Editor’s note: This profile originally ran in our February 2012 Personalities Issue, which examined many of the unique personalities in and around the sport of cycling.
Within the cycling industry, there is a regular traveling circus of sponsors and product managers found at all the major events, including the Tour de France, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and Interbike.
Brian Worthy, owner of Vermarc USA, is a member of that traveling circus. He somehow makes sure that he’s everywhere of importance in the cycling world — and, in many cases, outside it as well.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Worthy was on-site. He’s attended Academy Awards after-parties, he’s watched a Sugar Ray Leonard fight sitting alongside Joe Frazier and he’s been to the Sundance Film Festival a half-dozen times.
Yes, Velo is a Boulder-based publication and Worthy lives and works in Boulder, but he is no local phenomenon. In fact, he’s flown over 1.8 million miles on United Airlines alone. Most everyone in the cycling industry knows Worthy, but few know what he does. And in speaking with him, the soft-eyed, white-haired man is almost intentionally enigmatic.
Simply put, Worthy runs a one-man operation that takes, processes and ships custom cycling clothing orders for 130 different cycling clubs. He is the U.S. connection for the “Belgian mafia” of cycling clothing.
And he does all this while traveling — a lot. During the busiest times in his career, he traveled to Europe five times a year. He’s backed off a little recently, but still spends 90 to 100 days away from home.
So how does a guy born in Grinnell, Iowa, become the cycling industry’s Mr. Ubiquitous? Worthy is a self-described opportunist. He makes the most of his ever-increasing network of friends and acquaintances, whether it’s partnering with Darach McQuaid (brother of UCI president, Pat McQuaid) to publish the official Tour de France guide for the U.S. or helping to launch Camelbak in its infancy.
Worthy started his life of cycling in the 1970s right as the fitness craze took hold in America. The cycling boom was exploding at that time and Worthy used the bicycle as a training tool for tennis.
The cycling culture of Worthy’s home state, Iowa, was, and is, dominated by RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Though Worthy never rode the entire seven-day event, one memory still stands out from his time touring Iowa. “I watched Nixon’s resignation on RAGBRAI. It was on a Thursday night in a hotel in Waterloo, Iowa. We had to keep putting quarters in the television to see the whole thing.”
Worthy won quite a few bikes races, competing in both road and cyclocross. “I wanted to be at a level where all my friends were, but I had too many things going on (like today). Even in the 70s you had to make a commitment to racing. And I didn’t have the time for it.”
He raced on the Levi’s-Raleigh team alongside the likes of Steve Tilford, Greg Demgen, Jeff Bradley and Andy Hampsten. But soon enough Worthy began focusing on other things.
While earning a film degree in Austin, Texas, Worthy hung out with many of the early 7-Eleven riders who came to the area for early-season training. Because he knew the local roads, Demgen and Tom Schuler quickly nicknamed him “Tour Guide.” His work behind the scenes in cycling had begun. During his time in Texas, Worthy also worked behind the curtain at the Austin City Limits, rubbing elbows with Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Sting.
It was Davis Phinney who talked Worthy into moving to Boulder. At first he only summered in Colorado to escape the Texas heat. In 1984, he moved there for good.
“Boulder was a much smaller place then,” Worthy said. “If you wanted to be an athlete, it was easier because nothing else was distracting you. There was no nightlife. There was nothing to do. And no one thought of going to Denver. The Dave Scotts of the world all moved to Boulder because it was a great place to train. The bike was accepted.”
Man on the move
After jobs in grassroots marketing with Coke Foods and Pentax, Worthy went into publishing, working at Rocky Mountain Sports and Fitness and then California Bicyclist in the mid-80s. A decade later, he partnered with McQuaid to publish the official Tour de France guide for the United States and the official World Cup mountain bike guide. (Velo is the current licensee of the Tour de France guide in the U.S.)
All the while, Worthy kept his fingers in other pies, always building his address book. Several sports drink companies sought his skills in their early years, but a turning point came in 1998. Worthy went to the road world championships looking to meet cycling clothing manufacturers. He saw a hole in the U.S. market for custom clothing. Voler and Aussie were around, but at the time no one in the U.S. had a full-zip jersey. America was behind in the custom clothing arena.
Through a connection at Santini, he met Frans Verbeeck, head of Vermarc, and kept in touch with him over the next few years. (Verbeeck was a world-class racer in his day, considered Belgium’s number two to Eddy Merckx.) In 2001, Worthy became the U.S. importer of Vermarc clothing, signing a 10-year contract. In 2011 he re-upped for another 10.
Worthy’s reputation as the “Where’s Waldo” of the cycling industry is built on years of crisscrossing the globe. At the peak of his traveling days, he was on the road for half of the year. Recently that’s slowed down thanks to groundwork laid in years past.
“I don’t go to Europe as much,” he said. “It’s not as romantic as it seems. But I have 12 bikes scattered around the world. In my favorite spots I always have a bike to ride.”
His “favorite spots” include Portland, Marin County, Santa Barbara and Boston as well as Munich, Belgium and Italy. While he doesn’t often travel with a bike, he always brings a yoga mat for his morning stretching — he’s only missed his morning routine three times since 1976. He also brings running shoes, cycling shoes and pedals, making a point that everyone should carry on cycling shoes, pedals and a pair of bib shorts when flying.
“The rest you can borrow,” he said. “But no one wants to ride in someone else’s chamois!”
What’s unique about Brian Worthy isn’t that he rides most days. Pros do that for a living. It isn’t that he travels so much; many in the industry travel more. What’s unique is that Worthy seems to always turn up at the right place at the right time. He has a knack for being where it matters in the cycling world.
While he jokes about having cloned himself, he describes himself as an opportunist. But opportunities are born out of work, and after years in the trenches, thousands of handshakes and plenty of talking, Worthy has capitalized on his opportunities, wherever they take him — which seems to be everywhere.
Brian Worthy’s tips for becoming ubiquitous
1. Never do out-and-back rides. Always do a loop. You can be seen three different times in an hour-long ride.
2. Forget Twitter and Facebook, nothing can replace real face time.
3. Connect the dots: “Usually I can find things out about someone. I can trace someone’s lineage. All you do is connect the dots. I believe in going to the top. Go to the biggest dot. You need to figure out motivations.”