scenes to turn the idea into reality. Nor did she realize how an interview she did that year with local frame builder, Renold Yip (of YiPsan Bicycles) would play into the pair’s scheme.
“Renold was in Boulder when the [USA Pro Challenge] came through here, and I did an interview with him for People for Bikes. And then I think my dad saw the interview, and that’s how he heard about him.”
Having a custom bike built for someone as a surprise is no easy task as there are countless — and highly personal — decisions that need to made. But luckily for Powlison, Yip had recently built a town bike for a woman that closely mirrored her measurements, and in a style that her husband and father agreed would work. Although there were still plenty of things to figure out from there, at least there was now a foundation on which to build.
According to Powlison, she remained oblivious throughout the process and all of the communication between Yip, her husband, and her father happened via email and phone calls — well, almost all.
“Later that fall, when the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross was still happening, there was the race up in Fort Collins [Colorado],” she recounted. “I was there, and my parents were in town watching me and Spencer race, and they ran into Renold. My dad was talking to him at the car and I was right there, and they both had to fake like they didn’t know each other even though they had been corresponding over email for all this time. I had no idea. I was totally clueless.”
And so you can only imagine Powlison’s reaction that Christmas day in 2012. Yip hadn’t actually been able to finish the bike in time, but the pictures of the build-in-process that Spencer and her father presented to her had the desired effect nonetheless.
“It was an extremely generous gift and I felt completely spoiled by it. It was a complete surprise. I didn’t pick Renold, I didn’t pick the bike. All of the choices about the bike —everything from the geometry, the specs, to the paint color — my husband and my dad made. I guess they know me pretty well because they totally nailed it.”