In this week's Industry Insights we talk to former pro rider and owner of Canvas Motocross Gear Michael Leib about starting his pro career in the MXGPs, the origins of Canvas, his future plans, and more.
For the full interview, check out the Vital MX podcast right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.
Jamie Guida – Vital MX: Tell us where you're from and how you got into moto.
Michael Leib: Oh, man. I'll take you back to day one. My dad used to race. He was an intermediate guy who never made it to the professional side. They were from the East Coast in New Jersey and were riding all the district stuff there. In 1986, my dad moved out here, and he was working for Xtreme Gear, funny enough, and for Race Tech and a couple of other deals. Then, he started working for Pro Circuit. I was born in '91, and I loved dirt bikes from my earliest memory. I was off training wheels at one and a half years old, and it was history.
Vital MX: That's funny. I have a silver Xtreme helmet with the American flag and rear fin in my studio and a jersey in the shop.
Michael: You may not know, but Dale Davis was a big part of Xtreme Gear. Don't fact-check me here, but he worked with 6D helmets, and we did an intro at Pala about a year and a half ago, and he wanted to make up some 6D gear. It was hilarious because here we are, probably 30 years later, designing 6D stuff with the same guys my dad used to work with. It was just funny.
Vital MX: You've done a lot of cool retro tribute stuff at Canvas, and I will get into it shortly. First, when do you start racing, and how quickly do you progress?
Michael: I started racing when I was four. Well, I'll take that back. I did my first race when I was four at Perris, and I won on a PW50. It was in the parking lot down in the back where the 50-track used to be. My dad and my mom told me they didn't want to go down the full amateur path because they knew once we started, it wasn't going to stop. So, we rode from four to seven years old, and then we started racing at seven. Then, at eight, we started doing amateur nationals, and once we started doing the amateur nationals, we never stopped. We did Ponca, Loretta's, Whitney, Mosier Valley, Oak Hill, Gatorback, and everything else. We just went click, click, click, and we were off to the races from that point. I won my first championship at MiniO's in 2002 and signed a Team Green deal in 2003. I won World Minis in 2003 on a 60 and got hurt a lot over the next four or five years. I was always in the age group on the amateur side, where I had to get on a bigger bike when I was too small. My age forced me out. So, I was always super little getting on the bigger bike and fought injuries until 2007. Around 2008, I started to put things together. I still had some injuries, and then I won Loretta's in '09. I only have three amateur titles. From that point forward, we went from 250B to 'A' the next January after Loretta's in 2009. Then, I was on a plane to Europe and started my pro career in Europe, racing MXGPs.
Vital MX: Okay, I knew you did GPs, but I didn't realize you did it that early. How did that come about?
Michael: After Loretta's, we did a race at Elsinore. It was like a supercross kind of deal they had going on there. Jacky Vimond was a part of Bud Racing Kawasaki at that point and was here with Nico Aubin and Gregory Aranda. They were over here, and I won that whole deal. I got a call three weeks later, and they asked, "Would you be interested in coming and finishing the season in MX2?" Nico Aubin was third the year before in the championship, and he was going to move up to 450s because he was coming off of an injury. So, I took the deal. We were going to race amateurs up until outdoors in 2010, and we were going to do it ourselves. I got a deal to put some money in my pocket, race dirt bikes, and travel the world. So, we definitely took a different avenue when we turned pro.
Vital MX: What was the best part of racing GPs and living abroad?
Michael: It was a really tough period for me. I moved there when I was 17, and my mom came with me for the first trip. My dad followed up with me later. The first day I got there, I broke my wrist and missed the first GP I was supposed to be at. I rode the second one 11 days later and just raced myself back into shape. We had a lot of bike issues the first year, and it was the biggest culture shock being 17 over there by yourself. I didn't have a whole lot of friends. You're far away from the tracks, and the tracks suck. They're not prepped. You realize how catered to we are. I'm starting to sound old, but in the early 2000s, there were so many tracks in SoCal. You look at it now, and there are two or three options, which is good, but back then, there were nine or ten. So, when you move over there, and you have two tracks to ride, they're never prepped, other than once a year, and they're rocky and have gnarly sand stuff. You just realized how spoiled we are. That was a huge culture shock. The next year, I ended up signing with BMW Husky. That was before KTM bought it, and we signed a one-year deal there. I learned at that age that money's not worth everything. Our race bikes had 33 horsepower up against KTM's 47 horsepower. I actually left the last race of the year and said, "I'm done. I'm never going back. I'm over it. I don't want to do it anymore and don't want to be a part of that." So, we came home, and I built my race team with my mom and dad and did the West Coast rounds. It was right after the first West Coast break because there used to be five straight in a row, and then we'd have six weeks off. I got a call to fill in for (Zach) Osborne with factory Yamaha and got a second overall in my first GP. I went there to give a big F.U. for the time I had there before because it was difficult. I enjoyed the shit out of it. I signed a one-year deal with CLS Kawasaki, which was the PC Kawasaki team that year. They terminated my agreement three weeks before I was meant to be there. I won't get into the drama side of that. Then I came home, and I raced West Coast up until 2020, but in 2015, I crashed badly in Oakland and shattered both ankles. I ended up having to do a fusion on my right ankle, and at that point, things fell apart.
Vital MX: Once in the U.S., you had a couple of sixths and sevenths. Did you take away positives from your pro career in the U.S.?
Michael: 100%. There are tons of positives. We had good results. I never raced an outdoor race in the USA, which I look back on and wish I did. I mean, we were a privateer getting sixth-place finishes. I had a handful of those. We were consistently a top ten guy running our own program out of the trailer I grew up racing with since 2002. Yeah. So, did we do well? We did. It wasn't the goal. You know, we didn't get to the podiums or top fives that we were shooting for. You'll always wish you did more in whatever you do. Anyone can relate to that. Whether it's business, relationships, work, racing, career, or whatever, you will always want more.
Vital MX: Absolutely. As long as you can reflect on it and say, "I got to do this. It was positive," and you enjoyed most of it. I think that's a successful career.
Michael: I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for what I went through. I hated a lot of the time I was in Europe, but when I look back on it, I love what I learned from it. I can say that I was 21, speak two languages, have been to 40-plus countries, and have been paid to race my dirt bike. Those are things that most people will never experience in a lifetime. I couldn't achieve what I was there to do with certain equipment, which was out of my control at that point. It was just the circumstance I had to deal with and that year, I learned to let it go and enjoy learning about Europe and different cultures, foods, and ways of life. I learned a lot about myself, too. By no means do I look back and regret any of it. I wish I had accomplished more, of course.
Vial MX: It sounds like it was very impactful on your life. You took something away from it and opened your eyes to what is important in life. You can't buy that.
Michael: No, you can't buy it. Before I got hurt in 2015, we did the all-white gear, and that was before Canvas was even thought of. It was a way to pay for us to race on our budget. Canvas was conceived because of that. Looking back now on where I am, I'm far from where I want this vision to be, but I've put all my focus here in the last two years. Dude, I'm proud of what we're building. I'm proud of what we have coming up. I'm proud of the way that we're putting all this together. Had it not been for those racing ideas, traveling the world, and the relationships that I've built, I could never have done this.
Vital MX: As I recall, in 2014, you had a gear deal with AXO, and going into '15, they were trying to cut your pay, and you decided to do your own thing. Talk about the process of first bringing in the all-white and all-black gear and how it grew into Canvas.
Michael: The two-minute version of where Canvas originated is, yeah, AXO paid me well in 2014. I was their best guy here, and I finished 11th. I had a good year. We had our first sixth-place finishes that year. We were consistently in the top ten. I broke an ankle halfway through the season, which I rode through. Nonetheless, it was a good year. So, in 2015, our West Coast budget was about 100K. That's bikes, motors, a mechanic, travel, etcetera. If you were going to an AMA Supercross race back then, I got paid six or $700 for sixth place. You'll make seven grand in ten rounds if you get sixth place every night. How do you justify that? How do you figure out a way to fill the gap? Well, if AXO is one of my gear sponsors, let's say they're coming up with 20K. That's 20% of my budget that I have to spend. Well, they cut me down to 1500 bucks. They're the number one placement on the most visible thing that a rider has on. What are you going to do? You're going to go to Fox, Fly, Thor, etcetera. You will go down the list and probably get between $2,000 and $4,000. So, my dad, who I'll give credit to, we were watching NASCAR, and he said, "Why don't we go get title sponsorship stuff? Let's take all the logos off the gear. Let's get all white gear and go sell mom-and-pop companies primary branding on a per-round basis." It's not even a whole year thing. It's way easier to find ten people to give you ten grand than to find one or two people to give you 100 grand. So, we did that. We raised $33,000 three rounds in, and then I got hurt at round four. I never intended that to be the lead into what Canvas became. Canvas was never an idea. I got hurt in Oakland, and I'm sitting there in the hospital waiting for surgery Saturday night. I got an email from Ricky, who's part of Radikal with his brother Nestor. They asked, "Have you ever considered importing all-white and all-black gear?" I said, "No, I've never thought about it." I forwarded it to my mom and said, "Hey, talk to these guys and let me know if there's something with it." Meanwhile, I went into surgery. The next week was brutal. Things started coming around, and I started feeling better, and Mom said, "Oh yeah, by the way, I've been talking to these guys for the last week. They're awesome people." At that point, I hadn't met them, but they're as close as family to me now. Canvas came from that, and it was all-white and all-black gear. We sold that for about a year and a half, and things started to get difficult as things grew, and I was still racing. I was still doing everything in between. They're based out of Argentina, and shipping things from Argentina here became hard. Then I started learning about customization and dye sublimation and all that stuff. I tried to find some vendors, and it was very challenging. It took five or six years to get the product right. Jersey made here wasn't that hard, but getting a pant made here was another story. We ran through that same process until 2021, and I called those guys and said, "I'm either shutting Canvas down or figuring out how to make it ourselves." That's when we decided to start Lucid. In January of 2022, we started Lucid with Radikal, who was the reason I started Canvas eight years before.
Vital MX: Explain what Radikal and Lucid are.
Michael: Radikal is a gear brand in Argentina, and they can't export to places like Europe, the USA, or Brazil. You can do small stuff, but once you start getting into numbers, you can't do it. So, the idea when we started Lucid was that they knew how to make gear, and I knew how to sell gear. I didn't know how to put it together. I didn't know the machinery that we needed. I didn't know how to run the production that we needed. They were strategic partners on my side to say, "Guys, I can't do this alone, but if you want to do this together, you can sell and produce a product manufactured out of the USA worldwide. That synergy between Radikal and their brand and Canvas and my brand and a need for manufacturing based in the USA made sense for us to jump in bed together and make this happen and bring it to life.
Vital MX: Was the idea to go up against the big gear brands, or more, to be just another option?
Michael: Covid changed a lot of things. If I had done what I'm doing now, pre-COVID, it would be less successful. I say that because during Covid, you had boats stuck in Long Beach and couldn't get stuff off the boat. One of our first business models with Lucid, just to be transparent, there's nothing to hide, was to work with gear companies in the USA. I didn't even want to make Canvas in-house 100% because it's custom and inefficient to make. When we started the idea in early '22, every gear company wanted gear made here now. Because boats were stuck, they couldn't get anything produced in China because they were still shut down. They told me, "If you could make gear here in the U.S.A., we're in." I said, "Okay, cool," because when we built this place, we built it as a foundation to turn gear manufacturing into a possibility on a larger scale two, three, four, five, and six years later. The cost difference wasn't that much. So, we decided, "All right, let's play ball. Let's jump into this. Let's build what we need for now but have a foundation that we can grow from." We got kind of excited when we did that and talked to these gear companies. We were thinking this was going to be awesome. When we were ready to do business in September of '22, we started calling around, and stimulus checks had stopped going out. People stopped spending money, and gear companies got all the extra gear they ordered when they were nervous and couldn't get the initial orders they were trying to get. So, what happened? Gear companies didn't need anything, which was what we built the bigger place for. That was a severe struggle for us. Then we decided to blow up Canvas, Radikal, and the things we had control over. That's when, this year, Canvas took a big step. We sponsored AGE, Kevin Moranz and had a deal with (Joey) Savatgy. We had a deal with Ty Masterpool, too. We finally started pushing Canvas because, pre '23, I wasn't ready to push the company because I wasn't happy with the product. Now I make it. Now I'm happy with the product. I have a long way to go, but we're getting there. With USA manufacturing, you're paying four times more for labor and four times more than what gear companies are making things for overseas, but you have to start somewhere. I believe that USA manufacturing has to come back to a certain degree. So why not be a part of it?
Vital MX: Starting this process couldn't have been easy initially. There's a lot of equipment. You have to learn a lot and spend a lot.
Michael: I'm absolutely terrified. I'm still terrified every day. There were a lot of stresses and sleepless nights and everything you go through but listen to any successful business story. Look at anyone who's ever started, failed, or had a successful business, right? Racing dirt bikes is hard. You put yourself through a lot of things that over ten, 12, 15 years of racing just start to become normal, but in the beginning, it's scary. This is way scarier than I thought it would ever be. I have 12 people here who work for us, depend on us, and they have families. It's a lot. We're putting together a manufacturing facility that no one's doing in the USA, especially not to the scale that we are in the motocross community. It's a business model that no one's ever done with custom gear. I can't look at this and say, "Oh, this is for sure a success. This will be easy because I will just look at what they're doing and do exactly that." We're finding the problems out as we go and evolving over time. That's scary. Then you get all these gear companies that want to play ball and want to do business, but they have a warehouse full of inventory. A lot of these gear companies probably have eight times more inventory than they're used to, cash flow-wise. That has to be a nightmare. So, we make things to order. Canvas doesn't necessarily have overhead because everything's custom. Again, we're kind of carving out a new hole in the market that is different from how gear has been done for 60-plus years. I think it needs a change. I'm not trying to say Canvas will change how everything's done from here forward. As a community in the gear world, we can work with some gear companies and create a nice flow of USA-made products with four to five weeks turnaround times.
Vital MX: That's a quick turnaround time. Yeah.
Michael: Most of these gear companies are used to 10 to 15-month lead times. The cost, jersey-wise, isn't that far off now. Five years ago, it would have been.
Vital MX: Regarding the pants, explain panels and why you use fewer.
Michael: Sew time. Some sewers make 22-25 bucks an hour, and it's expensive. When you think about having a team of two or four people sewing pants, and you've got 30 pieces in a pair of pants, compared to 15, that's a lot of time. That's a lot of time on sewing. That's a lot of extra time on cutting because there's someone hand cutting that out, and that's time eliminated. That's even on the artwork side, right? If you're laying artwork out and have to put it across 30 pieces instead of 15, that's time all the way around.
Vital MX: One of the coolest things about Canvas is with the custom stuff, the consumer has complete control over the design. They can come up with colors and put whatever logos they want on.
Michael: Everyone's got a style, right? Say that you're sick and tired of seeing the same stuff from other gear companies. Not only that, but you also have to pay to put your name and numbers on it. You don't have dye sublimation and all these other options we allow customers to have. Let's just say that you want a different colorway than what they come out with, and you're not super stoked about all the colorways they have for the fall drop. We have four different series that we offer. We have our Label Series, which is like 'us' as a gear company. Every two months, there's a new design and eight-plus colorways. We take your logos, name, and number, and you get the full factory treatment. We match all the colors of the logos and do specific name and number fonts. You get labeling inside the tag. You get a cool box, the whole thing, and it's our factory treatment. Then we have our Mod Series for people who don't want to make something themselves. Well, we'll give you about 15 different options, and you can delete our logos and change colors on it. You can add anything you want to our 3D virtual designer. Then we have our Custom Series, an all-white base set of gear. You can create anything you want, and if you don't know how to create it online, email us, and we'll send you a link for our designer, and we'll design it for you. It's completely one-off, and the minimum you must make is one. Then, let's say that you're a one to 99-unit customer who wants to do wholesale. We offer wholesale for people. So, let's say that Vital wanted to create a gear line, and you guys want to make 50 sets of gear, and you want to resell it. We can provide that for you. All private labeled for Vital. Then we have the Lucid side, where the manufacturing steps in on 100-plus units we produce for you at a pretty low price point. We can make people a gear company essentially overnight with our chassis. We have a lot of different options. I'm using one of those options right now because I think our sport needs replica jerseys. If you go to a football stadium, you can buy a Tom Brady jersey. If you go to a Lakers game, you can buy a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron jersey. I think people should be able to support their rider, like we did with Ty Masterpool, in a way where the rider, the team, the gear companies, and even Feld make a profit share. I think it helps our sport and our riders. It could help outside money look at us differently. If you go look at IndyCar, football, baseball, NHL, basketball, whatever the heck you want to go look at, we're the only serious sport not doing it, and I think it's pathetic.
Vital MX: Ryan Villopoto is your brother-in-law. What's it been like working with him and having him involved?
Michael: He just wears Canvas gear. He's not a part of the company. He is a part of Lucid. Lucid is something that we work together quite a lot on. I try to involve him as much as he wants to be. It's cool. He's busy and likes brainstorming and going down that side of it.
Vital MX: What's next for Canvas? In the next 12 months and the next five years?
Michael: We have a big plan for '24. We have a few new teams we will be a part of. We're going to be with AEO, and I've got two other teams and one or two other riders with whom we're going to do some unique stuff. As far as exactly what we're going to do, that's different from what we already do. Not a whole lot. We're going to do the custom stuff as much as possible. We will try to find ways to create revenue for the riders. You know, it's hard for us to compete with the other companies that are out spending a couple million dollars a year when we don't even do a couple million dollars a year. That part of it is tricky for us to be creative with, although I think we have a couple of concepts there. In five years, I'd love for Canvas to be something companies use as their marketing tool. I'd love to see people understand the customization and uniqueness we provide and create their visions through us. Canvas is a blank canvas; we can create anything that any customer wants. Many companies use us for charity events and fundraising needs for their own company branding rather than wearing a gear company that doesn't support them. They might as well go make their own company they support themselves with and use it as a tool. Our company can be utilized in many different ways that aren't within the normal thought process.