Anyone who’s married or has been in a serious, long term relationship knows that there are ups, and there are downs. Sometimes you’re in love, and sometimes you’re not. In successful relationships, the good times more than make up for the not-so-good. The highs are always higher than the lows are low.
And so it is with me and my bike.
During the spring, when the days are growing longer and arm warmers give way to short sleeves, we are in love, and we do what any couple in love does, we pine for one another. We struggle and strain and juggle our schedules to try to find more time to spend in one another’s company. Inspired by the cobbled classics and other of the pro peleton’s one day flings, I find myself dashing down the basement steps in the morning, pulling my beautiful, two-wheeled transport from the wall and whooshing out the door to introduce rubber to road. As we whiz along together I envision myself bumping over the pavé of the Flandrian countryside. I am Francesco Moser on his way to an office job. You can tell, because it says so on my down tube.
Then spring turns to sweaty summer. We enjoy one another’s company, but the passion of the spring cools in the escalating temperatures. I’m caught up in my work and in watching Grand Tours play themselves out, slowly, on my television. We are together everyday. We are on each other’s minds, but we have settled into a steady companionship. The miles pass comfortingly beneath our wheels.
Then one morning the fall falls, that subtle, breezy coolness that begins to pluck leaves from unsuspecting trees. There is a new wind at our backs. The pro season goes all autumnal. Everyone is scrambling for results. The smell of embrocation follows me into the kitchen at work, where I stand, steam rising from my shoulders, to pile coffee on top of endorphins in an intoxicating brew. Love is rekindled. The riding is effortless. We’re fast for the hell of it, because it feels good.
The Vuelta reminds us that time is passing. The Worlds reinforce the message. Paris – Tours. Lombardia. Cyclocross. And it’s over.
Now it’s cold. Rainy. December is on us. I love my bike, but the fire is burning low. I’ve ridden thousands of miles to this point, only to arrive at winter’s doorstep, gaping into the maw of a windy, snowy, frigid season.
How to maintain inspiration? How to keep the fire burning? In years past, I’ve sustained myself on the ego aggrandizing feeling of being a hard man. My bike and I, we brave the punishing weather of this Northeastern burg. We are tough. Robots, after all, don’t get cold. Thus are nicknames made, and a shocking need to live up to such a name drives me out into the wind more often than you would think.
More motivation is derived from frequent visits to YouTube to gee up the morale with scenes of Sean Kelly’s gutsy triumphs, the sprinting exploits of Steve Bauer, the bone-jarring heroics of the aforementioned Moser. This sort of thing almost always rallies my flagging energies, but as I’ve seen just about every bit of digitized racing in the YouTube vault, I am rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns.
Faith becomes important, faith that, if I continue to push the pedals, we’ll be able to continue on together, faith that winter will eventually give way to spring and that our love will return if only we keep on. The indoor trainer does not help. The rollers do not help. They’re phone calls, when a visit was what was needed.
I honestly don’t know what sustains my marriage. My wife and I fall in and out of love. The periodicity of the thing is unpredictable. We’ll be together 18 years in the spring. Communication is important. Everyone says that, but that too is a sort of alchemical enterprise, Rumpelstiltskin spinning the straw of the mundane into the gold of persistence.
The bike and I are on a similar trajectory. Will this be the winter that breaks us up? Will the ice freeze thick on the streets and force us apart? Will that enforced absence cause our hearts to grow fonder, or will we lose the will to flog each other over hill and dale for another year? Don’t know. Hard to say.
I wonder what you and your bike will be doing this winter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
You know the challenge. You’re in a group and somewhere deep inside of you the river of time flows just as your blood surges through your veins. You are on one of two sides of an equation. Either you are watching and waiting for cracks to appear in the plaster of the other riders’ legs or you wonder, worrying, just how long you can hold on.
One of my favorite phrases for the math that goes on in each rider’s head is “on terms.” Are you on terms with the conditions? Are you on terms with the breakaway? Are you on terms with your roll? Are you on terms with your form?
On any given day there are at best two, maybe three riders who can dictate the terms of the pace. For all others the question is simple. “Can I meet the challenge?”
For all those who’ve had a relationship or two go south, there’s probably been an occasion when someone has asked about the ex in present tense terms. Maybe you’ve responded, “We’re not on terms.”
That’s not what we’re talking here. This isn’t a refusal to play the game, it’s a test to see how long we can last. How deep is our pain cave?
Were we spreadsheets, a simple formula or two would reveal who will pop, and when—one by one. But really, no calculus can plot will or factor adrenaline and what we achieve on any day is unpredictable as an earthquake.
On terms. It defines if you can meet the demands of the group. Or how many riders still seem up to the challenge.
Michael Boogerd was a master of the probing attack. Just a little surge to see who might be ready to pop off. Time after time in Amstel, he’d make a short thrust and leave others to parry. How many times did we see a rider make a surge at the Tour only to have Lance answer with a devastating acceleration.
For those who reach the middle ground, that is, neither destined to win, nor doomed to be the next casualty, on terms means something entirely different. It’s a statement not of will, but of one’s ability to set it aside for riding at threshold—or a tick or two above—isn’t a willful act, it’s surrender.
When you surrender, you turn your future over to someone else. It is the ultimate vulnerability. You’ve shown your cards. That existential statement—this is what I’ve got—is your box.
Anonymous fellowships know this state of being by another name: acceptance. It might seem ironic, their members have learned an important lesson handy for bike racing: Once you know what you can’t change, your choices become clearer.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Red Kite Prayer has joined Twitter. As Social Media go, Twitter has proven its value as a way to keep followers abreast of new content and actual news. We’ll spare you news of our latest flat, bonk or energy bar consumption and stick with RKP‘s mission: actual content, plus some other fun stuff, including some rides we’ve got lined up.
Follow us: RedKitePrayer
In one of the bigger surprises of the week, the UCI announced that it had approved the extension of Astana’s ProTour license. The announcement puts to rest any speculation about whether Alberto Contador would remain with the Kazakh-registered formation for 2010.
On the heels of the announcement, 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro revealed that he will finish his career riding in support of Alberto Contador. He signed a one-year contract contingent upon Astana being approved for the ProTour.
But the news doesn’t end there. Haimar Zubeldia pulled the ripcord and announced he will join Johan Bruyneel at Radio Shack. As one of the pivotal riders caught in the Armstrong/Contador pachinko, Zubeldia sidestepped the controversy when he spoke to l’Equipe.
“When I moved from Euskaltel to Astana, I signed for the team of Johan Bruyneel. Now everyone in this group has joined a new team; that’s why Radio Shack has been my priority.”
Of his choice to follow Bruyneel he said the choice was an entirely personal one based on his needs as a rider. “After a year of working with him, I can confirm the image I had of him. He is a great leader with such a very good view of the race…. I had to choose the best for me.”
The loss of Zubeldia and the gain of Pereiro essentially sums zero. Contador needed to bolster his Tour team by keeping Zubeldia and adding someone of Pereiro’s talent—or better. The only other recent signee the team has announced recently is Mirko Selvaggi.
Astana management complained that the UCI had given the team more stringent requirements than other ProTour teams when it required additional bank guarantees. And while requested bank guarantee was unusual, it was made it response to the team’s financial woes this spring. Interestingly, despite Astana’s complaints, it seems the team has received special treatment. The team still has only 21 riders and shouldn’t, technically, be eligible for the ProTour.
It will be especially difficult for the team to recruit riders in December, and there is a cutoff date for transfers that is rapidly approaching. If they enter the season with only 21 riders, each rider will have to race more frequently to fulfill the squad requirements for ProTour events and this will increase fatigue and the possibility of injury as the Tour approaches. For the sake of fireworks at le Grand Boucle, let’s hope they find some more strong riders.
The Astana Roster to date:
David De la Fuente
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s hard to say where the urge to write develops. There are probably as many motivations as there are writers. In the beginning there is a desire to connect with an audience. That currency, the connection any writer forges with his audience, is the paycheck that gets him started. It certainly did for me.
No matter what the subject matter is, sharing something true with another person is a powerful experience. Initially, when I began writing for myself, I wrote songs. I soon moved to poetry when I saw the incredible power of the confessional poets and the surreal majesty and heart-rending tragedy of poets like James Tate and Mark Strand. When I saw what could be achieved in such tightly wound passages I was hooked.
And while seeing someone’s reaction to my work was good enough to get me started, for any writer who persists, there comes a point when the doing is the paycheck. It’s no different than with cycling. We all want to win races, and the image of us thrusting our arms Godward can infect dreams lit by sun or moon. However, at some point you either learn to love the training itself, or you move on to poker or golf or whatever.
Writing, like cycling, is a love of the craft itself.
But writing has an advantage to bike racing. When I post a new piece, it’s like hitting the final kilometer and each positive comment is like a spot on the podium. I can’t say how many positive notes constitute a win, but at some point I feel as if I threw my bike at just the right moment.
The funny thing is that while the reinforcement that comes from a positive comment spurs me to want to write more and to repeat the experience, the comments of the naysayers, those who think I am a chain minus a master link, are the ones that spur me. Those comments have the power to make me dig deeper into my thoughts.
That I’ve found in cycling a vein rich enough to continue to mine year after year amazes me more than I can describe. In this regard, I must acknowledge Radio Freddy and Belgium Knee Warmers. It was in writing for BKW that I discovered an opportunity to take a magazine form—the column—and use it as a vehicle for analyzing my own thoughts on everything from doping to the well of motivation that keeps us riding day after day.
Radio Freddy gave me a very long leash on which to roam. Leaving BKW was a tough choice, but by the time I made that choice, I had developed my own vision for what a cycling blog could do and what I had to offer.
BKW celebrates three years today with a new skin and a renewed commitment by Radio Freddy. It’s great to see and it’s nice to know that RKP will have a sister site out there doing great work. We’ve discussed some cross-pollination. Watch for some joint posts in the future.
As I mentioned, leaving BKW wasn’t easy, but I had ideas of my own, and it’s not cool to take a bike out for a test ride and come back 100 miles later. I agonized about being the only voice in RKP. Fortunately, I got a lot of encouragement from some smart people.
Bill McGann, formerly of Torelli and these days of Bike Race Info, said to me, “You only need one good voice. You’ve got a good voice.” And while I trust Bill like I trust handmade tubulars in a corner (which is to say “all in”), I made the decision to actively court contributors. I’m pleased to call Da Robot a regular contributor. And with contributions from Bill and Rick Vosper (both of whom were working in the industry while I was still in grade school) I can say I’m both lucky and honored.
But that’s the point here; I’m lucky to have a passionate readership, even if sometimes you think I’m Amy Winehouse-crazy. In my mind, the only way you’ll keep coming back is if I give my very best and that, in part, means giving you more than just me.
A lot has happened since I wrote the last Thanksgiving post, but the two big ones are launching this blog and the birth of my son. I’m incredibly grateful for him and the love he has brought my wife and me.
You, the readers have played a special part in this. It’s because of your consistent reading that I have advertisers and those advertisers help me to be able to work from home and care for him during the day. It’s a delicate balance, but one that I anticipate will get a little easier as I become more experienced as a father.
So I am writing now to declare my thanks for you, dear readers. You give me the freedom to follow my many whims as a writer and the ability to share more time with my son than I’d manage in any other working situation.
You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.
Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.
This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.
Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.
The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.
Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.
Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.
And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.
Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.
What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.
To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.
Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.
Some don’t make it back.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Joe Yule is a riding buddy and graphic designer whose work you are familiar with, even if you’ve never ridden in Southern California. He is best known as the designer behind Team Garmin. From the team kits to the national champion jerseys, the vehicles, the web site, the bottles, the T-shirts … you name it, Joe is Jonathan Vaughters’ go-to for cycling style.
Joe is the man behind the amazing RKP logo and is my personal litmus paper for all design ideas.
Joe also happens to have a fledgling apparel operation called Stage 1. I’m a sucker for a good looking kit, so I asked Joe if he’d carve a bit of time out of his busy schedule to do something for RKP. Above is the result.
The clothing will be produced by Panache Cyclewear out of Boulder. I’ve been very impressed with the quality of their clothing as well as its value.
If you’re interested in ordering a kit, drop us a note.
The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.
Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.
Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?
Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.
But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.
This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.
The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.
There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.
As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.
That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.
There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.
Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.
Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.
LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.
As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.
Image by John Pierce, Photosport International
This week Specialized Bicycles announced that they had signed Alberto Contador to a personal sponsorship contract for their bicycles. Contador in turn announced that he had come to an agreement with Astana to serve out the final year of his contract.
Whew, that’s over, isn’t it?
No, not really.
First, Contador’s contract with Specialized is significant and merits a look. In the modern history of road racing, a move of this sort is highly unusual, if not outright historic. Greg LeMond and Eddy Merckx had enough power that in negotiating a team contract they could stipulate the team would ride their bicycles. This is, however, the first time in the modern era that a rider has signed a personal contract ahead of his team, thus virtually ensuring that his team will be strong-armed into riding the same bikes.
It’s a fascinating fresh take on the carrot-and-stick approach, at least for the bike industry. It also hints at the possibility that Astana are not easy to negotiate with or even to determine who to negotiate with. This move could conceivably be less expensive than sponsoring Astana outright, but it has an additional value to Specialized: It makes Contador less portable. Obviously, there’s no way Garmin-Slipstream would allow Contador to ride a Specialized bike if they were to sign him. Ditto for Caisse d’Epargne. By offering Contador the lion’s share of what would otherwise go to the team, Specialized does Astana a service in helping to keep Contador tied to the team. There’s an obvious value in that.
Interestingly, the Belgian newspaper Sporza.be reports that Patrick Lefevre spilled the beans. After an unusually cordial letter announcing the end of the relationship, Lefevre revealed that Specialized was hoping to use their sponsorship of Contador to help lure him to Quick Step. When Contador accepted the offer and then announced his decision to stay with Astana, Lefevre said he realized that he and Specialized “no longer shared the same vision.”
Cynically, one could say that Contador took the money and ran. The more generous view is that he didn’t ignore the script, but rather, the man who expressed concerns about having the very best in equipment to race on seized on an opportunity to race some on a brand he believed to be superior.
Contador isn’t a done deal for either Specialized or Astana, though. There’s this clause in his contract that Astana must maintain its ProTour license or he climbs in the escape pod. As I’ve reported before, one requirement of the ProTour council is that all ProTour teams must have a minimum complement of 25 riders.
It is November 20 and Astana has 20 riders and one—Haimar Zubledia—is still trying to leave.
The Astana Roster to date:
David De la Fuente
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Greg LeMond is suing the Trek corporation because he claims the company didn’t exert its best efforts to promote his brand. Whether or not LeMond turns the suit into a referendum on all things Lance Armstrong, this case is fundamentally about LeMond Bicycles.
Given some of the comments on RKP, I’ve decided to devote a post to LeMond’s bike line. I think there are some erroneous beliefs about the LeMond line out there and while someone is entitled to dislike his line of bikes, I’d like to put forward a more objective analysis of his bike line.
I think we can agree that the nature of LeMond’s complaint is—in broad strokes—that Trek really didn’t put its very considerable muscle behind designing, building, marketing and selling his bicycles. So let’s try to take each of those points one by one.
First is design. When Trek entered into its licensing agreement with LeMond, the bikes were designed around LeMond’s personal preferences. Specifically, that meant relatively slack seat tube angles, usually a half degree more slack than other bikes for that size. The top tube was generally a half to a whole centimeter longer than other bikes of the same size. And the trail was generally a little more generous (it usually hovered around 5.9cm) than most road bikes. The usually had a longish wheelbase as well. These details all reflected the bikes LeMond raced on and his bikes were built around his anatomy. He had an unusually long femur and liked to position his knee behind the pedal spindle. If you had a long femur or liked to set up your bike the way LeMond did (and a great many of us did that for years even if it wasn’t to our advantage), then that worked fine. If you wanted a traditional fit and didn’t have longish femurs, then getting a LeMond to fit could be difficult.
Around 2003 Trek began to abandon these design parameters. In an effort to make the line fall more in line with the competition, as new LeMond models were introduced they featured a sloping top tube, a shorter wheelbase and top tube and a steeper seat tube angle. Trail was, unfortunately, all over the place. The bikes featured a carbon fork that came in a single fork rake and because every size had a different head tube angle, the smallest bikes had loads of trail while the largest bikes didn’t have much. Handling was, in effect, size dependent.
Most consumers were oblivious to the trail issue. What they did see and what helped shops was having a line that was easier to fit people on. The change in geometry may have made the line a little more bland, but it was a serious effort on Trek’s part to mainstream the brand.
If you set your Way Back Machine to 1996, you find LeMond dealers selling TIG-welded steel bikes (all Reynolds 853 if I recall) and one carbon bike which was simply a Trek OCLV with LeMond decals. It was the one bike in the line that, of course, didn’t adhere to the LeMond design principles.
The so-called “spine” bikes were introduced in 2003. The bikes featured either a steel or titanium “spine” which consisted of a head tube/top tube lug, head tube, down tube, bottom bracket shell with seat tube lug, chainstays, dropouts and seatstay lugs. Carbon fiber was used for the top tube, seat tube and seatstays. To get the geometry right, Trek had to produce new molds for the seat tube and seatstays.
The spine bikes represented the first big infusion of engineering into the LeMond line since the agreement was forged in 1995. Not surprisingly, they were, overall, the best LeMond bikes that had been produced up to that point. The parts spec was good and the pricing was competitive. The carbon/titanium Tete de Course was light (a little more than 16 pounds), amazingly stiff, easy to fit to a mere human, and had a very distinctive look.
In 2006 LeMond (or should we say Trek) introduced a full carbon bike that bore no resemblance to any Trek model. It was designed from the dropouts to the head tube to be a modern-day LeMond. And I do mean LeMond.
Interestingly, the Triomphe Ultimate weighed around 850 grams (55cm), which was significantly less than the new Trek Madone. It also returned to LeMond-like geometry. The seat tube angle was about a half degree slacker than similar bikes. The chainstays were asymmetrically shaped to try to overcome twisting during out-of-the-saddle efforts, the top tube was on the longish side, though the wheelbase wasn’t particularly long. The Triomphe did feature a slightly lower-than-average bottom bracket height, which returned the bikes to a more LeMond-like design as well. Up to this point in time LeMond’s production bikes had all had BBs a half centimeter or more higher than what he rode when winning Tours. While the Triomphe wasn’t quite that low, it was the lowest the LeMond line had seen.
The Triomphe was available in 11 sizes, eight for men and three for women. That’s a colossal outlay in tooling.
The bike was stiff and lively; it was easily nicer than any Trek on the market. The one time I had a chance to ride one the bar was nearly as high as the saddle thanks to the uncut steerer. It handled like a cow on roller skates as a result, but a proper fit would have taken care of that. What I found remarkable was the stiffness of the frame and the commendable road feel. It was a damn fine bike.
Trek grew the LeMond line in other ways as well. The Poprad cyclocross bike was a relative late-comer to the LeMond line.
I think that pretty well takes care of designing and building.
So what about sales and marketing? I don’t have figures for how much was spent on advertising, but the line was consistently promoted in cycling magazines throughout its existence. What’s more is that long before many manufacturers would give web-only publishers (other than Cyclingnews) the time of day, LeMond was reaching out to many web entities and even some blogs.
Like each of the lines in the Trek family, including Gary Fisher, Klein and Bontrager, LeMond had a dedicated brand manager. For a fair number of years it was a guy named Ryan Atkinson. In my dealings with Atkinson I can say I found him to be a very straight shooter and would go the extra mile to get an answer if it meant the product got a more thorough presentation; he was more than just competent. His mission as a Trek employee was to do nothing but guide the LeMond brand to success.
The LeMond line was meant to be a boutique brand. When the licensing agreement with LeMond was written, LeMond was meant to give Trek cache at the high end of the market, where it was weak at the time. For many, many years Trek had not sponsored racers or racing and got into the game by sponsoring the Saturn team, then after switching places with GT, Trek became the U.S. Postal Service’s bike sponsor; it was a fortuitous move for Trek and arguably was the beginning of the end for LeMond as it would allow Trek to make inroads into that top-tier category.
Because the LeMond line was meant to be boutique, LeMond had a clear understanding that his line would never really have the opportunity to outstrip the Trek line, sales-wise. If he had wanted his line to be major, rather than a niche player, he had hooked his wagon to the wrong horse.
But let’s talk about that horse. Trek has more than a thousand dealers around the U.S. Take Southern California, for instance. Between Bakersfield and the Mexican border there are 84 Trek dealers. That’s 84 different opportunities for the LeMond line. Further, the LeMond line was offered to dealers unaffiliated with Trek, so unless there was a territory issue, any bicycle retailer could carry the LeMond line. Regardless of the numbers of non-Trek dealers that carried the LeMond line, the bigger issue is that it was in Trek’s best interest to have as many Trek dealers carry LeMond as possible. Every time a LeMond sold instead of a Cannondale or Giant, that was good for Trek.
If there’s a more advantageous sales and distribution model than piggybacking on Trek, I’d like to hear it. If there’s one thing I hear from niche manufacturers over and over it is how difficult finding and maintaining a strong independent sales rep force. The best of the reps end up migrating into the strongest lines: Trek, Specialized and Giant.
So, just to connect the dots, the LeMond line had the benefit of being sold by Trek reps, a very smart, well-trained and industrious sales force. It doesn’t get much, if any, better than that.
So the LeMond line sold maybe a dozen bikes in France. It’s a startlingly lousy number. But how telling is it? It’s hard for American lines to make headway in Europe, period. Trek has about 130 dealers in France; maybe that’s not a terrific number depending on your outlook. However, the Trek line is much stronger in Belgium. In a country only five percent as large as France, Belgium has nearly 200 Trek dealers. I suspect that Belgium sold more than a dozen LeMonds over the years.
Greg LeMond may truly believe that Trek didn’t do everything in its power to make his bicycle line a success. Whether he does or not isn’t really important. There is strong evidence that Trek devoted millions of dollars to the LeMond line in using its manufacturing, developing new bikes, refining technology and piggy backing its distribution and sales force. The tragedy is that the relationship should have been rabbits in heat for both Trek and LeMond, and if this wasn’t good enough how will he ever find a situation more satisfying? And how will the LeMond line ever receive a greater investment in product development?