"I thought I might lose everything" - Catching Up With Ralph Sinisi
An Interview With 'The' Animal O.G.
5 Jan 2018
Photos by Nick Bardzilowski / December 2017
In our time we've seen so many companies come and go - it's tough out there. There's so many elements to put together to firstly make it initially work and that's not even the hardest bit, you've then got to evolve things constantly to keep the ship afloat. Animal founder and owner, Ralph Sinisi knows this all too well as he steers his creation towards its 20 year mark. We sat down to chat through company ups and downs, rumours, street riding and more.
For the sake of those who don’t know, when and why did you start Animal?
Animal was first conceived of in 1999 and I had it incorporated on January 1st 2000. At the time everyone rode mostly Primo or Odyssey parts and there really weren’t rider owned parts companies—only rider owned frame companies that made some parts. I wanted to make a rider owned parts company, and I wanted it to be focused specifically on street riding, since that is what me and my friends rode. Being out and being a part of the energy on the streets, dodging cars, hanging with friends and sessioning spots is what I wanted to do more than anything else, and that's the niche I wanted Animal to serve.
When I first decided to create Animal, the first thing I wrote down on a piece of paper was “no bullshit”. There always was, and still is, a lot of bullshit in BMX, from marketing to products, and I wanted Animal to be different. My goal was to create a good product that would last and stand the abuse of street riding, without any gimmicks. All of these years later, this is still my goal. Animal is about making quality products for street riding – nothing more and nothing less. No gimmicks, just great parts. All our products are still made at the same top manufactures that we started with and have been with all these years.
Back when Animal started in 2000, there weren’t any street specific BMX brands in BMX—and especially nothing like that coming out of the east coast. Animal had their own niche back then, where as today, street is the most popular form of riding and pretty much every brand is pushing it.
Do you think the fact that street riding has become 'mainstream' BMX has watered down the uniqueness Animal once had?
I really don’t think so. Even though other brands have started to focus on street now also, I still don’t think people view these other brands as street brands. They still push contests and other types of riding also, which we don't do. Animal is from the NYC area, and that makes us unique because we embody the vibe and flow of the New York City area streets. No other brand is doing that. On top of the street riding, Animal embodies the whole culture of the streets here. This doesn't get watered down, because it is so pure to begin with.
Outside of these other parts companies trying to focus on street, many of these other street “brands” aren't really taking away from the uniqueness of Animal because they aren't actual businesses. They don't have teams or product lines getting out there into shops around the world. Most of them are essentially just hobbyists starting small brands for their own pleasure. Animal is an 18 year old international company so it continues to stand out against the competition.
This may be too hard to answer, but can you name one rider from Animal’s entire history who you feel most embodies what Animal is about?
Right away I would say everyone on our OG team. All these people have been with the company for many years. They all got on the team for a reason and are still listed on our site for a reason. However, the one person who still receives the most recognition for his style, tricks, and influence in the whole history of the company is Edwin Delarosa. He was in our VR Video that Glenn PP Milligan did last year and people still go crazy just to see him do the most basic tricks. Edwin’s grips are still a top selling staple product that are loved by the masses. I think Steven Hamilton is another timeless rider who also embodies Animal Bikes. He is our most productive og rider and still rides every day. He has transformed into being his own media through his Instagram and has a huge following of loyal fans. Hamilton's pedals are a classic product also that have stood the test of time. Butcher is another contender. He is the OG of OGs of street riding. He was already a pro rider before animal even started and wrote the book of many tricks that are both common and even thought of as cutting edge still today. His pegs are the first street plastic sleeve pegs ever. We are now producing the Benny pegs also. Benny is definitely the newer generation that embodies what Animal is about. They are basically a progression of the Butcher pegs that are lighter and last longer. Tyrone is another who comes to mind. He is the main staple of BMX in NYC and has been since he opened Dah Shop almost 10 years ago. He holds it down like no other and keeps so many kids bikes running right and gets out riding with most of them. Finally the Philly OGs Tom White and Dave Belcher. They might not ride often anymore, but when they do it is always a show. These guys raised the next generation of Philly riders of what is now the Chocolate Truck crew. This BMX lineage is also something I think is very rare to have represent a BMX company as most turn over their riders every few years. Even our new Germany rider Sebastian Anton was put on the team by our OG German pro Max Gaertig. I could not be happier how things like this always grow the company into a bigger family of riders.
I can’t finish this part without mentioning Joe Tiseo. Joe passed away on a motorcycle in 2001, when the company hadn’t even been around for 2 years. However, he was a big part of what shaped me as a rider and the spirit of BMX as I saw it. He was one with his bicycle and I know still would be if he was around. He would ride with anyone, even if it was their first time on a BMX bike. He pushed every rider to their limits. I still consider most of my sessions with him to be the best in my lifetime.
Then in 2006 we tragically lost Jeremy Barcik, also to a motorcycle accident. Jeremy was also a huge part of Animal and he and Joe were two of the best riders to ever come out of New Jersey. They will both forever be a part of what Animal is all about.
"There always was, and still is, a lot of bullshit in BMX"
We know Animal has had its ups and downs; and you went through a wild ride to keep ownership of the company 6-7 years back. Tell us more about that...
Animal grew steadily and quickly the first 6 or 7 years that we were in business. What started from only a few thousand dollars and making one product at a time rapidly grew into a popular brand with a full product line and millions in sales day-by-day and dollar by dollar. By about 2010, it was reaching a point where I had no choice but to get financing in order to grow the business and keep up with the high demand, since there was just no way that I could finance hundreds of thousands of product runs by myself. At this point, I was offered some really great financing from a bank. Unfortunately, at the peak of Animal's success things took a turn and became difficult. The bank pulled out on us after promising us the funding, and we were left without the financing and unable to afford our new products, which backed up our production and halted all our product flow.
Looking back, that was a really difficult and stressful time in my life. I thought I might lose everything I had spent so many years building. At the time, I felt I was literally in hell and thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to Animal. However, I now I look back and see that it was all a blessing in disguise as it actually gave us the opportunity to make Animal better than ever. For example, back when the company was growing at such a fast pace, we had a lot of people just leaching on Animal's success, asking for more and more money at the same time that they were doing less and less to help the company grow. We were so busy during that period that we were blind to the ill will of those taking advantage of our hard work and success. Having to downsize the company during the difficult years helped to get rid of those blood suckers, but we stayed loyal to those core individuals who are really hard working and dedicated to the company. At Animal’s height it had a staff of over 20 people and over 20 pro team riders. In addition to salaries, everyone had health insurance, which was unheard of for a bike company. It was costing a million a year just to cover salaries and health insurance. There is no way we could have kept this up. Almost losing everything made us reevaluate and change what wasn't working. I was finally was able to get new financing in place in 2015 to get the company stable again and have the product flow from the manufactures back on. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. We have weathered the greatest storm and through the dignity of our brand and support of the best street riders, shops and employees, Animal is now stronger than ever.
You already explained how you still own Animal, but what are your thoughts when you read comments or hear gossip about Animal not being rider owned anymore?
At first it was to be expected, since everyone knew we were having troubles and I wasn't trying to keep that a secret. Once I was able to save my company and hold on to the ownership however, I started to realize that some of my competitors were trying to perpetrate this story even though they knew it wasn’t true and were well aware that I was still owned the company. For a while it disturbed me that people would perpetuate a lie to hurt my business. At this point though, I actually laugh when I hear these rumors are still around since they are so ridiculous.
What’s it like running a business and employing (and sometimes firing) your friends?
It is very difficult. It is great to have the opportunity to work with your friends, but it becomes difficult when the challenges arise. I have always tried to keep the riding side and the business side separated. Having your own business is not easy at all. I have lost friends because of the business, and because I have always had to put the company first. That is what happens in business. But I will say that when things were going good and profit was there, Animal Bikes probably took better care of its employees and riders than any other company in the history of BMX and the friends who have been with Animal from the beginning and are still an integral part of the company are more than friends now, they are family.
Who do you ride with the most nowadays?
Damn. That is a tough question. I still ride with so many people from all over the world all the time. I do keep local more and more though. I would say I do a lot of after work rides with Bard [Nick Bardzilowski] and Osso. Nick has been working sales for Animal for over 5 years now and Osso has been with the company’s daily operations for over 10. Osso was a pro for us and Nick rides as good as a pro. Whenever we get out together we are all on the same mindset of riding and have so much fun. I also ride NYC as much as possible and usually hit up Martin of The Shift Life since he is out 24/7 and always down to ride anything and everything. Carter is my main spot destroyer in Jersey, but he broke his ankle and also [Angel] Lugo, but he lost his license so I only scooped him up a couple of times lately. Rosie was the main SAF staple with Carter (and sometimes tall Marc), but Rosie broke his foot and has not healed well. The situation really sucks, but it was on the craziest kinked rail and he was going so insane before that I think he was asking for it. I know he will be back for sure no matter what, though. Speaking of lineage and also broken feet, I still get out with Grimaldo a good amount of time. Him and his son George are the most phenomenal family to ride with ever. I have been riding with Grim for almost 30 years at this point. Grim had the closing part in our first video ever and he has always been a lunatic, but instead of getting calmer with age, he has gone the opposite. He broke his foot so badly at one of our Brooklyn Banks jams in the early 2000s that he couldn’t ride for almost five years. He has been back and better than ever for the last ten, but now with him and George pushing each other it’s next level insanity. I guess you can tell by the amount of injuries, that these people who I ride with really are whylin out.
"It was costing a million a year just to cover salaries and health insurance."
People joke that Animal hooks up the whole US Eastcoast. In all seriousness, the Animal team really is huge. What’s it looking like nowadays?
I think whatever changes, stays the same with the Animal team. I think Animal’s team has always had the best representation of what I think street riding is. Many different styles that equal one. We have the most tech, to the most wild style and everything in between. Each of them is a classic and timeless BMX street rider. The pro squad is Hoder, Gralla, Lewis, Dehart, Ramos, Sylvester, Augie, Varanyak, Courage, Cast, Abdul, Lacey, Miller, Demarcus, Kocsis, Rieth and Hoogerhyde—who is in hiding. Then we still have the OGs representing the roots of the brand with Tyrone, Hamilton, Butcher, George D, Grim, Oba, Costa, Sammon, White, Belcher, and Jackson. Then the AMs is all next level riders with Carter, Twin, Chad, Marcus, Jose, Martin, the Niranonta brothers, Raekes, Littlejohn, Bdub, Derosa, Yoh, George D the 2nd, Clay Johnson, Little Shredder, Krejmas, Hernandez, JWG, Hobie and Rosie. I don’t want to leave out the international team since these guys represent for all over the world and have such similar views on riding that they really unify our branding around the world. Silva, OZZ, Hango, Manaras, 4 Peggy, Daisuke, Sar, Lord Leopold, Osomatsu, Gaertig, Legrand, Roberts, Roddy, Baes and Sebastian Anton. Then we got our affiliate flow crew that is too numerous to mention, but I want to say that Howard, Joby, Tenzin, Steve Tass, Hess, McThuggin, Luke Pedals, and Nick Barrett will all have clips in our mix edits or edits of their own dropping soon. Most importantly I want to send my condolences out to Gabe Brooks family and friends. He had become a staple of Animal Bikes over the last few years. His appearances in our videos was a huge highlight. He was one of a kind and he will be severely missed.
That’s a lot of people. From a financial standpoint, how do you justify hooking up so many riders?
We want to have the realist riders to Animal’s vision representing all over. Animal is sold worldwide so it is a lot of markets to cover. We do have a heavy presence on the east coast where we are from of course. There are just so many people involved over the years, that if they are still riding, they are part of animal as long as they want to be. It is a big expense to promo all the product we do, but I think it is the biggest part of our marketing to support all these riders that in turn represent for animal and support the brand.
Beyond the title for the crew videos and a hashtag, what is the genesis of your 'streets finest' slogan?
Our team manager and pro rider, Ralphy Ramos one day said “streets finest” while we were talking about Animal and everyone in the room just looked at him and said YES. I knew it was a great statement which reflected our products and riders and so we used it. It was something that caught on quickly and now we tag it on most things we do.
The Streets Finest crew videos were rad. It was pretty sick getting to see three totally different crews from different parts of the world all carrying the Animal torch—as far as their approach to spot use and riding style in general.
Yes! Thank you. We have just dropped 3 crew videos that I am so excited about of—Baygame, Horigum, and LFS. I can’t tell you how proud I was to drop these edits. To me, these edits are what riding is all about. We have tried to support all these crews and many more as much as possible for years. Miller and his Chocolate Truck crew will be dropping a full-length video next month. We have supported almost his whole crew with as many parts as possible from the beginning. The way these crews stick together and push each other to ride on such an insane level is what Animal is all about. Then Joey Piazza is about to drop AMPM 4 soon and it is going to be incredible. A lot of our NYC riders have parts that are going to blow minds. Tyrone, Oba, Drew the Plumber, Gralla, Twin, Mel, Marlon, Tenzin, Marcus, Chad, Jose and of course Joey. Joey also just made his first HD edit and it is an AMPM/Animal collaboration we are just about to release and I am so excited about it. We have been supporting most of the 90 East crew from the beginning also, and they are about to drop a video of pure heat. Lino is putting his full efforts into expanding 90 East’s parts line now so he is no longer riding for Animal. I am so excited to see his company grow since everything Lino does he does an amazing job on.
Speaking about Lino… With the current Animal lineup, next to Tyrone Williams, Lino’s timespan on Animal was longer than anyone else currently on the team. Do you feel as if a chapter (or generation) of Animal is coming to a close and a new one is beginning?
We still support all the OGs, most of whom have been with the company from the start. Lino was the oldest rider on the pro team, but we have been evolving the pro team to the OGs as we move Am riders to pro. Lino is still evolving his riding on an astounding level and could have been considered a Pro, OG and Legend all at once. It is really just trying to keep some kind of progression and change that we have so many levels of riders. We will continue to make the “Lino” pegs but now under the “team peg”. Metal pegs were animal bikes first original product and we still have many team riders that will only ride metal pegs. I think metal pegs will always be a staple product for animal no matter what way the trends with plastic pegs go.
"Riding is better than ever. I see more things I want to ride and I want to ride harder than ever."
What do you think when you hear people say that BMX isn’t what it used to be?
I often hear people saying that BMX isn’t what it used to be. There is crazy riding going on all over the world on a higher level than ever. To me BMX has always been the best thing and still is. From the 80s, through the 90s, into the 2000s till now, BMX has had thousands of heroes that have pushed riding limits and to me these are modern day gladiators that risk their own safety for the thrill of the ride. They have all given me motivation and inspiration to ride and I salute the legends from every era of BMX.
You are turning 43 this year. At this point in your life, with running the company, injuries, and everything else, what is riding like for you nowadays? Is it as fun as it was when you were younger?
Riding is better than ever. I see more things I want to ride and I want to ride harder than ever. I appreciate being on the bike and feeling good when I am riding more than ever. The tough part is getting warmed up to ride and then the recovery. I never considered myself much of a skilled rider. I was always more of a crash test go for it kind of rider. What I enjoyed most was going for a gap to grind or doing handrails and stuff like that. You only need a burst of energy for a quick moment and when the trick is done, it is done. I was usually happy to just do something once and never do it again. From when I started riding, I was more into seeing what gaps I could jump or how many garbage cans I could clear off a door bolted to a window frame.
What is about street riding that keeps you going?
Street was always there. It just wasn’t specified since it ends up being the most natural and normal type of riding that it was already there before people called it “riding street”. At least this is true in more urban environments that are mostly pavement and concrete. I love riding on anything though. I will still ride a vert ramp or dirt jumps if they are in front of me. However on the other end, I will ride the stupidest thing most people would never ride if that is all that is in front of me. When I want to ride, I just want to ride and it is tough to stop me. At this point it takes me about 2 hours of riding and pedaling around just to mess with something that isn’t the most basic thing. However, once I hit this point that I am warmed up enough to feel at one with the bike, I can’t stop till I can’t move anymore. I just want to keep going and end up riding for 8-10 hours. It is the best and the worst. I enjoy that time so much but it will take me many days after to recuperate to do it again. I think with all the nerve damage and arthritis from many dislocations and breaks, it is a mission to just get to the point of feeling good that I don’t want the session to end more than I ever did.
I wake up and look at the things I have to do and start banging them out and hope that riding ends up being one of them. When I ride, that is all I do. I don't focus on anything else for that time and it is separate from work even if we talking about something from work while riding, the riding is still separate.
"When things were going good and profit was there, Animal Bikes probably took better care of its employees and riders than any other company in the history of BMX"
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