What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: US Pro Paul Willerton

Ex-Rider Interview: Paul Willerton was a US professional road racer when it wasn’t as fashionable as it became during the Lance Armstrong era. Willerton raced and trained beside Greg Lemond at his height and when he retired was instrumental in the downfall of Armstrong. Ed Hood had to hear the full story.

As you will appreciate, digital photography wasn’t what it is now, so we have a mix of available photographs. Thanks to all the unknown photographers.

You may not be familiar with the name Paul Willerton, but whilst many of us were trundling along dual carriageways in the UK or riding criteriums in the US, the young American was riding alongside Greg Lemond, Robert Millar and Duclos-Lassalle at Z in some of Europe’s most prestigious races. Here’s his tale; including the part he played in Lance’s downfall.

PEZ: How come ‘the Wolf’ nickname, Paul?
Paul Willerton:
In 1994, when I switched from road racing to World Cup MTB, I moved back from Belgium to Colorado. I acquired a couple of young wolves from a wildlife shelter, which worked out for about six months before it became a bad idea. I don’t recommend owning what should be wild animals. We brought them back to the shelter, healthy and happy, fortunately. Anyway, I think that experience, along with I think what other people see as an independent or lonely side of my person pinned the name on me.

PEZ: You got into cycling with the Plymouth-Reebok team, tell us about that please.
In the late 80’s, road racing, and the economy, was healthy in the US. That trickled down to junior racing, as well. In Northern California we’d have junior fields of over 150 riders regularly. That environment brought in corporations wanting to capitalize on the healthy, outdoor lifestyle that road cycling portrayed. With Plymouth-Reebok, we built the largest junior program ever conducted in the US. We started in Tahoe, and we expanded to at least five simultaneous programs. We had California, Utah/Colorado, Texas, Massachusetts and Florida.
It was an amazing time. We went head to head with the 7-Eleven junior teams, which attracted a lot of talent as well. Kids weren’t as distracted as they are today, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. It was just a different time in road cycling.

PEZ: Tell us about how you got close to Greg Lemond.
When I was about 16 years-old, living in Tahoe and riding for Plymouth, LeMond was living in Rancho Murieta outside of Sacramento. We could be at his house in a couple hours. This was right around when he won his first Tour de France. I’d first met him at the Coors Classic in Fisherman’s Wharf, but this was how I started riding with him. I could stay with him often when everyone else was dropped. We would laugh, stop, look for fish off of bridges, eat a bunch of jerky. It was just fun. I think for him he needed that at that time. Cycling had already taken a heavy toll on him, especially after the ’86 Tour. Of course, he was just about to get shot so that really brought him to some new lows. After he was shot we spent a lot more time riding together as he recovered. By early 1989 I was nearly convinced he would never make it back.

PEZ: Signing on the dotted line with Z – that must have been an exciting time but just a one year contract in those days?
It was a really big deal. It was like a kid from Mozambique signing with the New York Yankees. LeMond was there, and Otto Jacome, his Mexican soigneur who’d known me since I was a junior, so I did have a link. Greg distanced himself from me. He made it very clear that I was on my own, no one was going to make any exceptions for me and I had to carve out my own place in the team. I did, and it was hard every step of the way. Just living in Europe then was different from now. I mean, I carried a fax machine with me on the plane. So I could hand write letters and send them to people. Sending a fax could easily be $10, but that was many times cheaper than a phone call. This was 1991. Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple, he was trying to build the NeXT company.

PEZ: What did you ride with Z and what kind of results did you get?
My results were sparse.
I did everything for my teammates, and it didn’t bother me. I eventually scored top 10’s at Tour of Holland, and I came close to winning the US National Championship at CoreStates. Results were getting harder to come by for all of Team Z. That was quite a thing to witness, the confusion within our team. We didn’t realize how EPO and blood products were changing things. No one understood what was happening.

PEZ: I believe you used to do some pretty unorthodox training with Greg?
We just ended up having fun, a lot of times. Everything was getting so serious. Power meters, diet, structured efforts. It was getting tedious, and it got old fast. We’d just look at a map, point it, and have a good time wherever we could find it. We’d park the bikes and go body surfing or fishing or play tennis. We rode from San Jose, California to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico; I remember the first Gulf War began while we were down there. We both got more structured again with regard to training towards the end of our careers, but it didn’t make much of a difference with regard to results.

PEZ: You rode the Worlds with Lance, tell us about that experience
We rode the World Championship together in 1990, amateur road race in Japan and then 1992, professional road race in Spain. I think he was 11th in Japan, I was 29th.

PEZ: The ’92 Worlds in Benidorm – that must have been a tough gig?
Right, Benidorm. It’s a dry, barren landscape there. The circuit was mostly about one climb. It went off like most professional worlds. I guess I’d describe it like a constant pressure that just gets more intense as the day goes along. The attrition is consistent. It almost looks boring for hours until the real crunch occurs and you can see how close everyone was to the edge the whole time. It just doesn’t appear that way at first glance.

PEZ: As a Scotsman, I’m interested in your thoughts about your team mate Robert Millar?
Robert Millar I had followed since 1982 when I was twelve years-old. Fast forward nine years and he’s my teammate. He wasn’t the easiest person to get to know. He was a vegetarian, so he had to get his protein from eating fromage blanc in large quantities. Maintaining his strict diet took a lot of effort. I saw a very determined, driven person, which everyone knows had outlandish abilities in the mountains. I can’t say I saw much joy or happiness. There wasn’t much laughter with Robert. Today, for Pippa, I hope there is a lot of positivity and happiness. I admire her courage it’s an incredible story and I wish her the best.

PEZ: No renewal with Z so you went to Subaru – did you try for a contract with a continental outfit first?
It was what I always wanted. When I was ten years old, there were no American teams. I’m a Swiss citizen, dual, and I was always comfortable in Europe. Language was not a big barrier for me. I didn’t see Subaru, or at that time, Montgomery Sports, to be what I considered a true professional road cycling team. They wanted to be and they were set on doing the things they needed to do to get there, but they were a rookie organization. This is the same group that became the structure for the US Postal Service team. Little did I know they apparently wanted it so bad they were willing to do absolutely anything, including cheat, to get it. I don’t regret the experience with Z. It was a much better team, particularly with what we know in hindsight with regard to management. I should have just stayed there, but, what does it matter now?

PEZ: Was Subaru a good experience?
Subaru was still a very good experience. The American riders had great attitudes and were good riders. Bart Bowen, for example. He lives in my town, and I’m glad to count him as a friend, today. He still works in cycling with the same enthusiasm and vigor that he had when he was a US PRO road champion. The best part, he works with young riders and helps them learn and grow with the sport.

PEZ: Then Miller Lite/Nutra Fig?
Nutra Fig was a really brief stint. After I switched to World Cup MTB in 1994, I wanted to keep in touch with the road because I thought I would gain from the training aspect, doing road races. Chris Horner was on that team, and he was about to make a breakout.

PEZ: Why go to MTB?
I didn’t like what I was sensing in professional road racing. My teammates at Z were really confused at the new level being displayed by riders that had never been at that level. Then, at Subaru, I only saw a continuation of this. When you spend years and years competing, and beating, peers that you’ve known since juniors, and suddenly they exceed not only your level but go to the peak of the sport, it’s pretty baffling. What I was seeing was the early days of biotech and blood manipulation. What I was feeling, on the bike, was the discomfort that causes. Cycling is hard enough. I thought road racing wasn’t for me, so I naturally looked for another place to enjoy cycling. MTB was it, but it only lasted for one year, 1994. By 1995, I noticed the exact same things happening in World Cup MTB. Sure enough, from what we learned in subsequent years, it was.

PEZ: The Haro and Bontrager teams – how did those organization of those outfits compare to road teams?
Keith Bontrager was great to me, and the team I made that he supported me with, that’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in cycling. Keith is brilliant. He’s a true engineer and a craftsman, and I seem to gravitate toward people with those qualities. He saw something in me that no one else in the mountain bike world did. I don’t know what it was. Maybe he just saw me as an engine. I also gave him an unbelievable deal to send his bike around the world, all year. I had a lot of success that year, and that helped Keith sell his brand to Trek, and then it spring boarded me into a tier of companies where I could make a higher salary. I settled with Haro for 1995, in a three year contract. As I was getting at, the blood manipulation was coming into MTB at that time, and Haro didn’t understand that any better than I did. I felt it happening, I saw it in certain competitors, but I didn’t know what it was. I simply couldn’t produce the results they wanted, and the relationship started falling apart. They wanted a World Champion, period. So they sacked me and they got results with people like Michael Rasmussen [Dane, withdrawn by his Rabobank team management from Le Tour whilst wearing the maillot jaune for lying about his ‘whereabouts’ ed.] and Chris Sheppard [top Canadian mountain biker busted for EPO, ed]. Those are names that are chicken scratched out of cycling. They’re meaningless.

Who cares if you get a World Championship but you realize you lied, cheated and stole to do it. It’s garbage. I had to battle Haro in a court of arbitration in Colorado just to get paid, and I easily won. That really drained me, though. Bontrager took me back, which was now under Trek. By 1997, steel was an ancient material. Competing on a steel bike probably wasn’t the best idea. Trek shuttered the Bontrager factory in Santa Cruz overnight; just locked it up. They never made another frame. So, in 1998, I migrated to another great craftsman, Richard Schwinn out in Wisconsin. I’m happy to say I finished my bike racing years with Richard, and together we developed the geometries for his new line of Gunnar bikes. Again, I was on steel, but at that point I knew I was not going to be World Champion. Mountain bike programs, the way I ran them, are completely different from road teams. I was a one man show, complete privateer. I found my own deals, did my own negotiating, paid my own lawyers and was my own travel agent. I did it all. On a good road team, you ride your bike, you go to the hotel lobby and your food is there. You get shuttled around like royalty. Is it better? It’s different. Road teams don’t prepare riders for the real world, so, sometimes an athlete becomes lost after a life of cycling.

PEZ: You were sixth in the Worlds XC – a big ride, did that not make you think you could win the race?
I qualified for the World Championship by getting second in the National Championship to Ned Overend, about six weeks earlier. I got by Tinker Juarez and I was closing on Ned. I think the gap was down to 16 seconds at the end. The problem was that put me on the last row at the World Championship. I started in I think 200th spot. If you’ve ever raced a mountain bike, you know what a disaster that is. I was in such a happy place, though, emotionally. I felt like I was in a sport where I could be myself, finally. Anyway, it was a bloody mess, but I just rampaged through that field. If I had started in the front, yes, I could have been World Champion that year.

PEZ: You quit racing and then. . . ?
I just stopped riding, completely. It was like that scene in Forrest Gump, where he’s out running with his crowd, somewhere in the desert, and he just stops suddenly. He walks away. I did the exact same thing. It felt so good, too. I didn’t even know how heavy an anchor I had been dragging, trying to live up to expectations in a sport we know now was reaching new lows of fraudulent activity, year after year. I went fishing and skiing. I started doing my own investing, learning markets, learning the Adobe suite and writing. I spent more time helping out at DeFeet, too.

PEZ: Tell us about your DeFeet connection please.
In 1993, after a stage at the Tour DuPont, I was handed a pair of socks. You always accepted socks, because there just weren’t good cycling socks out there. I put them in my jersey. At the hotel, when I took them out and looked at them, I went “Holy shit. These guys have done it. They actually made the first sock for cycling.” There was a phone number on the bottom. Two months later, I called that number. Shane Cooper answered. He said I was the only guy to call the number. We became instant friends, like brothers. He was just getting started. That was 26 years ago, and I’m happy to say I’m still involved on a daily basis.

PEZ: And the Lance denunciation at Nike?
I could write a book on this. I’m going to sum it up as quickly as possible. You can tell that I’m not a big fan of fraudulent behavior. It has redirected my life and so many others. By 2010 I was beyond fatigued about the situation in cycling, as were pretty much every rider, manager, agent, promoter or anyone else who made their living in cycling. There was numbness. I got to the point of fascination, as to how and why fraud is able to take root and grow beyond people’s imagination. It had to stop, but no one was able to do it. It was like, everyone in the sport knew the truth, but no one could do anything about it. So, I went for the Achilles heel, which was to question the core values of the Nike brand, in their face, at their headquarters in Oregon. They finally acted, that day. Some say it was the pin that finally pricked the fraud bubble in cycling. It shouldn’t have had to be me – that was ridiculous. It should have never had to get to that point.

PEZ: And if you could do it all again?
Cycling is the window through which I see the world. It’s my lens. It’s how I’ve learned things since I was four or five years old. It’s taught me the world. Language, culture, topography, weather, business, branding, manufacturing, character, perseverance, wisdom, physiology, law, courage, fear, humility, the list goes on. So, yes I would do it all over the same again because in the end, it’s life and everything that is important. For me, it all stemmed from cycling.

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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