When TV’s Matt Stephens posted a cartoon drawing of himself on Twitter he couldn’t have foreseen the immediate backlash. That is, if the image had just been an image alone, and not a promotion for an upcoming, cycling-themed NFT.
“Matt nooooo not an NFT,” came the replies. “It’s terrible for the environment at worst, and a scam at best.”
The image Stephens had posted was created as part of the Bike Club NFT, which in the couple of weeks between speaking to the people behind it and now has already rebranded simply to ‘Bike Club’.
While the actual NFT project hasn’t been released yet, the people behind it have created a community of cyclists on Discord, which is basically just a nicer, more low-key and vetted version of Twitter. Several pro riders such as Niki Terpstra and Connor Swift are lurking in there, while the likes of Bahrain-Victorious’ Jack Haig is the latest to join as an ambassador and hop onto the Discord server for a chat with its members.
What is an NFT?
Now you're asking the difficult questions!
An NFT is a 'non-fungible token'. NFTs are digital representations, but they are unique - only one exists of each. They are stored on a blockchain, allowing them to be traded.
These digital representations can be pretty pricey, too - Colnago began bidding for its C64 NFT at €5,515.
In the context of Bike Club, there are 10,000 unique cyclist avatars, these are yet to go on sale.
NFTs are purchased using cryptocurrency. Bike Club is selling its NFTs using Ether, the currency used by the Ethereum blockchain.
So, with some reasonably-sized names in the cycling world happy to be associated with it, it’s probably time to find out whether this is a scam or not.
Jumping onto a call with two of the people involved with the project, I am greeted by normal looking blokes - no identity-hiding balaclavas or crypto bro-ology in sight.
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ll probably recognise Rich Mitch’s illustrations from his various creative projects and collaborations within the bike industry over the last decade.
That’s one box ticked in the ‘is this legit?’ category, a person that people within the two-wheeled universe will be aware of is involved. And it is a legitimate concern amongst all the bluster of anti-NFT-ness, as leading trading platform OpenSea recently suggested up to 80 per cent of the NFT minted through its free creation tool are either fraudulent or spam.
As a person with a reputation at stake, and his work the face of the project, Mitch had to be sure of who he was partnering with, and luckily he’d worked with one of the founders before, Shane Cooper, who is also the founder of cycling sock brand DeFeet.
People assume, Mitch says, that because he’s involved in this project then he’s into all things crypto, NFT, and Web3.0. “At the moment, people see it as one specific thing. I think crypto and NFTs sometimes rightfully get a lot of s**t. What we're trying to do is try to make sure that this project is done correctly.”
The actual artwork and involvement of NFTs, Mitch tells me, is mostly a hook to make people of the burgeoning online community, which explains the subsequent rebrand this month.
The word NFT generates attention, social media buzz and headlines. You wouldn’t be reading this article about a bunch of guys hanging out in a shiny, new version of what is essentially an old-school internet forum without the involvement of this controversial technology.
The size of the negative Twitter reaction, however, does seem to have come as a slight surprise, and other media appearances have seen Mitch and Tyler Benedict, another founder who has just woken up and joined us on the call from his home in America, getting to the end of the interview and asking: ‘did we manage to convince you of this projects merits?’ to which the answer has sometimes been a simple ‘no’.
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A photo posted by on
But does what those on the outside think really matter? Because inside the Discord is a thriving community of people who love cycling. Chats are separated into topics, race chat, NFT chat, nutrition chat, a questions thread as well as a main chat where people introduce themselves or just make conversation in the way people used to on Twitter before it evolved into the massive dumpster fire it is today.
Of course, community-building isn’t exclusive to this NFT project, many others have their own Discord servers filled with people chatting away all day, although Mitch and Benedict are keen to stress there is a strict crackdown on ‘grinding’, where people post relentlessly in NFT Discords, feigning interest at being a keen member of a community in order to hopefully receive free NFTS. Instead, what the arms race now is for various NFT collections is to prove their own utility.
“Normally, it's some faceless person with a wallet somewhere in the world,” Mitch continues. “And rightfully, in some situations that gets people's backs up, because you don't know who you are hoping does right by the project that you've invested in.”
Investment is a word not to be used, Mitch quickly corrects, at least in the financial sense. He wants to be clear that NFTs are not a financial investment, or at least not one in any normal sense of the term, which has been proven by the average price of an NFT falling by almost 50 per cent since the November peak, and daily trading volumes on the OpenSea marketplace being down 80 per cent this month after a record $248 million peak in February.
The community recently passed the 1,000 member mark without a single NFT having been sold yet. The release of the first collection is coming soon, they tell me, and the aim is to sell 10,000 images, or avatars, in the first collection. They hope people buy one or two, the founders and people involved will all receive a couple, and then maybe another 100 kept in reserve for charity raffles, giveaways and general promotion.
“We need to feel like we can sell a good portion of those right out of the gate,” Benedict says of waiting for the right moment to start selling. “Because that gives us the momentum we need to do a lot of the things that we have been talking about.”
One of the things they’re doing is partnering with cycling brands. The sales pitch is basically showing potential partners what they’ve been doing at the forefront of a new and exciting technology and if they like what they see and can add something of value to the members then their logo goes up on the list of collaborators. Beyond contests, giveaways and promotions, the brave new world of selling jpegs for thousands of pounds means the possibilities are truly limitless if you think about it.
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A photo posted by on
One of the big points that NFTs detractors make is the environmental concern, the amount of fuel and subsequent emissions the space uses. Ethereum, the cryptocurrency used to buy and sell NFTs, is said to use as much electricity as the entire country of Libya.
However, changes to how transactions occur (which to be honest neither me nor you are likely to truly understand if we don’t already know what Proof of Stake and Proof of Work are) means that environmental concerns could soon be neutered.
“One of the reasons is I don't want to say ‘wait and see’ because it's not right,” Benedict says of minting before the more environmentally-friendly switch, which was originally planned for January but keeps getting pushed back. “Part of it is we’ll hold out for as long as we can,” he adds, saying there is already a lot that can be done to minimise impact. “But it's just really hard to explain that in a tweet, right? So the thing is, at some point, we just have to say, ‘you know what we believe in this technology, this is the best way that we can do it right now and we need to do this right now’.
“We have put hours and hours and hours into debate and it's not something we're taking lightly. It's just…it's a really hard thing to convey just how seriously we're taking it.”
Their protestations are believable, and it’s clear that both Mitch and Benedict care about how their project is seen by the outside world because growth and acceptance is ultimately key to the project taking off. A handful of people chatting online can’t really be called a community.
“If I can go for a ride with somebody in the UK who I've seen on the Discord, I think that would be really cool,” Mitch says. “Just make it like a proper bike club. We've had people going, ‘can you recommend me a gravel bike?’
“One guy in New York was building a bike he had, he was pretty down on his luck, and he was struggling to find some pedals and shoes for this new build. One of our ambassadors, Tyler Pierce, also known as the Vegan Cyclist, really kindly just went ‘I've got both of those things’ and just sent them to this guy.
“It's one of those things that happened to me when I started in a bike club. Like, ‘oh my saddle is an issue,’ ‘Oh, I've got this old one in the garage’. Do you know what I mean? That moment where I saw that happen on the Discord, it was like, it's worked. We've made a bike club.
“We might not cycle together all the time, and we do Zwift rides and all that kind of stuff, where people can get together and properly ride together in the digital space. Eventually, the plan is to try and set up so people know where each other is in the world, so they can meet up in real life. But just the community sense of what we've built is exactly how I started with a bike club. I think right now, that’s probably more of a story than the NFT-side.”
To go with my digital ride with my digital bike club, could I get some digital legs too?
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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