“Fashion’s not about looking back.
It’s always about looking forward.”
Vogue editor Anna Wintour,
The September Issue
A film full of surprises, R. J. Cutler’s excellent 2009 documentary The September Issue is more about human relationships than it is about fashion or publishing.
As the 800-page September 2007 issue of Vogue comes closer to press day, the staff are frustrated to the point of distraction by executive decisions made by higher powers. It may sound tenuous but Anna Wintour’s insight into the world of fashion, and the film itself, gives us a perfect analogy for the story of running a professional bike team.
I’d argue that publishing is a game with more than it’s fair share of surprises. And unless you live on the moon, you’ll know that professional cycling has had a hatful of them, both good and bad, in the past two decades. Consequently, a positive test or a folded team barely raises an eyebrow in the press room nowadays.
Like many battle-weary cycling journalists, I gave up being shocked by the dramas a long time ago. Nevertheless, combining cycling and publishing could provide a perfect storyline for a soap opera.
I have to say all this at the start of part two of our Trek odyssey for the simple reason that the Leopard Trek cycling project we followed this year is no more. I didn’t see it coming – I’m not sure anyone did – and it made our press deadline time more interesting, as well as changing many things more important than this story.
It is impossible to ignore Leopard’s best-laid plans going up in smoke as the team announced it will merge with RadioShack next year, but the real reasons for its demise is not really the point of this story – that’s something which may be unearthed over time.
Instead, our small part of the tale (which began before Wouter Weylandt’s fatal crash at the Giro d’Italia) is a season following Trek’s brief partnership with Leopard. So regardless of what has happened since, this account will be all about the bikes and those who keep them on the road.
Leopard Trek team training camp, Mallorca, 12th January, 2011
Leopard Trek had come together pretty quickly. At the Eurobike show in August last year, it was announced that there would be a new team based in Luxembourg, built around the home-grown Schleck brothers Andy and Fränk for the Grand Tours and Swiss specialist Fabian Cancellara for the Classics. It was an ambitious bunch of riders for a very ambitious project.
Alongside RadioShack, the Leopard team’s demands were huge, as Eric Bjorling, Trek’s head of media relations, recalls: “Using a start-up team like Leopard Trek as the model, Trek delivered 254 Madone road frames and 66 Speed Concept time trial frames, while Bontrager supplied them with 240 pairs of wheels.
"What was driving the number is that the team was brand new so we started from scratch with them. Not all teams will need this much equipment.”
Added to Leopard’s substantial order was 25 or so of the same Shimano Di2 equipped Madones, in full turquoise livery, for the gentlemen of the press. Trek had clearly been very busy.
We’d asked Trek for the opportunity to follow its bikes from Wisconsin to Europe, and Leopard Trek was the obvious choice: it was a new team, and prior to donning thermal underwear and woolly hats to venture into Wisconsin’s frozen landscape, we had a chance to ride with Leopard’s riders in slightly warmer climes. Press trips are a bit of a busman’s holiday, but regardless of how it looks from the outside, a few days in the sun riding a pro-level bike with a mix of ex-racers-turned-hacks is asking for trouble.
Before long, the journalists’ world championship is well underway. Rarely do you get the chance to tag onto the back of a pro team as it heads off for a long day in the saddle, but that’s what was in store for us on day two.
Following Fabian Cancellara on the flat is easy enough when he’s doing interviews and answering his phone. But riding no-handed around a roundabout whilst removing his cape is just plain showing off – it’s like the bike is a part of him. It’s a timely reminder of the differences between them and us, and most of us know our place.
So as Leopard Trek lift the pace and drift away from the journos and into the hills, we head off for our final sprint to the café.
Leopard Trek team hotel, Kortrijk, Flanders, 5th April
The week before a cobbled Classic is all about preparation, and no race places demands on a professional’s bike like Paris-Roubaix does. It’s a hectic schedule for the most hectic of races.
In the week between Flanders and Roubaix, our time with Leopard Trek began with a kind of Groundhog Day experience. Each night, before I drew the curtains shut at midnight, I looked out over the car park towards the halogen haze around the team trucks and saw mechanics Rune Kristensen and Roger Theel gluing tyres, fettling wheels and taping handlebars. As the harsh beams of working light were skimmed by raindrops, all I could think was, a wet Roubaix – now that’s good news.
Early next morning I open the curtains again to another glorious spring morning, and the two mechanics are still at it. I’m not sure if these boys have been to bed yet. I think they have, but the truck’s generator is still humming away and the stereo is fighting with it for airspace. Eighteen-hour days seem to be the norm for these guys. But dry and dusty conditions would be better for them, I guess – less messy, at any rate.
The Leopard mechanics’ work truck is a wonder of modern coach building, with a better-equipped kitchen than most of us have at home in addition to a workshop that a keen cyclist can only dream about. You just wouldn’t want the job to go along with it.
From Flanders to Roubaix, the bikes change completely, and it’s more than the wheels and tyres getting switched: these are full-scale rebuilds. Rune and Roger need to have 16 special Trek Madones prepped for the Enfer du Nord, so for these two mechanics it’s been a relentless pace.
They are now preparing the frames we had seen being painted and prepped in Wisconsin back in February. These are special Classics frames based on the standard Madone bike, but with longer wheelbases and more clearance for 27mm tubulars which look a little like tractor tyres compared to the usual racing sort. Trek has allowed for this beefier wheel specification by simply making the rear dropout slightly longer so that the tyres will clear the brake bridge and seat tube. The forks are different too, with more clearance and a longer rake for safe steering on the cobbles.
The rest of the frame is standard geometry and the components are no-nonsense stuff, albeit the wheels being of the standard hand built 32-hole variety – all apart from Fabian Cancellara’s, that is. But I guess he knows what he’s doing.
FMB make the tubulars for Leopard Trek and 80 of them have been supplied by the tiny French company based in a garage in Brittany – so not only do the mechanics have to build and prepare 16 special bikes, they also have to glue 40-odd pairs of wheels as well.
François Marie of FMB fame and arch rival Andre Dugast now produce pretty much all the handmade rubber for these specialist events, with Tom Boonen as another fan of the 27mm Pro version of their Paris-Roubaix tyre. They may be popular, but getting them straight seems to be the main concern for the mechanics and the cause of much swearing - handmade tubulars may be strong, lightweight, supple and smooth, but they aren’t really what you’d call consistently shaped.
Paris-Roubaix training day, Carrefour de l’Arbre, 6th April
Wouter Weylandt gingerly stepped off the team bus. Apart from us, nobody’s watching him. Unaware of his audience, he’s visibly wincing with pain after his sprint pileup the day before at Scheldeprijs. He’s going to ride today. “No problem,” he says.
Much of what happens in the team bus over the years has been kept secret, which is not unusual in sport when teams are trying to gain a competitive edge. But in cycling, as public opinion has turned on its scarred image, the teams have become more open, maybe as part of the cleanup of the murky side of the sport, but also, perhaps, in keeping with the philosophies of the new marketeers and businessmen in cycling: sponsors want to be liked, which means teams need to be friendly.
So before one hundred or so kilometres of training, our photographer Taz stepped onto the bus, just as the team sound check their radios. “Somebody say something,” says Joost Posthuma.
“Vagina,” replies a deadpan Stuart O’Grady.
It’s as if the riders are moving in a different time, always slowly, no sign of dread or panic. Training on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix can hardly be described as just another day in the office, but there’s a good feeling here.
At Carrefour de l’Arbre, the team bus is parked up to wait for the riders. Within moments, hundreds of people appear from nowhere just to stand and stare.
Out on the road, Weylandt stayed with the team for as long as he could. Eventually he tails off the pace, but he’ll start on Sunday.
“No problem.” Tough boy, was Wouter.
Leopard Trek team hotel, Kortrijk, 7th April, 2011
Roger Theel is one of the more distinctive characters in the pro peloton pit lane. With his mohawk hair and Elvis Costello glasses, he’s hardly the archetypal, brown overall mechanic. He’s been working with Fabian Cancellara for nearly six years, and by all accounts the Swiss is one of the more exacting riders when it comes to bike set up. Safe to say, then, Roger has top credentials.
How did you start in cycling and get into this team?
“I started in the Coast team in 2000. Before then I was a bike mechanic in a scooter and bike shop in Magdeburg, Germany. After Coast, I went to Phonak and then CSC, then Saxo Bank and then here. In my time I’ve done seven Tours de France.”
How has it been with the bikes so far?
“Great, so far – really, really fast in the things that we are asking for. In this game everything needs to be on time, and as a bike supplier you have to be really fast. We need the right frames, the right colours – it’s not very easy to find this in the first year, and Trek did a pretty good job. We just talked to each other and they did really well. We like the relationship – bike companies are not always like this.”
Your relationship with Fabian Cancellara seems pretty close. What’s he like?
“He is a champion. In cycling and as a person, he’s a really good guy. I’ve been working with Fabian for six years. When he has complaints, it’s not like ‘everything is shit’. He might come and say calmly something’s not right and I think it is this or this. He’s pretty smart in telling us exactly what is wrong, and that’s a big difference.
"Also, he feels a lot on the bike – he feels every millimetre, every different tyre. It’s difficult because he is at such a high level and it’s hard to have everything perfect, but on the other hand it’s good because we are never standing still. We are always looking to improve, which is really important as a team, otherwise we would have bikes from ten years ago. When it’s standing still I don’t think I have this fun anymore. It’s nice to learn and work with something different, otherwise I wouldn’t be here – I’d be working in a factory and have a family and be coming home at night and watching the football, like Germans do.
With Fabian, it’s great because you see the process before and when he wins it’s amazing. Even in Flanders, last week, it was a great race and he really tried everything – for all of us. He tries for everybody, but as a rider you have to be disappointed, because it’s not easy to win always. We have 200 bike riders out there and they are not here because they are idiots.”
And here at the hotel, do you have all you need?
“This situation is perfect. If you change hotels each day you can imagine it’s bike in, bikes out of the truck, and with the amount of bikes we have to prepare it’s good to stay in one place. Tomorrow morning we leave for the hotel in Roubaix, but then we come back here, and win or lose, we celebrate. It’s nice to sit down and have a beer and a dinner, because who knows when we will be back together again?”
Along with Roger are eight other full time mechanics, but he works closest, despite their differing music tastes, with Rune Kristensen, who started at CSC and Saxo Bank before leaving for Leopard Trek.
Having cut his spannering teeth with top flight professional teams, he has built a formidable reputation beyond his years. Perhaps his popularity is because he seems so happy in his work, and his constant smile is in stark contrast to Roger’s furrowed brow.
Rune, how well have Trek been working with you?
“I can’t complain about that. The service with Trek is amazing, Ben [Coates – Trek’s team liaison guy] is always around and it’s working good. They’ve been really listening. When I first saw the colour schemes, I wasn’t sure, but when we came to the Tour Down Under and when everything comes together and in the sunshine, it looks really cool.
"It can be very hard for teams when the bikes are all different, especially time trial bikes, and everything’s a prototype and you are filing stuff to make it fit, but when you work with good partners like Trek you don’t have to feedback much – they’ve already been listening to RadioShack, Astana and Discovery, so they already have things sorted.”
What’s left to do before Sunday?
“We only found out two days ago what wheels we would be using, but it’s our job to have those ready. Other than that, we have to check again the measurements on the spare bikes and wash the bikes again. With all these bikes to prepare it can be 12.30am and we’re just starting to pack up the truck and you get tired, but a few days away and I’m motivated again.
Last week I was at the service course in Luxembourg. When I am there it’s me that takes care of everything, so I’ve had about one day off so far this year. We have a technical manager but he doesn’t always know how much we use and a lot of the immediate contact is between Ben and me.”
Who’s the fussiest rider?
“Probably Fabian, but in a good way – you don’t feel like he’s hard work. There’s no guy here that’s a pain in the arse – they will always come and ask you if it’s possible and they understand if it’s not.
"We have a special tool for measuring their bikes, but they have their own way of measuring. Some of them will notice even a millimetre of difference, so we have to keep checking them. And, for example, Dominic Klemme is always changing things and not telling us, so we always have to check his bike over every day.”
Will you be in the car tomorrow?
“In the one-day races you can only have one car, but there’s a spare in case anything happens to it. I will be out on the course somewhere, no doubt. If it’s going to rain, it will be a nightmare. But I love this job.”
Even with the late nights and not knowing what’s in store for next year?
“You can’t complain about something you are happy about and I have a contract for just one year so we’ll see…”
Leopard Trek team hotel, Plérin, Tour de France – Stage 5 , July 5th 2011
Brian Nygaard loves paper. Leopard Trek’s general manager sat in the hotel bar toying with a business card someone had given him. Made from handmade card, it prompted him to tell us enthusiastically about the old-school, hand-bound training diaries the team had made for the riders.
Brian’s enthusiasm was instrumental in the approach Leopard Trek would take for the image and feel of the team. He has very distinct ideas on image and presentation, and prior to his departure following news of the merger, everything Leopard Trek did stemmed from his philosophy.
How did the relationship with Trek come about?
“Actually, it was around about a year ago now. Trek wanted to be a part of a European team – they’d been looking around, and I think they’d narrowed it down to a handful of teams, but after we’d announced the team, they got in touch.
"I think it was the fact that we wanted to be a team that would be competitive at the Classics and the stage races where the issue of having the right bike is massive and, from our point of view, if you take a bike brand that is unproven that would be hard. It was too risky to go with someone who couldn’t rise to that challenge. We knew that Trek could do it.”
What was your view of Trek before dealing with them for the team?
“I knew it was a very American set up that was really technologically advanced, but after we started to talk, I liked the fact that they make what we have in our hands and that’s important because you have more control.
"State-of-the-art technology, but hand built on site – I like that story. Italian bikes used to be like that, but then they lost out on the technological advances and what they made wasn’t so good anymore, and if you have a bike that weighs 800 grams more than the opposition you have a serious problem.
"Trek wanted a European team and we wanted state-of-the-art technology, so in that way it was a very happy marriage. They went about it in such a professional way that we never had any doubts about it.”
So with a very distinct look for the team nearly finished, how did you think you could get what you wanted from them?
“They started to raise the game when they designed bikes finishes with Damien Hirst – that was very interesting. And everything shouldn’t always be team issue – for example, the things that they have done with Andy and Fränk’s bikes for the Tour. We now know exactly what they’re capable of, which is pretty limitless.”
So with a very demanding time scale, with everything coming late, and all these special requests how flexible have they been?
“More than I have! We’d already made many decisions on how the team would be presented. We had an ad agency in place and ideas on how the bikes should look, so there was a lot of back and forth with Trek’s design team, but that’s how it works. I think it was a bit like building a house and having the architect on site.”
And have they achieved what they wanted?
“They wanted to be a part of the team, they had made a big investment, and we listened to what they wanted because they represent something that we wanted to be a part of, too.
"But Trek under-promised and over-delivered, because all the decisions came very late. They hadn’t promised us bikes for the Tour Down Under, but they do what they say and they say what they do. They said that it would be tight but we will do it, and they did.”
Freelance work is as unpredictable as publishing and, in a professional cycling team’s employ, freelance work is exactly what to expect. From star to water-carrier, chef to directeur sportif, like it or not you’re on a short-term contract.
A young, gifted rider may get a longer contract with a team, but these days that’s pretty rare. Team management companies provide the organisation for the sponsors to hang their names, and these teams often have the same personnel behind the scenes for season after season.
The way that most teams work means that mechanics are recruited and stay with the team management, so you usually see the same faces in the team cars and hotel car parks year-in, year-out.
Not many people would want a job where you are on the road year-round, never get time to ride a bike and the pay’s not that great, so it’s not really surprising that many of the teams hold onto a mechanic when they get a reliable one.
So when Leopard folded and everybody was talking about where the talent was going, I was wondering about the guys we’d met whose talent was behind the scenes. With this in mind, I contacted Brian to ask him about the fate of Rune and Roger.
His reply was immediate: “One of the last things I did at Leopard Trek was to sign up the brilliant Rune, and Roger is safe too.”
There is no doubt that in the bike industry winning sells, but Trek can no longer rely on Lance Armstrong’s success to gain them market share in Europe, where victories matter but so does understanding the culture of the European bicycle racing scene. During the Armstrong years, this empathy was somewhat lacking from his Trek-sponsored teams. Trek’s president John Burke, on the other hand, clearly has an understanding of global bicycle culture.
He knows that you can’t sell cycling back to Europeans without seeing it from their perspective, stating: “The future success of Trek overseas, as well as stateside, hinges on more than professional racing and lightweight frames.”
To reinforce this company line, John Burke is also quoted as saying: “Trek’s greatest potential lies in the international market.” A year after all the talk had been about the new Luxembourg project, I wandered around the huge exhibition halls at the Eurobike show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, which gave me some insight into where the international bicycle manufacturing industry is at right now.
Despite the new growth in recreational and competitive cycling worldwide, there is still the age-old tradition of brands and brand values that stretches far into the distant past. Many of these brands are hanging onto an ideal, or even a pretence, that riding a bike named after one that won the Tour in 1975 will make you a better cyclist.
It makes you think, though, about who still actually makes bikes: who cares about the engineering, about research and development, and who will have the capacity and commitment to supply a team?
This is stuff that many struggle to do convincingly, especially when their bikes are about price points and made in faceless generic factories. I walked into Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin, with an idea that Trek was a part of this cookie-cutter bike culture, but I walked out knowing that they’re not.
They believe in their product, and rightly so because they make it. But more than that, they understand cycling and they also aren’t the arrogant multi-national I, like many, had them down as. They are not even remotely close to it.
Ironically, Trek were perhaps well on their way to reaching out to a wider European audience through Leopard Trek and its band of European stars. Putting aside the terrible matching scarves at the team’s launch, the bikes looked right and the team had started to tick. The new RadioShack-Nissan-Trek venture, however, from an image point of view may be a step sideways, in my opinion.
One of the things I liked about Leopard Trek was the understated design and lack of heavy corporate branding. I asked Eric Bjorling if this would continue with the new team, when many consider RadioShack’s branding to be the polar opposite.
“We’re actually working on this right now with several of the team’s partners. Trek’s internal design team was directly involved with the aesthetic for Leopard Trek and the same people from our side will continue to work with the new team.”
Time will tell how effective this will be, but thankfully Trek is about more than team sponsorship and petty racing politics – something that they know full well. Perhaps, as John Burke himself suggests, that it’s not all about the bike after all:
“Through it all, it’s never about brazed steel, bonded aluminum or carbon fibre. It was the people who got us here. And we continue to rely on those good people for success. The key is that this is an ongoing story, and we see the best days ahead of us.”