During his Comeback 1.0 (after cancer recovery), Lance Armstrong insisted that his sponsors, mechanics and advisors to come up with the best possible equipment for him, which spurred development in high-end road bike equipment from all brands. While he did the same during Comeback 2.0, it did not result in Tour victory, and Armstrong’s effect on bicycle technology was considerably less powerful. However, his influence on social media the last few years has been profound.
During the BL (Before Lance) epoch, consumers could not buy the bikes their heroes were riding without getting them custom made. Consumers were less aware of this than, say, Formula 1 fans, who knew without a doubt that they could not buy the same car the Ferrari team raced in. Those in the know realized that the brand on the frame was seldom the name of the actual framebuilder — the guy entrusted with custom building a top rider’s tools of the trade, generally out of steel, aluminum, or titanium.
That changed during Comeback 1.0; starting at the turn of the millennium, Armstrong was a major driving force behind the rapid adoption of molded carbon fiber bikes. His winning of the Tour on a stock frame in 1999 was unheard of in the postwar era. But by 2005, every Tour team was riding carbon frames except Fassa Bortolo (on magnesium). Now, you can buy the same bikes being raced in, and winning, the Tour. The UCI would probably like to take credit for insisting that whatever is raced in the ProTour is available in bike shops, but that ruling really only is applicable to time trial equipment; the market drives the road bike business, not the UCI. Off-the-shelf road bikes winning the Tour started with Armstrong, as did American bike brands being the most prevalent in the peloton.
Armstrong 1.0 also had a profound effect on helmet designs, skinsuit fabrics and designs, and aero’ handlebar, wheel, shoe and pedal designs.
Armstrong 2.0 had less of an effect on cycling equipment, largely because the arms race in frame design launched during Armstrong 1.0 is still underway. And because he was not winning the Tour, consumers paid less attention to what he was riding. But that doesn’t mean people paid less attention to Armstrong himself. If anything, his four-year hiatus from cycling with frequent appearances in tabloids served to increase general interest in him. So his early adoption of Twitter and his understanding of how to use it as a powerful tool to influence people and mold his public persona gave him a springboard with which to launch Comeback 2.0 and to drive it forward. Testament to that was getting thousands of bike riders to show up with only a few days notice for a ride with him and Robbie McEwen prior to the 2010 Tour Down Under.
On the other hand, while there have been significant advances in Trek bikes since Armstrong’s final Tour victory in 2005, those advances probably still would have happened without his second coming. The new Madone designs were launched in 2007 before Comeback 2.0 was even hinted at, and the Trek TTX time trial bikes that we will see Leopard Trek on were launched during Comeback 2.0, but probably would have happened anyway, due to sheer momentum and the efforts of Trek’s competitors.
Other Comeback 1.0 tech effects
It was not only stock carbon frames, but prior to the Texan’s ride into Paris in 1999, Shimano also had been shut out of victory in the Tour. Not a superstitious man, Armstrong broke through that psychological barrier just as he did the barrier of the L’Alpe d’Huez stage winner never achieving overall Tour victory, a success he accomplished in both 2001 and 2004.
But his refusal to race on Shimano pedal designs current at the time (SPD and SPD-R), opting instead for an old Look-made Shimano version long since discontinued, resulted in Shimano creating a new pedal, the SPD-SL, which shares many characteristics with Look designs. Similarly, the shape of the ten-speed Shimano STI brake/shift lever relied heavily on Armstrong’s input.
In Armstrong’s first Tour win, he rode the time trials on a Trek-labeled Litespeed Blade. Trek worked with aerodynamics guru and Armstrong confidant John Cobb to come up with a sleek carbon Trek time trial bike, which ultimately became the Equinox 11 OCLV TT frameset raced by the Postal team and available through any Trek dealer.
A well-publicized combined effort further spurring on product development was Armstrong’s F-One group, formed in 2003 after his fifth straight Tour victory.
“F-One was born at an annual equipment assessment meeting when (U.S. Postal Team director) Johan Bruyneel politely attacked Trek in saying that our Equinox 11 was no longer cutting-edge technology,” says Trek Team Liaison Scott Daubert. “That challenged Trek to improve the bike Lance rides. But the F-One group immediately recognized that it was not the bike or the wheels or the rider’s clothing that would make any one big step forward but instead it would be the sum of the all components in use. Everything needed scrutinizing. We knew that any change in the bike affecting Lance’s position would have us addressing many details like skinsuit panel seams, helmet shape and even how his number is pinned on.”
The core members of the F-One group were Trek’s Doug Cusack and Daubert, Shimano’s Chris Distefano, Nike’s Jorge Carbó, Giro’s Toshi Cortset, and Hed Wheels’ Steve Hed. Dr. Len Brownlie of Aerosports Research and engineers at the University of Washington Aeronautical Laboratory also played key roles.
“F-One was basically the same as what we were doing for all these Olympic projects,” notes Hed, who has participated in Olympic equipment-development efforts as far back as the one aimed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics headed up by aerodynamicist Chester Kyle. That effort resulted in an unprecedented medal haul for the U.S. team in LA, the asterisk being that East Bloc teams were not present. There was also a strong push with aerodynamic bikes for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and project ’96 for Atlanta was again a huge endeavor reminiscent of 1984.
“What was interesting and why F-One was so successful was that it was geared toward one rider, whereas in the Olympic efforts, nobody ever knew who would be on the team,” muses Hed.
Indeed, those Olympic efforts came up with interesting bikes and equipment that had a small trickle-down effect into ongoing commercial products, but nothing like the flood of new equipment that we can all buy in our local bike stores as a result of equipment efforts aimed at Armstrong.
The fact that Armstrong’s equipment was displayed on a huge world stage for a month in July, seven years in a row, gave it a more lasting effect. Also, the Olympic equipment programs tended to be aimed primarily at track racing (especially once the team time trial was eliminated from the Games) and the masses do not buy track bikes.
The Tour is a lot bigger stage than a single Olympic medal race, and no Olympic cycling competitor has ever captured the collective psyche or been able to guarantee victory for those backing him the way Armstrong has. Manufacturers of bike equipment wanted to get behind him because they were confident that their efforts would be rewarded, unlike many Olympic equipment pushes that resulted in highly questionable returns on large investments for some companies.
“What drove F-One the most is having a lot of different companies involved all with a single goal in mind,” Hed points out. “It’s not just your company, but you’re always being checked by everyone else involved. You know if his helmet is not up to what the other top riders have, there will be pressure from the whole rest of the group to bring it up to the level. The same thing happened with my wheels; if there were other wheels out there that were better, they would all be pushing me to change my designs.”
Another reason that Armstrong’s influence on product design was so vast and lasting is the long span of time it happened over, unlike the short, ADD-type Olympic efforts that fizzle out immediately after the event. Spread over seven years of winning the Tour, there was time to test lots of new ideas in many races, under many riders, and over many months of training.
“You also have the influence of Johan and Lance in this process,” notes Hed appreciatively. “As a manufacturer, you always have lots of ideas, but these guys will actually listen to you and try them! They will let you know if your ideas are any good.”
“We all learned from Lance that you’ve got to be involved with these pro teams,” continues Hed. “It wasn’t just that the Trek aero’ bikes got better, the Madone got good, and the guys there (at Trek) really got an understanding of what it takes to make a great performance bike.” Daubert adds, “Everything Trek did was influenced by Lance and the team. Color choices, bike shape, bike performance, fit and feel, bike weight, bike sales and specific markets we aimed at, how Lance and the team could be used for Trek Travel trips, everything.”
Other riders and teams followed Armstrong’s lead, like Tyler Hamilton with the Phonak BMC time trial bikes and Bjarne Riis with all of the CSC team equipment, from slippery ceramic bearings to Cervelo frames and Zipp wheels that were simultaneously light, stiff and aerodynamic.
It should be also added that Trek products carrying the Bontrager brand, from wheels to aero’ bars to stems and drop bars, undoubtedly benefited from the relationship with Armstrong. “Two specific projects that he contributed to are carbon wheel performance and aero/TT handlebars,” says Daubert.
“Wheels were a challenge because of carbon braking characteristics. After months of researching what works when and where, we arrived at a pad and rim that is trusted by Lance and the team so much that they now only ask for our carbon rims when they place their annual wheel order. The only time they plan on racing aluminum wheels is in wet, northern European races in 2006.”
Back in the day, everyone had the same equipment and a level playing field. Now, you might say that is true again, but there has been a massive jump in equipment performance since 1999, much of which can be attributed to the “Armstrong effect” during Comeback 1.0. But the fact that we are on Twitter very likely has something to do with Armstrong’s Comeback 2.0.