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Shit and Ice Cream.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly near rough terrain

2003 is over. Good. Because it sucked.

2004 is bound to be better, so I am looking forward to it.

The year 2003 is a perfect example of the time honored “Shit and Ice Cream” theory.

I apologize in advance for the repeated use of the vernacular “shit” in this editorial and hope it is not offensive to you. In this context, it is meant to deliver the connotation of an unfavorable set of events. But calling this editorial the “Unfavorable Events and Ice Cream” theory didn’t seem to have the same “punch”. It takes too much typing also and besides, I hate people who write like pussies.

This is how the “Shit and Ice Cream” theory works, and pay attention because this is a valuable life lesson. I had to learn it the hard way this year. I could have had the short version from some wise people in the government and the military in the 80’s, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Now I am a master of the “Shit and Ice Cream” theory.

You have a bowl of ice cream, vanilla let’s say for visual impact. It is all white and perfect and pristine. It’s been a hot day and finally you get a chance to sit down and have this great big bowl of awesome ice cream. Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond is my favorite.

So you are ready to sit down and eat this great ice cream when suddenly you notice this awful smelling matter in your bowl with your ice cream. A cursory examination confirms your worst fear: There is a turd in your ice cream.

Now, let’s ponder the philosophical ramifications of this situation: The ice cream does not compromise the turd one iota. It is still the nasty, smelly turd fulfilling its role as waste product removing all that is toxic and unusable from the donor’s digestive system.

The ice cream hasn’t ruined the turd, but the turd sure ruined the ice cream.

There isn’t anything in the world that would make that ice cream consumable now. So the whole thing, bowl and all go into the trash and you start fresh with a new bowl and fresh ice cream. And you keep an eye out for the person who put that fowl thing in your ice cream to begin with. A joke’s a joke, but pooh in your Haagen-Dazs is, well, below the belt. Way below.

That was 2003. No matter how much ice cream there was, the turds still ruined it. And a turd is a turd. It never changes.

There were some bright moments in 2003, a few, I keep telling myself, but they were grossly overshadowed by the unfortunate events. No amount of ice cream in 2003 could fix the unfortunate events, the “turds”. The bad ruins the good, but the good can’t pull back the bad. Not in 2003. You just throw the whole thing out and start fresh in 2004.

The biggest turd in the ice cream in 2003 was the death of Michael R. Rabe. For those of you who did not have the pleasure of knowing Michael R. Rabe (Michael R. Rabe for short or to his friends) he was a good cyclist, great coach, selfless contributor to the sport and a loyal friend to everyone here at Bikesport.

Many times I had to remind myself I was not the only one who lost Michael R. Rabe. He was a friend to everyone at Bikesport. But he was like a brother and a father to me. Very few days went by when I did not spend time with him. Most days we were together for hours working on a project, eating, riding or just doing our own work independently here in the store. I spent more time with Michael R. Rabe than any other human being in my life. He knew me better than any person ever has. We trusted each other completely; we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Just two weeks before his death I told someone, “I don’t know what I would do without him.” On May 2nd at 9:37 P.M. I would have to learn.

I am told you never recover from a loss like that, and I believe it. I am also told that a loss like that causes all other loses you’ve experienced in your life to re-surface, hooking them together in a long chain of all the shit you’ve ever had in your ice cream from the first time you can remember. It ruins your ice cream, so you have to get another bowl.

Another turd in the ice cream bowl was a lawsuit we were fighting for over two years involving a woman seriously injured on a test ride. The lawsuit was a major problem for these years as I went to depositions, answered letters and e-mails from both attorneys and went through a number of attorneys appointed by our insurance company. We’re talking about a million dollars here. Now, realistically, I wasn’t going to cut the check for that if we lost. Our liability insurance covers that. But the allegation was that we were somehow negligent, and I took that as a personal affront to my business and my employees.

We were not negligent. I wanted the jury to find that in a court of law. Also, insurance companies don’t like to cut million dollar settlement checks, and they have a way of canceling you after that happens. Then, when you go to find other insurance, the companies say, “Aren’t you the million dollar settlement guy from that test ride thing? Sorry, we can’t insure you.” No insurance = no business. So this was a serious turd in the ice cream.

During the low point of the year for me, the second or third week of July, I get a call from (another) new attorney appointed by our insurance company. He tells me, on Sunday, “We are beginning the trial downtown tomorrow. Be there at 9:00 A.M. for the beginning of jury selection, which should take a day or two.”

I said, “Ah, I am going through some personal stuff, I’m not quite myself, any way we can get this postponed?”

We go before the judge and my attorney tries to get a new date for the trial. When he tells the judge why the attorney for the plaintiff smells blood in the water. He knows there is wounded prey ready for an easy kill- me. He maneuvers and argues and pleads that the trial goes on as scheduled. The judge agrees.

I’m a wounded man treading water and the sharks are circling. I’m holding a bowl of ice cream with a turd in it.

The attorney appointed to me by our insurance company was a man named Russ Porritt. He was an impressive man; A hero as far as I am concerned. In fairness, the plaintiff’s attorney was good too- every bit the shark out for every last drop of blood. That’s what a plaintiff’s attorney is supposed to do. But Russ Porritt was better.

He took one look at me and walked me out into the hall of the court building, downtown Detroit on the 14th floor, he told me:

“I’ve done some research on you and understand you have some special training. You need to use that training now. I also understand you’ve had a number of serious personal problems over the past five weeks. In spite of what you’ve been through I need you to pull your head out of your ass in the courtroom and be the guy I’ve read about. The plaintiff’s attorney knows you are on the mat, backed into a corner. He knows your friend died, he knows the other things that have happened in your life. He will exploit that. He is going to call your own friends as witnesses against you. He is going to delve into your personal life to humiliate you and break you emotionally in front of the jury. He wants to convince the jury you are weak and incompetent. From what I have read about you, you aren’t. So I need you to prove it. We all go through these losses in life, just not all at once, in six weeks, like you have. But you have the ability to deal with this. Most people don’t. Prove it.”

That was all Russ Portiss had to say. Over the next few days Russ Portiss and I poured over the details of the case. We sat through hours of video testimony and reviewed depositions. I got a whirlwind education in comparative negligence law. It was fascinating, in the way an artillery barrage is fascinating when you are on the receiving end.

It was an ugly trial. Every element of courtroom drama was there: The tears, the betrayal, the half-truths, the endless exhibits of evidence, the charts, graphs, enlarged photos and gruesome medical testimony. And a friend of mine did take the stand against me, subpoenaed by the plaintiff’s attorney. But he is a man of honor, and he told the truth. And like a motto I have heard many times goes, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” So when he did tell the truth it only made our case look stronger, and theirs weaker. And he became a better friend.

After over a week long trial the jury (some of whom slept during lengthy expert video testimony from the plaintiff’s expert medical witnesses) determined that the preponderance of negligence was not ours. We did get a slap on the wrist for “Not warning the plaintiff adequately about the dangers of riding a bicycle in an environment where they may encounter traffic.” A car crossing the sidewalk caused the woman to brake suddenly and go over the handlebars. She sustained serious facial and dental injuries when she landed directly on her chin. We were also warned for “Not requiring the plaintiff to read the entire bicycle owner’s manual prior to the test ride.” But the jury found we had exercised reasonable and customary caution, and that is what mattered.

We won.

Russ Portiss was almost the new bowl of ice cream we needed to erase the turd of dealing with this lawsuit, but no where near enough ice cream to erase losing Michael R. Rabe.

Another turd in the ice cream happened to everyone back on September 11, 2001 when the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked. Then the stock market crashed. Then people got scared. For the first time in America since December 7, 1941, Americans were scared on their own soil. One thing Americans do when they are scarred is sit on their wallets. People stopped spending.

We all felt September 11, 2001 to a greater or lesser degree. In small retail it was greater. The years of 2002 and 2003 were rotten years in the bike industry, and almost every other retail sector as well. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News magazine recently reported that sales in every bicycle category were down for 2003 except one: Road bikes. Luckily for us, road bikes are what we do, and we continued to do them. It wasn’t like 1999, 2000 and the first eight months of 2001 when it seemed like we were printing money. Bikesport has been very successful since the first day we turned the key in the door eleven years ago, so I wasn’t used to having two rotten years in a row. Our triathlon and road business was through the roof, but try to sell a mountain bike, kid’s bike or other “normal” bike. It wasn’t happening like before. And I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel it. It was another turd in the ice cream.

The bike industry was so bad in 2002 and 2003 that one major bicycle company declared bankruptcy and at least five bicycle retail stores in Southeastern Michigan, possibly more, went out of business. Many more downsized substantially. We survived. We actually squeaked out a little growth in there too, but it was expensive growth.

Worldcom, United Airlines, K-Mart, Enron and a host of other companies didn’t survive the post 9/11 economy, but we did. I owe all of that to our customers and my employees, the best crew we have ever had. Had it not been for good customers and great employees we would be gone. We also got a lot of help from some fine industry insiders like Dave Koesel of Felt, Jason Edinger of Cannondale (who helped Cannondale come back from their bankruptcy stronger than they were before they entered it – as I write this, we are building some beautiful new 2004 Cannondale tri bikes.). Unfortunately, Jason lost his father on December 20 of this year. A turd in his ice cream also.

So what do you do when you find pooh in your Haagen-Dazs? Well, it’s like I said; you throw it out bowl and all, and start with a fresh bowl and fresh ice cream. The biggest mistake you can make is trying to save the ice cream. Don’t do that, it’s ruined. And there is no point trying to change the turd, no matter how much ice cream you pile on it, it won’t change. Once a turd, always a turd. No amount of ice cream will change it. And no one wants ice cream with a turd in it.
The turd ruins the ice cream, but the ice cream doesn’t affect the turd, and it never will. Throw the whole thing out.

There is a great Arabic saying: “el-Gillah asbah karamellah?” or, “Did the sheep turd turn to caramel?” The “Shit and Ice Cream” theory is universal.

So good riddance 2003. And Happy New Year 2004.

I have always liked New Year’s; it is one of my favorite holidays. A day of hope for the future and reverence for the past. Also a good day to remember the lessons we’ve all learned at such an incredible cost. May we all be wise enough to learn them well, use them and never forget them.

Looking back on 2003 the things I revere most are the friends that helped when things were bad. When the chips are down you learn who your friends are, and also who they aren’t. I got a lesson in 2003.

People came out of the woodwork to help. They extended kindness, understanding and patience to a degree I have never experienced or expected. There were so many people who were so kind to me in 2003 I can’t list them all, and that was the best thing about 2003. As I sit here thinking about it, I still can’t believe some of the wonderful, kind, thoughtful and selfless things people did for me. Some of the people I know well, others were total strangers. While some of what happened in 2003 destroyed my faith in human nature, the kindness of people I know and don’t know restored it and then some.
Some people I never met did amazing things for me. The Vice President of a major investment company was kind enough to take the time to send us a video of the 2003 Ironman. Another man I had never met read my editorial on the 100th anniversary of flight and sent me a fascinating Swallow Ornithopter kit. It makes a beautiful little airplane that flies on wings made of tissue. People sent e-mails and cards, it was quite incredible.

The momentum for a good 2004 began building in late 2003. Business returned to its normal, prosperous clip. New business showed up. Old problems died and went away. New hope has been born. Toward the end of 2003 I couldn’t wait for the sun to set on this awful year, and the sun to rise on 2004. I was looking forward to a new bowl of ice cream.

I was sitting on the beach in Phuket, Thailand about three weeks ago. It was my last night in Thailand and I was having dinner on the beach as the sun set a brilliant, flaming sunset into the Andaman Sea. It is a majestic and incendiary spectacle, sunset on the Andaman.

The waiter approached my table and asked me if I wanted tea. “Yes please.” I told him, “And a bowl of that fruity ice cream stuff also please.”

“Very good,” He said. “It is a beautiful sunset here, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes it is, “ I told him, “But I prefer sunrises.” And also a fresh bowl of ice cream.

Happy New Year.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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