THE PRICE OF JUMPING IN: CANNONDALE & THE TOUR DE FRANCE

By Zap

Coming off the finish of the Tour de France, race fans around the world no doubt took note of the many times that Cannondale bikes were at the front end of the peloton. In fact, owing to their bright pink (some would say garish) paint schemes on the EF Education team bikes, the bikes were hard to miss.

Magnus Cort  carried EF Education’s flag for the  first week of the Tour de France.  photo Nico Vereecken/PN/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

 

But this year’s Tour was not the first time that the American bike brand made people sit up and take notice.  We were reminded of years past when Cannondale  first made waves in the Tour de France not only for the colorful kits and riders on their Saeco team, but more so because in the days before carbon fiber took over, Cannondale was the first team to make aluminum frames a mainstay in the peloton.

THE LEGACY

Peter Sagan was responsible for a big push in Cannondale’s racing success. Photo: Bettini

Cannondale was not the first American bike brand to compete in the Tour de France. In fact, they weren’t even the second. The first-in honors really go to pioneer East Coast frame builder Ben Serotta, who was building the steel frames for the 7-Eleven riders in the mid-’80s. At one point both Huffy and Murray had bikes underneath the “Slurpees,” but they were still the stuff of Serotta’s handiwork. Fast-forward a few years, and in 1991, Greg LeMond and his Team Z-Tommaso mates were aboard full-carbon frames made by NorCal genius Craig Calfee. (Best of all, decades later, both Serotta and Calfee are still in the frame-building business.)

“Mario Cipollini only agreed to ride Cannondale if he could have a steel frame made by a friend and painted to look like the aluminum team bike, which would have been a complete disaster for Cannondale.”

 

However, when it comes to tracing the involvement of “big” American bike brands competing in the Tour de France, Cannondale can rightly place their name atop that mantle as the first bike company to make a dent in the La Grande Boucle. Of course, it wasn’t just their participation in the race alone that made waves. Although the team was stacked with talent and enjoyed race wins throughout Europe, there was really only one rider who made it all happen—Mario Cipollini. And, it was when the “Lion King” famously mugged for the camera following another Tour de France stage win in 1999, claiming that “Cannondale makes the best bikes,” that there was no longer any debate. Cannondale had arrived.

In chasing a story on Cannondale history for our sister ’zine Mountain Bike Action, I spent some time with Scott Montgomery who, as the son of Cannondale’s founder Joe Montgomery, was a mainstay in the brand’s marketing efforts for three decades. As Scott and I regaled in our shared history in the fat-tired world, remnants of stories relating to their sponsorship of the legendary Saeco road squad kept popping up. All of which led to the following look-back on how the American bike brand came to find their place in Tour de France history. 

ALUMINUM FRAMES AND COFFEE BEANS

Always one for a photo op, Mario Cipollini and teammates strike a pose for one of the best bike brand ad campaigns ever. Photo: Cannondale/Thomas Dooley

 

I think it’s safe to say that Cannondale revolutionized the road world in Europe with the introduction of aluminum bikes and the Saeco squad. How and where did it all begin?
I guess I’d have to say that it all started back in 1988 or so when I was meeting with my friend Marco Boglione who was the CEO and owner of the European clothing company Kappa, and at one time our partner in Cannondale Italy. “So, Scott-a,” he said with his heavy Italian accent, “do you want to play the big game in Europe?” And he talked about racing in Europe. Luckily, we had hired a guy named Beppo Hilfiker to do sales in Switzerland, and he became our conduit to all things in Europe. Beppo was my dear friend and partner in crime who later became the president of Cannondale Europe. 

Of course, in the early 90s mountain bike sales were exploding and just by being an American brand we were doing okay with (mountain) bike sales in Europe the time but selling maybe 100 road bikes a year. We knew the potential for growth in the Euro market was there, and we knew that going racing was really the only way to make something happen.

By 1996 Beppo had set up a meeting with Sergio Zappella, the founder of Saeco, and he called me and said I need to get to Italy right away. Of course, like all renegade CEOs of Italian companies, he had this beautiful estate in Tuscany where we would meet. And knowing what could come from a meeting if it went well, I was on my way!

Now, back then, American road bikes were about as cool as North Korean bikes! Most of the team deals for WorldTour teams got done over dinner and red wine with the team manager. Sergio was first and foremost a businessman, and he was mad that other than getting maybe 100 frames and groupsets he wasn’t getting any cash from the team’s current bike sponsor. Beppo, being the charming, smart guy that he is, told Sergio that we would be willing to pay cash. Now, keep in mind my father had no intention of paying any cash for the team and did not even think it was a good idea to begin with. I remember his last words to me before leaving for the airport were, “Don’t spend any money!” He thought I could sign the team and then pass off some of the costs on sub-sponsor deals like I had done with Volvo-Cannondale.

So, the next day I found myself sitting in this amazing house in Tuscany with walls made of stone and a massive swimming pool on the patio where we were sitting. To my left were olive groves as far as the eye can see, and to my right were grape vineyards. Not bad! Beppo was doing all the talking in Italian as I just sat there just staring off into the sun feeling like I was on a movie set. Finally, we started talking about the price; the figure was $100,000. Well, as the word had been spreading that we were interested in a WorldTour team, Sergio’s cell phone started lighting up. He was getting calls from all over Italy. The big players were not excited at all to know that this little weird American mountain bike brand was interested in the Tour de France, and with each call the price of the team went up. 

“I don’t think most consumers appreciate just how much safer and better performing the bikes they buy are due to the bike companies having to meet the demands of the pro riders.”

 

So, finally at around dinnertime, we were up to $500k, which back then was a serious number and way outside what I was authorized to spend. But, the last thing I was going to do was call my father. I needed a signed contract and to go home with a win. Finally, Sergio got an offer for one million euros from a big Italian bike brand, and he says, “Forget you. Last year you only offered frames, no cash, no marketing and now these dumb Americans show up and you offer me everything!” And much to my amazement he accepted the $500k and gave us a two-year deal. My father would have killed me if he knew that part of the deal, but at the time we’d just gone public, so the company had a lot of money, and I knew we could hide the cost and we would work it out later. And, of course, the rest is history.

In the end, due to the tremendous integrity and enthusiasm of Beppo, we convinced Sergio that we could really help globalize the Saeco brand, which was mostly Italian. By the way, Mario Cipollini only agreed to ride Cannondale if he could have a steel frame made by a friend and painted to look like the aluminum team bike, which would have been a complete disaster for Cannondale. Fortunately, Mario was as strong as an ox and, much to his surprise, found that the Cannondale frame was a big advantage. 

Over the years we’ve talked about how Cannondale’s in-house manufacturing and testing had evolved just to deal with the needs of the mountain bike team. Did the Saeco deal bring about any similar impact?
I don’t think most consumers appreciate just how much safer and better performing the bikes they buy are due to the bike companies having to meet the demands of pro riders. That definitely started at Cannondale with the Volvo-Cannondale riders who weren’t happy with the production bikes they were racing. The riders forced us to improve everywhere. 

Another key development was our hiring a guy named Dick Resch in the mid-’90s. He was a 48-year-old theologian who worked as an intern at Cannondale one summer while he was pursuing an MBA at Yale. Before you know it, he was the head of our manufacturing and instituted many changes, which I think ultimately impacted the whole industry. Remember, there was a time when Cannondale’s were referred to as “crack-n-fails,” and in one meeting Dick told my dad that we would have to recall every bike we made. You can imagine how well that went over! 

The changes we made at the frame factory not only made the bikes better, but they also saved us a bunch of money. By implementing the Kanzai (Toyota) and WIP (work in progress) production methods, we went from having up to 3000 frames waiting for days to be built to needing only 24 hours.  

Along with a guy named Marco Plant, Dick was instrumental in creating in-house testing standards that looked at everything from heat treating to weld quality, and we’d have guys riding around wearing big backpacks on with computers wired to the bikes to collect data. One of the things we discovered was that it wasn’t the big, heavy guys like Cipollini who stressed the frames as much as it was the shorter sprinters like Simoni who had those bursts of acceleration.  

All the Saeco guys needed custom frames, which as a large manufacturer was something we were never big on. But, again, thanks to Dick we came up with a “tab and slot” frame tube design that did away with the need for individual frame fixtures. We had to make a lot of bikes for the team, and the changes we’d made in the factory helped make that possible. 

Just as it occurred with the Volvo-Cannondale team that preceded Saeco by a few years, I remember the marketing effort also had a big impact, especially with the “Renaissance” ad.

 

Yeah, we really lucked out with the creative agency we used. We started out using an East Coast agency, and they were slick but weren’t cyclists. When I saw those early RockShox ads, they really caught my eye, so I called (RockShox founder) Paul Turner and asked him who was doing their creative. Thomas Dooley was the guy, and although I don’t think he was excited about working for us at first, when he got the ball rolling, he just nailed it! Unlike other agencies, Thomas and his team never needed much planning. To make that Renaissance ad, all I did was buy him a ticket to Italy and he did all the rest.

What was it like getting into the Tour de France?
It was huge, and it made a huge difference for the company on a worldwide basis. I mean, before Trek or Specialized showed up, Cannondale was the first American brand to lead the way into Europe and the Tour. I’m not sure it’s still the same today, but back in the ’90s, getting into the Tour de France was as shoo-in for sales for any brand. I mean, we went from selling like 30 (road) bikes a year in Europe to 5000! At one point we almost signed a second team as a defensive move when we heard GT was trying to get a European team, but it never came through.

The Saeco team came five years after Cannondale first shook-up the mountain bike world with the all-powerful Volvo backed squad.


Cannondale was a racing and marketing juggernaut in the ’90s. Looking back, how do you compare the two different teams?
Cannondale made a lot of history with both teams, but one had to come before the other. In the early ’90s we were selling mountain bikes in Europe, but we were falling behind in America. The mountain bike team changed that dynamic and also brought us into the world of suspension. I would say the mountain bike team was more impactful, because going into the 2000s it also impacted our road sales in Europe. We were no longer just a mountain bike company!

Ciao Mario!

Top Photo: Bettini

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