Protection, partnerships and being a perfect fit

Rebecca Morley catches up with SixSixOne’s Andy Gowan and Upgrade’s Rory Hitchens

SixSixOne is a protection brand that has been around since 1999, ensuring riders are covered from head to toe when pushing their limits out on the trails. It will now be distributed by Upgrade, with stock set to arrive in the first half of August.

“We appreciate that bricks and mortar stores and local stores play a really important part in the whole retail environment, and it was something that we just haven’t been present in for probably the past five years and consequently, we’d lost a lot of ground in the UK,” begins SixSixOne’s Andy Gowan.

“We’ve been hunting for the ideal people to give us that extra bricks and mortar representation, while still covering the whole retail environment. We want to be present everywhere that people potentially are going to buy stuff and Upgrade was a really good target for us to go after because it didn’t have any conflict with our brand at all.”

“The company’s 25 and a bit years old and we’ve never actually done any protection, which, when you consider the strength of the house brand DMR, is a bit odd in a way because the two go so well together,” says Upgrade’s Rory Hitchens.

“DMR has products to make you ride fast, and SixSixOne has the protection to keep you safe while doing it. Gloves are popular with cyclists, especially mountain bikers. We’ve never done apparel which would include, in a loose sense, protection, but protection, since SixSixOne started, is its own category.”

Upgrade has also recently relaunched the Nutcase helmet brand softly to the trade, Hitchens continues, a brand which is connected to SixSixOne as they both have the same owners. But there’s no conflict within Upgrade’s own portfolio – in fact it has a lot of complementary brands.

“DMR and Pivot are good examples,” Gowan says, “Lezyne does a lot that appeals to mountain bikers, so our feeling was that Upgrade’s sales reps have got a really good offer – when they go into stores, they can say: ‘We do everything that’s connected.’ It felt like a good, obvious fit. We also knew the guys at Upgrade really well because we share a number of international distributors.”

“It’s not just lip service, IBDs are centrally important to our business,” continues Hitchens. “That’s why brands stick around with us because we have a mix. We partner with brands and we build brands together, and we make things solid. The strength of SixSixOne goes way back, so dealers remember it.”

The brand started off in California, says Gowan, but it’s always been a very strong brand in the UK because, little known to most people, most of it has been designed over here for roughly the past 20 years. In fact, it’s Gowan who does the design from a small office on the edge of Dartmoor.

“Everything SixSixOne was actually designed over here since probably the early 2000s,” Gowan explains. “We’ve always been a very strong brand in the UK because we understand the UK market and the UK riders, how they ride, what they ride and how the sport is progressing here.

“We fell off the map in the UK whilst being very successful in other parts of the world. Everybody was happy with Upgrade, and the team that works there, so for us it was obvious. It’s got an incredibly good reputation. There’s a SixSixOne shaped jigsaw piece missing from its life.”

“Now we’re doing e-bikes, Nutcase is a perfect fit for the bikes we’re selling to a broader audience,” says Hitchens. “And as Andy said, SixSixOne is a perfect fit for the people that already work with DMR, Pivot and other brands.

“There are a lot of people now out riding mountain bikes that are enjoying new adventures, and it’s easy for the dealers. The internet won’t sell [protection] to them because it’s just a product page.

“But if a dealer is selling the customer an e-bike, it’s an easy add on. If you’ve just spent £3,000-£5,000 on an e-bike, it’s not difficult to consider spending another £200-£300 on a full set of pads and a decent helmet and some gloves.”

The whole market has changed over the last ten years as well in terms of people wanting protection, Gowan continues, with the way that mountain bikes and trails  have developed.

“People are more capable I think now and there’s a much bigger variety of trails. Bikes are more capable, people still hurt just as much but they’re generally travelling a bit faster and on more technical terrain so the demand for protection has gone through the roof.

“We’ve seen, not just through COVID, but steadily over the last 10-15 years that the participation in mountain biking has increased, and it’s gone away from being cross country orientated, and also come away from specifically downhill orientated and settled somewhere in the middle.

“People are aggressively trail riding – that’s just their normal ride. People are wanting to ride more challenging terrain, and there are more people doing it. The market for protection, as a whole, has gone through the roof.”

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