There we were digging through the RBA stable one day when lo and behold, we came upon this gem from the past-an official GT/Lotto team bike. Although built up with a variety of non-team spec parts, the frame had been pulled from the same batch of those sent over to Europe in the spring of 1999 to compete in the Tour de France.
Road race historians might recall the GT/Lotto deal as one of the more entertaining, when within a matter of weeks in 1999 one of the biggest names in BMX and mountain bike racing jumped into the Tour de France. As soon as we found the bike we chased down some of the principals who were involved in the team effort coming to fruition.
THE MAN WITH A PLAN
• Andrew Herrick has been in the cycling industry practically all his adult life. He got his start as a founder at Pedro’s in 1989 before moving to GT in 1998 after the Southern California-based company was bought by Schwinn. Three years later GT and Schwinn were sold to Pacific Cycles and Andy soon found himself over at Crank Brothers where he helped infuse the brand with some new product ideas and marketing savvy. Herrick was at the center of the GT/Lotto team’s creation, so we sat him down for a first-person remembrance of a special time in history when an iconic American bike brand with deep BMX roots took on the Euro peloton.
‘In the early spring of 1999, I was the new marketing schmo at GT and one day I asked an old friend, Kirsten Begg, formerly of Cannondale, if she could do a report for me on the division 1 and 2 teams in Europe with regards to their team strategies and bike sponsorship contract status for the next few years. Our thought would be that we would reach out to those who might be an ‘opportunity’ in the near future and we would be opportunistic if there was a team available.
After Kirsten completed the report, I reviewed it with our European marketing guy, Franky Theunis, himself a former member of the Panasonic team out of Holland when Eric Vanderarden was the star. Jumping off the page of the report was the Lotto/Mobistar team. We liked this team because it was Belgian, and with Trek already working on a Tour de France program with the U.S. Postal team and Cannondale teaming with Saeco on more of a Giro d’Italia program, we thought it would be good idea for GT to be aligned with a great Spring Classics team.
We envisioned GT’s at Paris-Roubaix, Ghent, Flanders and all of the great Belgian/Dutch tradition that came with it. We saw that the Lotto program had only the 1999 season remaining on its bike contract, so I asked Franky to contact someone he knew from his racing days, Jean-Luc Vandenbrouke, the director of the Lotto team, to see if we could all sit down to discuss. Franky was able to arrange a meeting at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for dinner in two weeks time.
At the same time, I was recruiting former racer Jeff Pierce as a sports marketing leader to oversee all of our athletes and teams-mountain bike, BMX, freestyle/X-Games, and a proposed foray back into road for GT. Jeff, of course, had won the final stage of the Tour de France as a member of the 7-Eleven team and in his post-racing he turned out to be a great salesman for Outside magazine. I thought this was perfect fit, as we’d have a new team connection for GT and a new sports marketing guy who is a former member of the Euro peloton. As I recall, though, Jeff kept telling me that it was too soon both for GT and for himself personally-his start date at GT was still six to eight weeks away.
In the meantime, I traveled with the mountain bike team to Les Gets, France for the downhill world cup two weeks later, and had a scheduled dinner with Vandenbroucke on the Monday after the world cup weekend. The plan was to drive up to DeGaulle from the Alps as soon as the race was over. It turned out to be a great weekend, as Steve Peat won the event. As I recall, Steve was in the hot seat (with the fastest time) until Cannondale’s Cedric Gracia came down the hill. Cedric was ahead of Steve at every time split but then crashed in the rain within sight of the finish line. While that drama was going on up the mountain, Franky was talking in the pits with some of the other Euro guys he knew and caught wind that the Lotto team might be interested in getting off the Vitus bikes they were currently riding. There was some politics that involved Vitus being sold from one company to another, etc. Long story short: it looked like we might be able to get Lotto to do a bike switch just before the Tour de France. I remember calling our head of product development, Steve Cuomo, back in California early on that Sunday morning. I asked Steve how much Easton road tubing we had in stock at the GT factory in Santa Ana and he said ‘enough to get some Belgian fannies on our road bikes in four weeks.’ That was all I needed to hear.
The next evening, we were sitting at dinner with Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke at the airport. We spent some time talking about the following two seasons and he told us that he was enthused at the prospect of having an American bike company as a sponsor. He told us, in French, that the marketing support that Saeco received from being with Cannondale was very good for their team and that he thought GT would be great for Lotto, their riders and sponsors. So I asked him, in my very broken French, if it was in any way possible for the team to get on our bikes before that year’s Tour. As soon as I asked I remember looking at my watch and it read May 12th or something like that-the Tour only six weeks away! ‘C’est une possibilite’ was his reply. I looked at the waiter and immediately ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne for the table. When the champagne was poured and we clinked glasses, I offered to sponsor the team for three years for the money he was asking-I think it was six million Belgian francs per year plus 100 complete bikes-but only if he was willing to throw in this year. He said that if we could get 35 custom bikes, including time trial bikes, made in four weeks, then it was a ‘yes.’
After dinner, I called Jeff and told him the news, ‘We’re in the Tour.’ ‘Hey, that’s great,’ Jeff replied. ‘I’ll work with the team in a few months to get ready for next season-that will be fun’. It was then that I had to clarify. ‘Um, no Jeff,’ I said, ‘I’m talking about being in the Tour this year.’ Jeff freaked. ‘Andrew, I don’t mind reminding you that I don’t even start my job for another week. What are you doing to me?’
Within 24 hours the product guys at GT had received the geometries for each of the riders that were to be on the tour team. The welders, frame engineers and product managers killed themselves for the next three weeks making frames for Rick Verbrugghe, Mario Aerts, Jacky Durand, et al. Our industrial designer, Aaron Bethlenfalvy, designed the graphics for the team bikes. Jim Stevenson, the road bike product manager, worked with the local painting houses to get the puke-green color that was on the team jersey matched for the bikes. Kevin Nelson was the road bike frame engineer and he had to make custom drawings for each of the bikes because the geometries were anything but standard. Forrest Yelverton ran our test lab/prototype facility up in Colorado and he sent one or two of his welders to the factory to help out with the bike builds and he himself built the time trial bikes.
At the end of the three weeks, the product team boxed up the frames and then sent Kevin to Belgium to personally deliver them. We were too nervous to put 35 custom frames in a Fed-Ex box, so Kevin drove them up to his Lufthansa flight and watched them get loaded into the belly of the plane. Once in Brussels, Kevin and Franky drove straight to the Lotto team headquarters. After five or six days and nights of building up the bikes, Kevin and Franky watched as the pre-tour team introductions were done and the new team bikes were rolled out to the media. On the same day that the Euro media saw the bikes in France, we had a press conference at the NORBA Mountain Bike National at Big Bear where Jeff unveiled the team bike to the American media at the event. We served Belgian beer at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and most of us needed a nap by 3:00.
A few months later, Jeff and I went to the Tour of Lombardia in Bergamo, Italy, to watch as Lotto rider Andrei Tchmil won the overall World Cup on his GT. Before the race, we had made a couple hundred baseball caps that read ‘Lotto/Mobistar-Andre Tchmil World Cup Champion’ on them. When Andrei was up on the podium, Jeff handed him a cap to wear. He read it and asked Jeff, ‘Did you guys just make these?’ apparently not understanding that we planned ahead and hoped he didn’t get beat on the last day of the season.
Was it worth it? I think it was-during that time at Schwinn/GT the owners were from the investment community and with financial owners, it’s hard to gauge return on investment in the normal sense. From my point of view, it gave everyone at GT a sense of pride and ownership (which I believe was well-deserved) after the death of founder Richard Long. There was a great deal of dissent inside of GT at that time, so it was great to hear product guys, marketing guys and the sales/customer service folks (even the accounting department) say to each other, ‘Hey, did you see today’s Tour stage? Man, that Mario Aerts can really climb!’ That was a type of interest in cycling that you didn’t hear at GT before then.
Overall, I think it was a special time for American road bike companies. Things were opening up, the world was becoming a smaller place, and the European race scene wasn’t a million miles away. For those of us that played along, for sure, you knew you were in the moment. Yeah, the ‘Lance effect’ followed, but that wasn’t all that grabbed our intrigue-we, as American cyclists, finally had a part to play in the overall stage of cycling at the top level. It was pretty cool.’
From The Engineers’ Perspective
By Kevin Nelson
• Most of the frames were 6061 Easton. We made a few custom scandium tubesets, but only for a few guys at the 2000 tour. The first run of frames was 40 custom frames in 20 days. This quantity was based on having two frames for each guy and they had to arrive a week before the Tour. Building that many frames and leaving room for heat-treat and paint meant that a group of us spent many longs days cutting, assembling, and tacking. Once we got those welded, I took everything up to heat-treat and was there for all the alignments. Jim Stevenson managed the colors and graphics and got those in place for us to apply (Stevenson, Mary DiLuca, and I spent most of a night huffing paint fumes at the painter while applying the decals). Once the decals and paint were done, we boxed them up, and I got on a plane with the four huge boxes. Jean Luc Vandenbrouke was the Director Sportif for Lotto at the time, and I remember him jumping out of his office window (first story) to greet us when we arrived! His brother (Frank Vandenbrouke’s father) Jean Jacque built all the frames in time for the Tour start the following week. The whole experience was really great and everyone in the company really came together to make it happen. Andrew Herrick bought us a new ping-pong table as a reward, so we didn’t have to play on the conference table anymore, and it sat until we had completed the frames on time.
Everything went very smoothly for the tour. The riders were happy because their bikes fit, and Tchmil won the world cup that year. Lotto signed a contract for the next two years. The following years we built special bikes for Tchmil with narrower top tubes and special Paris-Roubaix bikes with longer chainstays and more tire clearance for the mud. The geometry for each bike had stock chainstay length and BB drop, but the head tube length (to the millimeter for each guy), top tube length, and seat angles were all made to measure. Most of the frames weren’t too unusual except for a few guys with really long head tubes, and Jacky Durand’s 71.8 seat angle.
The only frame to come back during the three seasons was Fabian DeWaele’s. Apparently a dog ran into the peloton and he ended up running into something.