Maybe Greg LeMond had it right all along. He lived in Europe. He learned French. He immersed himself, but he retained his American-ness. He adapted, but never compromised.
This past weekend, I was at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and Padraig was at Levi’s King Ridge Grand Fondo, two singular American cycling events, their origins in European riding/racing, but their executions fully-yankeefied. Neither of us was logged into an illicit web-feed of a pro race with commentary in Flemish, French or Italian. Neither of us was reading about a far off mountain or daydreaming about being someplace else. We were both on home soil, physically AND mentally.
There was the smell of wet grass and diesel exhaust in Stage Fort Park in Gloucester on Saturday (this was before the sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and another distinct odor took the air). A schooner sailed into the bay, and a light mist fell. The feel was decidedly New England, though I didn’t see anyone whaling.
First run in 1999, the GP of Gloucester is known locally as “New England Nationals,” but it has grown into a quality, international event with riders from the UK and Switzerland standing on this year’s podium. They’re coming to us now.
The King Ridge Grand Fondo is just three-years-old, but as Padraig’s report will tell you, it is already a massive, well-organized ride. In fact, our calendar is now dotted with races and rides like these, events that enjoy massive support from sponsors and riders alike. Some are even taking on a cultish mystique despite their youth. D2R2 anyone?
For too long, our cycling culture has been imported. How many of us have read hagiographic accounts of Belgian kermisses and swooned a quiet swoon of wanna-be-ness? I know I have. There are probably more riders in the Belgian colors in the United States than there are in all of Belgium, population 11 million. Is there such a thing as velo-envy? If so, we’ve had a bad case.
How many of us have lusted for a steel Merckx? How many of us have pulled on an orange Molteni top despite looking awful in that autumnal hue (everyone does) and not ever having laid eyes on one of Molteni’s stoves.
Is Coppi your man? Formulate the parallel questions in Italian. The answers are all the same. We have been more than Europhilic. We are perhaps lucky our brethren across the ocean haven’t filed a cultural restraining order.
But, there is no longer a need to hitch our bikes to that particular sag wagon.
We have a new American cycling made up of legions of top pros not named Lance Armstrong. That we’ve outgrown the controversial Texan says as much as anything about our growth.
American bicycles, for better and for worse, dominate the modern peloton. Our cycling events reach back into the past when they can, as with the Major Taylor Hill Climb in Worcester, but they also maintain a very contemporary outlook as with our unique take on Grand Fondos and Randonees.
We have magazines like peloton and Embrocation Cycling Journal and Bike, as well as the usual suspects like Bicycling, Velo(News) and Road Bike Action, who are telling our stories back to us in colors more crisp and vivid than we first imagined them in. They write about domestic makers of embro, American beers, events, and custom bike builders. They ride our epic (yes, epic) rides and document them for posterity. Mt. Baldy. The Texas hill country. The Maine seacoast.
I can’t help but feel excited by what is happening in our new American cycling. That doesn’t mean I eschew the spring classics or the grand tours, or that I no longer covet my neighbor’s Italian steel (even though I already own an Italian steel bike). It just means that we also have our own thing. I don’t have to rue the fact that I’ve never seen a kermiss, because I’m too busy yelling at my buddies as they hurdle the barriers in Gloucester, or checking in with Padraig to see how he did at King’s Ridge.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m sitting too close to the television, and what I perceive as a blossoming cycling culture, is really just a pixelated reflection of what’s going on in the old world. But it feels like more. Everytime peloton comes in the mail, or some one of my non-cycling friends asks me if I can help them find their first road bike, I think, “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”
And I smile.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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The story of the ’86 Tour de France has been told a thousand times. The conventional version runs like this: In ’85 Bernard Hinault was in the yellow jersey but hurting in a big way. His young teammate Greg LeMond was strong, and capable of winning the jersey for La Vie Claire. As the Badger was nearing retirement (and equaling the TdF wins of Anquetil and Merckx), Hinault asked LeMond to help him win, with the promise that he would turn around and help LeMond to the maillot jaune in ’86. A year later, le Blaireau seemed to have forgotten his promise, attacking LeMond mercilessly and forcing the young American to compete not only with the other contenders, but also with his team captain, all the way to Paris.
In this version of the story, Hinault is the big, bad wolf, and LeMond is Little Red Riding Hood. Hinault, the deceiver, and LeMond the nearly devoured.
Richard Moore’s excellent new book Slaying the Badger reexamines the mythology of this great race, attempting to shed new light on the motivations of these two great riders and what really happened on the roads of France in the summer of ’86. What helps set Moore’s book apart is the array of characters he brings to the story. La Vie Claire directeurs sportif Paul Köchli and Maurice Le Guilloux give first hand accounts, not only of the in-race dynamic, but also of the unique pressures on their two star riders. Super domestiques Andy Hampsten and Steve Bauer add anecdotal information as well, and it all combines to make a thrilling read of a story whose ending you already know.
Of course, the difficult part of telling such a tale is maintaining enough narrative tension to keep the reader interested, so Moore resists the common trope that Hinault is simply a silver-backed gorilla among men, unable to capitulate to any competitor, even a friendly one. He further makes room for Hinault’s ambivalence toward his American protegé by bringing in French media reports from the time, reports that show the immense pressure on Hinault to take a record sixth Tour, and the antipathy the French public felt toward the Yankee usurper.
Not to be counted out either is La Vie Claire owner Bernard Tapie, a man of legendary charisma and ambiguous moral fiber. Tapie wants to take credit for everything and nothing. He is pulling all the strings and flying off in a private jet, influencing decisions and making grand pronouncements, quite often with no basis in reality.
Perhaps the most interesting character though, is Köchli, the Swiss manager of the team. Köchli has this reputation as a mad professor of cycling, viewed by many as a genius, and the book is littered with disquisitions by this enigmatic man outlining his psychological profiles of the athletes at his command, and his very strange take on race tactics.
What comes through in the end is that, for all the ’86 Tour reads like a modern, black-and-white morality play, what really transpired was more of a perfect storm of grayness. Hinault never even countenances the idea that he wasn’t supporting LeMond. Köchli never names the team leader. LeMond likes and respects Hinault, but remains steadfastly convinced the Frenchman is out to get him. The French La Vie Claire riders ride for the Badger, their master. The North Americans ride for LeMond. The peloton and its protagonists shift alliances back and forth. It is the opacity of the situation, which, going on and on, day after day, stage after stage, creates this magnificent drama.
It makes for a pretty great summer read, no matter whose side of the story you’re buying. Hinault remains, 25 years later, his irascible self, and Moore’s interviews with le Blaireau evince only subtle differences in his version of events. In one-on-ones with the American, LeMond has enough distance to laugh about what must have been the most difficult time of his difficult career, and the others, Tapie and Köchli, are preserved like insects in amber, curiosities from a different time in pro cycling.
Whether you know the story or not, Slaying the Badger is a worthy addition to any cycling library.
Top image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The passing of the Professor, Laurent Fignon, left me thinking. As an American watching him race live, I found him haughty, distant and more than a little effete. To my naive eye, LeMond cut a much more heroic figure. Looking back now, and having educated myself a little, I have a much better appreciation for what Fignon really was, the last of his kind.
To be sure, we still have Merckx and Hinault to remind us of a time when a Tour de France champion also raced Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the spring, as well as the Tour of Lombardy and Paris-Tours in the fall, a time when a top pro’s season spanned March to October, rather than just 19 days in July.
If Bartali and his use of the derailleur in 1939 marked the end of the pre-War era, that time when Desgranges was constantly screwing with the format of the race and keeping his riders on simple, heavy machines, then Fignon’s passing marks the eventual extinction of the all-rounder, the sort of champion who can win in the rough and ready spring, then dominate a grand tour in the summer, before giving the Worlds a good shot. After Fignon came LeMond, the first real grand tour specialist, a champion of a much narrower sort. From LeMond, the narrowing of focus only increased until the Bruyneel/Armstrong tandem turned the Tour de France into a year long project that saw the American win seven times in Paris.
My cyclo-ignorant friends ask me if Lance Armstrong is really the best rider ever, and I usually reply with a derisive snort. That’s not a knock on Armstrong’s palmares, but I take pains to explain to them that there is more than one race on the pro calendar, and that the greatest champions have raced all year and built a list of wins that far exceeds what Armstrong has done.
Fignon won the Tour twice, the Giro, Milan-San Remo twice, La Fleche Wallone, the Grand Prix des Nations. He finished third in the Vuelta. He was French national road race champion. And this is not to compare his palmares only to those who came after, it’s to underline the difference in attitude. Once upon a time the Tour de France was a goal, but it was not sufficient unto itself. When Greg LeMond was named Rider of the Year in 1989, Fignon was incensed. He’d lost the Tour by eight seconds, but he’d won more races than the American.
To be fair, early in his career, LeMond rode Paris-Roubaix with an eye on the win. His Tour specialization really commenced in earnest after his hunting accident. You could argue that LeMond’s early career was raced in the old, all-rounder mode, while his later career presaged Armstrong. Whether by diminished capacity or as a tacit rejection of the Guimard-Hinault school of racing, LeMond pared down his interest. Always keenly aware of commercial factors, perhaps he simply cottoned onto the fact that an American star was only ever going to really get rich by winning the Tour.
Fignon, on the other hand, came directly from the same mold as Hinault, his actual arch-rival. He never complained of lacking Hinault’s support when they were in the same team. He gave the Badger no quarter when they were opponents. He attacked to win. He won with panache. He may have been hard to like, as Hinault and Anquetil had been before him, but he was easy to respect.
And who has ridden so well since?
Now that we’ve been given the gift of mechanical doping, I am thinking about all of the little bits of gear that help me along my way every day, the gloves, the helmet, the shorts and jerseys and gloves. The socks! Don’t forget the socks.
Are gloves manual doping? Does anyone ever actually read the manual? IKEA could stand to dope their manuals a little. I bought a couch from them, but could only manage to manufacture a chaise longue from the kit they gave me. Now who’s the dope?
Is Gatorade electrolyte doping? What is an electrolyte? Who was in the Electrolyte Orchestra other than Jeff Lynne? What is the future of symphonic rock? I hope it’s not these guys, cause they’re six kinds of awful.
If a motor is mechanical doping, is having a high VO2 Max or high lactacid metabolism, talent doping? Should Greg LeMond give back his three yellow jerseys because damn it, his natural capacity for processing oxygen is just way beyond anything I can compete with? My answer: yes. Perhaps cycling could develop a biological handicapping system so that schlubs like me could compete in Grand Tours and have our times adjusted (from days down to hours) to keep us competitive with the extraterrestrials who actually win those things. Who’s in? Where’s the petition?
Rather than getting into a long, tortured discussion of seat tube motors, torque, battery life and the dark side of the human spirit this week, I’d like this Group Ride to focus the stuff that helps us enjoy the ride. The question is: What is your favorite piece of gear/kit and why? Don’t start waxing rhapsodic about your new carbon fiber frame or a wheel set. Like the Lance’s autobiography, this is not about the bike.
It’s about not-the-bike. What not-the-bike do you like best … while you’re on the bike?
Image courtesy Robert Wise Productions
I think it was harder than I imagined it would be to come up with good questions for Floyd Landis, his actions so baffling and absurd as to render a rational approach well nigh impossible. How do you talk to a mad man?
Mark’s early entry, “When will you apologize to Greg LeMond?” got an answer over the weekend, when Landis actually showed up at the Tour of California and made a personal and in-person apology to the former champ. I’d have given half my spare parts to be a fly on the wall for that one.
Interestingly, the bulk of the questions contained more than a tinge of anger, which is, I suppose, understandable given the number of us who bought and read Landis’ book (I did). There is a level of public hypocrisy here seldom encountered, and many of us are still working out how to reconcile the lies with the possible truths on offer now. Is the boy crying wolf? Or is the wolf among the sheep even now?
For all his erratic behavior, the thing that strikes me about this current flap is the consistency of Landis’ approach. He ALWAYS rushes in when a measured approach would be better. He did this as a racer, and he’s done in it his post-suspension life as well. He also seems to traffic in the plausible more readily than the true, which is to say, his statements (including all his denials about doping post-2006) linger, not because they’re necessarily true, but rather because they’re plausible. It’s this combination of impetuousness and manufactured ambiguity that make him such a frustrating figure.
Even those who believe him now are forced to concede that Landis has gone about everything, start to finish, in the wrong way. It’s a difficult position to start from.
Certainly, he could have simply confessed his sins, cleared his conscience and moved on, but instead he’s chosen to scorch the earth, allegedly to help reform cycling, but the lie behind that sentiment is so transparent as to be insulting to those of us who really do wish for a reformed peloton.
The thing I can’t get over (among many, if I’m honest) is how Landis has managed to rally so much support over so many years despite being bat shit crazy. If I had that one question to ask, it would be this: “Floyd, what is it about you that people find so compelling that they’d cast their lot in with yours, not once, not twice, but over and over again?”
Having been a mad man, and having dealt with many of the same over the years, this is the component I find most interesting, the ability of those who would lie and cheat and steal, be they disgraced athletes or still-reigning champions, to continue on in that vein, year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime, to the consternation of us all.
Image: The Walt Disney Corporation, all rights reserved
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.
When Lance Armstrong came back to cycling in 2009, it was as though a tidal wave of mixed messages, mixed feelings and mixed blessings crashed on pro cycling. Immediately, Alberto Contador, cycling’s next big thing, had his program turned upside down and shaken. A cycling press that had watched its readership ebb away slowly during the retirement years, suddenly found itself in high demand again. And race promoters salivated as record crowds thronged the roadside to cheer and/or jeer the return of the king.
(To be completely and entirely clear about my own stance on Lance, I will say that I am almost completely agnostic and ambivalent as regards the Texan. To be sure, he’s done a lot, both for the sport and for cancer survivors, but his methods and manner don’t appeal to me much. He’s done amazing things, but he’s been ungracious, immature, bullying, etc. in doing them. Perhaps like Contador, I feel respect, but not admiration.)
To me the oddest aspect of Lance’s return to the peloton is the shadow he seems to cast over all those who come near him. We have written recently in these digital pages about both Contador and Greg LeMond, two great champions in their own rights. And yet, in writing critically (or even neutrally) of each of them, there has been some assumption that that criticism equates to tacit support of Armstrong.
There was the issue of Contador’s wheels, and whether or not he had been denied the use of wheels that Armstrong had been given. In trying to parse the rider’s statements, corroborate them with quotes from his mechanic and looking through dozens of photos, we tried to see if the underlying controversy was real. What we came up with was inconclusive. Contador’s story is completely plausible, however the causes and behind the scenes machinations are unclear. Was there a misunderstanding? Was there malice? All possible, and yet circumstantial evidence doesn’t equal truth, and perhaps in this case finding the truth isn’t all that important in light of a larger truth. Contador fell out with Armstrong and Bruyneel but still won the race.
To examine the situation, to call into question the various stories and sub-stories circulating as regards a pair of bicycle wheels does not entail either endorsing or condemning the behavior of the parties involved. To say that Contador’s mechanic may have gotten it wrong is not to say that Amstrong and Bruyneel behaved correctly.
Simultaneous to the summer saga at Team Astana, was the slowly unwinding legal dispute between Greg LeMond and Trek Bicycles. LeMond felt Trek had done a crappy job of selling his bikes. Trek felt LeMond had done damage to the brand himself. There was evidence to suggest that both sides had legitimate arguments to make, and yet, somehow, Armstrong’s shadow fell over this proceeding too. Did Lance tell Trek to can LeMond for the perceived insinuation that Amstrong doped? Did LeMond intend to leverage his beef with Trek into an inquisition into Armstrong’s alleged doping practices?
To say that LeMond ought not go after the prized asset (Armstrong) of his primary business partner (Trek) in this way is not tantamount to asserting that Armstrong is clean or nice or better than LeMond in any way. The two issues CAN be mutually exclusive of one another.
The unfortunate part about Lance Armstrong’s return to bike racing is that the shadow he casts is very long. You can’t take the publicity he brings, the dollars, without also taking the drama. Everything becomes polarized. If you are not for Contador, you must be for Armstrong. If you comment on a rider that once road with Armstrong being suspended for doping, you are required to suggest that Armstrong is probably also guilty. Logic goes out the window. Feeling comes to the fore.
And yet, not everyone views cycling through these prisms. Lance Armstrong is not cycling. He is not Alberto Contador. He is not Greg LeMond. He is not Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish or Ivan Basso or Tom Boonen. He is not the UCI or WADA. He is not the entire history of the sport.
They say that power corrupts. At the top of the sport, where the real money changes hands and the real decisions get made, that corrupting influence must be profound. It leads people to say and do things that the rest of us view with mouths agape. We watch it like a soap opera, like gladiatorial combat.
We are fortunate here at RKP that no one pays us to say things we do not believe. There is no power that accrues to a web site like this one that allows us to dictate the behavior of top racers or industry players. When Lance Armstrong’s shadow falls across what we do, we can simply get up, throw our legs over our bikes and ride away into the sun.
Now, some will interpret what I’ve written here as some defense of the work we’ve done, a riposte to the uncivil comments and calls for I’m-not-sure-what. And to a degree, I suppose, that’s what it is. More than anything, really, it’s an attempt to stop talking about Lance Armstrong. It is perhaps ironic that to do so, in the end, requires so much talking about Lance Armstrong.
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?