Bikes, Baja California & Beers – The Story of O’Neal

Jim O'Neal - Now & Then

Jim O’Neal – Now & Then (photo from O’Neal Europe)

Jim O’Neal is a man I would love to sit and have a beer and a chat with, after a day riding motorbikes of course!

Jim is the man behind the O’Neal brand and Ae7 has been selling his helmets, body armour & clothing for a number of years now. Initially I knew nothing about the man behind the business however as the years have went past I’ve noticed his name appearing in different places and read quite a few articles about him. He is an interesting character with a real passion for his sport. The fact he turned his passion into a successful business puts him up there with a group of entrepreneurs whom I admire.

Jim O’Neal is now in his late 60’s and he still rides motorbikes every week, nowadays with his sons & grandsons. He takes part in the Baja 500 off road race in Mexico every year. I was working a few years back with another great guy, the travel show host, writer and tv star Anthony Bourdain. The show No Reservations was being filmed in the Baja California area of Mexico. Whilst in the town of Ensenada (where the Baja races start & finish) we were lucky enough to hang out with a group of locals who were big into off road motorcycling and I spent a good part of the day riding motorbikes along the beaches and sand dunes nearby (working of course!). I later read that Jim O’Neal races here every year and he holds the record for the most stage wins, 14 to date according to score international.

So what’s his story? Well basically Jim grew up in California, in the San Fernando Valley. He got into motorbikes as a teenager and began racing in the 60’s just as motocross began to boom in the United States. In 1970 he began to sell tyres and parts at the races and he launched his first product which was a front fender known as the “Preston Petty Fender”. This was the beginning of the O’Neal business that 45 years later is an international company with interests in MX and Mountain Biking. Jim’s sons helped to push the cycling side of the business in the 1980’s and these days O’Neal has a massive range of products and a growing number of brands that include O’Neal, Azonic, Blur Optics, Four & Rockhard Helmets. Nowadays O’Neal has a 67,000 square foot facility in the US and sales distributors around the world. In 1970 Jim had his van!

Jim still uses Baja and local races to test out new gear. A lot of the products that O’Neal sell have been getting thrashed on the race circuit for a couple of years before they make it into production for selling to the public.

On the business side of O’Neal, Jim was clever enough to take on partners at key times to help develop the growth of products & sales and he’s seen exceptional growth over the last 10 – 15 years around the world.

There are a lot of strong brands out there but sometimes the stories behind these don’t always get told. Jim O’Neal’s passion for quality and his principle to “create the best possible products for riding and racing in the dirt” has stood his company well.

Here at Ae7 we share his passion and love the products O’Neal continue to create. 2014 is going to be an interesting year for O’Neal. New technologies & designs have made the latest range of O’Neal goods stand out and we’re very excited about showing you all the latest gear! Watch this space.

Jim, a beer awaits when you have time for a chat (and a blast on the motorbikes of course!).



The Most Scenic Dirt Park in the World?

Ok, so you know the old “let’s build a jump” scenario. You may have access to a lot of dirt so you think “let’s build a load of jumps”. The lads at Antimedia films based in Oslo really went to town though when they got a bunch of riders together in Lofoton in Norway. They built some knarly kickers and produced a beautiul little edit. With the help of a drone and some cool cable cams they produced a film that has to be in with a shout for the most stunning location ever award!

This is 9 minutes of awesomeness!


Rocking Horses, Parachutes & Bikes

Anyone who’s into any kind of extreme sport and does it for long enough is at some stage going to fall, stack, smash, hit, break or hurt something! It goes with the territory and is an unfortunate reality of being into adrenaline based activities!

Some people are lucky and escape with minor scrapes, others pay a big price but regardless you can always do something to help minimise the risks you take.

I’ve always been into fairly high risk activities in terms of potential injury from a career in the military & security, to doing all sorts of so called extreme sports from parachuting & snowboarding to climbing & mountain biking. I’ve also taken my share of injuries. I was only 8 months old when I took up my first extreme sport … riding a metal rocking horse. Don’t laugh, I combined rocking with trying to grab decorations from the Christmas tree, not an easy task when you’re 8 months old! It ended badly for me when I slipped off the horse and broke my leg. Now, neither a helmet or body armour would have helped me on that occasion however over the years protective equipment has definitely been my saviour.

I tore ligaments, bashed & bruised every bit of my body during the BMX years, I fractured two vertebrae in my lower spine snowboarding and took more than a few falls rock climbing and mountain biking. Twice for sure my life has been saved by a helmet. I took one particularly bad fall climbing in Glen Nevis (Fort William). I fell about 20ft and decked out. Luckily the ground at the bottom was a steep slope and I landed feet first before tumbling head over heels a few times. One flip took me head first into a big rock and I would not be here today if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet.

As the years have passed I’ve become more aware of the risks, weighing up what can go wrong and taking precautions to be as safe as possible. Having kids certainly wisened me up a little. Leading by example and making sure they were properly equipped made me think more about what we were all wearing or what we were all doing when I took them into the big outdoors.

Mountain biking has brought a few close ones and I’ve seen first hand, especially at the trail centres, the damage riders do to themselves in the name of the sport. I once had to deal with a fellow rider who broke his neck when we were riding the trails at Scrathmere Scar. The crazy thing is it happened on a tiny drop on soft ground. We had just ridden off some big drops in the woods higher up and were more or less riding out of the trees on easy ground at the bottom when it happened.

I think in general though, mountain bikers are pretty clued up and well kitted out these days when they hit the trails and mountains. Having a great range of safety equipment available is central to this and manufacturers have pimped up safety kit these days, making it look cool as well as protect. As you’ve read I have a a special interest in staying safe and I’ve carried this over into what we’re selling these days here at Ae7.

This is what the new Ae7 Cycling Protection Warehouse in Glasgow is all about. We’re finishing off the unit and plan to be open in the next couple of weeks. The Ae7 website will get updated over the coming months to get in line with our focus on safety & protection equipment.

Whether it’s a helmet for your head, good footwear for your feet, padding for your body or the best clothing to cover your skin when you ride, you can be sure we’ll be looking to sort you out with the best kit available. It’s not just MTB’ers we’re looking after. Having cycled on the roads through Europe this summer from Milan to Glasgow I know first hand the daily risks roadies put themselves through! I reckon Afghanistan is safer than half the roads in the UK!

Improving your skills and using the right equipment are the two best ways to help you avoid getting hurt.

The only way to remove the risk completely is not do anything where you can get hurt but where’s the fun in that?

Stay safe out there kids!


Business Chat: Why I closed Ae and opened Ae7

Ae7 Owner Rob Gray

Ae7 Owner Rob Gray

Why am I writing this? Two reasons, firstly I need something to write for the blog and secondly I’m writing this as a way to answer some of the questions I’ve had from people since taking Ae7 online.

I have been asked many times now why I closed the shop at Ae Forest and the simple answer is Ae wasn’t busy enough to run the business model I wanted to use there. Could I have changed the model to suit? Yes I could, however, it would have stopped me going down other avenues I wanted to with the business. It was, at the end of the day, purely a business decision and although everyone associated with Ae worked extremely hard over the years, the place suffered primarily from a lack of funding for trail development. I don’t blame anyone for this although a lot of people can and do jump on top of the Forestry Commission Scotland. Truth is though, what they built with the 7stanes project is an amazing group of trail centres that hundreds of thousands of people use every year and love.

Do I think the Forestry Commission spend too much money on one centre to the detriment of the others? Absolutely! Glentress is the busiest trail centre in the UK, it’s packed with riders and visitors day in day out and biking at weekends can be like riding down a city high street there’s so many people. It’s a phenomenal success, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea however as a trail centre model it’s hard to beat. The money spent there by the Forestry Commission Scotland has been highlighted in many other mediums and yes it was a ridiculous amount of cash. Everyone seems to make a buck when the government is paying out for services and I have witnessed that happening first hand.

For years the trails at Ae suffered bad press in the magazines and MBUK really had no idea the impact one writer had when they penned the story in 2008 slating Ae. This was a couple of pages in a bike mag and yes we live in a free country so everyone is entitled to their opinion, however, some of the words used were very harsh and this had a direct impact on the trail centre and the business. I just wish that sometimes the editors would take a look at what is written first before they print a story that can cause so much potential damage to people’s livelihood, particularly when someone in their sales department then phones you up and asks if you want to take out advertising. You can guess the response to that request! It wasn’t all one magazine, sure the trails needed work, no one is denying that at all, however to give such a one sided opinion in such a bad way was infuriating at a time we were just getting started out there. Between the mag write ups, forums, trail diversions and a history of not being brilliant Ae was always going to be a challenge and it took almost two years and a lot of work to make the place semi successful. The downhill was the saving grace initially and Uplift Scotland and various competitions kept Ae visitors coming through the more difficult times of the year.

No matter what we did as a business, what competitions we supported, what special offers we put on, what stock we had in store, it was obvious very early on that people came to Ae for one reason only and that was the trails. If these weren’t good enough the shop suffered, the café suffered and people stayed away. We started our own trail building volunteer group and the work these guys and girls did (often in atrocious weather!) kick started a serious of improvements at Ae. Even the volunteers only lasted a short time though as FCS regulations came in and put a dampener on the show.

I have a great deal of time for the Forestry Commission and what they have done. Many of the staff I came across were brilliant, one or two were obstructive and seemed to regard recreation as a chore that was not what the Forestry Commission are about. I’m not in the business of airing dirty laundry in public and won’t name individuals however there should have been a lot more happening at Ae if it was to become the success that Forestry Commission Scotland said they wanted it to be. I’m not naïve and improvements need a budget to back them, however there was and always has been a budget and that unfortunately hasn’t always been spread evenly. I don’t blame anyone for this, if one part of my business was flourishing and could grow with more investment, the areas that were slowing it down would be cut.

At the end of the day there were too many factors that we had no control over that directly affected the business at Ae Forest. In November 2010 we launched the new Ae7 online website and it was a big investment for us. We received a lot of help from Scottish Enterprise and a host of individuals with experience and knowledge of e commerce. After a lot of hard work the sales started to come in and business grew to a point where I made the decision that to really make a go of it, the bricks and mortar had to go. This was in February 2012 and that single decision was the best one I’ve made so far in business. It was a very difficult one to decide and I fought it off for a long time. I had staff to consider and I’d put 4 years of my life into Ae, however, at the end of the day I couldn’t continue to support the business through the winter months and online was where I could see a brighter future so something had to give.

Nine months later as a business we are in a much stronger position. Our new warehouse & distribution centre in central Scotland is growing and we’re working much more closely with our main suppliers. Ae7 is going from strength to strength and we’re now able to get our stock to our customers very quickly. We have almost all of our website items in stock (some of the bikes being the exception) so we can get orders processed much quicker than we used to from the shop and the feedback from customers has been nothing short of phenomenal.

As for Ae Forest, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, far from it! It’s still a special place and there was a great buzz about the centre at times. Our sponsored downhill riders were a huge success, gracing many a podium. Local rider Frazer McCubbing won both the Scottish & British Champs and now rides for Lapierre. World Champions Gee Atherton, Steve Peat, Nico Vouilloz and many other great riders rode the trails, drunk the coffee in the café & hung out in the shop chatting to our customers. The Trail Demons were a great bunch of people who I will always have a lot of time for. Tally and the Uplift Scotland crew continue to push the downhill scene and all guys & girls who worked at Ae over the years were a pleasure to work with. Let’s not forget the customers either, the regulars who always came to Ae to buy their gear, you guys made Ae what it is and many of you now shop online with Ae7, for that I thank you lots!

I genuinely hope that Ae Forest can become bigger and better and that the new people taking on the centre there can make it even better in the future. Truth is though, that will only come from the Forestry Commission making a bigger commitment to the trails at Ae and perhaps allowing other activities to flourish in the area. That however is someone else’s blog!

Ae7 Scotland’s Online Bike Store is in its infancy and there is a lot more news to come from here … stay tuned!

Check out … Scotland’s Online Bike Store!