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Curse Of The Business Cyclist

March 5, 2015 by Olivier Blanchard - 2 Comments

The accidental outcast

It isn’t always easy being a cyclist in a business universe of golfers.

Save perhaps for my first job as a military officer, every company I have worked with and for during my career has been exclusively geared towards favoring adepts of the club, of the nine iron, of the sand trap and the bunker and the green. Every industry conference or executive retreat I have ever been to came with its inevitable golf tournament. Every male boss I have ever worked under sported a golf bag in his office, pictures of some golf course on his wall, some kind of golf trophy on his shelf. Golf is what middle-managers looking to score points with them talked about whenever they found themselves within earshot of them. The water cooler, the lobby, the conference room, the bathroom… you name the place, it was the site of some observation about this or that course, and particularly that one hole. Should I play there? Is it pretty good? Do they accept new members?

Most white collar jobs in the US, you learn pretty quickly that golf is as potent a brand of social glue as your church (at least in the South), what university you graduated from and what school your kids go to. Golf is the corporate sport of choice, the de facto corporate pastime, the single-most indispensable athletic skill you need to master early in your career in order to belong and rub elbows with the brass. Golf is to corporate America what poker and roulette are to Ian Fleming’s Double-O service.

Tough luck for those of us who don’t much care for golf.

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Don’t get me wrong, when I ride by golf courses on warm, sunny Saturday mornings and see all those fine people out there enjoying a beautiful day on the green, I can’t help but feel a little envious. Here I am, on my hollow little human-powered carbon fiber rocket, breathless and in moderate to severe pain every time the pavement decides to pitch itself upward without mercy for more than a few hundred feet, and there they are, as comfortable as comfortable can be with their ample shirts and shaded electric golf carts and well stocked coolers. I look at them, and they look at me, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe I didn’t take a wrong mental turn on sport-of-choice-selection day. What I wouldn’t give to waste a few sunny hours drinking sweet iced tea on a meticulously manicured lawn, shooting the shit with a handful of nice, friendly people and occasionally whacking at a little ball with a fancy set of clubs made out of space-age materials. There’s camaraderie there, and a sort of gentlemanly allure to the pace of it, to the minimal degree of effort concealing the high degree of skill that makes golf so popular no matter what age or level of fitness you are. It does seem boring to watch (at least to me), but I can tell it must be exceptionally enjoyable to play, if only for how relaxing and leisurely it all seems from the perspective of my impossibly wafer-thin saddle.

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The thing is… I am just not into leisure all that much. I would rather be on my bike, shredding myself over fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, a hundred miles if I have time to go that far. Give me vicious hills to attack. Give me cruel mountain roads to climb. Give me white-knuckle hairpin-rich descents to test my mettle on. Give me the fragrant cool shade of forests and the whisper-quiet sanctuary of canyons and the breezy vastness of ocean highways. Give me group rides or solo rides – I don’t care as long as I’m on my bike. If I want leisurely, I’ll just put on a swimsuit and go work on my tan at the pool. Cycling isn’t an obsession or an addiction, mind you. It isn’t even even a passion, though many will use the term to describe their love of the bike. It’s just something I’m into, something I enjoy, like sushi or coffee or reading a good book, but with more endorphins and a lot more weight loss. Some people play golf. I ride a bicycle. We’re all wired in our own way.

The (Athletic) Path Less Taken

I wasn’t even really born a cyclist. I became one by default. As a kid, I played soccer with my friends and tennis with my parents. I picked up track & field in middle school because I was fast. I ran the 100, 200, 400 and 800. Back then, a 5K might as well have been a marathon. I rode horses too, and I skied. I was decent at archery and I was always good with rifles. As a little kid, I climbed trees and ran around and crashed my skateboard a lot. My weekends in the country, when my parents and I fled Paris with the bourgeois masses at the end of the workweek, were spent running around the garden and climbing trees, building forts, improvising world-saving weapons out of sticks and string and old dusty crap I found in the shed. Riding bicycles was more a means of getting around the village, exploring country roads, discovering secret places where I could play than any sort of real sport. I never thought of cycling as being all that fun. The downhills were a blast when I didn’t end up crashing into something, but going uphill was too hard and little more than a necessary evil.

I remember watching news reports of the Tour de France and I always wondered why people loved cycling so much. It seemed silly, unnecessary. It felt a little bit like a sort of cult, to be perfectly honest. It seemed that people liked it because they were supposed to, because in July, it was a sort of patriotic duty. But let’s face it: skinny, sweaty guys in improbable outfits and ridiculous head gear pushing themselves over mountains for some sort of glory… What was that about? There wasn’t a ball. It was just a really, really, really slow race. Cars and motorcycles zipping around France like that would be great, but bicycles? And yet the sports announcers sounded so excited thet you would have thought those guys were saving the world. Courage. Heroism. Those were the words they used. All I kept thinking when I saw them on TV was why not just drive over that mountain? I didn’t get it.

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In my teens, my super awesome BMX bike was an instrument of freedom in the summer. It took me places. I jumped over roots and ruts and skidded on gravel and wet grass, but I didn’t do any real tricks on it. I sucked so badly at skateboarding that I basically never tried to get fancy on two wheels, fearing that I would break something so badly that it would ruin my summer. Not much of an acrobat, really. Not even that much of a daredevil. Not my thing. The one and only time I tried to launch myself off a big sweet jump, I landed in a pile without having caught a single inch of air. I just sort of… tumbled forward and crashed… and kept crashing, for some reason, even when what little momentum I had managed to garner had been thoroughly spent. The wind thoroughly knocked out of me, my now bloody leg caught between the front wheel and the frame, my my pride in tatters, I had reached the apex of my interest in cycling.

With puberty, I discovered girls and the gym and cars – in that order. Once I had a car, I had no need for bikes. Well… except for my university days. I lived on campus and kept my car in the student parking lot most of the time, so I bought a bike to get to class faster. The first two were stolen. The third sent me to the hospital with a broken clavicle. Another missed jump, another lousy landing, though by that time, I had my face-plant flourish pretty much dialed-in. That crash didn’t do much to endear me to the sport, even though I had started to enjoy riding single-tracks on the weekends. That fracture ended my Aikido career though, however mediocre it would have eventually been. In my mind, I was still a soccer player, a tennis player, a sprinter – in that order. The few cyclists I knew were just too serious about their bikes, about their training, about whatever intricacies their strange geeky sport hid from the rest of us normal people, and I felt no want whatsoever to become one of them.

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My time in the military made me into a long distance cross country runner and a long distance swimmer, I suppose. Suffering for long periods of time became a sort of badge of honor for me. Braving the elements, discomfort, gravity… the endurance of it, the achievement that came with big athletic challenges and going a little further, always a little longer… it unlocked something in me. A need for more, for starters. A taste for tougher athletic endeavors and discovery. But just as I was settling into my newly found taste for ultra-distance, I came back to civilian life. I didn’t run for a few years. The office and the couch turned me into a human potato. My body changed. I forgot who I was. Sorta.

I fell into cycling completely by accident. I wanted to lose weight, and triathlon seemed like as good a goal as any. Ironman specifically. I saw the NBC coverage of the Hawaii Ironman on TV one day and it looked like a blast. I was hooked before I even got up from the couch. The next day, I started running again. It took a year and a lot of perseverance but I finally worked myself up to marathon distance. The idea was that if I could do a marathon, I could do an Ironman. Proof of concept in the bag, I bought my first real road bike and started training for short distance tris: sprint triathlons. Year 1 got me up to the Half-Ironman distance. Year 2 prepared me for the full deal: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles on the bike, and 26.2 miles of running.

I became an Ironman in Panama City beach, FL in November 2001. It sucked. I loved it. That’s just how I am wired. I’m not a golfer.

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It didn’t take long for me to finally get what those TDF announcers used to scream about on my parents’ old Trinitron. The grit, the courage, the will it took to gut it out on steep climbs in the heat and the cold, to stay on when the guys you were riding with were riding so hard your leg muscles felt like they were filled with battery acid and your lungs felt torn to ribbons, I got it. After a while, all the hard work I put into not getting dropped on fast rides, into reaching the top of every hill at the front of the pack, even into eventually winning field sprints on World Championship Tuesdays at the Donaldson Center, pushing myself so hard that I tasted blood in my throat, it paid off. I had started watching the Tour by then. I had started cheering for Lance. Watching him power up those mountain roads like he did, it gave me goosebumps. Those seven TDF wins, I believed they were real. I was one of those guys with the yellow Livestrong bands and the telltale tan lines in July, who totally bought into the lie. Monday through Friday, the only hint that I was part of the cult was the Thule roof rack on my car and the road bike on it. Inside the building, I was all business. Everyone else was talking about golf. Me, I was hydrating, just in case the weather turned friendly.

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Social And Professional Pressure: The Price Of Belonging vs. Not Belonging 

Being a cyclist in an company full of golfers makes you a bit of an outcast. It isn’t just that you find yourself locked out of the golf-bonding, you’re also looked at a bit sideways by a lot of people who don’t get it. Start a new job and it isn’t long before the rhetorical juvenile questions start coming your way:

“You don’t really shave your legs, do you?”

“Do you really wear those tight little shorts?”

I don’t know… do you really spend all day playing a long-distance version of croquet? Is there a cardio version? It’s tempting to return the favor but you don’t. You just sit there and chuckle politely at the inevitable 6th grade questions that are meant to ridicule or alienate. You try to ignore the healthy dose of professional subtext heaped onto that predictable little game of turf turd. None of it is hurtful, mind you. It’s just annoying, as much for its pettiness as its predictability. Why can’t some people just enjoy their sports of choice without trying to make other people feel guilty about theirs? Do cyclists walk around the office making fun of people’s college football calendars, golf bags and fishing poles? It’s bad enough that your company organizes a dozen golf tournaments every year but never bothers to sponsor a single group ride, you have to also feel guilty for for being into “the wrong” sport? It can feel a bit like a cultural war sometimes.

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If you aren’t sure of yourself, it’s hard not to cave to the pressure, not to pick up golf just to feel included. Your proposal’s funding might depend on it, and that next promotion too. You start to wonder if your love of cycling rather than a hypothetical love of golf might not be hurting your career. And the thing is… it probably is: Instead of hanging out on the green with the boss in Vegas or Savannah or Orlando, you’re hammering out 12,000 feet of climbing with a handful of non-work friends. Instead of getting some relaxed face time with the rest of the execs, you’re getting lost all by yourself for five hours, or six, or eight, along some of the prettiest country you’ve ever seen. While your peers are sharing cigars and a few good laughs, you’re discovering the best coffee houses in the state, the best burger joints, the best pizza with people you oftentimes hardly know. On and off the bike, you’re meeting and getting to know the most fascinating people you will ever run into in your entire life, but you aren’t exactly working to get into the inner sanctum. You pay a price for that choice, and the saddest part of it is that it has nothing to do with competence or talent or drive or even professional ambition. That’s changing though, and it’s about time.

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Feeding The Soul, Slaying Bullshit, And Being Happy

For the last few summers, I have been lucky enough to ride my bike up and down every seaside and mountain road from posh St. Tropez to the artsy old port of Menton, from the stark red cliffs of the Corniche de l’Esterel to the grin-inducing descents of the Gorges du Loup. Every gut-wrenching climb to a gorgeous col, every breathtaking vista waiting for me around each turn, over each hill, every single one of those memories is precious to me, and I owe each one to cycling. And you know, I don’t care how you cut it: driving up and down those same roads isn’t the same thing. I’ve tried it. The Moyenne Corniche between Eze and Nice, especially right above Villefranche and Beaulieu Sur Mer, that’s a pretty special stretch of eye candy on a road bike. Not to put golf in a corner, but riding to Italy for coffee and gelato, and paying for both mostly in miles and sunshine hours, doesn’t exactly suck. For that matter, hitting the boring old local climbs on the weekend with friends doesn’t suck either. If the ride itself isn’t enjoyable enough, there’s the coffee shop, the pizza place, the other coffee shop, the post-ride beer, even. There’s always a special moment, something you’ll always own and think back on someday. Every ride has at least one of those.

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And the thing is, while cycling hasn’t traditionally been the best way to hang out with the boss and get on his good side, it’s a hell of a sport for professional types. It teaches and strengthens so many qualities, not the least of which are commitment, discipline and perseverance, but also confidence, self-reliance, strategy, team work, leadership, even sacrifice.  Peloton politics are as simple as the physics of air resistance and the chemistry of energy consumption, but you learn a lot while sharing a wheel with complete strangers. You learn a lot whenever you take a turn at the front of a pace line. You learn a lot, working with five or ten or fifty other riders to organize organically around a common goal.

You learn as much from the really hard, bad days as you do from the really great, smooth days. Cycling teaches character, if anything. It teaches patience. It teaches timing.

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Being a cyclist also helps you gain a particular appreciation for hard work and honesty, because guess what: the clock doesn’t lie. You can’t BS your way out of poor performance out there. You know who’s strong and who isn’t, who does the work and who doesn’t. It isn’t what you say that matters, it’s what you do. Perhaps that is one of the things I appreciate the most about the sport: it has a way of stripping everything that isn’t real. It has a way of revealing people’s true natures. There’s a refreshing purity to it. Perhaps not always at the pro level, but for normal humans like me, cycling is pretty much free of bullshit.

Sure, you can talk a big game, but once those pedals start turning, all anyone has to do to put your big claims to the test is push the pace and see how you will respond. The math is always the same: the strongest lead, the competent follow, the bullshiters get dropped. (If only it worked a little more like that at work too.) Maybe that’s one of the things that draws so many business people to the sport and others like it. That much truth is so refreshing, you have no idea.

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Again, this isn’t a critique of golf or golfers. Golf is just as honest as cycling. How far you hit that ball and how well is truth too. Same with every sport, really. A great game requires a lot of work and practice and determination. So when I ride by those golf courses on the weekends and exchange my brief hellos with the folks on the other side of that athletic divide, I feel a sort of kinship with them. They’re athletes too, in their own way. They’re looking for some of the same things out there on that green. That beer in their hand isn’t all that different from the bottle of Skratch or Cytomax clipped to my frame. I envy them a little bit, perhaps they envy me a little bit, and then we go back to enjoying what we were doing. Everyone is doing what they love, so why should it matter? There’s value to having a life outside of work, to having interests and passions that don’t necessarily serve an ulterior professional motive. There’s value to that kind of healthy balance. It shouldn’t be seen as a sign that you don’t care as much or don’t want to be as successful. Quite the contrary.

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And you know, it isn’t all decompression and escape out there. I spend a lot of saddle time thinking about work, solving problems, exploring ideas. I wish I didn’t, but it’s inevitable. Things bubble up. Your brain doesn’t shut off. It’s the opposite, actually. All that brain oxygenation doesn’t have to go to waste: some of the most creative people I know are runners and cyclists and they almost all admit that they do some of their best thinking away from the office, away from the noise. More often than not, the answer to a problem isn’t waiting for you in a meeting or an a conference call. It’s waiting for you in the middle of nowhere, half way into a ride, while you aren’t actively thinking about it. Don’t discount that. Einstein didn’t, and he turned out all right.

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Change Is In The Air: Is Cycling Really The New Golf?

Fortunately, things are starting to shift a little for cyclists with white collar careers. In the spring of 2013, The Economist published a piece on business networking and cycling titled ‘cycling is the new golf.’ Here’s an interesting observation that mirrors my own:

How someone rides a bike can give you a real insight into what a person is like, says Jean-Jacques Lorraine, founding director of Morrow+Lorraine, a young architecture practice in London. “Some riders are very single-minded, others more collaborative; some are tactical, others an open book. Some don’t mind being soloists whilst others prefer alliance and allegiance.” A day in the saddle, racing uphill and downhill, creates a bonding experience that endures.

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Also:

Lorraine estimates that as much as 75% of the practice’s workload (around 45 projects) has come directly or indirectly from contacts made on the road while cycling. Why does he think cycle rides lend themselves so well to networking and making professional contacts? “Grabbing a quick lunch or drink after work, whilst great for different reasons doesn’t give you long enough to get to know someone,” he says. Mr Murray believes long rides break down conventional hierarchical barriers. “A younger rider can be cycling along with a chief executive and take their wind or help them in some way and you get a reversal of the relationship. This changes the relationship when they are off the ride too.”

This past year, a piece titled ‘cycling is the new golf for entrepreneurs‘ was published by CNN Money. MoneyWeb tackled the topic too. The Sydney Morning Herald jumped into that pool as well. Even the BBC got into the game. You could have pinched me.

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A few weeks ago, the topic came up again, this time via Business Insider, with a piece titled (you guessed it) ‘cycling is the new golf.’  In it Daniel McMahon makes a few keen observations about what may actually be becoming a trend:

While golf “still commands the highest portion of participants with household incomes above $100,000 among popular sports,” according to Reuters, its popularity is waning, and the number of courses has been on the decline in the US the past eight years. The Economist says “golf’s appeal has become its undoing. Its meditative quality does not suit the frenetic pace of modern life.”

McMahon continued:

When I recently profiled Max Levchin — who cofounded PayPal, sold Slide to Google for $228 million, sits on the boards of Yahoo and Yelp, and is now busy leading Affirm and Glow — I asked him if he actually thought cycling was the new golf. Here is what Levchin, a hardcore cyclist, told me [emphasis mine]:

“In Silicon Valley — and the East Coast as well now — there are lots of successful companies with younger executives. The sport of choice where deals are made and ideas are thrown around and relationships are forged is definitely traditionally golf. That’s where you don’t have to sweat — you just walk around with people you like, and occasionally pretend like you’re doing something physical […] but it’s not very quantified. It’s just kind of aim, hit the ball, and pray. I’m sure the skills involved eventually remove the prayer necessity, but it’s pretty open-ended.

“So you have this current generation of young executives, and they’re not particularly interested in walking around slowly. They want to do something physical, especially outdoors. They are very quantified, because that’s definitely a thing now: It’s not so much fitness as they are interested in fitness that they can measure. So the blooming of the Fitbits and Misfits the Jawbones of the world is all about people saying, ‘I don’t have to go to the gym, feel crappy for an hour, and be thankful that it’s over.’ You can actually see what you’ve done. The quantified-self stuff has perforated the popular conscience.”

McMahon padded his exposé with real numbers: In the US, the number of golfers dropped from 30M in 2005 to 25.3M in 2013. (That’s a 15.7% drop.) Conversely, the number of people buying cycling licenses in the US since 2002 has increased by 76%.

Granted, cycling is still far more niche than golf, but the trends are definitely pointing to a shift in interests, perceptions and culture.

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So Now What?

When I started cycling some fifteen years ago, running into another cyclist in a professional setting bordered on the miraculous. We all knew each other by sight if not by name: that dude with the white Klein. The lady with the cool candy apple red Kestrel. You would show up for a ride, and it was the same fifty people every time. Today, on any given Tuesday between April and October in Greenville, SC, crowds of 200-500 meet on the southern side of town to ride and race (or do a little bit of both). People of all shapes and sizes, of all ages, of all backgrounds – engineers, graphic designers, dentists, salespeople, teachers, oncologists, business execs, investors, students, retirees, military moms, foodservice workers, PR pros, project managers, yoga instructors, cops, web developers, etc. – slip into their bike kits, pump up their tires, and go for a ride together. Fast rides, slow rides, long rides, short rides… there’s a ride for everyone. I bump into a lot more C-suite executives on rides like these nowadays, and that is definitely a nice change. Believe it or not, it’s actually nice to be able to talk shop a little bit with people you don’t need to impress at the office the rest of the week. It opens you up to fresh new perspectives, and that’s an added plus.

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So I guess times are changing. Being a cyclist isn’t nearly as odd as it once was. People are learning to become more accepting of it, and maybe the golf-work connection is less of a thing than it used to be. Businesses are starting to sponsor their own cycling clubs and teams. Locally, several major employers do, which makes me very happy. (Investment doesn’t just express validation. It also expresses inclusion.) It doesn’t get much better than that, really. As more CEOs and executives start to transition from golf to cycling and other endurance sports, the face of business (and business networking) is changing. Part of the change stems from the fact that so many rising stars in the corporate world hail from a very different generation with different work-life values and different interests. Part of it is just timing. Twenty years ago, cycling was nowhere in the US. Today, it’s becoming more mainstream than soccer. There are magazines dedicated to execs and CEOs with a cycling habit now. There are events and clubs geared towards fostering competition between athletic executives too, and executive training camps with former TDF pros if you want that super special five star touch. CEOs and executives are even starting to turn up at professional races (though perhaps not in the actual pro peloton).

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Increasingly, executives and CEOs who would rather crank out a few miles than hit the links are organizing informal rides to hang out together, and this piece in BI (hat tip to Cycling CEO) might help explain why. Granted, I bump into a lot more tech entrepreneurs out there on the roads than I do banking and manufacturing execs, but there may be a reason for that. It isn’t so much a question of age as a question of culture. Tech entrepreneurs didn’t grow up around golf courses. Most haven’t spent decades climbing the corporate ladder. They started young, they did their own thing, set their own rules. There’s a different mentality there, a different level of energy and focus, a passion for challenges and adversity that fuels their athletic endeavors a little differently than if they had come up via more traditional channels.

As Corinne Winter, president and executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, puts it: “people who are ambitious in business and innovation are very likely to also want to climb up a steep hill on a bike as fast as they can. There’s a correlation between being physically driven as well as professionally successful.” (Read more about that here.) She isn’t wrong. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on how that plays into the quantified self.

There even seems to be a correlation between environmentally conscious, tech-savvy execs and the cycling lifestyle. It’s a completely different mindset from the traditional corner-office and country-club crowd, and it goes a lot further than just the bike. You can see the difference in leadership styles too, in the way they structure their organizations (flatter, less top-down), what kinds of cars they own, what kind of food they eat, and so on. These are two very different worlds. Golfing and cycling are a little bit Yin and Yang when you think about it.

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And you know, it isn’t to say that friendly bizdev and networking are completely moving off the green, but… a lot more business is being done in the saddle now than before. (No, seriously, you need to read this.)

Maybe that’s why bike-friendly workplaces and corporate support of in-house cycling teams are becoming essential recruiting tools for many HR departments, especially when targeting Millennials (though it’s important not to assume that bike commuters are necessarily hardcore racers. Same sport but very different motivations and mindsets.) And we aren’t just talking about Silicon Valley either.

What does this all mean? I could write a dissertation on the role inclusion plays on morale. I could argue that focusing a little more on extracurricular activities that aren’t golf would make employees and rising stars who aren’t into golf feel like they belong a little more. It might help break down silos a little bit and build connective tissue between departments. I think I have already made the point that being more bike-friendly certainly comes with its own set of strategic advantages. I could keep going (and I want to) but I don’t think I really need to. By now, you should get it, even if it’s only a little.

My hope is just that maybe someday I will show up at a conference or a corporate retreat and the schedule will include both a golf tournament and a bike ride. Maybe even some morning runs and hikes for those who prefer to stick to their running shoes (easier to pack). That degree of attention to non-golfers in the corporate ranks would definitely put a big BIG smile on my face, and not just mine either.

Cheers,

Olivier

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