Join cycling author & journalist William Fotheringham who looks back at the Z Vêtements Peugeot cycling team. Greg Lemond, Robert Millar and Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle all rode in the famous comic-book-inspired team jersey.
The great cycling kit designs always divide opinion, but they have another thing in common: they are always utterly memorable. The Z team kit launched on the public in 1987 was all that and more: a deep blue with that comic-book biff-kapow-burst Z in a rip-look “window”.
For the time it was utterly radical, the more so because it replaced France’s most traditional jersey design: Peugeot’s black and white checkerboard with its heritage going back to the dawns of cycling in the 19th century.
Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1987
It was a radical look for a radical moment. Peugeot had been cycling’s last factory team, solely sponsored by a bike maker. The Z children’s clothing company was one of a new wave of cycling extra-sportif sponsors. Traditionally these had been basic consumer products for men: sausages, cigarettes, booze, radios, cars. This was headed at a different market: women who would watch cycling on daytime television. Or rather, who would watch the Tour de France.
Z made a timely entry after their founder Roger Zannier spotted during the 1986 Tour that Peugeot needed a new sponsor. The deal was sealed in the four-week window which was all the time that another Roger, Peugeot manager (and former rider) Legeay had to play with between Peugeot telling him they were pulling out, and the team being disbanded.
It was a quick decision because Zannier was the company’s only decision-maker. He and his sister Josette had founded their clothing makers in 1962, armed with only a pair of sewing machines. The brand had been launched 30 years later: clothing from A to Z was the marketing blurb. At the point where Zannier and Legeay joined forces, the company was just expanding into the high street.
Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1988
The two Rogers were on the sub-group that designed the jersey: “the logo was already there, and the deep blue was the company’s color,” Legeay told me. The only addition was an explanatory vêtements enfants in a typescript deliberately resembling a child’s handwriting, which appeared on the jersey from 1988. Like the equally radical La Vie Claire jersey, the design was possible only because of new printing techniques: Legeay recalled that it shocked some, but the consensus was that it was a “young” design. In that respect, it was of its time, as cycling moved rapidly into the modern incarnation we know today.
Philippa York, who as Robert Millar was the team’s leader in 1989, recalled a family atmosphere, thanks in part to the fact that most of the team riders and staff were from Peugeot, and the management - Leugeay, Serge Beucherie, Michel Laurent - had ridden for the old team. Plus, Zannier was a hands-on sponsor, who would let a mechanic or soigneur drive his Ferrari when the team was racing near his Saint Etienne base and he would jump into a team car for the day.
Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1989
Millar was an astute signing for 1989, winning a Tour stage and finishing in the top 10, but for 1990, Legeay and Zannier pulled off the ultimate coup de pub and dragged cycling into the 90s with a multi-million dollar deal for Greg LeMond, who had just won what most regard as the greatest Tour ever by 8sec from Laurent Fignon. The astute, personable Legeay had tapped up LeMond at two key moments: in 1988 when he was at his lowest ebb after his shooting accident, and in 1989, the evening before LeMond took the yellow jersey for the first time in the Tour.
I was glad to return to the spiritual successor to the old Peugeot squad. Since I knew Roger Legeay, who was relatively new to the job, it meant that he was able to talk to us on a person-to-person basis and not like he owned you, which had been the case up until then.
The deal was a bidding war between 7-Eleven, Toshiba and Z. The French team’s offer of $5.5 million over three years was lower than Toshiba’s, but the clincher was that the team would ride LeMond branded bikes. Z also had a team of climbers who would stand in when LeMond was absent - as Millar did to great effect in early summer 1990, winning the Dauphiné Libéré - and would support the American at the Tour.
The “50-kilo club” as they were known - Ronan Pensec, Atle Kvalsvoll, Bruno Cornillet, Millar and Jerôme Simon - combined to great effect in 1990 to support LeMond to his third win in the Tour, which remains the last time that a French squad triumphed in La Grande Boucle. That win was also a triumph for Legeay, who handled the high-maintenance LeMond to perfection: the American was in appalling form all spring, and a less patient manager might have put the pressure on, to dire effect. The team wore yellow briefly with Pensec, who then combined to great effect with LeMond to put the American within spitting distance of the race leader Claudio Chiappucci on the stage to Saint Etienne.
Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1991
The Z legacy was a rich one. To start with, the company’s recognition went from 6% to almost 40%; by 1992 their sales had topped 2 billion francs and they had expanded from 60 to 200 stores. The team added a Paris-Roubaix in 1992 with Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and the LeMond experience prepared Legeay and company for another very different leader: Chris Boardman, with whom the team survived into the 2000s sponsored by GAN and Crédit Agricole.
And then there is that jersey: once seen, never forgotten.
Equipe Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1990 with world champion Greg Lemond in the centre in his rainbow jersey.
Equipe Vêtements Z-Peugeot Cycling Team postcard from 1992 with Greg Lemond in the centre.
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