TJ Eisenhart launches gravel racing team with innovative sponsorship model
As is so often the case, TJ Eisenhart’s life took a dramatic turn when he found out he was going to be a father.
It was the spring of the 2019 season and Eisenhart, 25, learned that he and his wife, Heather, were expecting a daughter in July. At the time Eisenhart felt uninspired with his career trajectory in professional road racing. His team, Arapahoe Resources-BMC, had taken a step back to the UCI Continental level after racing for a season at the Pro Continental level.
That move meant accepting a cut in pay, parting ways with the team’s coach, Bobby Julich, and losing access to big events like the Amgen Tour of California.
“I found myself complaining a lot of the time,” Eisenhart told VeloNews. “I was upset with the sport, and it was like what am I even doing?”
Eisenhart recently sat down with VeloNews at his home in Ivins, Utah, to discuss his racing plans for the 2020 season. The free spirit of U.S. domestic road racing, Eisenhart has developed a following from his victories, and from his penchant for showmanship and artistic creativity off the bike. Like several other American pro roadies, Eisenhart has decided to leave the road behind and pursue his ambitions in gravel and endurance mountain bike racing.
His program, called Imaginary Collective, is a two-man team with another former Arapahoe-BMC rider, Andrew Dahlheim. The two plan to compete in the various mass-participant gravel and mountain bike events that now dot the competition calendar, such as the Dirty Kanza 200, SBT GRVL, and 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.
Eisenhart got the idea for the gravel program after he participated in the 2019 Dirty Kanza, and saw firsthand the growing enthusiasm for long-distance gravel racing. Jumping into gravel satiated those feelings of restlessness that came from the impending birth of his daughter.
“I had this daughter coming and I felt like I needed to finally do something for myself,” Eisenhart said. “In 18 or 20 years when I tell her to follow her dreams, but thinking in the back of my mind I didn’t do that myself—it’s like, ‘what a hypocrite’.”
A new sponsorship model
Launching a gravel program has become popular in recent years, with a steady stream of retired and current pro riders amassing a portfolio of sponsors to back them at the events.
Within this growing collection of programs, Eisenhart and Dahlheim’s project stands apart. For starters, Eisenhart said he is not planning to race for the win at any of the events.
“I’m not showing up at these races with a mean mug on my face ready to tear up some legs,” Eisenhart said. “I’m showing up wanting to meet the people and understand why they’re doing the races.”
Dahlheim does have performance goals in mind, and said that Eisenhart’s cycling talents and penchant for hard training should make him competitive in any race. Still, even Dahlheim admitted that winning races was not the only goal of the program.
“We have other ways to get attention for our sponsors,” Dahlheim said.
Instead, the duo plan to promote cycling brands through social media, video, and Eisenhart’s background as a painter and artist. For example, their sponsorship with Enve carbon-fiber wheels focuses on new technology that will allow customers to create custom decals for the wheels. Eisenhart’s paintings will be custom printed onto his wheel decals throughout the season.
Eisenhart’s art will also be on display on the duo’s custom cycling kits, which are made by apparel company Champion Systems. Eisenhart said the duo would likely have new kits emblazoned with his art for every single race as a way to promote the apparel company’s ability to print custom jerseys in a short period of time.
Even Dahlheim’s water bottles will boast the design of coffee cups as an homage to his coffee sponsor.
“It’s about highlighting the creativity and culture of the sport,” Eisenhart said.
As another wrinkle, Eisenhart and Dahlheim will allow brands to sponsor their program as a whole, or to sponsor each other individually. Bicycle manufacturer Factor Bikes sponsors the duo. Yet Eisenhart wears the brand of his personal sponsor, Monster Hydro, while Dahlheim has his own personal deal with Arapahoe Resources. Both men will ride as a team during the races.
The hybrid sponsorship model represents a break from the one typically found in pro road cycling, where individual sponsorships are prohibited and all riders must promote the brands backing the team. But in gravel racing, where there is no governing body and no rules governing commercial promotion, anything goes.
Eisenhart said he pursued the model after years of frustration in pro road cycling.
“For every WorldTour or pro team taking away the rights of individual riders, it’s just ridiculous and it sucks the life out of these riders where they can’t pursue anything for themselves,” Eisenhart said. “Then, a sponsor would sponsor a team and you’d have one or two guys winning races and really highlighting it, and it’s like why is that sponsor giving 50 grand when only two people are highlighting it or posting about it online?”
Eisenhart and Dahlheim plan to make their 2020 racing debut at the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo race in February. What twists and turns the duo take after that is still open for discussion.