For those curious about how to get into the bike industry, it always begins like this: get a starter position sweeping floors at a bike shop. And begin sweeping.
Well it ain’t just sweeping floors. Rather, it’s tire changes. Lots of ‘em.
Chris Brown was one of those guys. In high school, he began working for a local shop in Jacksonville, Florida, and aside from looking after customers on the sales floor, he was charged with that menial task of changing flat tires. And as anyone who has worked at a shop before can attest to, tube changes on old mountain bikes with foam inserts and dry-rot tires aren’t a piece of cake.
“Boy, I remember how hard it was to change those things, and how much they just wore out your thumbs,” Brown recalls with a laugh. “My coworkers called me ‘thumbs!’”
While the bike shop is just a steppingstone job for bike enthusiasts, "Thumbs” drove his passion for bikes into a career. Brown went from shop rat to sponsored athlete, and now sits as one of the most senior managers at Litespeed—a brand he’s always had a reverence for. He’s gone from Litespeed-sponsored rider to Litespeed’s sales manager, and now sales manager across all of American Bicycle Group, Litespeed’s parent company.
Ironically, Brown’s plans as a young college racer weren’t building a career with the most advanced titanium bike maker in the world. Rather, as with many young cyclists, the dream was to race pro. And he was good. While studying at UNC-Asheville, Brown attacked the inviting trails around Brevard and the Blueridge Parkway. He started the cycling club there and fed the stoke for riding. “I got a road bike for cross training, and we had Mount Mitchell there,” he says, “but with all the trails here, I got into a good mountain bike racing series. I loved it.”
He also turned out results, with elite class cross country wins, taking second to then top pro talent Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski at one race. He was getting the vibe that maybe going pro and hitting the NORBA pro series might be his future. “I was honestly thinking that it might be my career path,” he says. “ But so many of the NORBA races were at altitude in places like Colorado, and altitude just kicked my butt.” In the late 1990s, Brown pivoted to the regional road crit scene, joining the Southeast regional Cane Creek/BMW/Litespeed road team, and hit the local industrial park circuit aboard a Litespeed road bike. It was his introduction a brand that he—like many—pined for. “I mean, Litespeed even back then was the pinnacle of titanium bikes,” Brown said. “It was a bike I lusted after, and I couldn’t believe I was getting to ride one.”
The relationship also afforded him the chance to engage with the Litespeed design team. Brown met Litespeed lead engineer Brad DeVaney (who still runs the department at Litespeed today) and engaged with him with feedback on ride quality and handling. “In the late ‘90s I worked with Brad on headtube angle and wheelbase tweaks on the Tanasi mountain bike. It was cool to be able to provide feedback they could use,” Brown recalls.
The Litespeed team took notice. In 2000, Brown was offered an entry level customer service position at Litespeed. It was music to his ears. “I knew making a career as a pro mountain biker was gonna be a long shot,” Brown says. “I’d gotten to know the Litespeed guys well, and I knew it was going to be a great opportunity to start in with them.”
Brown cut his teeth, at the same time keeping his riding volume high, with lunch rides and the occasional after-work ride to keep his legs sharp for the weekend crits. On weekdays he’d help Litespeed fans build their dream bike, on weekends he would tear the legs off competitors at road races, taking second at the 2014 elite masters nationals in the 35-39 age group.
As the years passed, he move into inside sales, and had input in every aspect of Litespeed’s business, from events to design to working with magazine editors to marketing. In 2007, Litespeed gained a new CEO in Peter Hurley, and the new boss decided to empower the ambitious Brown with even more opportunity.
“Peter looked to me to take on a higher role, and five years ago he moved me into the same manager position. It’s great: I get to keep working with customers on building their own Litespeeds, but there’s so much of everything else I get to do… and it’s all fun.”
Today, his decades of experience as an elite mountain bike, road and now gravel racer (he placed 2nd at Unbound Gravel in 2019) allows him to relate to customers when explaining the capabilities of any of Litespeed’s models. He occasionally gets out (or jumps on Zwift) with Cary, his wife of 21 years and a former collegiate basketball player at UNC Asheville, and many weekends now are spent with their two kids, age eight and four. “I still enjoy riding and doing my lunch rides, but the weekends are about the kids,” Brown says. “We’re not pushing them into biking, but there are great smaller-level trails around here in Chattanooga, and they enjoy mountain biking. We’ll support whatever they’re into!”
Twenty years later, it’s not lost on him how much he’s seen as the brand he once lusted after is one he keeps in his stead. “I love that I can try to inspire riders to experience the bikes as I’ve experienced them over the years,” Brown says. “We have so many new customers, but also a lot of repeat customers with two or three Litespeeds, coming back for a new gravel bike, or upgrading to a model with disc brakes. It’s so cool to build a made in the USA product (using globally sourced premium materials) at such a high level, and provide gratification to those enjoying them, with the same excitement I had way back then."
“Cycling has been a large part of my life, but I never thought I would become a sales manager with the biggest brand in titanium, with one of the most multi-faceted bike companies in the industry,” he adds. “It’s so much fun, and I’m so proud of it.”
Be careful what you wish for. If they do get the bike bug, there may be a “thumbs junior” or two in the family.