Features: Conversation With...

Apr
2009

SEE STRONG, LIVESTRONG, ARMSTRONG


Photographed by Elizabeth Kreutz

The cyclists race through the small hillside town, past windmills, sloped-roof cottages and German-style bakeries, bent low over their handlebars and pedaling hard. Although the scene looks thoroughly European, it’s not the Tour de France—it’s a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, a one-day time trial in Solvang, Calif.

I’m there near the finish line with some of the folks from Oakley, who are there to support their athletes and debut a new performance sunglass, watching the crowd of spectators grow as it gets closer to the time when Lance Armstrong will pass by. A large projection screen shows live footage of the cyclists on the course, winding through the Santa Ynez Valley and climbing up the Ballard Canyon. As Lance makes the final turns heading back into town, some of the Oakley people discuss climbing on top of the Rolling O Lab—a large caravan used by the company for product demonstrations and education—to get a clearer view of the course over the heads of the crowd. But then the nearby spectators begin to cheer wildly, ringing yellow cowbells and waving their hands in the air—“Here he comes! Here he comes!”—and a yellow blur whizzes down the street and crosses the finish line. Lance Armstrong, fresh out of retirement, has just completed Stage 6 of the Tour of California in the blink of an eye.

He surveys the crowd through his custom-made Oakley Jawbone sunglasses in his signature LiveStrong yellow and black color combination and smiles. Although when it’s all over that day, he hasn’t won the particular stage (he placed 14 out of 106), but that’s not why he came out of retirement.

“He’s the kind of guy who’s always got to be busy,” says Stephanie McIlvain, a part of the sports marketing team at Oakley and someone who has worked with Lance since he aligned himself with the company almost 20 years ago. “He’s riding to raise awareness for cancer and to fight for his cause.” Meaning, he’s not riding for a salary.



The Amgen Tour of California is partially sponsored by Breakaway from Cancer, a complementary component to the Amgen race sponsorship. The non-profit division was developed by Amgen, a biotechnology company, to increase awareness of the resources that are available to cancer patients, from prevention to education, patient care to advocacy and financial support. This year, Breakaway from Cancer has teamed up with other non-profits with similar messages—Stand Up To Cancer, the Patient Advocate Foundation, the Prevent Cancer Foundation and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. At the event in Solvang, Lance’s awareness message rings loud and clear—literally. Fans all along the course clang yellow cowbells while hoisting printed signs featuring a photo of Lance and the slogan “Hope Rides Again.” Representatives from Nike started handing out yellow chalk early in the morning, and children and adults alike scrawled messages along the paved course that would be ridden by the cyclists later: “Lance brings us hope,” “Lance is our hero,” “Thank you, Lance,” “LIVESTRONG,” “GO LANCE!” Many people walk around in LiveStrong apparel, from t-shirts and hats to the simple yellow bracelet. 

Oakley’s own collection of LiveStrong eyewear consists of their most popular sport frame styles made in the signature yellow and black color combination. For each frame purchased, Oakley donates $20 to the LiveStrong Foundation and, according to McIlvain, they have raised $2 million to date. The line consists of the Flak Jacket, Straight Jacket, Radar and Lance’s long-time personal favorite, the M-frame. Created in the ’90s with Lance in mind, the M-frame has been such a favorite of his that, although he has tried many other styles, he always comes back to his original frame. But the new Oakley Jawbone just might change his mind.

The frame’s predicted success hinges on Oakley’s new SwitchLock technology—the lower part of the rim actually opens under the nose piece with a hinge in the bottom outside corner of the frame front, allowing the wearer to change lenses with minimal handling. The frame locks the lens in place with a suspension system that isolates the lens from stresses on the frame and minimizes optical distortion. “The lens suspension system keeps the lens floating in the frame with no compressive stresses,” says Steve Blick, also a member of the sports marketing team at Oakley and a driving force behind the Jawbone. “All stresses on the frame are directed away from the lens orbital.”

“We sent it to him when he was riding in the Tour of Australia,” adds McIlvain. “He called us later so excited and told us that he wore it and liked it.” Hearing those words from Lance created a buzz of excitement in the Oakley camp, where they know from experience his loyalties run deep. 

After he was diagnosed with cancer in October of 1996, Lance lost a lot of his lucrative sponsorships and, as a result, his health insurance. He needed help… and Oakley was there for him. “We added him to our payroll as my assistant,” says McIlvain. “He was paid as an employee, and he also got our health insurance benefits.” After an aggressive and successful fight, he was declared cancer-free in February 1997. When he announced his return to the cycling circuit, many of his previous sponsors tried to sign him, but Lance wanted new alliances.

“He lines himself up with people who have similar values as him,” says Blick. “Similar values” in this case meant companies who wouldn’t leave an athlete during a time of need. Oakley, of course, had earned Lance’s loyalty for a long time. But it’s always been a two-way street. “We’re there for him and he’s there for us,” says Blick. “And it comes back tenfold on each side. We’re like family.”

Other members of the Oakley family are also present at the Tour of California, some of them even sporting the new Jawbone during the race. According to Blick, five athletes at the event are wearing a pair: Lance, Mark Cavendish, George Hincapie, Thor Hushovd and Michael Barry, who wore an Rx pair. Although Blick says he’s been getting calls and emails from all over the globe about athletes who want to wear the new frame, Oakley is keeping it exclusive for now. Instead of over-saturating the market before the actual retail release, says Blick, “We’re just going to chill out and watch it happen.” By “it,” he means the growing buzz for the Jawbone. Though the race is in February, the retail debut of the Jawbone isn’t until May.  


The 2009 Amgen Tour of California covered nine days, 16 host cities and over 750 miles of the state’s scenic roads and highways. From Sacramento to Escondido, the mountains to the coast, the route was broken into nine stages, including the prologue, and riders competed for the highest prize of any cycling race in North America. The race, in its fourth year, is the largest spectator sporting even in America, with more than two million spectators in 2009. California native Levi Leipheimer won for the third year in a row with a total time of 31 hours, 28 minutes and 21 seconds. Host to the sixth stage of the race, Solvang bears the title of “Danish Capital of America,” with its European-style architecture and blend of American and Scandinavian culture.


After the race Blick hosts a presentation in the Rolling O Lab, highlighting the benefits of the new glasses to a group of cycling journalists. Designed with cyclists in mind, the frame allows for a wider field-of-view along the top of the frame, since cyclists ride with their head down and their eyes looking up and forward through the topmost part of the lens. Naturally, cyclists don’t want their vision obscured by the top of their frame, so Oakley’s design team minimized the top of the frame’s orbital, making it as thin and close to the face as possible. The lenses are vented, allowing for good airflow and less fogging at higher speeds, but the large cutout vents are out of the wearer’s field-of-view. Interchangeable nosepads allow for a custom fit based on face size and weather conditions, and the temple pieces were designed so as to not interfere with the fit of the cyclist’s helmet.

“We had to work with our competition to get the helmet and the frame to fit together so well,” says Blick. “But we know that if the athlete can successfully wear both pieces then hey, everybody wins.”

Blick shows a sample of the Jawbone to the group, passing it around for everybody to try on. In true Oakley fashion, the two-color frame on display is a testament to their mantra “solving problems with science and wrapping them in art.” A combination of black and neon green, a shade appropriately named “retina burn,” the frame draws immediate attention.

Also at the presentation is mountain biker Brian Lopes, who wears the frame when he rides, and especially while at competitions on the road. “The Jawbone has a cool look and is great for traveling,” he says, turning the frame over in his hands and popping out one lens. “I just have one frame and a couple of extra lenses and I’m good for whatever I have to do.” With a personal style that is clearly different than Lance, he says with a shrug, “The M-frame just didn’t have that cool factor.” Fashion aside, the day ends with an Oakley-hosted party on the patio of the Heidelberg Beer Garden, where everyone enjoys a variety of sausage and beer while watching workers disassembling the various platforms and tents that had been used during the day’s event. Cycling team buses have already started heading out of town, rushing to get to Santa Clarita for the next day’s stage of the race. Anxious athletes sit on the buses, relaxing physically from the Solvang event, but pumping themselves up mentally for the next challenge. With one noteable exception...

“Lance is just so much more relaxed now,” says McIlvain, reflecting on his attitude since his return to the world of cycling. After nearly two decades of business and friendship, she’s seen a change in the man who started off as a fiery triathlete. “Before, he was so much more intense. Now, he still wants to win, but he’s smiling a lot more.”

 

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