The Year of Living Dangerously, Part II

The second half of the Service Course interview with former Mercury-Viatel assistant sport director Whit Yost is presented below. You can read the first half here. Whit's observations on cycling can be found at Pavé.

SC: When the rumours about missing rider payments at Mercury-Viatel went public, were you still being paid?

WY: I was being paid at that time. I think Wordin realized, and we kind of made it clear, that if he stopped paying us the team really does just shut down. And keep in mind, my salary was such a pittance that I think he looked at it as, “I can fire Gallopin at whatever he’s making, and I can pay Whit Yost what he’s making to fill in the blanks long enough to get me through to October.” We still joke about the validity…I still have my “contract.” My last payment was October, and that was it. I didn’t received any of the final few months that I certainly thought I was entitled to.

SC: What stands out as the low point from those times?

WY: Certainly the end of that season. When Gallopin lost his job in July and it was announced that Eddy Borysewicz and myself would be responsible for picking up his duties, and Eddy B hadn’t set foot in Europe yet at that time. I was known as Gallopin’s number two man. And I think that certainly from Gallopin’s standpoint and from the perspective of a lot of his colleagues in the sport, there was this assumption that I had done something to stab Gallopin in the back so that I could have his job, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

I remember the night that Wordin called me and Stan [Barrett] and John Sessa, the head mechanic and said, “you guys need to meet at the office at 7:00. Gallopin’s coming to turn over his keys and hand over all his files, and I want all three of you to be there for it in case he tries anything funny.” I remember him coming in, and he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. I tried to talk to him, I tried to apologize, I tried to tell him that I thought this was unfair and I had nothing to do with it, and he wouldn’t even look at me. Several months later I saw him at Paris-Tours and tried to shake his hand, and he just walked right by me. That was the worst part.

SC: Have you had any contact with Gallopin since?

WY: No, none whatsoever. I hope that maybe one day down the road I’ll be somewhere and I’ll be able to talk to him about it. But I don’t know. The guy was really a father figure for me. He picked me up at the airport when I got back to Europe in October. I stayed with him and his family. I stayed in their guestroom. He drove me around. Everything I learned about being a director, Gallopin taught me. To this day, I really wish I will one day have a chance to talk to him about it, and make him see that I had nothing to do with it, and that I thought it was just as unfair as he did. But I was in a position where, if I fought it too much, I would have lost my job, too. By that point, Wordin didn’t care about who he fired, he didn’t care about breaking contracts or breaking promises. He was doing everything he could to save the program.

SC: You spoke earlier about Tonkov calling you his director from the outset, and that Van Petegem and many of the Europeans were very respectful of you. That, to me, speaks to the more ingrained professionalism of the sport in Europe. Do you think that the subsequent explosion of Mercury-Viatel affected European’s image of the professionalism of American teams?

WY: Yes, I think so. People looked at Wordin as this Californian, surfer-slash-cowboy character that no one really took seriously to begin with. In 2001, Mercury gave him enough money that he had to be taken seriously, financially. The team won a bunch of races at the beginning of the season thanks to Gallopin. That was all Gallopin and the talent of the riders.

But yeah, there wasn’t a lot of damage control, and I have no doubt that it hurt the credibility of American cycling. I’m sure that for a guy like Jonathan Vaughters there have been times where he thought to himself, “Jesus, if only this guy hadn’t made things so much harder for me, I might be even farther along than I am.”

SC: I can almost hear some readers saying that the success of U.S. Postal/Discovery should have no doubt countered that poor impression of American cycling. But those are basically European teams.

WY: Yeah, those were all European teams. If you go back, as I’m sure you know, if you look at U.S. Postal’s history in races, they didn’t become really successful until from a managerial and staffing standpoint, they cut themselves apart from their U.S. counterparts. It wasn’t until those changes were made that they really became the juggernaut that they were.

SC: The guys who were already big, experienced riders at that point – Tonkov, Van Petegem, Van Bon – do you have any insight into their perception of the situation? Did they let you in on their thinking at all as this was unfolding?

WY: I think they knew that we were doing everything we could to make the team successful. I would hope that if you were to bump into Pavel Tonkov or Peter Van Petegem and ask them what they think, I hope they would say that we were really good guys, and we worked really, really hard, and it’s unfair that they got caught up in this experience. [Wordin] got too big, too soon, when he didn’t really have time to learn the ropes. In fact, I know I said the opposite before, but maybe a guy like Jonathan Vaughters owes a debt of gratitude to John Wordin, because he gave an example of what not to do in trying to create a European professional team.

Granted, a lot of these guys have been through it before. There’s not a whole lot of regulation in professional cycling. If the UCI spent half the money they spend in regulating people’s blood values on regulating the management of the teams as businesses, we’d have a much stronger sport.

SC: The 2001 Mercury roster had a lot of riders who have since gone on to notable careers, like Baden Cooke and Floyd Landis. Was there a feeling back then of what those then-unknowns were capable of? And for all the other flaws, what does that say about Wordin’s ability to pick talent?

WY: It’s funny you say that. That was Wordin’s number one skill. Wordin knew talent. He took Floyd out of nowhere. He took Baden Cooke out of nowhere. And Floyd and Baden are two great examples. I knew, and said at some point during that season, “Baden Cooke is going to win a classic some day.” He didn’t win the major classics that I hoped he would. Part of that, I think, is that when he signed with Francaise des Jeux, FdJ wanted to market him in France. But the next year he went out and won Dwars doors Vlaanderen. And right away I said, this is it. Baden’s going to become the Baden that we all thought he was going to be.

Floyd? Everybody sort of saw the talent in Floyd if he could just keep his mouth shut and earn his knocks and sort of learn how to race in a European style. I think everybody saw that potential there, and obviously other people did too, because he went on to do what he did.

Matt Wilson was the same sort of thing. Matt never got as high as I think he could have, but he was a stagiare for us towards the end of 2001. He went on to sign with Francaise des Jeux and work for Baden and ride several Tours. So, yes, by far Wordin’s biggest strength was picking talent. Absolutely.

SC: We talked a bit about the team’s bike sponsor issues, but let’s talk a little about the equipment itself. At the start of Het Volk in 2001, some of the Mercury riders were chatting with the Aussies on Credit Agricole. When the CA guys asked how the new team bike was, the verbatim answer I heard was, “it’s shit.” What was the feeling about the equipment within the team? Mercury had to have been the last big team to ride steel frames.

WY: Yeah, we were sort of rockin’ it 1988 style for awhile there. You heard it from the horse’s mouth, and I can’t argue with that. The Lemond Zurich was a really beautiful steel frame, but it certainly wasn’t cutting edge in 2001. You could say whatever you wanted to, but a lot of that just came down to the late sponsor switch. We didn’t have time to get good bikes from the company, and even when we did, they were titanium frames that were as heavy as steel frames.

We also had a lot of issues with sizing. I’m not even positive we had full custom framesets for these guys. That’s one thing when you’re using carbon fiber monocoque, but when you’re making something out of steel or brazed titanium you should be able to make it to the riders’ preferences. And they weren’t.

So we had issues with that, we had issues with Spinergy. I remember right before Het Volk, we ordered 40 Ambrosio Nemesis rims without labels and we had some 32 hole spoked wheels build up for the classics. And I remember getting a call the day before Het Volk [from Wordin] saying, “you better make sure you guys don’t use those wheels,” and calling Gallopin to tell him what John thought.

The same thing happened with pedals. Peter Van Petegem wasn’t comfortable with the Speedplay pedals at first, which is a shame because Speedplay is a great company with great people running it. I remember before Milan-San Remo getting a call from Wordin saying to tell Van Petegem that if he doesn’t ride Speedplays he’s not doing the race. That obviously got smoothed over before the race started, but yes, there were a lot of issues with the European riders trusting the equipment they were given.

I think that a lot of them were let down. Every once in awhile I got this sense that they thought, “wait a minute, we’re riding for an American team. We should have the best stuff, because America is the country that’s always coming up with these innovations. Europe is old school and traditional, America should have all these great things.” So I think they felt let down by that.

SC: Cobbled classic choices aside, what did folks think of those Spinergy Rev-X wheels? They’ve gone on to garner quite an unfavorable reputation for, you know, exploding.

WY: I think in the more, for lack of a better term, generic races, I think the guys liked them a lot. But I remember later on in the season there’s that great photo I haven’t been able to find since of Pavel Tonkov in the Dauphine on a repainted C-40 with a set of Mavic Ksyriums with the labels peeled off. I think that kind of says it right there. These guys just weren’t that happy with it.

SC: So you’re not sitting on a basement full of Lemond Zurich frames and Spinergy wheels, then? Because the nostalgia value is only going to go up for that stuff.

WY: No, I wish I were. We didn’t have enough for our riders, let alone for the staff. If I ever found one, I’d try to jump on it just for the sake of nostalgia. I do have some old clothes and things. My favorite is a yellow jersey from the Tour of Malaysia that Jans Koerts signed for me, so I have that framed in my apartment.

SC: How did your tenure with Mercury wind down? Was there a point when you definitely knew it was the end? A goodbye of any sort?

WY: No, no. It ended not with a bang but with a whimper. We did our last couple of races. By then 9-11 had happened, so there was all that drama going on in the world. I just remember getting word that I was going to get my last paycheck at the beginning of October. I stuck around long enough to pack up my things. I think the last race I did was the Circuit Franco-Belge, a little four day stage race in Belgium and northern France. And that was really it – not a goodbye. Wordin obviously had bigger things to worry about than how his 25-year-old assistant sport director was feeling about the collapse of the team.

SC: So with you out of the picture, who was left there to terminate the leases, sell off the equipment, etcetera?

WY: That was Stan Barrett, who had since taken up residence in Paris. I think he was going to stay on in Europe just to live and maybe try to study French. Stan had been with Wordin since early on as a soigneur, so I think he felt a little bit more of a sense of obligation. And I think Stan knew that he was going to get paid as long as he was working – I think Wordin would have made sure to pay him as long as he needed to because they’d been together from the beginning. Stan is a great guy; he’s a good friend to this day, and I’m glad that Wordin took care of him until the end.

SC: Is there anyone from those days who you’re still in touch with?

WY: Yes, John Sessa, who was the head mechanic at the time, the guy who got me the job. He was just in my wedding over the weekend. He’s with Jelly Belly now.

SC: So, after everything you've described here, would you do it again?

WY: In a heartbeat. It was without a doubt one of the best years of my life. I just got married and I hope to have kids, so I hope that I’ll have other best years, but as cheesy as it sounds, I can honestly say that I got to live my dream for a year. When I was in college, my friends and I would watch those WCP videos of the classics, and the team directors would come up to the riders in the cars, and my buddies would say to me, “Whit, that would probably be a really good job for you one day.” Which was also a backhanded way of saying, “Whit, you’re really not that good of a rider.” But to actually be able to do that, and to meet those guys and to have those experiences has been fantastic.

The only regret I have, and I still say this to my wife to this day, was that I didn’t keep a journal. I wish that I’d kept a journal, because there are so many experiences, and places, and conversations, and stories that I know I’m not remembering right. I spent most of today trying to find the name of this hotel we stayed in after the Mont Ventoux stage of the Dauphine in 2001, and it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember it

But that’s just a long way of saying, yes, absolutely hands down I’d do it again.

Thanks to Whit for taking the time to share his experiences with the Service Course. Want to read what someone who's seen pro cycling from the inside thinks about the sport's current events? Visit Whit at Pavé.