It’s been an interesting year in the world of cycling. There have been some duels for the ages between larger-than-life figures. I decided to ask each of RKP’s contributors to pick their three favorite stories of the year. Some of their answers may surprise you.—Padraig
Lance Armstrong. No other figure in cycling has ever made headlines worldwide the way Lance Armstrong does. Whether it’s his battle to rid the world of cancer, the birth of a new son, doping charges or his battle of wits with Alberto Contador, Armstrong is a headline wherever he goes, whatever he does. He is also significant because no other figure has half the ability to polarize a group of cyclists as Armstrong. To some, he is a virtually convicted doper, to others he is a champion and figure of hope. No matter what you think of him, he has the ability to keep cycling in the mainstream worldwide, which, ultimately, is good for cycling.
The conviction of Dr. Thompson. That Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson was even tried for one felony—let alone six—was a big success for cyclists everywhere. There were more opportunities for this case to go off the rails than can be counted, but some significant points were in the initial investigation, once the case was turned over to the district attorney and, of course, in Thompson’s cross examination. This case will be cited as a turning point in the recognition by the average person that cyclists are both vulnerable to the actions of malicious drivers and have a right to the road.
Doping. From Christian “cycling has changed” Prudhomme, to Danilo “the killer” DiLuca to the blood transfusion kits found among Astana’s medical supplies, one should draw the conclusion that some riders might be cleaner than in the past, but cycling, as a sport, has yet to shed the taint of doping. Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, made the ludicrous statement, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.” Astarloza’s positive proved his statement was both premature and dead wrong. If anyone should have been fired from the ASO, it shouldn’t have been Patrice Clerc, but rather Prudhomme for making such a reckless statement on behalf of such a storied institution.
The fire sale of Iron Horse bicycles to Dorel. Iron Horse wasn’t a prestigious brand, but it was long known as being a good value for new cyclists. Its descent into bankruptcy was an ugly, backbiting mess full of recrimination and charges of shady deals involving owner Cliff Weidberg and his son, who owned Randall Scott Cycles, a significant debtor to Iron Horse. Dorel (the parent for Cannondale, GT, Schwinn, Mongoose, Pacific, etc.) purchased Iron Horse for $5.2 million at auction, less than what Iron Horse’s three biggest secured creditors were owed, for a classic pennies-on-the-dollar deal. The sale left hanging dozens of unsecured creditors who were owed a combined $17 million as well as CIT Group for another $4 million, and made cycling’s biggest corporate colossus just a little bit bigger.
Lemond v. Trek. Just wait, the plus-size gal isn’t even on stage.
Contador and Schleck denying Armstrong an 8th TdF. When the Lance returned, so much of the American cycloratti was hoping he’d return to his throne, but personally, I was ready to move on. As the hype ramped up and up and up, through LA’s collar bone break, through the Giro and into the initial stages of the Tour, I was really wishing for the sport to move on. Not to be ungrateful for contributions made, but I was ready for some new legends to emerge. And they did.
Philippe Gilbert’s end of season wins. What I love about Gilbert is his incredible tactical sense and timing. This is a guy who beats riders head and shoulders stronger than he is, by keeping his wits about him and playing them against one another. Not a weak rider, Gilbert shows what racing might be like in the absence of race radios, when smart riders win as much as strong ones.
The emergence of Edvald Boasson-Hagen. While everyone was talking about Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador (myself included) another young rider was winning races (10) and taking the overall in smaller stage races like the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Britain. Boasson-Hagen is 22. He is exactly the sort of rider that today’s top guns should be wary of, because he’s going to get better.
USA Bike industry ignores its mounting inventory crisis for an entire year (repercussions will impact retail pricing and corporate profits until 2012). If you ever had any doubts as to whether bike companies know what they’re doing, well, here’s your answer.
Lemond v Trek: no matter which way it ends up (short of an out-of-court-plus-gag-order settlement), this story still has the potential to become the biggest scandal in US cycling history. It’s also the #1 story the cycling press wishes would just go away: no matter how—or even if—they report it, it’s a lose-lose for them.
American public starts to figure out that bikes are actually a lot of fun (and practical transportation, too). This is THE biggest sea-change in public attitudes about cycling since That Skinny Blonde Kid won some race over in France 33 years ago … although sometimes I liked it better when we were just a bunch of geeks and outcasts instead of too-cool-for-school fashion mavens in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts.
Bonus: Mavic’s parent company (Amer Sports) puts it up for sale, can’t find buyer, de-lists it, fires its own President. You know the economy’s bad when no one wants a highly regarded company with the lion’s share of a long-term lucrative market.
Contador’s Tour win as part of the Bizarro World of Team Astana. I know of no other time in cycling history when, after the designated team leader takes the Yellow Jersey, the team manager wanted to put on sackcloth and ashes. The psychological war Bruyneel and Armstrong waged against Contador remains about the oddest thing I ever saw in cycling.
The death duel between Di Luca and Menchov in the Giro. While I watched it, I tried to forget Di Luca’s past doping offenses (he made sure I was reminded later…) and watched 2 superb athletes fight until neither had a watt left. Menchov’s crash in the final time trial made even the race’s last moments exciting. His poor performance in the Tour showed he had gone truly deep in the Giro.
Grand Tour VAMs. Both the Giro and the Tour had some spectacularly high VAMs (average rate of vertical ascent in a climb). There was one day in the Tour that saw the Tour climbing speed record Bjarne Riis set on the Hautacam in 1996 eclipsed.
Bonus: And the UCI says they are getting a good handle on doping. I’ve got some good ocean-front land here in Arkansas for anyone who believes that. I believe we lost ground during 2009 in the hunt for a clean sport.
Contador wins second Tour de France. The lead up to the race was more drama than MTV’s “The Hill” leading up to prom night. Every day there were hints that all the indicators being tossed out by Astana that “all is well” and “we are all behind our leader” and “Contador is our GC leader.” It was something everyone who listened and watched knew was slick talk and that there was 2 GC riders on the team, neither submitting to the other in reality. To see the dynamics play out was something that kept us all tuned daily for the month of July. I personally cannot wait ‘til 2010′s TdF!!
Fabian Cancellara SMOKES TT world championship. Fabian is a statesman for cycling and in my opinion one of the peloton’s classiest riders. He can be many things, but his TT skills are phenomenal and his lead up to the World TT championship brought us to anticipate a performance, which he delivered in jaw-dropping fashion.
Devolder repeats at Tour of Flanders. I love all the Classics, but I love the Spring Classics especially. Seeing Cav win Milan San Remo was incredible, to see Boonen win Paris-Roubaix was great, to see Schleck win Leige was sweet as well, but to see the Belgian Devolder repeat his win at Tour of Flanders held a meaning that goes to the very core of this race, to his pedigree, which makes him a national hero yet again, and brings this one to the top for me.
Notables: Team Columbia HTC should have an honorable mention notably as they really pulled off greatness in light of adversity, despite the other teams riding senslessly against them at times (Hincapie’s maillot jaune loss in TdF), they stuck it out and perhaps had the team of the year.
Trek and Greg LeMond have been ordered by the judge presiding over their case to hold a settlement conference in a last-ditch effort to avoid going to trial. U.S. magistrate judge Janie Mayeron ordered that the two parties to meet at a St. Paul, Minnesota, courthouse on January 28 for the purpose of perhaps negotiating a settlement.
As a prelude to the meeting, counsels for both parties are to meet on or before January 18 for a “full and frank discussion of settlement.”
However, if Trek and LeMond do not come to a settlement at the settlement conference, each attorney is required to submit a confidential letter to the judge. In it the attorneys must each give a progress report including outstanding issues and analyze their case’s merits and weaknesses.
While the roots of the conflict began with LeMond criticizing Lance Armstrong’s association with Dr. Michele Ferarri, a known proponent of EPO use for cycling, for business purposes, the conflict began when Trek informed LeMond that it would not renew its 13-year licensing agreement with him when it expires in 2010. LeMond filed suit on March 20 claiming that Trek had promoted Armstrong ahead of his brand and asked the court, essentially, to require Trek to continue to make and promote LeMond bicycles. On April 8, Trek sued to sever all ties with LeMond.
Trek cited multiple reasons for severing the relationship including dilution of the LeMond brand name due to mass-merchant line of parts bearing the LeMond name. And while there has been wide-spread belief that the brand never sold well, industry statistics show LeMond was the fifth largest road bike line in the U.S. in 1999.
Whether the case settles out of court seems to be up to LeMond and what his greatest priority is. If protecting his brand and his income is his greatest priority, then the case will get settled behind closed doors; terms of the settlement are likely never to be known. If LeMond’s greater desire is to attempt to expose Lance Armstrong as sporting fraud, then this case is bound for a jury and the fireworks will be considerable.
LeMond’s choice may be pivotal. Should he pursue an open trial, the number of companies will to do business with him will shrink considerably. Certainly any players that consider themselves risk-averse would shy away from any association.
An out-of-court settlement would end the mudslinging and let LeMond get back to his mission of marketing a line of bicycles bearing his name. The business climate has changed significantly for the bike industry since LeMond negotiated his deal with Trek in 1995. The market consolidation taking place then has largely dried up. However, there is one notable exception.
Dorel, the parent company for Pacific Cycle and Cycling Sports Group, is the cockroach that ate Cincinatti of the bike industry. Dorel’s cycling brands include Mongoose, Schwinn, GT, Cannondale, Pacific, Roadmaster, Dyno and Sugoi.
And they are still buying. Recent purchases have included Australian distributor Gemini Bicycles as well as UK distributor Hot Wheels and Circle Bikes. Dorel also acquired the Iron Horse at auction for a measly $5.2 million following the bike brand’s demise amid multiple lawsuits and finger-pointing. Oak trees aren’t a shady as the deals made to try to keep the brand operational.
If LeMond were to go quietly, it wouldn’t take a science fiction author to imagine a deal with Dorel that could place the LeMond name in the mass market, the sporting goods chains or the IBD before the end of 2010.
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?
Theories of Dynamic Tension, Critical Mass, And Black Holes.
In the wake of the, ah, mixed reviews that ensued from Interbike Demo East last week, now might be a good time to reconsider the whole Interbike question from an insider’s perspective…and why it makes almost no sense whatever that the biggest trade show of the year is held in the middle of September, without many of its biggest players, in the bike-unfriendliest district of what is already one of the least bike-friendly cities in North America.
Better minds than my own (which, I realize, could be just about anyone’s) have struggled with this problem, only to give up under the Sisyphean challenge of making sense of the whole messy thing. If I have succeeded where others have failed, it’s only because I realized early on the possibility—indeed the very probability— that trying to make sense of any and all questions concerning Interbike’s location in time and space are ultimately doomed, because in fact they make no sense whatever.
Like so many things in the bike business, understanding Interbike is like peeling an onion: by the time you reach the center, you discover there’s nothing there. That and the stink on your hands, of course. So here’s a series of three multilayered questions and answers designed to peel away the layers a diverse as misplaced corporate greed, the rise (and fall) of the mountain bike, and the ever-changing dates for Chinese New Year (really!). All presented one at a time so you can discover for yourself the Great Nothingness which resides therein.
1. Why September? The Dynamic Tension Theory
The Dynamic Tension theory, for those of us old enough to remember Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books and/or to’ve had sand kicked in our faces by bullies at the beach, involves equally strong opposing forces counterbalancing each other. Which, we might point out, accomplishing exactly nothing. In the case of bike business trade shows, those opposing forces are suppliers and retailers. But the results are the same.
The short answer is, suppliers want dealers’ orders as early as possible in order to book their own orders for factory time and materials, and then have the retailers take delivery on their product as soon as possible. This accomplishes three important things: it streamlines the manufacturing process (meaning better prices and improved reliability of delivery), locks down as many of the retailers’ open-to-buy dollars as possible, and most importantly, puts the inventory in the retailers’ warehouses instead of their own.
Retailers, understandably, want to see suppliers inventory their own darn product and deliver it to their places of business as needed. That’s—according to retailers, anyway—what suppliers are supposed to do. (Suppliers, needless to say, have their own version of this theory, mentioned above, and which they propagate by means of non-cancellable advance orders and 180-day lines of credit. Both theories have their merits and disadvantages.)
“As needed,” for a big chunk of the country anyway, means March or April. In California it can run as late as May, which is when that quirky state’s joke of a “rainy season” ends. (In Seattle, on the other hand, it rains all the damn time anyway, so people tend not to care what month it is.) And for virtually all retailers, September is still a critical part of the selling season and one of their best months for making money. And as a result, one of the worst for having trade shows. This is one reason Interbike is always held in the middle of the week—so retailers and their staff can get back to work as soon as they blow town in a haze of jet exhaust and beer fumes.
For years, bike industry trade shows were held in January (BDS) or February (the old Toy & Bike Show in midtown Manhattan), or even (in the case of the now-defunct CABDA show), as late as March. Retailers would slog through the snow and ice (or go to sunny Long Beach where the BDS show was held, literally, in a basketball rink that always smelled funny), order up what they wanted for the coming season, and expect to have it delivered a couple months later.
They didn’t get it, of course, but that’s what they expected.
Now here’s the longer answer. The balance of power in the industry was changing. Prior to, say, 1980, you had Schwinn Bicycle Company of Chicago on the one hand—Schwinn being the equivalent of modern-day empires like Trek, Specialized, and Easton-Bell Sports, all rolled into one and ruled like a kingdom by whichever male member of the Schwinn Family Trust happened to be dictator-for-life at the moment. And on the other hand, you had, well, everyone else.
Schwinn was so powerful, in fact, that they could book their preseason orders pretty much whenever they wanted, and with the actual product largely sight unseen, and leave the scraps for the peons.
But in the 1980’s two things happened: the rise of the mountain bike, and the collapse of Schwinn family. Some historians correlate these events to a higher degree than others, but the net effect was the same either way. Schwinn had a massive, vertically integrated, almost industrial revolution approach to supply chain management. The new breed (like Specialized and GT and, later on, Trek and Cannondale) had much less interest in being in the manufacturing end of the business. They saw—correctly as it happened—that Asian-sourced manufacturing was not just cheaper, but ultimately better than Made-In-USA product (with the possible exception of the old Schwinn Paramount factory, which survives to this day as the artisan brand Waterford). But Asian manufacturing meant longer lead times—that ocean’s not going to cross itself, you know. And lacking the power of suppliers to compel retailer orders the way the old Schwinn had, that meant earlier trade shows.
The Bottom Line. Strategically, Interbike is all about getting retailers to the show. Everything else is window-dressing: deliver enough retailers ready to buy stuff, and suppliers will flock to Tierra del Fuego on Mother’s Day. And the current fourth-week-in-September dates represent that point of dynamic tension between the latest date suppliers can wait for retailers’ orders, and the earliest date when the retailers are willing to show up and deliver them.
Tweaking these dates get you into hot water no matter which way you jump. Move them up a week and you’re in the middle of the High Holidays for those of the Jewish persuasion. Push them back a week into October and even more suppliers will defect and decide it’s more cost-effective to put on their own shows, as any number of big (and even not-so-big) suppliers are doing.
Some folks might even say naive things like, why don’t we time our trade shows/model-year introductions to generate excitement among consumers and maximize increase sales industry wide? But as shown above, that would just be silly.
Next week: Part II