January 15, 2008 4 Comments
When Zap asked me for some recollections of Mavic in the early US days, I took the moment to contact an old friend in San Francisco who had a lot Mavic experience, Richard Goodwin. We each put pen to paper and wrote a few words about the past, nothing serious. Folks from that era who aren't mentioned are not forgotten. These are just brief reminiscences.
Now I've decided to share them with you. Time passes, but the memories live on.
During the summer of 1984 I had the good fortune of being invited to France by Jonathan Boyer and Bruno Gormand to work at Mavic and the Tour de France for two months. I ended up staying with the company for eight years (thru 1992). I started the Mavic Neutral Assistance program in the US and eventually became co-manager of the US operations.
Mavic was one of the only "old school" French companies that would survive the St. Etienne curse. In the seventies, the French cycling industry owned a sizable chunk of the commodity 10-speed market. Peugeot, Motobécane and other French brands dominated. Mafac, Simplex, Huret, Stronglight, Nervar et al provided the hardware to hang on these bicycles. Then the Japanese came to the game and we all know how that story ended. The following are a few profiles of some of the people I came to know (and still know) during my tenure at Mavic. My only regret is that I didn't buy a house in France during my years with the company.
First and foremost, the Mavic I know from the 80’s and 90’s was as much a family as a company. As such, when the company moved its headquarters from St. Trivier sur Moignans to Annecy after the Salomon acquisition, many of the employees stayed behind, even though the move was only about 130 kilometers. Such are the French.
Bruno Gormand (president) was a typically French entrepreneur. He smoked, drank, loved good food and lived the life of a French playboy. He knew absolutely everyone in the European world of cycling. He took the reigns of the company in 1964 and put in place the team that would be with the company until the end of the century. His visions were neutral race support, components and hard anodized rims (SSC Gris). Although Mavic components had limited success in the market, many of their innovations are now omnipresent in the world of cycling components. I was present for his funeral at the church in St. Trivier sur Moignans in December 1985. It was a who's who of the cycling world. Thousands of flowers arrived from nearly every cycling related company in the world. The outpouring of homage so crowded the small cemetery where he was laid to rest that most of the other gravestones in the cemetery were also covered by the bouquets from his peers in the industry and sport.
Jean-Pierre Lacombe... The effervescent head of product development and R&D. You could see the gleam in his eye when he was showing off one of his team's new creations. Whether it was electronic shifting or soldered rims with machined sidewalls, Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm for R&D and cycling was infectious. He was the spark that kept innovation alive at Mavic and kept the firm interesting through its constant innovation.
The late Josette Paccard... Josette was born and raised in the French department L'Ain where Mavic settled in 1967. The reality was that Josette could have been provincially French. As the sales manager and right hand of Bruno, she was anything but provincial. All clients were equally important to her. She made a big effort to learn English and was always accessible and pleasant. She had a very "American" straightforward way of going about her business and the business of Mavic. I feel she had a huge effect on the success of Mavic during her tenure at the company.
Laurent Michelon ran the neutral service and team supply department (Service des Courses). Laurent was a very provincial young Frenchman who seemed to have it out for the two Americans whom had invaded his service des courses atelier in 1984. When I returned to France 11 years after leaving Mavic, I stopped by his house to say hello. He was outwardly happy to see his first American student. In the month preceding the Tour, it was our job (with Laurent) to learn the intricacies of Mavic components and to build the 40 bicycles destined for the Cafe de Columbia team, the first Columbian team to compete in the Tour de France. I see him every year when I return to France.
For an impressionable bicycle geek in the ‘70’s, the high end bicycle World was simple. Italy had sleek frames and awesome gruppo’s. France dominated wheels, chains, and grand touring bicycles. The rest of the planet had a few standouts: Hetchins and Brooks in England, Mondia and Assos in Switzerland, Zeus in Spain. But, in the main, it was all about Italy and France.
Early in my career, I became fascinated with wheels. The invisible tension, weightlessness, constant rotation, the mysteries of construction, and the way they transform a bicycle (much more than a frame transforms a groupset)... nothing else compared. And France dominated the wheel scene. So France was the center of my world.
Super Champion rims; Wolber, Hutchinson, Michelin, and Dugast tires; Robergel and Bayard spokes; Maillard, Atom, and Maxicar hubs; Roval wheels; and, of course, Mavic. What a huge effect these must have had on each other. Together, they were light years ahead of the rest of the World. All the subsequent wheel trends were begun here: aluminum rims, disk and carbon spoke wheels, cartridge bearing hubs, aerodynamic spokes, low spoke count wheels, high pressure clinchers, aero rims, the list goes on. For a kid in Palo Alto, reading French was mandatory and Le Cycle was a monthly inspiration.
As years went by, Mavic emerged as the only one of that group to forge a deep culture and elude the general demise of the French bicycle industry. They had both technical cleverness and a great sense of showmanship and style. This translated into the ability to read and lead the market with the obvious outcome today.
So, I obsessed over things Mavic for many years. Wheelsmith was proud to be Mavic’s largest North American customer for years. Mavic embraced us like family and we felt a confidence that the California bicycle scene, alone, couldn't have provided. So when Bruno Gormand died tragically, the ensuing company crisis was very real for us. How could the company survive when only his wife and daughters succeeded him? Bruno was larger than life. How could Ferrari have survived without Enzo, or Campagnolo without Tullio?
It was inspirational how resourceful the Gormand women proved to be. And the support they received from key Mavic staff and others enabled the beginning of an unprecedented run of product and market successes. It was convenient for us that a major US office was in nearby Monterey, we were never far from Mavic activities.
It’s funny how often I dreamt of working for Mavic. And yet, all these years, I never tried. Maybe I suspected the reality wouldn’t measure up. Or perhaps it’s better to appreciate a great organization from a safe distance.
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