SHIFTING TO A HIGHER GEAR
By Bill McLean
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES GUSTIN
By Bill McLean
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES GUSTIN
John Nichols’ first sprint triathlon in 2005 didn’t go so swimmingly.
“Horrible experience,” the Winnetkan recalls. “Rough. I was heavy, grossly out of shape … kind of an idiot. But I wanted to race again. I wanted to train properly for my next race.”
Two years later, the former collegiate lacrosse and hockey player entered an Olympic triathlon in Chicago. Nichols, who attended New Trier East High School for two years before graduating from Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut, eventually took on nine grueling Ironman Triathlons.
“I got into endurance sports, more and more each year,” Nichols, 47, says. “I remember arriving in Pleasant Prairie (Wisconsin) for a triathlon in 2013 and marveling at the community of competitors and the energy of the event. Support was everywhere. Racers were willing to share their knowledge and tips on swimming, biking, and running.”
He became a USA Triathlon and Ironman certified coach and kind of fell in love with helping people reach their goals.
After a 20-year career in marketing, innovation, and product development with Miller Brewing, Constellation, and Beam Suntory, Nichols—the husband of Brenna and the father of sons Fisher (12) and Bauer (9)— has been a busy entrepreneur joining or founding start-ups in the alcohol, fitness, and technology fields.
In his most recent venture, Nichols—who had returned to Winnetka 10 years ago—teamed up with former U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team member Robbie Ventura in 2020 to launch the software company Velocity, a virtual endurance-training company. Nichols serves as its chief marketing officer and vice president of product development.
A technology company by coaches and for coaches, Velocity is like Peloton, but it’s geared toward cyclists and triathletes who train using their real bikes on a device called a smart-trainer. Velocity leverages two-way video and real-time data metrics (power, speed, cadence) to connect coaches and athletes with each other for live, replay, and video-on-demand workouts.
“World-class athletes, like Robbie Ventura and Meredith Kessler (a professional triathlete, Ironman champion), lead classes,” says Nichols, who coached his former Harvard University roommate, Scott Johnson, ahead of an Arizona Ironman race this past November. “Velocity makes all styles of coaches accessible to athletes with an easy-to-use interface.”
“Athletes,” Nichols observes, “are no longer limited to their local coaches, and local coaches aren’t limited to their local athletes.”
Nichols first met Ventura in 2013 at Vision Quest Coaching (VQ) in Highland Park. Ventura—winner of more than 70 pro races—had created VQ in 2000. VQ offers expert training programs for more than 500 endurance athletes of all levels from beginner to elite, including cyclists and triathletes ranging from 8 to 80 years old. Not surprisingly, Velocity has become an integral part of VQ’s training regimen.
“Velocity has allowed VQ to stay connected to our athletes, as facility training has not returned to normal,” says the 51-year-old Ventura, a Lake Forest College graduate and Hall of Famer (cycling and hockey) who lives in Libertyville with his wife, Lori, and their children Luna, Enzo, Luciana, and Raquel. “It has also allowed us to leverage our proven coaching methodology outside our facilities (Highland Park and Chicago) and made building our brand much easier outside the Chicago area.”
“We have given our remote athletes a place to feel connected to our coaches and other VQ athletes,” explains Ventura.
“Robbie,” Nichols says, “is insanely knowledgeable about all things cycling and naturally curious about training methodologies. He knows he’s not the strongest, most powerful cyclist, but he more than makes up for that by being super smart about training and formulating strategies. He’ll drop back during a bike race to find his VQ racers and see how they’re feeling or to talk strategy with them. Robbie gets more joy out of helping others than he does out of racing,” he adds.
In addition to mainstream coaching, Velocity makes specific coaching available to adaptive athletes and youth athletes anywhere. Another market is those bikers who reintroduced themselves to their cobwebbed bikes in the garage or churned relentlessly atop a Peloton during the long days of the COVID pandemic.
“Velocity is not just for the serious athlete,” says Nichols, who espouses the maxim “Train Hard, Race Easy.” “A lot of people fell in love with riding their bikes again, and now they want to see what they can achieve while training on Velocity.”
Like its customers’ race times, Velocity is constantly improving. One development in the works is the creation of unique experiences, like riding with your favorite world tour teams and cyclists.
“We give people the ability to improve and grow in both their fitness and mindset,” Ventura says. “We understand the power of exercise and create events and options for people to explore new adventures on their bikes. We can help people live longer, gain confidence, and exceed what they thought was possible.”