ZAP’S COLUMN: THE FRENCH CONNECTION

All was not as it seemed

For as much as I and many others champion the idea that the sport of mountain biking was born in America (but in Marin County or Crested Butte?), there is no doubt that there were cycling enthusiasts riding off-road in Europe long ago as well. In fact, in 1999, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inducted the French “Velo Cross Club Parisien” owing to its recorded exploits of riding vintage “off-road” bikes with 650b wheels, and some even with front suspension back in the ’50s.

In more modern times, there were a handful of Euro bike brands, most notably the British-based Muddy Fox, that were jumping into the game in the early ’80s. For me, any sense of a “Euro invasion” didn’t occur until UK riders Tim Gould and David Baker showed up at Big Bear’s 1989 NORBA National finals. Gould stunned the crowd by beating America’s best that day, taking the XC men’s race aboard his Campagnolo-equipped Peugeot (before showing up at Mammoth Mountain the following week with a brand-new Shimano drivetrain).

From those days onward, the presence of European riders would only increase, most notably when an unknown Thomas Frischknecht vied for  the rainbow jersey at the World Championships in Durango a year later. In his wheel tracks would come a litany of riders with funny-sounding names like Jan Wiejak, Gerhard Zadrobilek  and Bruno Zanchi.

You’ll find a story that looks back at some of the Euro stars of the ’90s who helped move the sport of mountain biking forward here. From cross-country to downhill, Euro riders and sponsors brought a new level of enthusiasm and suspense to our American-born sport, which would be most evident annually at the World Championships.

The 1996 World Championships in Cairns, Australia, marked the second time since the inaugural event held Durango in 1990 that I missed a rainbow event due to a scheduling conflict with the Interbike trade show (as was the case in 1993 when I missed the mudder in Metabief, France). The Aussie event was

 notable for a few reasons, but the big takeaway was that the men’s XC race was won by some unknown French rider who was part of a growing trend of Euro road pros in search of a ripe and lucrative career change.

That rider was Jerome Chiotti, and prior to heading Down Under for the Worlds, he had been a rider on the Festina road squad. Of course, it wasn’t long after he pulled on his rainbow jersey that his phone was ringing with team offers. In the end, it was GT Bicycles (a team that already had a winning legacy of signing Euro roadies) that won the bidding war. GT team manager Doug Martin flew to Paris for a one-day meet-and-greet, and for the next three years the Frenchman’s rainbow stripes would be paired with GT’s well-known blue-and-yellow team livery.

IN YOUR EYES

It was at the Laguna Beach team launch in ’97 that I first met up with Jerome. He was extremely affable (especially for a Frenchman!) and talkative. Thanks to his BMX background, he could jump high and pull long wheelies at will—a rare feat among most XC riders! Over the course of the team camp, Jerome was kind with his time and told me how he took up mountain bike racing to avoid all the doping that was prevalent in the pro road peloton.

And, it was his passionate disdain of doping culture that I found most impressive, as his aversion was not just to the illegality; he also had a young daughter that he wanted to stay clean for. With a young daughter at home myself, my heart strings were thusly pulled, and I became a quick fan—Chiotti was the real deal.

However, fast-forward three years later, and Chiotti would be telling a different story. As it turned out, to help ensure that Worlds win in ’96, Jerome had been spending upwards of $8000 a year on EPO. I realized then for the first time that while plenty of racers over the years might’ve been less than honest with me in interviews, I couldn’t recall any of them lying to my face the way he did (of course, to that list I would eventually add Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong).

Many American riders had been predicting such doping practices, and Jerome’s admission would be the first of many to come. And, as Lance’s own admission laid bare, doping wasn’t just a European affair. If there was one redeeming aspect to Chiotti’s admission, it was that he readily handed over his gold medal to second-place finisher Thomas Frischknecht. To be sure, over the years, the Europeans have brought more positives to the sport than negatives, and for that, I will always relish the pioneers who mixed courage with a sense of adventure to make the trek over in the early days.

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