To the Sun: Michael Tabtabai

Illustration by Matt Hall

Michael Tabtabai is a Creative Director for Wieden+Kennedy and has been a Rapha proponent for as long as anyone here can remember. Last summer Tabtabai and his friend Andrew Hudon rode across the USA in 24 days, averaging over 150 miles daily. The project was called Leave it on the Road, co-sponsored by Rapha, and was done to raise money for the fight against colon cancer which, in our opinion, takes more than a little creative optimism. We sent through a few questions to find out how he maintains his positivity through the Pacific Northwest winter. 

How did you stay inspired on your trip across the country when you had to wake up, day after day, and head back out there?
Motivation on the ride itself was not hard to come by: Andrew and I were overwhelmed by the real time feedback we were getting through our Instagram and online following. We had thousands of people all over the world sending us words of encouragement and support, our friends and family, amazing sponsors that really believed in us, and the memories and thoughts of loved ones who had battled cancer.

Sure, there were a few days on the ride when throwing a leg over the saddle was harder than others, but we knew we had a lot of promises to live up to and a lot of people to ride for, so we just got out there and turned the pedals. Along the route itself we had amazingly beautiful and challenging roads to keep the days interesting and we had the promise of a massive meal and a couple of beers at the end of each day’s ride to look forward to.

For two non-pros, it was pretty awesome to get to experience what it must be like to be a training professional – a daily life built around riding and recovering and pushing yourself beyond your limits.

You did the #Festive500 early this year. What was that like in the motivational sense?
#Festive500 is a unique type of challenge. The timing is tough because of the holidays – you have to balance those awesome holiday and family moments with a good amount of personal time. It was a tiny bit easier for me to stay motivated, I think, because I was coming off of 1.5 years of structured training for long distance endurance miles, so I was able to just go back into that headspace and turn off the part of my brain that wanted to be at home, bourbon in hand. Physically, I hadn’t done much riding since I wrapped up the cyclocross season so there was a bit of a challenge there. I was pretty tired by the last day, which also ended up being a five plus hour solo ride. But I had that thing in the back of my head nagging me to prove to myself. The closer you get to the goal, the bigger the personal letdown if you decide not to push through and finish. We were also really lucky in PDX that it didn’t rain at all that week, which is truly rare. I think the constant rain takes more of a psychological toll when you have that many miles staring you down, and I would have had a tougher time staying motivated if we had the traditional Portland weather.

What’s your motivation when you’re at work (Wieden + Kennedy)? 
I’m a creative director, which means I help manage a team of awesomely talented writers and art directors. We work to solve brands’ business problems and create communications (ads, films, social media campaigns) that go out in the market and help their business grow. For the last three years I’ve been focused on an American auto company in Detroit, working in the midst of a global economic crisis and creating a story that helps people realize how important American manufacturing is. Focusing on that big picture is super inspiring and takes you to a much more motivational place than just approaching the job as making a commercial to sell a car or two. The stakes are much higher than that, and when you approach it with that respect, the work you make will connect with people more emotionally, and these brands can earn a place in the hearts and minds of Americans and stand for more than just the products they sell.

A big part of my job is to stay inspired, even when things are difficult and to hopefully create an environment where the creatives on our team can be inspired as well. It really is a mix of art and commerce. I spend a lot of time researching and looking at the dynamics of the auto industry so that I’m aware of the business challenges brands face. Then I spend an equal amount of time researching art, music, films and all types of design – things that are well made and culturally interesting and relevant to people out there in the world.

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Do you have a current favorite ride that you turn to?
My favorite ride would probably be the ‘Bridge of the Gods’ route. You ride through Portland and up into Washington State, then meander along the Columbia River, across an old steel bridge, and roll back on the Old Columbia River Highway. You pass all the famous waterfalls on your way back and it’s really just an awesome, challenging 100 miles on the bike.

I know that you’re a big wine guy, so what’s inspiring you in the wine world currently?
Ha, well I’m better at drinking wine than I am researching it. But I love going out to Oregon wine country and visiting vineyards. The roads out there are amazing, and I’ve done about equal parts riding and drinking in that part of the state. It’s pretty great that we have such easy access to world-class wines.

And what are you seeing and reading that you’re excited about right now? 
Lots of photography and film – it’s the best time of the year for great movies and the winter gives you plenty of time to sit in the dark and get inspired. I’m really excited about this new crop of documentary style storytelling that is happening in the world of cycling. It seems to be a really open and accessible sport at the moment, giving some great photographers and filmmakers the ability to get close to these incredible athletes and artfully share what like to live that lifestyle.

What’s does the spring and 2014 promise in terms of riding?
This year I’m looking forward to some different experiences on the bike – I’m buying my first mountain bike and I cannot wait for cyclocross season to come around again. I’ve experienced some amazing roads in Oregon and all over the country in the past year and now I’m looking forward to hitting some of the awesome trails we have here and doing some off-road racing as well. I can’t wait.