Words || Gary J. Boulanger
Bend, Oregon resident Paul Willerton is resourceful. A former pro on the road for Team Z and Subaru-Montgomery, Willerton has raced around the world many times. After hanging up his leather hairnet in 1993, he spent six years on the World Cup and NORBA circuits, racing first for Bontrager, then Haro.
“Haro was expecting me to win a World Championship for them,” he said. “I couldn’t accomplish that, and the relationship eventually soured. They hired Michael Rasmussen after me and did get their wish.”
Willerton’s competitive drive plopped him on the same Team Z as Greg LeMond in 1991, a relationship that began after LeMond won his first Tour de France in 1986, and one that continues to this day. He also raced alongside Lance Armstrong, when the young men raced the amateur and pro world championships for the United States.
Ten years after Willerton and LeMond flew Roger Zannier’s cartoon Z colors, Armstrong began his intimidation against LeMond for speaking his mind about Dr. Michele Ferrari. Willerton was with LeMond when the bullying began, and last October took matters into his own hands:
Willerton, 44, was a linchpin in the very public dismantling of Armstrong when he adroitly pointed out the Texan’s transgressions in front of Nike headquarters last fall. I asked if he was nervous before his ‘Tiananmen Square’ moment, and if he was ever unsure of the outcome.
“You mean, was I expecting Lance to show up driving a tank that day?” he said from his house in Bend. “No, but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect. At that moment, Nike and Lance’s agent, Bill Stapleton, had shown no concern about the USADA ruling. Stapleton had the neck to come out and say Lance’s endorsements were sticking with him, regardless of the USADA ruling, because he gives them ‘authenticity’. So this built up in me to the point where I couldn’t take it, anymore.
“I went in there with a lot of fight in me. If anything puts me over the edge, it’s bullying, intimidation and manipulation. I was prepared to stay at Nike as long as it took. As it turned out, they changed their statement on PED’s the same day of my protest, and they dropped Lance first thing the next morning. My phone was blowing up with calls from around the world. Others had already done the huffing and puffing. I just happened to be there when the house blew down.”
Radio interview with Willerton following Nike’s dropping of Armstrong:
1. Before LeMond won his first Tour, Willerton was an autograph-seeking kid from San Jose, California.
“I walked up to LeMond at the ’85 Coor’s Classic at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and got his autograph,” he explained. “The first time I rode with him was in November of ’86, after his first Tour de France victory. He was so drained from that season. We rode pretty frequently after that. Before LeMond’s 1987 hunting accident, we were riding quite a bit together.
“Anyway, time went on, I continued to make progress and he was willing to bring another American onto the team. I ended up getting the opportunity. For us kids who got to meet and ride with LeMond when we were in our teens, it was a blast. Every ride with him was an adventure, and we laughed so much.”
2. LeMond was continually admonished by the Euros for not taking his training seriously. He and Willerton took advantage of their Americanism and enjoyed their toil.
“We did some fun trips,” Willerton told me. “LeMond usually wanted to combine the training with some other recreation. Like, when we decided to ride from San Jose, California to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Every day we’d stop and do things besides cycling. We’d find a spot along the road to go body surfing or fishing or go looking for some animals. We’d stop at every good smelling taco stand and get at least one.
“It was work hard, play hard every day. We weren’t doing what was ‘normal’ for cyclists. LeMond rode so hard, too. It was damn excruciating as hell for me. He would ride at the front, in the wind, for an hour straight, then take five or ten minutes to stretch or eat something, then back for another hour. Five or six hours would pass like that and no one would ride next to him for more than fifteen minutes.”
3. During Willerton’s short spell in the pro peloton, he raced against some Kings of the Road, including Sean Kelly and Mario Cipollini, who strutted like a primped rooster, and whose behavior was less than admirable.
“The peloton doesn’t know much about everyone out there,” Willerton said. “At that time, the one thing you were sure that everyone out there did know was this: LeMond had stopped Bernard Hinault at his prime, got shot, almost died, came back and won the Tour again. Miguel Indurain, Laurent Fignon and Gianni Bugno were big riders, of course.
“For the Classics, Johan Museeuw was becoming dominant. Cipollini was growing cockier by the week. He didn’t like that my teammate, Bo Andre Namtvedt of Norway, spoke up to him one day. Cipollini put his fist against Bo’s face and pushed him all the way through the peloton and off the road on the other side. I yelled at him that if Bo went down I was going to fight him. Bo didn’t fall. Cipollini then pointed at me and said ‘You next.’ Sean Kelly was a grizzled king and he was around. He wasn’t an asshole, either. He often would spark up a conversation in a crosswind on some nasty section of Belgian road. He was hard enough to understand standing still, let alone out there.”
4. Popular television commentator Bob Roll, who’s shared the booth with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen for years, spent time in the Team Z colors, mainly on the dirt. Former 7-Eleven teammate Chris Carmichael asked Roll to train with Armstrong during his 1998 comeback, a topic I brought up to Willerton.
“Cycling is a blue collar sport and it can be stupidly hard to make a living, on the bike or in the booth,” he explained. “I’ve always gotten along with Bob, but you need to remember he’s a mercenary. He’s predictable in that he will always choose the position that allows himself maximum comfort.
“Painfully, the ‘famous talking heads’ of our sport were willing for so long to keep shoveling us this hoax. Frankie Andreu was better at their jobs than they were, and when he told the truth in 2006, they let him fry. They knew Frankie had it right. Mercenaries, all of them. I know a lot of viewers felt very let down through the process. So much trust has been lost.”
5. The most exciting pro in today’s peloton, according to Willerton, is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who finished second in the 2013 Tour while taking the King of the Mountain polka-dot jersey and the best young rider’s white jersey.
“I have a soft spot for Colombians,” Willerton said. “I rode the Tour of Colombia in 1989. Pablo Escobar, a wealthy Colombian drug lord and an elusive cocaine trafficker, proclaimed he was going to kill any American on sight. We were down there riding in our stars and stripes jerseys. Escobar was a cycling fan, we were told, and probably wouldn’t kill us. I made friends with some Colombian riders and always looked for their smiling faces in the years following.
“Sadly, several of them were kidnapped, tortured, and even killed by the cartels. Juan Carlos Castillo always made it a point to find me and say ‘hi’; he was murdered in 1993. Escobar met his end on December 2, 1993. The EPO era hurt Colombian cycling because their riders were known for climbing well, even in the Tour de France. EPO changed all that, and they got dropped, instead. When that happened, the country lost respect for its cyclists.
“So Quintana represents something else, and that’s why I pay attention to him. He’s a seed of new hope. Now that Colombia knows what happened with blood manipulation, there’s a chance for revival.”