Sunday, February 3, 2013

Paul Willerton- Cycling Legend & Renaissance Man

Steel WÜl had an opportunity to catch up with our friend and American cycling legend Paul Willerton and he was kind enough to share some stories and answer a few questions -enjoy this exclusive interview.

Name: Paul Edward Willerton

Age: 44
Hometown: Bend, Or
Nickname: Wolf & Tom Schuler called him Free Willy
Profession: Partner in DeFeet, author, photographer, and artist
Hobbies: fly fishing, back-county skiing, nordic skiing, stand-up paddling, and paddle surfing
Bikes: Co-Motion 'norwester', Surley 'long haul trucker', 1994 Bontrager mt bike, 1926 Swiss Army original, Bianchi Milano, original Team Z bike, Della Santa (LeMond), John Cutter tandem.

Favorite Road: Fremont Peak is a very important road to me. It was close to home and I would always return to it. I spent many days with LeMond traversing the roads that connected Salinas and Hollister back in the day. You wouldn't find a single cyclist out there in 82'.

Favorite Author: John Steinbeck & James David Duncan

Favorite Band: I am at the age where I don't know the new bands. I listen to hip hop with my girls and then something like Fleet Wood comes on and you realize it's timeless. I used to take a Walkman with me on rides and stuff my pockets with tons of extra batteries and cassette tapes and pedal to REM, Winter Boys, The Alarm, and Sinead Oconner. I would head out for 6 or 7 hours with a pocket full of music and batteries. I don't know how I ended up with a Sinead Oconner tape but her music was great for cycling - it was defiant and for some reason resonated with me.

SW: Tell us about the early days of cycling and living in Hollister.

PW: Living in Hollister in the mid 80's...there wasn't a lot of cycling happening. I did not know of one other person in town who rode regularly, so I was on my own. It was still a very small town. The nice thing was very little traffic. I had the roads all to myself. What really drove me was knowing that my competition were going on competitive group rides after school. That was enough to get me to ride hard every time I went out. 
Getting to races from Hollister before I had a drivers license was a challenge as well. I'd have to hitch a ride to San Jose on Friday afternoon, then find a place to stay and get rides to races from there. The San Jose Bicycle Club put more emphasis on their junior program by 1986, which helped. Having a club like that, which helped juniors, that's just huge to a kid. The Nor-Cal road racing scene back then was really healthy. There were large fields, great courses, and there was funding moving into the sport from corporations big and small. We may be seeing the opposite of that, now, which makes the grass roots type club more important than ever. In hindsight, Hollister was a great place for a kid to be riding a bike. It still is. Really, most of Northern California is. I love the cycling culture that exists there, today. It would be nice if it had the interest in racing and the groundswell that it did when I was a teenager. That could happen again.

SW: How did you meet Warren Gibson and join the Plymoth Reebok Cycling Team?

PW: Because of a good economy, the success of LeMond, and a population that wanted to be more active, road racing benefited in the 80's. Specifically for juniors, the biggest teams were formed by Plymouth cars (later joined by Reebok), and 7-Eleven. I joined the Plymouth/Reebok team, which grew into the largest junior program ever in the United States. We had teams in California, Texas, Utah and Massachusetts. We sent our best riders to Europe for months, each season. Those programs, like most high level programs for kids in sports, sent a lot of riders to high levels and also sent a lot of riders packing off to school, instead. It took a long time for me to get noticed by Plymouth/Reebok. Years went by before I was getting things like bikes, cars, travel, food or small salaries. I would have never been able to do the sport for money. By far the best times I ever had in cycling had nothing to do with making money. Battling kids from around the West coast on a good course to win... what - a single Ambrosio tubular rim? Those were the best times ever.

SW: Your racing career overlapped multiple generations of athletes with the likes of Gianni Bugno & Stephan Roche to Levi & Lance – what generation do you relate to and why?

PW: I raced with Bugno plenty. Virenque. Leblanc. I would like to talk to Leblanc, again. Fignon, sometimes I wondered if he looked for me when it was slow to come over and have a chat in bad French/English. I rode Criquielion's final race. Roche had just moved on when I came in. I was racing with Armstrong as amateurs and professional. Levi was still an amateur when I moved to mountain bike racing. I've spent the most time, by far, with LeMond than with any other person I've know from cycling other than Chris Sheehan. I have more in common with LeMond then anyone else I met in cycling. We like the outdoors more than anything, and cycling is a way to immerse in the outdoors and also have the competitive outlet. What an awesome combo. From the younger generation, I was around Floyd Landis a lot, mountain bike racing. I told Cadel Evans he should be a road rider. I think if there is a rider from that group that I consider a friend, it's Dave Zabriskie. 

The thing you realize when you get a little older is that you don't care about someone's riding. It just doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if they made $30M from cycling or lost 18 grand. It doesn't matter if they won the Tour de France or got dropped in the juniors at Copperopolis road race and hung up the wheels. What matters is the person's character, their spirit, and the way they treat others. Caring for other people and the next generation of riders. There is much more to life than just a cycling career. Sadly, for many riders I knew, their cycling careers ended their lives. I coached Ian Boswell, who's now on SKY, when he was 14. I told him then, "Cycling can teach you a lot. You don't have to become a pro to have had success in the sport. It's not just about that." He's fundamentally a great person, and he knows his life does not depend on winning races. He was born the year I turned pro for Team Z.

SW: When you lined up for the 1992 World Road Race in Benidorm Spain – what was the plan, and who was on the team?

PW:  In Benidorm, we didn't have a very good plan for the pro road race. Pro racing was already transforming itself into the 'dark period'. American riders, at that time and from my perspective, had either not figured out what was happening or at least were not acting on information that was available regarding the blood products. We pretty much got killed in the road race. We were spat out one by one while a relatively large lead group was formed. It came down a sprint with about 40 or 50 guys. Anyway, the only American I recall making that group was Michael Engelmann, which is really a testament to the absolute beast that that guy was. He flew in the day before. LeMond did not travel to the race, that year. We had Engelmann, Armstrong, Nate Reiss, Bart Bowen, Michael Carter, Mike McCarthy, myself. Kiefel, maybe. I can't remember who else. Damn lack of oxygen has destroyed parts of my memory.

SW: When you turned pro for Team Z – what was your life like?

PW: Turning pro for Team Z in 1991 was a dream come true. The equivalent of a kid who played baseball getting drafted by the Yankees. The difference was the Yankees were a foreign team, and they only had one other American on the team. Is that like the Yankees drafting a Russian? LeMond made it clear to me that it wasn't going to be easy... and I'd have to forge my own way. He also wanted me to know that if it didn't work out, it wasn't the end of the world. I would say, with what was about to happen with EPO in the pro peleton, his career was about to stop working out, too. After winning the Tour de France in 1990, he was going even better in '91. The best he'd ever ridden. Yet he would only be able to finish 7th. That's what happened to pro racing in that span of one year. My timing was terrible.

Team Z was a great experience for me. Taking orders in French, trying to gain the respect of the team at a time when all of our careers were taking a turn for the worse. I had teammates that were heros to me as a boy. Bruno Cornillet, Eric Boyer, Robert Millar, Gilbert Duclos-Lassale, Kim Andersen, Jerome Simon, Robert Forest. Those guys were real, no bullshit bike riders on a clean team. Everything was perfect. Except the timing.

SW: What is your single greatest memory of racing?

PW: This is a hard question for me. I have had so many more crushing defeats than I have had triumphant times. I recall a stage in the Tour of Switzerland in 1992...
I was riding extremely well... on the most difficult stage in the Alps and summiting the most ridiculous mountain pass, I was next to LeMond. We had been with the lead group, which was only a handful of riders. Bugno was with us, but for whatever reason, I only recall LeMond being there at the summit... anyway, there were snow walls at least 20 feet high at the top. It was melting into the road, and the spray off our tires felt like ice water. We were tired, but we looked at each other and just laughed. We put on our plastic jackets, and then he went into a tuck. I tucked in behind him, and we then went faster on bicycles than I've ever gone in my life. The road was steep and went straight. I think we hit terminal velocity on a road bike. We were both screaming at the top of our lungs, at one point. Partly because the speed, and partly because of how cold we were.

SW: What cyclist do you admire the most?

PW: I admire Chris Sheehan. No one may remember him, or anything he did on a bike. I moved next door to him in San Jose, CA when we were five. He was the least likely professional cyclist ever, yet he overcame the odds and pursued his dreams. I've seen him suffer on at least three different continents. I've seen him overcome so much hardship and struggle. Today he is a bike shop owner in Charlotte, NC. He's still in the cycling industry. I've been lucky to have known him for 39 years. I completely respect him. He was riding a bike when I met him at 5, and he continues to pedal today. That's a cyclist. 

SW: What person do you admire the most?

PW: I admire LeMond, as a person. I witnessed him, and his family, go through so many things that I really don't think I could have survived to live through. The list is too long to go through. Some of it, people know about, but most of it very few people know. I have been lucky in my life that my boyhood hero became a friend that I got to travel around the world with and go on so many adventures with. That has enriched my life more than I could have ever imagined. Today, I'm happy he's still around, so that we can do more in this life. The guy just cracks me up. I have to shake my head sometimes because I can't believe how different he is. He has fears of course, but my god how he has waded through some of the scariest halls you can go through. There is a man who's dignity is intact.

SW: When you got 6th at the Cross Country Worlds in 94’ did that result change your life?

PW: That result made me very happy. I am proud of what I did there. It really happened over a very long period of time and a lot of hardship. It made me some money, but it also made my life harder because it brought pressure. I put too much pressure on myself, too. The blood products were coming into mountain bike racing at a fast rate - just as they had in road racing. My days were numbered, yet I punished myself for not becoming world champion in cross country. I wish I had been a better friend to myself and enjoyed those times, more. That was a big lesson, and it came with a heavy price. I learned it only after I had stopped racing.

SW: Is Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle as tough as he seems?

PW: Duclos was a man of leather. He was the rawhide of cycling. He won Paris-Roubaix two years in a row, and he was like the oldest guy out there. When I was 22 and he was 37 or so, I swear he looked 55 at the dinner table. I was scared to room with him.

SW: Why Fly Fishing?

PW: Fly fishing is my favorite way to pass time. It's that same immersion in the outdoors that cycling gave me as a kid. The competitve side is not there like cycling, but there is endless challenge in fly fishing. The way I do it, there is a lot of physical challenge as well. The problem with cycling, for me, is that riding a bike now is like going from a Moto GP bike to a moped. I will get even slower. I'm ok, for my age and how much I ride - it's not that. As a former racer, you just set the bar higher. You can't help it. I think I can be a better fly fisherman my entire life, continuing to improve. My deep and fast wading will go away, but I may make up for it in other ways. Always more to learn.

SW: Carbon, Steel, Alum, or Ti......

PW: Steel. Carbon is fun to play with but for my dollar, I take steel every time. You Fu@! carbon but you marry steel. Just made that one up but I think it works.

SW: What motivates you these days.

PW: I want to age into something, someone, of value. An asset to my children. Someone that can help them and help others in their lives. I've had a lot of experiences in my life. Good, bad, ugly. I want to help people. I'm trying. Selfishly, I want to fish more, play better tennis, paddle faster, kiteboard and surf better, and pedal my steel into a healthy, long life. This motivates me. 

SW: When people ask you where you are from – what do you say?

PW:  I say I'm from Bend, Oregon. I've lived here longer than any place in my life, so this is it.

SW: Would you race your bike if you had to do it all over again?

PW: I look back and think "I can't believe I did that." It's like falling in love. You don't have any control. You can't do a sport like that if you're not truly in love with it. Even if you secretly hate it, it ends up like a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. So yeah, I probably would do it all over again, in another lifetime. Cycling is a beautiful sport. It's such a worthwhile endeavor, whether you race or not. Racing can teach you things that are so far outside the 'box', but they can be applied to everyday life. It's wild. Just going on a tour or long ride, you learn about yourself - things you probably couldn't know had you not attempted them. 

SW: Describe a perfect day for Paul Willerton..

PW: It would be in the Fall. I'd load up my Surly and a trailer with a cooler, my raft, tent, rods and waders. I'd park at the mouth of the Deschutes river, where it meets the Columbia. I'd ride miles upriver on the dirt trail, only accessible by bike or hiking. There, I'd set camp, raft, ride and fish for the super bright, wild steelhead that come in from the ocean. Every one of them is different, and they are all amazing.

SW: Someone like yourself would be a perfect ambassador for the renaissance of US cycling  would you consider this if approached by the right agency?

PW: Watching the feud that surrounds cycling today, it's infuriating to me. Could I approach it in a way that would ultimately help create a better environment for the riders? I would like to consider myself a diplomatic person who can see this with 360 degree vision. We got into this mess by enabling parties that were simply self-serving. People in power wanted to make their money and let someone else ask - and act on - the hard questions. The world asks "How did cycling go so many years with this under it's nose?" We know how that happened. Am I a person who can help make it better? Yes. Would the sport trust me to do it? My answer to #16 above is what holds people back from putting me in that position. Could you picture Pat McQuaid, Hein Verbruggen or Steve Johnson doing that? Guys in those jobs are expected to drop ass in either an office or a bar and get it done. "It" being a foundation of enforced rules, clean sport, a good calendar and a place where corporations invest in teams and events around the world. We trusted them and we were delivered a house of cards. An old school, omerta enforcing environment that enriched a handful of people in power and left the sport emaciated. The new generation does not want that. Are they mature enough to stand up and say "We won't tolerate it"? I am a dual citizen of Switzerland, so spending time there would not be a problem.

For the record:
I think everyone would agree that Paul is the guy that could help right the ship at the UCI. He paid his dues in the trenches and its high time we replace those knuckleheads who can be found in the rear with the gear.

Next time you need some classy wool or the greatest gloves on planet Earth
go here first...

click here:



  1. Paul, I rode with Luc Leblanc at a sportive in France in 2008. He's still plenty fast and reps Cannondale or Pinerello in his region of France (at least he was then). I gotta say though, I never thought he nor Kim Anderson were clean. Anderson had what 5-6 positives? He only missed getting a lifetime ban on a technicality. Hope all is well. Richard

  2. I seem to remember a write up of the USPRO championships one year where PW got chased down prior to the finale owing to other teams' political tactics? Would be an interesting story to hear again.

    1. That is a good point Anonymous..I wonder how much $ was involved behind the scenes at the 93' USPRO when certain folks stopped chasing ultimately leaving Willerton to fend for himself against the "cycling unethical complex". Just like SF Grand Prix when Hincapie paid 15k to ensure his win (he was afraid of Klasna that day).

  3. I am glad Jaime Stanton read this - because he knows...

  4. great interview!!!!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.