Q & A with Greg Damerow, athlete and adaptive bicycle builder
Greg Damerow is an athlete and small business owner. Damerow, based in Ohio, is the owner of Personalized Cycling Alternatives, which builds custom adaptive bicycles. He was attracted to handcycling after he became ill with ankylosing spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis that affects the body’s joints. The Hartford recently awarded Damerow with a small business grant, and he spoke with Reuters about competing and running a small business.
First off, can you tell me about your disability?
I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis at 18 years old. It causes inflammation of the major joints. It’s a form of arthritis. It affects knees, ankles, shoulders. It was a very painful time for me. There are two forms that the disease can take. One is chronic and you lose function over years. The second form moves rapidly. This was the form I had and so I lost function over a matter of months. The major part of the disease burned itself out after about two years time. I was spared. I was essentially bedridden for two years time and as the major symptoms of the disease dissipated finally, I didn’t have any movement in my hip sockets and much secondary damage in the spine. I have limited neck rotation. Out of that experience I learned how to walk again using my knees and ankles.
Can you tell me about how you started your business? What was the attraction of the bike?
I had been working an active job at a small company as a plumber’s assistant and a salesman. I got promoted into dispatch which required a lot of time at a desk. I’ve always been skinny and the disease makes it difficult to stay strong and keep the weight on. When I sit still I don’t gain weight. So it was that promotion into that sedentary job that lead me to look for a way to build myself up.
Once day I was doing some research on the internet and I came across a YouTube video of a guy cranking a handcycle and I thought, “I could do that,” and “I could build that.” When I saw it I knew instantly that’s what I had to do. The first time I rode, I had such a sense of speed and freedom of movement, something I had missed for almost 20 years.
Once I got out in the handcycle racing world I saw that I could innovate. And that’s kind of the genesis of the company.
How long was it between the time you started cycling and when you started racing?
I had been cycling for about six months before I started competing. I didn’t know that handcycle racing existed at all let alone know the required specifications for the bike when I first designed and built it. After my first race I was really hooked on the racing. It gave me a goal to keep chasing, to keep pushing farther and farther and achieve larger goals mechanically and physically.
Are you a builder by trade?
Not a bicycle builder by trade, however I have always been a mechanic, am a self taught machinist, draftsman and designer.
Did you find building a bike intimidating?
I didn’t find it intimidating. My style of racing reflects my design work. When I race my goal is not to beat the guy next to me but rather to do better than I did before. My goal is to push farther out. I don’t see myself in a focused “race” with other manufacturers. Rather my goal is to concentrate on what already works, improve upon it and push further and do better.
Tell me about running a business and competing, how do you balance that?
As far as promotion they are symbiotic. From that first race I became known as that guy who built his own bike. As far as workload it is very challenging. When I’m training heavily I’m normally cycling three times a week and swimming twice a week. The training does dominate during the racing season. But I do spend time in the shop and and doing design work as well. The hard effort has paid off: Two weeks ago I took home a bronze and a silver from the USA Cycling Para-Cycling Nationals in Augusta, Georgia.
What challenges have you faced in your business? Handcycles seem like a very niche market. How are you able to cut costs and compete with larger companies?
I run a very small business. It’s very lean. The product is made on demand. As far as pricing. The structure in the market remains artificially high. The market is currently dominated by about five or six manufactures. For purposes of racing, handcycling is pretty much dominated by one company. And they have a monopoly on the domestic market currently.
Not only can I deliver on price – I can also deliver on customization. Typically, and it depends on the design, but typically a custom design can take three weeks to a month to complete. Previously built designs can take as little as a week. In the realm of handcycles, much of the hardware is custom built. It doesn’t exist in the world of able-bodied cycling, so it has to be fabricated.
Any major tips or things you‘ve learned along the way that you’d like to share?
For the majority of the jobs I’ve worked over my life have been at small companies so I have learned a bit about small business along the way. One of my main philosophies is to stay out of debt and not to be be overleveraged. One thing I’ve seen over and over is oftentimes a small business owner will get overly excited about expansion in their company. A lot of the times they’ll look back afterwards and say ‘that expansion project was premature.’
A lot of times when I invest in new hardware I have to ask myself if I really need this. Be wise about investments. Be sure to make sure investments don’t tie you down.
You just won a small business grant through the Hartford Achieve Without Limits Contest. Can you tell me about it?
Since winning the $10,000 grant money and then being named the winner of the trip to watch the London Paralympics my profile as a business has grown exponentially, that’s an understatement. I’ve even been asked if I’m looking for investors. Even in the para-cycling world, a lot of the guys I race with knew about the contest but as a consequence the publicity I had already established with them was amplified to an even greater degree.
I also used the grant money to upgrade the equipment in my shop, for example I purchased a powder-coat spray gun and built a powder-coat oven as local options for powder coating in my location were very limited. So I used the money from the Hartford to upgrade that. The money was also used to develop new design ideas and improve existing adaptive bicycle designs.
From the contest I’ve also learned the effectiveness of social media, because the contest happened and was promoted on Facebook. So don’t underestimate the power of social media – I’ve found it to be a very a great tool for promoting a small business.
Image: Courtesy of Greg Damerow