BILL CASS: The PEZ-Clusive Interview
A good man starts from the ground up – and in cycling that means feet first. The guy who designed a bunch of Lance’s Nike shoes, Bill Cass was in on the ground floor of history. But more than that, Bill is a huge fan with a job that seems like play every day, with some amazing stories about Lance, and shoes, and drafting the Blue Train in Spain…
Bill drew this as a “get well” card for Lance, which later became the first Ride For The Roses poster.
Behind every great Tour champ there are a ton of people working their butts off – from team personnel, to equipment makers and more, if one thing fails, everyone fails. We’ve all heard the stories about how meticulous Lance is with his preparation – no detail is left un-dealt with- from pre-riding stages, to wind tunnel testing, right down to his shoes.
You may not know it, but Bill is the guy who designed the famous Nike Lance shoe – and was instrumental in getting Lance to use Nike cycling shoes, and Nike to take cycling more seriously.
LANCE’S FIRST SHOE
My interview with Bill quickly became less q & a and more a series of stories. Among other things, I asked Bill “Are you really the guy who designed Lance’s shoes?”
Bill: I did design Lance’s shoe. This is kind of a funny story… It’s 1998. Lance is coming back from cancer.
Lance came to Oregon and rode the Cascade Classic, and he won that. And he was tearing it up – I hadn’t seen him that fit in a long time. You could tell he was back… Then he went to the Vuelta.
That’s Lance in the golf hat, providing background for the first shoe made for him by Bill and Nike – (the orange one).
“And he wasn’t wearing our shoes at the time. But he appears on the cover of VeloNews wearing a pair of Diadora’s, and Scott McEachern (Lance’s sportsmarketing guy at Nike) and he said “what are we gonna do”, and we devise this plan to build a cycling shoe.
We were making a cycling shoe at the time, but it was more for recreational to fast cyclists – not pros. We also had an mtb shoe that was doing quite well called the Cairns. I came up with an idea to steal some parts off the Cairns, the parts that really worked – the heel cage – and then modify the rest of it to become a road shoe. This meant simplifying things, getting rid of a lot of foam, and just really sculpting a shoe.”
Production Drawing: Here’s what the shoe “will” look like…
Bill wasn’t working in the cycling department at the time, but he: “did up some drawings and went over to the cycling group at Nike and basically pitched the idea to ‘em. It took some convincing, but I got a call back the next day and was on a plane to our factory in Italy a day later. I worked with our guys there and came up with Lance’s first shoe.”
“It was a complete one-off, it was orange straps on a black base – because those were the parts we had already made for the Cairns, and parts we had lying around. I spent 3 days at the factory, working really hard, and then passed it over to the guys who actually would make the shoe. The next day they presented me with a nice shoebox wrapped in a piece of velvet – 2 cycling shoes… I tried ‘em on (we’re close in size) I’m a little bit bigger than Lance, but I knew we had something there.
…And here’s what the shoe “does” look like.
The next day I flew to Nice (France) and Lance picked me up and scared the crap outta me on a drive back to his house – and I think he did that intentionally. Back at his house he tried ‘em on, then looked at me and said “I Think we got a shoe!”
PEZ: What did you guys do that, in your opinion, made it a good cycling shoe?
Bill: Simplicity. Weight – trying to get as much out of it as you can. Fit. Normal shoes move and you adjust the laces, but a cycling shoe has to have much more ability to change shape, but still fit. Sidi does an incredible job with that- we looked at what everybody else does to solve some of those problems.
For Lance – his tastes have changed a little bit – he liked a completely ballistic shoe – he did not want it to move on his foot at all – and you can put your foot to sleep like that…
He’s a no-float kinda guy and we have a little bone of contention with him about that because he changed his shoes during the Tour – which I gave him grief about already…
I consider myself really touchy and finicky with my shoes – and he’s kind of a bolt ‘em on and go guy… He fusses with it a little while, but when he gets it right he’s good to go – his body is pretty resilient that way.
At his home in Nice, Lance shows how he feels wearing his new Nikes, weeks before his 4th place in the Vuelta.
PEZ: Are you and Lance buddies – do you just call each other up and shoot the breeze?
Bill: I can’t say that we’re buddies, but I know how to reach him and can call him up. He’s got so much going on that I try to leave him alone unless it’s really important. We get to meet here at Nike once in a while…
One of the things about Lance is that he read a lot… he reads just about everything ever written about him… and he has an incredible memory for all that stuff – good and bad…
Dave Lettieri shot this pic from his bike while riding with Lance and Bill.
Bill and Lance first met when Lance joined Nike’s growing roster athlete endorsers, but before Nike was making serious cycling shoes. Although they had only met a few times, Bill was compelled to sketch out and send a get well card to Lance, about 2 weeks after Lance was diagnosed with cancer.
They didn’t talk for more than a year after that, when Lance emerged from his ordeal, they finally “went out for a long ride, and we just had a long talk about racin’ and ridin’ – it was kinda… getting personal with Lance, and he wasn’t sure where he was going – you know it was one of those marks in time.”
“A few months later, he called me up and asked if he could use the artwork from the get well card I had sent him months previous when I’d first heard he was diagnosed. And that get well card turned out to be the first Ride for the Roses poster.”
ENOUGH ABOUT LANCE, WHAT ABOUT YOU???
Next on the hitlist of topics was my curiousity of how one actually becomes a shoe designer. Do you have a secret background as a cobbler or a great uncle named Giuppetto?
Bill: I started racing in 1981 in Mass. – raced as a Junior for the Fitchburg Cycling Club we were sponsored by BudLight back then – had a great time and just ate it up. Back then the big deal was to go the Olympic Center for their winter training camp (you had to submit a resume and get invited – ed) it was what you strived for – and it was my penultimate year as a junior and I won a couple of races – and I’m thinking that “on this one I’m definitely goin!”
At the same time, while playing soccer in highschool, I broke my leg and tore a ligament – so I’m completely torn up… and the day I get back from my operation, the invitation for the Olympic camp is in the mail. This is something I’ve been thinking about for the last four years.
That’s Bill the Junior on the bike, with is lifelong friend Alan Cote. This archival shot reminds us of the advancements in hair-style aerodynamics.
But it is exactly the same time that I need to get my stuff together for art school – if I want to go… So now I’ve got a cast on my leg – and for the next 4 months I can focus on going to art school. So my path was sort of chosen for me – and the school thing has worked out better for me …
So I went to school for illustration, at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and somewhere along there I got an internship at StriderRite in the Keds division working on children’s shoes. And that turned into a 2 year job, after which I moved on to Converse to design basketball shoes.
“A lot of philosophies that I learned from my racing and riding, like your equipment has to work, things can’t break, if it hurts it’s probably not a good thing. – all those things went into how I designed product.”
He started as a stylist – working on the external look of the shoe. Now he starts with a blank sheet of paper, and designs the functional aspects first – what the shoe needs to do.
PEZ: So somewhere you’ve transitioned into a product engineer – from being just a designer…
Bill: Here we’re called “product designers”, and I’m one of the few here that have transitioned from illustration. But we have guys here from automotive backgrounds guys who were model builders – different backgrounds but we share the ability to “see” and create something from nothing. The design process takes about 18 months from start to finish, so we just finished the concepts for Spring 2006, and we’re working on those now.
PEZ Do you remember a pivotal event that got you hooked on cycling – a story from your youth?
Bill: The thing that led me into cycling was the movie “Breaking Away” – I saw that when I was a little snot-nosed teenager with a skateboard and I was just… entranced… when he was drafting off the truck… I just couldn’t believe it… I went home and tore apart m Huffy and sort of put it back together like Dave did in the garage there. It wasn’t until after I really got into the sport that I realized how crappy that bike was…
That’s what got me started – and had I known how painful this sport was, I would have steered clear of it. I’d never done anything that painful in my life, but there was also nothing that rewarding… to get pushed through that pain…
PEZ: Famous last words for all of us … what about your first Tour experience?
BILL: After waiting around too long for Nike to send me, I decided I had to do it on my own, so a couple of years ago a friend and I went over together, and just kind of chased it around for a week. And just were … blown away – it was an awesome time – riding around, seeing all the people…
This year we went back we hung out around Bourg d’Oisans and waited for the race to come to us. We stayed at the base of Alpe d’Huez, and we rode everywhere. We did a slightly shorter version of la Marmont – over the Croix de Fer, the Telegraph and the Galibier – and then you get that 60km descent back to Bourg d’Oisans… and it was just… epic. I don’t know how many cyclists we saw that day, but there were hundreds.
Here’s Bill’s eye-view of life at the back of the Blue Train in Spain.
THE BLUE RIBBON IN FRONT OF ME
Bill: A couple of years ago – when Rubiera and Heras were riding for the team, they were in Spain. And we were trying to get them to ride in Nike shoes (they were in Sidis at the time). So it came up that if I worked the right angles, I could go to the USPS training camp in Spain (!) to try to get these guys to ride in our shoes… I was definitely all over that. So I emailed Lance and asked if he was cool if I brought my bike and hung off the back with the team. So he said email Johan and ask him… Next thing I’m flying to Spain with my bike.
So I end up in Spain at the team hotel, and it’s the first time the new team had all come together as a team. I show up totally rock-star-struck and I’m hangin out with all these guys… The next day I’m on a 200km ride with them, and I’m on the back with my Team Oregon kit, and it’s 22 Postal guys… 11 rows 2×2 … and me! Then the next day they give me a paper bag at dinner, and it’s a complete US Postal kit inside…
So the next day I show up for the ride in the Postal kit, and they guys figure I must have some sort of connection to end up with the complete kit…And I’m just rolling down the line, side by side, and even for a while on the front with Lance – just chatting…
And it was one of the memories you know – I was thinking “I will remember this – forever” – we were flying through these little towns and people were just stopping to watch us…
Later in the day we went down this col – the col du Ratz, and I’m just watching these guys – single file, same bikes same everything – just this one perfect blue ribbon in front of me.. This is sooo coool!
After riding with USPS, and while “recovering” in his room, Bill had some time to sketch out a few memories of the day, including: climbing near the coast and getting squeezed off the back by locals, George flying by while hanging on the car, descending the Col de Rats, Bill hanging onto the car.
PEZ: New shoes for 2005? Is Lance working on anything new and exciting for next year?
Bill: Right now he’s really happy with that shoe, so unless he has a problem… we’re going to leave it. No reason to change.
Bill does have a pretty good claim to fame, but above all he’s a fan. As close as he is to cycling’s biggest rider, you get the clear sense that he is still in awe of this – you can hear it in his voice and the wonder with which he tells his stories – a classic Wayne Campbell “I’m not worthy!” sensibility.
Bill says “The jaded guys can take a hike.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Check out the NikeCycling Website.