Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

Z TEAM PROFILE

Picture if you will the most rock-solidly traditional bastion of the sporting establishment, with a history going back over a century embedded in the very roots of this sport. Our team wears colours that go back more than 20 years and have been worn by the greatest athletes in this sport, to win the greatest events. The design is instantly recognisable because the colours are also are worn by amateurs the nation over as they compete. Our team is sponsored by a company that is a national institution, one that has probably provided every family in the country with locomotion of some kind, either car or bike or moped.

There is no British or American equivalent for Peugeot, because the status that the bike company and its sponsored cycling teams enjoyed in France in the 1970s and 1980s was unique. Peugeot had a place in the national warp and weft akin to an English football club such as Arsenal, but at the same time Peugeot itself in its various guises was as good as universal. It was not a national joke in the way that mass-market British car companies were by then. People had been getting on Peugeot bikes and velomoteurs to go to work for over 100 years, and the chances are that a good few of the nation’s children had either been conceived in the back of a Peugeot, or with the Peugeot used as transport to the place of conception.

All this is to underline that when the Peugeot cycling team stopped being known as Peugeot in 1987 it was quite an event. This is putting it mildly. That solid, dependable national institution of a name was suddenly coupled with, not another name, as in the case of other major bike companies (think Panasonic-Raleigh, think La Redoute-Motobecane or Renault-Gitane), but a letter. And not just any letter. Z, if you will, the most unlikely of all. And to make the point, there was a kit change, a seismic one. Out went the damiers, the black and white chessboard of the old institution, and in came a ker-pow splodge-splat punch of a logo that might not have looked out of place in a Superman comic strip, along with a scrawl that might have been written by a child, vetements enfants. This is our logo, said the jersey, you haven’t heard of us, but this is what we do.

It was the end of an era. Peugeot had begun sponsoring cyclists not long after its inception in 1882. As a team, in various guises, it had been around since the turn of the century and it had won four of the first six Tours de France. The damiers had graced greats including Eddy Merckx, Charly Gaul, Walter Godefroot, Tom Simpson, Bernard Thévenet and Roger Pingeon. Peugeot had always made a point of using French componentry: Mafac centrepull brakes, Simplex gears, bits and pieces from TA, Wolber tyres. And as sole surviving last big-time squad where the lead sponsor was a bike manufacturer, Peugeot was the last factory team in cycling.

The change was very much of its time, however. The arrival of Z coincided with the point where cycling entered a new world. Between 1986 and 1991, on the back of Greg LeMond’s success, and a massive expansion in television coverage of the Tour de France, cycling went global and Z was part of that process. To start with, Z didn’t make the kind of product that fitted the profile of traditional cycling fans. The riders who had been publicising Peugeot were no longer advertising basic consumer goods – radios, cars, cigarettes, booze, chewing gum, sausages – like most of their peers. They were pedalling sandwich board men for a chain of children’s clothing stores. This was a different market: not blokes who might go to bike races, but their wives who might watch the sport on daytime television. The sport? No, not the sport, but the event that rapidly came to be the sport: the Tour de France.

Z’s arrival was a sudden affair. “Peugeot decided they were going to stop sponsoring during the 1986 Tour, which gave me about a month to find a new sponsor,” recalled Roger Legeay, who had moved on from riding for Peugeot to working as its directeur sportif that same year. Legeay’s career as a team manager could have been short-lived, but the sponsor found Legeay. Z’s founder Roger Zannier saw one of the many media reports about Peugeot pulling out, and got in touch. He was drawn in part by the fact that a Peugeot rider, the bequiffed and sideburned teddy boy lookalike Ronan Pensec, had just finished 5th in the Tour de France. A stage win for Jerome Simon had probably done no harm either. Zannier’s company needed to make people aware of its existence; Peugeot desperately needed a sponsor.

Zannier had built the company from nothing, beginning in 1962 when he and his sister Josette bought two sewing machines and began making clothes. The Z brand name was relatively new, having been launched in 1983 as a range of shops and franchises across France as Zannier made the move from distributing his clothes through hypemarkets, and simultaneously shifted production to the far East. By 1986, the company had just been listed on the Lyon stock exchange and was poised for growth, the number of Z stores having grown to 80 in just two years; a year later it hit 135.

It didn’t take long to arrange the marriage, largely, says Legeay, thanks to the fact that Zannier was in essence putting in his own money. It was his company and he was the only decision-maker. “It was one man, one decision. And I would underline that it was his money. I’ve had other sponsors, where I would be dealing with someone who was an employee. That was nowhere near as direct.” Zannier and Legeay were on the committee that designed the modernistic looking jersey. It wasn’t that hard, he recalls. “The logo was already in existence and the deep blue was the colour of the company. The main addition we made was the decision to make the writing look as if it was the handwriting of a child.”

Legeay underlines that the development of the jersey was only possible because new printing techniques meant the end of any practical restrictions on what you put on your kit. The sky was the limit. “It was very recognisable. Everyone got to know it. When we released it, the public felt it was very young in style. There were some people who were shocked, because it was so avant-garde.” There were no complaints from the fans, who understood that this was the way their sport was moving, but there could not have been a more apposite symbol of the death of tradition represented by the death of Peugeot.

Zannier’s personal investment, gave the team a distinctive atmosphere, Legeay believes. “I would say it was familiale. It was very personal. This was sponsorship with a human dimension.” That chimes in with Millar’s experience. Zannier lived in Saint-Etienne, so he would tend to drop in at races in Alps, often bringing his red Ferrari Testarossa, “a treat for the lucky soigneur or mechanic who got to drive it to the hotel the next day if Zannier followed the stage in the team car, although usually they were too worried about scraping it to really enjoy it.” Millar recalls that at the end of the 1990 season, the Z head had organised a celebration meal for the team. Millar had been sent to an invitation time trial – the UCI’s abortive World Cup finale – and needed collecting from the airport. “Zannier said he would oblige as it was on his way to the meal and there he was waiting for me outside the terminal in his Rolls Royce.” And it was Zannier who drove him.

Robert Millar, who led Z in 1989, recalls that Zannier was “aware of where he had come from and where he was now. He would encourage you to try harder or do better but it wasn’t the usual cheesy corporate talk you got from someone who had learned what to say from a book. You knew he had earned his experience and refreshingly he didn’t talk down to you. He wasn’t a pushover though as there was a hardness to him that you see in most self-made people.”

The Z team was designed purely for marketing, writes Laurent Fignon somewhat disparagingly in his autobiography, Young and carefree – to be released in English translation this summer. Fignon is correct, but there is no point in being disparaging. From the end of the 1980s, marketing was what mattered in cycling and Z pulled off the coup of the 1980s when, at the end of 1989 Legeay hired LeMond, who had become the biggest name in cycling almost overnight. The American had just won the most dramatic Tour de France ever, and had added the world title. The transfer was to change the sport. (In marketing terms, that move, Zannier said, coincided with his company’s expansion into markets outside France: Spain, Belgium and so on.)

LeMond didn’t base his decision on marketing, but on a curiously prescient statement of faith. In September 1988, the pair had met at the GP Isbergues. LeMond was in the doldrums after his shooting accident; he quit after 40km. “I asked him if he wanted to ride for me in 1989, and he said he’d already given his word to ADR,” says Legeay. “I said OK, but any time he wanted to come, he would be welcome.” The pair met again, again by chance, the day before LeMond suddenly became an interesting proposition again in 1989. The Tour transferred to Brittany for a time trial. Legeay used the spare time that evening to go and look at the course, and bumped into the American, who was out on his bike. “I said I still wanted him for next year.” The next day, LeMond won the stage, took the yellow jersey, and the neck and neck race with Fignon began.

After the 1989 Tour, LeMond was courted by three teams: the Americans from 7-Eleven – which might have looked to be the obvious choice given his nationality – Toshiba, for whom he had already ridden, and Z, the candidate from left field. Initially there was talk of sponsorship from the Coors beer company along with Z, but it didn’t happen. What did happen was that LeMond took cycling salaries and team budgets into a new stratosphere.

7-Eleven opened the bidding at a million dollars a year – the first time such a salary had been up for grabs in the sport – but Z topped that with a $5.5million offer over three years. They weren’t the highest bidder – Toshiba had put up $6million – but it wasn’t all about the money. Z would now ride LeMond’s own bikes, they had, believed LeMond, a squad of climbers who would help him win the Tour again, and Legeay had expressed interest in him before he won the Tour. And here’s a footnote: for those who believe that Bradley Wiggins is the first cyclist to break a contract to go to a team which suits him better, LeMond quit the ADR squad with a year of his deal remaining – and the matter went to court.

To British fans, Z is best known as the team that relaunched Millar’s career in 1989, when the Scot joined the squad after a catastrophic season at Fagor. Millar was one of the climbers who drew LeMond to the team (the Scot nicknamed Z “the 50-kilo team” because many of the riders were diminutive mountain men such as himself, Bruno Cornillet, Jerome Simon, and Atle Kvalsvoll of Norway). Millar won the third Tour stage of his career for Z at Superbagnères in the 1989 race, outsprinting  Pedro Delgado after a classic day-long escape over the great Pyrenean climbs, and then kicked on to produce his best stage race victory in the Dauphiné in 1990.

Having spent the formative years of his career at Peugeot, Millar recalled joining Z as being like “going home”. “I returned to a situation which I was more comfortable in. In many ways it was like an improved version of Peugeot. Most of the backroom staff I knew and appreciated. I knew all the team directors from riding with them at one time or another and I knew most of the riders so fitting in wasn’t hard. I had learned at Panasonic how to race smarter so the rider I was when I left the old Peugeot came back to a very similar set-up but with a lot more experience.”

Ironically, the Scot had had a celebrated run-in with Legeay at Peugeot, where the pair had stopped rooming together because Millar objected to the Frenchman “having a sneaky cigarette in the room with his mates.” Legeay, says Millar, was more open to ideas than the managers who had run Peugeot in the early 1980s, and believed in letting all the riders have an opportunity to enjoy protected status if their form permitted, unlike at Panasonic. Not every English-speaker found the Frenchman this accommodating. Adrian Timmis moved to Z in 1988, but never really fitted in, had a disastrous year and lost his place at the end of the season. He now simply recalls Z as “very French.” That was to change radically in the next couple of years.

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Legeay enjoyed a lengthy career in team management, pulling in several major sponsors – Gan, Crédit Agricole – and went on to become a key member of the French cycling establishment (along with Jean-Marie Leblanc and Thierry Cazeneuve) but that was no surprise, given Millar’s verdict on him. “Out of all the team managers I had encountered as riders he was probably the best communicator, in that he understood he had to consider everyone in the team as people and not just things to be used. I never felt like he talked down to me and that was a big change in attitude compared to what I had seen previously. He planned well so there were no big surprises.”

There was another big character in the team besides Legeay. Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, commonly known as “Gibus” was a solidly built, charismatic, slightly swaggering pro from South-West France, with a penchant for the Classics. Duclos would spend his whole career at Legeay’s side, first with Peugeot, then Z, and lastly GAN, and as LeMond’s star faded in 1992 and 1993 – and with Millar at pastures new – he delivered the team’s biggest wins, taking Paris-Roubaix in both years.

“Duclos always acted like he was captain of the ship. He had always been at Vélo Club de Paris, so it was his home, it was all he knew so he couldn’t see any imperfections. He was very French. He was often loud, proud, he could be charming and he only really took things seriously when it was Paris-Roubaix and Tour de France time. Again that was typically French. Big, strong, bloody-minded.”

It was Duclos, says Millar, who would attempt to dominate proceedings at early-season training camps by half-wheeling any potential challengers. He “didn’t like it if you weren’t willing to be dominated for the sake of the Duclos show. By the time I came back to his fold I knew what I wanted from a training camp and I wasn’t bothered by his showing off of having to prove he could be the strongest of the group in February. Unfortunately not everyone would agree with his alpha-male status so occasionally you got dragged up some hill at warp factor as he enforced his point.”

LeMond’s arrival sent the team up a gear. He brought in his personal soigneur, the Mexican Otto Jacome – Stetson hat and bulging biceps – and the mechanic Julien De Vries, a nervous, perfectionistic Belgian who had worked with Merckx and would go on to wield a spanner for Lance Armstrong. LeMond completely changed the tenor of the team, because it was no longer a matter of non-French riders adapting to a French institution, but a matter of Z taking on board what its leader wanted. Millar recalls a far greater buzz around the team, bigger demands on the riders at races when LeMond was not there, but most of all, he felt the management were “introduced to working in the world outside France and Europe. Even though they had English-speaking riders it had been expected that you spoke French at all times, but not any longer.” So the French institution that had been Peugeot became an open-minded international team.

LeMond, says Millar, would read a book at the dinner table while waiting for his food. He might send Otto out to hire an air-conditioning unit if the hotel was too hot. He was a man who would take his carbon-fibre bike up to his room to the consternation of the mechanics. He demanded the best equipment and it had to fit in with his personal deals and his inventive ideas. He turned up with his own handlebars designed by Scott (does anyone else out there remember the Drop-In, cunningly designed to get the sponsor’s name on television as well as to give a lower riding position?). In 1992, he began the brief vogue for using Rockshox mountain bike forks at Paris-Roubaix. He had his own pair of antique shoes, constantly adjusted to suit his feet, which gave him gyp, and while at Z he tried out helmet radios as well as the truly weird Drop-In Two bar.

LeMond also demanded considerable patience from his team manager. In 1990, in particular, he was out of sorts for most of the early season, struggling even to finish the stages in the Trump Tour in his native US, and then creeping through the Giro to finish 107th. Not surprisingly, when it was revealed that he had a viral infection, questions were asked about whether he would manage to win the Tour. Having been through all this with his American, it should come as no surprise that once Legeay had snagged his next sponsor, Gan, in 1994, he was totally open to the idea of hiring a time trial specialist who didn’t talk French, who was largely new to international road racing, and who didn’t want to live in France. Without LeMond paving the way, Chris Boardman’s career might have had a very different complexion.

The 1990 Tour was to be Z’s finest hour. LeMond, having grovelled through the Giro, turned out to be almost as good as in 1989, Fignon was below par, Pedro Delgado was just coming off the boil and Claudio Chiappucci emerged as the dark horse. Z played a blinder, placing Pensec in the first stage’s “gift” four-man break that gained 10 minutes. The Frenchman took the yellow jersey in the Alps, and Millar played his part in the triumph by helping Pensec keep in touch at l’Alpe d’Huez. That in turn paved the way for LeMond to eliminate Chiappucci two days later en route to Saint Etienne. Pensec attacked early in the stage, forcing the Italian – who had taken yellow the previous stage – to chase and wearing out his team so that when LeMond made his move later on with the other ‘heads’, Chiappucci had nothing left and lost four minutes that would prove decisive later on.

The only major hiccup came as the race rode out of the Pyrenees. By now, LeMond looked the winner in waiting, lying a mere 5sec behind Chiappucci with the final Saturday’s time trial still to come. But close to the summit of the Col de Marie-Blanque, the American punctured, and there were no team mates with him. Millar, who might usually have taken on the role, was at home, having been forced out of the race with food poisoning in the Massif Central. Duclos’ and Kvalsvoll had been permitted to race in the day’s early break and were 5min ahead; Eric Boyer and Jerome Simon were behind, as was Pensec. The team car was stuck behind a chasing group. LeMond waited nearly 90sec for a spare wheel, and by then Chiappucci had attacked.

“Once the summit had been reached, 1min27sec after Chiappucci had crossed it, the pursuit was hectic,” wrote Geoff Nicholson in Le Tour, his account of the 1990 race. “If LeMond had feared for his victory, he showed no fear on the descent. ‘I have never seen a rider come down so fast,’ said a race official. ‘I have never seen anyone take so many risks.” Up front, Duclos-Lassalle and Kvalsvoll were made to stop and wait to help LeMond in the final phase of a pursuit that lasted 21km and gave rise to a lively debate about whether Chiappucci should have attacked his rival or not.

At the end of the race, Millar says, “Legeay and Michel Laurent [his assistant] looked like they had aged 10 years.” But there were compensations. Nicholson wrote that the team earned £248,480 for winning the Tour – and true to tradition, LeMond took none of it. The American took the same approach to the $300,000US bonus he had been promised by Zannier. He also gave each of the team a gold Tag Heuer watch. But, “he hadn’t just bought popularity,” wrote Nicholson. “He had repaid their loyalty with his own. He had played absolutely fair with Pensec. He may have known that Pensec wouldn’t stay the course, but as long as he was in the yellow jersey, LeMond supported and encouraged him.” “I was more relieved than anything when he won,” says Millar. “To see the pressure he was under every day was unbelievable.”

In 1991 LeMond was the favourite, again, but the arrival of Miguel Indurain underlined that his best years were behind him and he went from looking a likely winner in the first few days to being an also-ran by the Alps. At Z matters weren’t helped when Millar and Atle Kvalsvoll crashed early on, and Millar survived of the race riding in a neck brace and swathed in bandages. “When it came to the stages where we would normally be helping Greg we were in the last group just surviving,” recalls Millar. LeMond was unable to hang on to the best, for the first time in his career in the Tour, and was said to be mystified that his legs hurt. The Scot left Z that winter for TVM, but he was aware well before the end of the Tour that his time at the French team was up.

As Lemond’s powers declined, 1992 was salvaged by Duclos-Lassalle’s win in Paris-Roubaix – although who now remembers that LeMond, no less, came in ninth after working hard to defend his team mate’s lone winning break? The American struggled again in the 1992 Tour, was left dumbfounded by Indurain’s “superhuman” time trial at Luxembourg and was totally out of the reckoning by the Alps, where he eventually quit with Duclos-Lassalle at his side. The Z era, in the Tour at least, ended with something of a whimper; the GAN years, for Legeay and his team, at least offered Boardman’s solid run of successes in the Tour’s prologue.

What legacy did Z leave? Legeay recalls that over their six years’ sponsorship, the company’s awareness figures went up from a mere 5-6% – “they were completely unknown” – to 37-38%. By 1992 sales had topped 2 billion francs and there were over 200 Z stores. That is mightily impressive in marketing terms – apologies Monsieur Fignon – but there were achievements in sporting term as well. Z were, Legeay points out, the last French team to win the Tour – and the fact that this was 20 years ago remains an inditement of French cycling. The manager sums up: “I started out with a team that was average, we got better and better every year, and ended up winning the Tour.”

For all the eyebrows that shot up when that jersey was revealed, it remains one of the iconic designs of the 1980s, along with the Mondrian-design for La Vie Claire. Z’s website today claims that the company is “the current global leader in kidswear with 20 brands… strong internal growth… major acquisition operations… brand portfolio that allows it to cover all market segments and assert itself progressively…” The company is an umbrella for some 20 companies that include Levis franchises and adult clothing chains such as Chipie. It’s clearly a huge success, but there is no mention of cycling, no nod to Greg LeMond and not a glimpse of the logo or a hint of that jersey, which is a shame. Forget the corporate jargon, let’s remember Z this way: Vive Greg et Bob. Ker-pow-splat!

This article appeared in issue 16 of Rouleur magazine, available through www.rouleur.cc