The Year of Living Dangerously

An Interview with Whit Yost

With the financial storms battering Astana in May and June, many longtime cycling fans wondered if we were about to see another of cycling’s big teams take on water and sink rapidly to the bottom. Astana’s backers came through with the cash necessary to keep the team afloat, but had Astana sunk mid-season, it would have been, in a word, “precedented.” Le Groupement, which featured Graeme Obree, Robert Millar, and Luc Leblanc among others, went under early in 1995 when its main sponsor turned out to be a pyramid scheme. The 2001 season featured not one but two notable collapses. The vegetarian Linda McCartney squad overreached its budget and sank just after the Giro d’ Italia. And then there was Mercury-Viatel, the American domestic team that signed names like Peter Van Petegem and Pavel Tonkov, jumped to Division 1, and just as quickly found itself in choppy financial waters.

As a young assistant sports director with Mercury-Viatel during its turbulent 2001 season, Whit Yost got to get deeper inside professional cycling than most of us ever will. These days, he’s back stateside teaching English, but he continues to share his cycling insights via his excellent Pavé blog. In this two-part interview, Yost shares just a few of his experiences in the European peloton and gives us a firsthand look at what it’s like to be inside a cycling team in trouble.

SC: Let’s start with a little background. Where are you from, and how did you get your start in cycling?

WY: I’m from just outside of Philadelphia, born and raised. I rode a bike all the time when I was a little kid, but toward the end of middle school, I got a mountain bike and really just fell in love with it. By 1993, I’d started doing some races, and a friend of mine invited me to go down and do the 24 hours of Canaan.

That was the same weekend in June as the Corestates race in Philadelphia. At that point, I was still in the “roadies are geeks, they shave their legs, they wear tight clothes” mountain bike mentality, and it was something I was totally against. At the last minute, our plans to do the Canaan race fell through, and the guy who was going to take me said, “why don’t we go down to Manayunk and watch the bike race.”

That was the year that Armstrong ended up winning the million dollar Triple Crown, and we went down and rode our bikes around Philly, and I was hooked. Absolutely hooked. Just the scene, and the race itself. I basically went back that week and bought a used road bike, shaved my legs, and the rest is kind of history.

SC: Philadelphia got you hooked, but you ended up racing for awhile in Belgium before it was more common for young amateurs to do so. How did that come about?

WY: I went to Bucknell, raced at college, and my junior year I wanted to go to Belgium for the experience, for the culture, and especially for the racing. I found a study abroad program in Belgium, so I applied for that and was accepted. Basically, I spent my whole junior year living, studying, and ultimately racing in Belgium. I graduated in 1999 with really no idea of what I wanted to do other than that I wanted to be living in Europe and doing something involving cycling. I went back to the same institution [in Belgium] where I’d been studying as an undergrad, only this time as a masters student.

As I was doing that and racing, and really started to realize that I just didn’t have it to race at the elite level. I had a passion for it, but I didn’t have the talent, and I really wasn’t willing to do what probably would have been necessary to get to and sustain that elite level.

SC: So another year passed and you returned to the United States. How did your relationship with Mercury-Viatel come about?

WY: I ended up coming home in the middle of 2000. A friend of mine who was the head mechanic for Mercury at the time got me a gig as a jack-of-all-trades assistant with the team on a trip to Europe in the fall of 2000 because I spoke some French, I spoke some Flemish, and I knew the area. They gave me a plane ticket and paid me $500 a week. I flew over with the team and was just helping them out for two and a half weeks while they did some races at the end of the season.

I met up with [Mercury director] John Wordin one day and spent the day driving around with him in the team car following a race, and by the end of the day he offered me a job for the next year.

SC: What were your initial impressions of Wordin and his management style?

WY: At first, I was impressed. The gentleman that introduced me to John and got me the gig is a best friend and had been for years, so I’d heard stories about Wordin antics – this sort of non-traditional style that he had, showing up to directors’ meetings in his spandex, not making an attempt to really learn the language, being sort of brash, slightly arrogant and outspoken.

At the same time, I had to respect what he was doing. He had a great team of riders together. He had convinced Mercury to invest millions of dollars into taking the team to UCI Division 1 status [roughly equivalent to today’s ProTour level – ed.]. The riders seemed to like him, they seemed to trust him, and he definitely had passion. I used to joke that if VeloNews had a contest to give one of their readers $5 million to let them run a cycling team, he’s the kind of person it would produce.

But here I am, and I’m 24 years old being given the chance to be an assistant sport director for a European professional cycling team. I wasn’t going to be too critical of the opportunity.

SC: Speaking of your age, much was made of your youth at the time. There was even a feature in VeloNews that focused heavily on that aspect, as I recall. What was it like trying to be the boss for a group of riders that were, in many cases, older and more experienced than you were?

WY: It was certainly really hard. Ironically, I feel I had the biggest challenge convincing the American riders that I was someone to be respected. The European riders – I’ll never forget that from the first time I met Pavel Tonkov until the last time I saw him, he called me “diretorre.” He was always respectful and gracious, and he respected the title. He knew that this was the person who was in charge of this team, that this person was supposed to be the organizer and the manager, so he was going to show the respect that comes with the title. That lasted all the way through – Peter Van Petegem, Geert Van Bondt, Andre Teteriouk, all those guys, they always gave me the respect of a sport director.

With some of the Americans, they didn’t feel that I’d earned enough knocks, that I was the one who should be giving them their schedules, driving the car, etcetera. But they were still helpful. I remember the Tour of Malaysia was my first race, and I was thrown in at the last minute as THE sport director. I remember Chris Horner, Gord Fraser, Henk Vogels literally sort of teaching me on the job. You know, Horner coming back for a bottle and saying, “No, no, no – put your elbow here. Hit the accelerator just as I’m about to take it. Now I’m going to hold on…” Sort of coaching me through it as we went.

But it was certainly tough. There were moments when some of the other directors tried to intimidate me, but I just did what I thought was right, and made the decisions I thought were the best ones. It was what it was. By the end, I think I had earned the respect of a lot of my colleagues. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough at the time to give me a landing spot when Mercury began to fall apart.

SC: What was your life as a DS like when the team still looked like it had a bright future? Were you mostly in Europe, or did you do any domestic work? How did you spend your days?

WY: The only time I was stateside was for training camp in January/February. Then I flew right back. As Wordin put it, he needed people to help run his team in Europe. That’s really what I was entrusted with.

From those initial two weeks in August and September of 2000 when Wordin offered me the job, I was right back in France beginning at Paris-Tours in October. I pretty much stayed in Europe straight through the off-season to find the location for a service course, set up paperwork, sign leases, go to Italy to negotiate with the guy who was going to make our mobile home, go to central France to meet with the guy who was going to make our car racks, meet with the guy who was going to make our truck. I was working closely with Alain Gallopin, who was the head sport director in Europe, and another American named Stan Barrett. The three of us were responsible for getting the whole operation up and running overseas.

SC: What memories stand out from that time?

WY: I got to drive all over Europe. I got to meet with all the riders personally. One of the things I had to do initially was to drive around with a guy from Speedplay. He and I drove around meeting with the riders at their homes to take measurements, talk about shoe sizes, introduce them to some of the product, so that we could make our early season equipment order in time for training camp. So I got to go out to dinner with Pavel Tonkov and his wife; I got to have beers with Peter Van Petegem and Geert Van Bondt. I was able to develop a relationship with these riders early on, which I think was one thing that led to the level of respect they gave me later in the season – I was essentially the first face that they associated with the team from a management side.

I remember going to a little town outside of Florence to meet with the president of this mobile home company. I had a flight back to Belgium at about 2pm and this man insisted that he wanted to take us to this little local restaurant and buy us lunch, and he promised he would get me to my flight on time, which he did, albeit after finishing two bottles of wine and a couple of whiskey digestivos. So I still don’t really know how I got home that day, but he certainly got me on the plane.

SC: And that’s all you really asked him to do.

WY: This is true. I didn’t say what state I had to be in!

SC: Since the collapse of Mercury-Viatel is so inextricably tied with your experience with the team, we might as well jump into it. That implosion has gone down in the history books along with cycling's other great collapses. What was the view like from the inside?

WY: Well, I go back to the metaphor of “give a VeloNews reader $5 million and tell him to run a team.” He’s going to run it like a fantasy football team. He’s going to go out and spend all that money on riders, and he’s not going to take the time to think about infrastructure and the other things a team needs to run. He’s not going to think about money to put a metal shield on the bottom of the follow car the week before Paris-Roubaix; he’s not going to think about the number of oil changes the cars need; he’s not going to think about extra tolls for trucks on European highways; he’s not going to understand the ins-and-outs of the French legal system and creating a corporation, and how much money you lose by not having a corporation on French soil. I think John just had a great vision. He just wasn’t aware of all the things he would have to do to make that vision a reality.

We received some pretty reliable information in January that we weren’t going to get invited to the Tour de France. And then in April, I’ll never forget it, I was at the Grand Prix Denain in northern France and I got a phone call from Stan, who said that we just got our credit card bill from February, and that that bill was the entire budget for the entire year for credit card bills.

SC: The whole budget for general day-to-day expenses was spent by March?

WY: Just general day-to-day expenses. We were just bleeding money from the outset. Then it became apparent, and this is just what I gleaned from conversations, a lot of what the budget was based on were bonuses that we were to receive once we were invited to the Tour. And it was based on handshake agreements and promises that had been made if were were invited to the Tour de France. But once it came out that we weren’t going to be invited, these sponsors said, “Sorry, you’re not going to the Tour, that money’s not going to be there.”

SC: Was any of that bonus money to go to rider’s salaries? Or were the salaries taken care of by guaranteed funds, and the bonus funds were to go towards expenses incurred later in the year.

WY: I’m not sure. I believe the bank guarantee was intact, and ultimately the riders got that bank guarantee. This money would have just gone to, well, everything. It would have gone towards riders’ salaries, to getting to races, to getting extra equipment. It would have gone to the general budget of the team.

SC: So things were already starting to go south in early spring. As I remember, the financial issues became more public knowledge when Viatel went bankrupt and pulled out, and then there started to be bike sponsorship problems as well.

WY: Yes, and keep in mind there were bike sponsorship problems from the outset. Originally, we were just supposed to be Fuji. Wordin started out by flicking Fuji for Lemond when he realized he needed the money from Viatel just to get into the season. [Telecom firm Viatel had signed on with Greg Lemond in an effort to create a European-based team. Subsequent agreements combined the efforts of Lemond and Wordin to create the Mercury-Viatel squad, aboard Lemond bikes. – ed.] So Fuji got flicked for Lemond, and then when Viatel pulled out, we went back to Fuji on our hands and knees, and they graciously helped us out.

By then, I think the damage had been done. Wordin’s credibility was waning. We hadn’t been invited to the Tour. Lemond had pulled out. Everybody knew that Viatel as a company had gone bankrupt, but they still looked at Viatel and Lemond leaving as a bad sign. Laurent Chotard tested positive, which didn’t help. And by now the riders were talking. The riders weren’t happy. There were rumours the riders weren’t getting paid. You’d see things like Pavel Tonkov showing up to races on a Colnago C-40 that had been painted to look like a Lemond. Excuse the term, but it just kind of turned into a shit show.

The second half of the Service Course interview with Whit Yost will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, pay him a visit at Pavé.