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?