You can't keep up with these guys. You want some of this? Then ride hard, or ride alone. Every day, rain or shine, a small group of REI...

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You can’t keep up with these guys. You want some of this? Then ride hard, or ride alone.

Every day, rain or shine, a small group of REI managers and employees spends lunch breaks on bicycles, tracing Green River pathways or cresting hills near the outdoor retailer’s Kent headquarters.

It’s an 18-year-old tradition, and today, a buzz is in the air. They’ve got a new frame to test, from a prototype of a bike REI might produce.

“This is kind of our laboratory,” says Brad Brown, REI’s vice president for e-commerce and Web strategy. “If Kevin [Myette, research and development director] can’t break it, it can’t be broken.”

At REI, you might expect this sort of outdoor culture seeping into the workplace. But throughout the modern corporate world, athletic activities score points not just for their obvious health benefits but because they often promote bonding and concepts key to team building, like trust, cooperation and communication.

“It’s an extension of our work lives,” says Myette, one of the original three REI employees who started the lunchtime ride tradition in 1988.

Friends and benefits

In the Seattle area, such activities tend toward outdoor sports like cycling, hiking or paddling, but pursuits such as basketball, tennis and soccer are also fair game. Rosetta Biosoftware, a Seattle life-sciences software firm, supports employee kickball and ultimate Frisbee squads. At Boeing and Starbucks, employee clubs target water skiing, running and paintball.

“You know when you have a paintball club, you pretty much have everything,” says Starbucks spokesman Andy Fouche.

For some, the benefits can blur the line between work and play: Contacts are made across departments and even across hierarchies as executives and worker bees mesh on fields or in the outdoors in ways the office won’t allow, unleashing opportunities for ideas, advancement, even new jobs.

“It’s a great way for people to come together and understand each other’s commonalities,” says workplace consultant Diane Decker of Quality Transitions, in Mount Prospect, Ill. Team sports offer healthy diversions from the typical office party or happy hour, she says, as well as personal interaction at a time when e-mail and cellphones are cutting into face-to-face contact.

Coming full cycle

Wesley Meyer, recently hired supply-chain manager for REI-brand bicycles, credits the daily ride with contributing to his being hired away from bicycle maker Raleigh of America. For nearly 10 years, Meyer was one of numerous nearby vendors or employees — from Ford Motor, or the city of Kent — who joined up with the REI riders along their route.

“It helped me stay connected to the company,” Meyer says.

Today’s ride is barely a dozen strong, but as many as 20 REI employees take part in more casual Friday runs, a good time for new riders to break in. Advice is plentiful, but there is no tolerance for those who stray from the rules.

“These guys are rabid,” says Cyndi Mundhenk, REI’s product manager for water sports. “Most people will not ride with them. I think they admired my gumption for even trying.”

Mundhenk started riding in 1999, one of the first women to ride with the group. These days she rides mostly with a friend, the company’s director for gear and apparel. “I’ve got my calendar blocked out,” Mundhenk says. “It says ‘Product Testing.’ “

Escape or engage

Some look at sports as a way to leave work behind. That could be why The Ball Squad, the Underdog Sports Leagues kickball team made up of Rosetta Biosoftware employees, has a 6-3 record. For them, it’s all about escape.

“That’s one of the important things about being out there, is we forget about work,” says the team’s Nick Nicholes, a product-delivery manager. “If you take work to the kickball field, we’ll boot you off the team.”

For others, conducting business is the whole idea. Take Doug Walker, the epitome of the outdoors-minded Northwest executive. He runs a small investment firm in Madrona and bikes there daily from Shoreline. As co-founder of WRQ (a software company now called AttachmateWRQ), the longtime hiker and climber made sure such activities were supported at the company.

Want to get to know someone? Take a hike, he says. “When you meet somebody for lunch, you can sort of fake it for an hour. It’s harder on a climb.”

Walker chairs REI’s board of directors and says most of his meetings with CEO Sally Jewell happen outdoors. “She’s got a ferociously busy schedule,” he says. “I can probably get her on a climb easier than I can get her for lunch.”

“We’ve climbed Mount Stuart, Mount Rainier, Mount Shuksan,” adds Jewell, the kind of exec who eschews conference golf tournaments to go canoeing instead. “And there’s a fair amount of REI work that gets done.”

Riding out the values

Early one recent Saturday morning, Group Health Cooperative CEO Scott Armstrong and medical director Hugh Straley have already debriefed. Decked in light-blue corporate jerseys, they’re at a Madison Park café with a handful of other Group Health executives and trustees, fueling up before they hit the road for a 30-mile ride around Mercer Island.

Avid cyclists, these executives do major summer rides and often bike between meetings at various medical centers.

“I came in one day, and Roy [Farrell, director of acute care services] had surgical scrubs on,” says Michael Erikson, primary care administrator. “He said he rode his bike in and didn’t have any other clothes.”

Sure, they’ve seen injuries — shoulder separations, fractured clavicles. They’ve braved road hazards, including each other, like when Farrell rode behind Straley in one race some years ago. “I remember your wobbly rear tire almost made me vertiginous,” Farrell tells him.

But “the value of this when we get back to the office is huge,” CEO Armstrong says. “It’s consistent with what we stand for.”

The public sees that, too. During one big ride, a cyclist rolled up to Straley, having noticed his corporate jersey. Straley recalled the guy — a colleague had treated him when the guy was sick and overweight.

“He said, ‘Do you work at Group Health? Do you know Dr. So-and-So?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s right up there.’ So the guy pedals up to him and goes, ‘Hey, Doctor, I’m doing what you told me! I’m exercising!’ “

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or