Did LeMond Languish?

tete_de_course

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?

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27 comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Did LeMond Languish? : Red Kite Prayer -- Topsy.com

  2. Adam

    Padraig,
    I think you hit the nail on the head here. I remember the original Lemond Malliot Jaune being the object of my affection, but since then the company seemed to go through an identity crisis of sorts.

    What exactly was the essence of a Lemond? If it was it’s unique geometry, then that disappeared for a while only to later reemerge. If it was good steel bikes, that disappeared for the spine bikes and then back to the carbone bikes that looked like R3s. If it was tje appeal of riding a bike with “Lemond” on the downtube, then that appeal diminishes if they are more than a niche brand.

    The cache of having a brand is tied to fundamental character. Colnago owners know that the bike they buy now is essentially a technical improvement on the same concept that powered the mighty Mapei Squad. Pinarello owners a happy in the knowledge that their geometry has always been uniquely Pinarello and that the Zonda curves in their line are here to stay.

    Like Lemond bikes, I ‘ve long ridden Merckx’s and still have an MX Leader, but about four years ago that brand too seemed to lose it’s core makeup and their demise soon followed. Hopefully Pinarello can reinvent them by pushing the concept of Merckx geometry, but the brand died by trying to be everything to everyone.

  3. Dano

    Very well stated Padraig. I really appreciate your insight into the intricacies of the geometry and those changes over time, not many really reveal that, and that does help balance things out. I hope you can continue to expose these kinds of things here, in that so many other sites only give you a clif notes of cycling in a brief couple of sentences. I really do appreciate the insight. Trek is a very well managed group. My LBS swears by them, of course, they sell them so they have interest in them, but they also did sell specialized and some others also but have dropped everything else and have gone solo w/trek because of the effeciencies offered.

  4. Sophrosune

    As I’ve said before, Padraig, I really enjoy these more tech-related pieces of yours. So many unique industry insights, they are really a must-read. I have started your previous blog from BKW and before I finished reading it I had to post back here and say that the all the mergers and acquisitions of the 90s has finally led to the point where small manufacturers like Ira Ryan and all the Rapha builders make the sought-after bikes. A full turnaround it seems to me to before where all the niche manufacturers were anxious to be bought up by some conglomerate. Now back to your BKW piece.

  5. Josh

    I worked on and off at a high-profile Trek & LeMond dealer in San Francisco from 2003-2005. Believe me, the LeMond line was a really tough sell. The biggest reason? People thought they didn’t look cool. The second biggest reason? The long top tubes.

    Say what you will about the technology and marketing behind the line. But on the sales floor, they weren’t what our customers were looking for – and making products that people want to buy is the most important part of exerting your best efforts with any brand.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Josh: There’s nothing like the perspective from those who were in the trenches. I never sold LeMond during my retail years, so I really can’t speak to it. What’s so funny to me is that due to the slack seat tube angle, once the saddle setback was properly established for most riders, the saddle had been moved so far forward on its rails that the effective top tube length was no longer than that of competing bikes. The slack seat tube angle essentially ate up that extra centimeter or so.

  6. Fausto

    Well written, you could get a job for Public Strategies. You forgot a few things

    In 2004, 4 years prior to the end of the licensing agreement, Trek started telling distributors who wanted to sell Lemond bikes that they would not be supporting the brand any longer. They also told this some exisiting retail channels.

    One of Trek’s largest shareholders hired a PR firm, Public Strategies, to launch a media campaign of negative stories about LeMond. This same firm was hired by Trek to prepare their image campaign for Trek’s lawsuit against LeMond.

    While blogging may not be that profitable writing garbage about Lemond is.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Fausto: It’s interesting how you are the only person I’ve encountered who knows that Trek told distributors they would not continue to support the brand. It’s even odder given that Trek does its own distribution.

      As for Public Strategies, they got involved not with Trek, but their legal team, at Armstrong’s behest. One of the principals, Mark McKinnon, is a friend of his. According to his bio, he’s worked with everyone from George W. Bush to Bono, though he is primarly known as a Republican media strategist. Any suggestion that they were hired to launch a media campaign of stories—of any variety—about LeMond barely rises to the level of rumor without a direct quote.

  7. Dan O

    Another great post – your blog rocks – one of the best ones on the ‘net.

    The LeMond scenario – personal and bike company related always intrigues me. Partly because I’m old enough to have been cycling during the LeMond era, and at that time, Greg was The Man. He’s the first modern American cyclist to become a household name. You would think even after his riding era was over, he’d be all over the cycling media – in a good way – including bikes with his name on the downtube. Maybe because of his personality, or the way it’s perceived in the media, that’s not the case.

    Greg came to Seattle a few years ago to promote his diabetes charity ride and the line of new carbon bikes. It was in a small coffee shop and I was lucky to attend – first time I’ve ever seen Greg or heard him speak in person. To me, he came across as a super normal, nice guy – like I thought he would be. Total honest question and answer session afterwards, then signed autographs on whatever people brought in. It was a cool, low key informal affair. I did think it was interesting that he mentioned liking the LeMond “spine” bike the best – even though the all new carbon model shared the floor with him.

    I’m also casual pals with the local Trek rep – super nice guy, knows his bikes. Trek is the real deal, a huge successful company. You would think with Trek’s backing, you couldn’t lose. I’d have to wonder what really caused the split, since it seemed to happen not long after the carbon bikes were released – which must have cost tons of dough to develop. Did it have something to do with the Lance and Greg flare ups in the media? Who knows?

    As far as Greg suing Trek – I’m sure there’s some ego involved, as well as a super competitive personality – no?

    The last model carbon LeMond bikes were pretty sweet. I took a few long demo rides on them and dug ‘em. If not for the fact I’d just purchased a new bike a few months earlier, would have picked one up before they disappeared. The Poprad is a cool bike also, I know a few people who love their Poprads. I’ve also noticed the Poprad becoming a bit of a collector bike with people asking close to retail for used ones on Craiglist, etc.

    I always thought LeMond bikes should be more of a high end affair, similar to the current Hampsten set up. Have Moots, Independent Fabrications or somewhere similar build bikes in the LeMond style. Of course, the volume compared to the Trek era would be much smaller, but you’re also looking at a different type of customer.

    No matter how it goes down, me – and I’m sure a few other cyclists – would still like to see LeMond bicycles exist, with Greg as an active part of promoting them.

  8. fausto

    You are incorrect about Trek and distributors. The Distributor for France approached Greg as there was high demand for LeMond bikes in France. The Distributor was told by Trek that they would be no longer supporting the brand. This was in 2004.

    Armstrong had used Public Strategies prior to Trek. There was a concerted effort by Armstrong to try to smear Greg and ruin his business. Armstrong made public claims that he was going to call Burke and “ruin Greg”. There was the threat to Greg that he would “Find 10 people who said you did EPO” This threat was followed up by calls to many former teammates and offers of cash if they invented a story that Greg took dope. None of them did, but some will be testifying if this goes to trial. The Trek contract calls for not only best efforts but also that the Lemond brand be supported in the same manner as other Trek brands, this was clearly not the case.

    It is no wonder that Trek is disparate for this to not go to trial.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Fausto: Do you have any memos or phone recordings from Trek to anyone about Trek’s decision not to support the brand? Do you have any invoices or cancelled checks showing Armstrong actually used Public Strategies? Do you have some information from Trek showing they are desperate not to go to trial? These are interesting allegations, but worthless without backup. The only direct quotes you offer are statements that LeMond says Armstrong made to him and have been widely reported. If you can turn up an invoice or memo or any other proof, I’m more than happy to run it on RKP, but for now, you’re making reckless allegations.

  9. Sophrosune

    Uh oh…the beatification of LA may have to be put on hold. And the business acumen and high principles of Trek’s Burke may not be beyond reproach. LOL! At this point, I pray for the day when LA goes back into retirement of beer drinking and dating Olsen twins, and LeMond gets a nice $10 million settlement.

  10. fausto

    Padrig,

    You really should take some time to read the Lemond complaint as well as the large amount of case information that is available on the internet.

    In the leMond complaint it details the French distributors claim as well as similar claims from retailers who were told the same thing.

    One of the many reason’s that Kristen was deposed was because she was present at a dinner where Armstrong made the claim that one call to Burke and he was going to bury Greg. Others at the dinner table have confirmed this in their depositions, Kristen claims selective amnesia. She also forgot telling the wife of a teammate that EPO was a “Necessary Evil” of professional cycling, forgot who Ferrari was, basically forgot much of her marriage to Armstrong.

    When Burke was forcing Greg to shut up about Armstrong doping Burke confirm in a taped phone call that it was extortion.

    Armstrong’s doping is central to the case. The judge even says this and even told Trek in the recent hearing that Armstrong should be available in March if they go to trial. Trek chose to ignore Armstrong’s doping as he was making them lots of money. Trek chose to try to bury Greg because he dared to ask the same questions that thousands of journalist and fans worldwide were asking.

    After the summery judgement hearing went badly for Trek then said publicly that they are open to a settlement. It is hard not to look at the facts of the case and not come to the same conclusion.

  11. fausto

    Another key weakness of the Trek case if the the “3%”, “best efforts”, and “market Lemond bikes in the same manners as Trek’s other brands” being separate clauses. When the judge pointed this out at the summery judgement hearing it must have sent a shiver down the Trek lawyer’s as it is one of the reasons why Trek is screwed.

    Trek could satisfy the 3% clause but still fail the Best efforts clause. Would any ration person think that Trek used “Best Efforts” if instead of buying ads in cycling magazines and attending trade shows that Trek spent their 3% on one 15 second Superbowl ad? They could fail this clause if they told their dealers that will no longer be supporting the brand like they did in 2004.

    They could also fail on the clause that they marketed Lemond bikes like their other brands. It is clear that Trek did not do this. Trek holds an annual meeting called Trek World. It is like their own little Interbike where they show their brands to their top retail buys and the media. In 2007 Greg shows up and there is ZERO mention of Lemond bikes. Hard not to say Trek failed that clause.

    The fact that the judge asked the question of “Why have the other clauses if they don’t matter” only reinforces that Trek is screwed.

  12. Brian

    While I have no knowledge of how Trek Reps sell their bikes, it is one thing to have an item or line in your catalog or line card and another thing to actively sell. In other words it is one thing to take orders, and another thing all together to actively sell. Most sales reps, like most people, tend to take the course of least resistance.

    As I said in my comment under the “The Legacy” article, best efforts clauses are notoriously vague and thus subject to scrutiny and interpretation.

  13. JZ

    Having read the hearing transcript, I disagree that Armstrong’s doping is central to the case if you mean that the case is somehow going to try to prove whether Armstrong did or did not dope. This isn’t a defamation lawsuit, so truth is not really defense and it really doesn’t matter whether Lemond was right or wrong about Armstrong’s doping. The issue is whether Trek breached the contract by retaliating against Lemond because of this statements. Whether true or not, Lemond’s statements were damaging in Trek’s opinion and Trek, apparently with encouragement from Armstrong, acted accordingly.

    Obviously if it goes to trial Armstrong will be a key witness given it is based in part on certain alleged statements he made about bringing down Lemond. But I don’t think he is going to be tried on whether he doped or not. I just don’t read the judge’s statements as inviting that circus.

    Of course, requiring Armstrong to be a witness will probably have a strong influence on Trek’s willingness to settle. I have had cases where I represented a famous owner of a company who made it clear in one case that if he ended up being compelled to be deposed or be a witness, it would settle, which is exactly what happened. I think opposing counsel suspected as much.

  14. velomonkey

    Is it just me, or did I read one article earlier that basically said LeMond is doing everything wrong and now this article basically says Trek did everything right. If I am, WOW!!!!! If not, someone let me know.

  15. devin

    I loved the Lemond bikes and loved riding mine. It geometry is so more slack and I can feel it as I go between my different road bikes.
    To sell them at times were hard because the trek name stuck in peoples head so well,, the ones that new about Lemond or could appreciate the bikes were thrilled whit what they got. I miss the brand and hope that he can find greener grass down the road. In the Big Mississippi river valley that I live in he is still a legend.

  16. Alex Torres

    I admire Greg LeMond for his character, his winning flame and his courage to speak out his mind. I once saw in the eyes of the late Eddy B. the deep admiration he had for the (once) kid, his passion for cyling, for winning, and that made a huge impression in me.

    But Greg now smells like sour grapes, his Quixotesque war on current state of cycling and everything related to Armstrong doesn´t fit anywhere. Too bad, I think he has some serious and insightful things to say about many things, including doping, but no one will listen anymore. He has come from Quixote to Joan D´Arc, or maybe a mix of both. Kinda sad IMHO.

    Thing is, Greg LeMond ruled and still rules, but business-wise he´s not a shaddow of his cycling self. His PR is lousy, and nothing compared to Lance´s. His bikes never sold well. They seemed misplaced even before Trek tried to buy his aura. From all other brands acquired by Trek, I´d say that only Bontrager and Fisher got involved with Trek and really benefited from the relationship. XXX-something is everywhere. Not even Klein managed that, IMHO he went the same way Greg did with his name and products. Like Greg he was god before, but he´s not suing Trek (as far as I know).

    So Greg doesn´t sell bikes, and Armstrong sells everything, not only Treks but also every other two-wheel brand, just by racing and being around again. Trek follows the money as any corporate would, makes total sense to me. Who knows what´s really behind the intentions of both parts?

  17. lachlan

    business, sporting legacy and huge egos… who knows the real story! Not even the guys involved I bet.

    The general conduct around it though does emphasise the impression you get of the personalities involved: Lemond and Armstrong, both geat stars, both cycling legends. But, sadly Lance Mr brash and nasty, while Lemond nice but perhaps not always making the best business or partnership decisions!!

  18. PT1

    I think the discussion has focused on the sales of high end bikes when, in the last 10 years, the bulk of the market has been lower and mid-level bikes. For these beginning riders, unique geometry matters far less than brand name and, to a slightly lesser degree, components. The industry’s growth was largely driven by the Armstrong juggernaut and virtually every brand rose with that tide, regardless of brand.

    As a new rider with no technical knowledge to speak of, I was deciding between two bikes in late 2004. Same components, same price, same beautiful blue. One was a LeMond Tourmalet, the other “Brand X.” I chose “brand-X” instead because I just couldn’t stand the LeMond name. Honestly, I got interested in riding because of Armstrong and cancer and all the rest. To ride a bike that attacked those symbols that had become so important to me and millions of others was something I just couldn’t swallow. It was as if Greg was saying that the yellow bracelet wearing masses of cancer supporters and survivors were a fraud.

    Naturally, there’s more to it. But in this newbie’s POV (and remember, newbies are the market’s sweet spot of growth), LeMond not only tarnished his own brand but defied the industry’s tide itself. He was threatening Trek’s business as much as his own. If I had that hanging over my business’s future, I’d have jettisoned him and his brand years ago.

  19. Larry T.

    I worked at a Trek dealer both before and after they bought LeMond’s name. Before there was a certain Texan Trek could have America’s greatest cycling champion’s name on a bike they made, adding some cachet to Trek as well as giving them another brand to sell in a non-Trek store two blocks down from a Trek dealership. They did the same thing with Fisher and Klein, putting those brands in stores nearby to gobble up market share from their competitors while also threatening Trek dealers who didn’t see things their way with putting Treks in those same stores. In time all these Trek brands became like General Motors products, basically the same stuff (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, etc.) with different brand names stuck on ‘em. Once the Texan helped make Trek the household name in bicycles, replacing Schwinn, who cared much about LeMond or Klein or Fisher? Especially when you have LeMond saying less than complimentary things about the Texan. Klein left entirely while Fisher was only too happy to sing the company song publically no matter what he believed privately and his MTB sales probably weren’t affected much by the Texan’s road exploits one way or another anyway. LeMond bikes became a sideline that Trek could do without except they had a contract with Greg. My guess is old man Trek, being tough but fair, told LeMond to shut up about his doping claims about the Texan but in the end wouldn’t just cut Greg off. But after he passed away, the Trek son seemed to waste no time in pulling the plug on the non-profitable LeMond bike line, blaming the whole deal on LeMond’s complaints. To my knowledge LeMond’s never been motivated by money alone but I hope he ends up with a pile of Trek profits derived from their association with the Texan and maybe teams up with another bike maker to keep his name and design ideas out there.

  20. Sprocketboy

    I had a 2002 Maillot Jaune which, at that time, was aluminum and all Dura-Ace. It was an excellent bicycle, and with the long top tube I did a lot of great century rides in considerable comfort. The dealer in DC almost got me onto a Victoire, and I still have a metal Lemond store sign amongst my bike memorabilia. It is too bad that it could not have existed as a standalone brand as I always thought the bikes were more individual than comparable Treks. It was clear that the company was trying to differentiate the lines at the end but the Triomphe line probably was a real threat to the Madones and who needs to compete against themselves?

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