Interview: Kozo Shimano on Lance Armstrong

An insider's view of the Tour de France king

Kozo Shimano comes from bike industry royalty; along with Valentino Campagnolo and Richard Schwinn, there aren't many non-racers in today's industry with such recognizable last names.

As Shimano America's public relations and advocacy director, the former president of the world's largest bicycle component maker has enjoyed victory in the Tour de France eight times thanks to the efforts of Lance Armstrong - the first Shimano equipped rider to win the Tour - and Alberto Contador.

BikeRadar caught up with Shimano recently to ask him more about his relationship with Armstrong.

BikeRadar: Tell us how you came to know Lance.

We first met in Japan in 1991. I was working in Japan (at Shimano) and Lance came over for the World Championships. Shimano puts on an annual event to which we invited some of the riders from the World's. Lance (and Nate Reiss) were the two invited from the US team. I found out much later that this was Lance’s first trip to Japan. 

After spending almost two weeks in Japan for the World's, he had to go to another event (in Japan) for another week. I think this was too much for a 19-year old kid from Texas. And, Japan is nothing like Texas – especially the ‘backwoods of Japan' (where the World's was held). I sensed that Lance would have preferred to go home than to go attend a citizens class race that Shimano conducts.  

I was responsible for taking care of the athletes – and it was at that point that I got to know Lance. I think the highlight of his trip to Japan was the factory tour of Shimano. I also remember that he set the course record in the team time trial of the Shimano-Greenpia race (his teammates were Reiss and two riders from Germany).

Tell us about Lance's intensity and his softer side.

As most people can tell, Lance is very competitive - he wants to win at everything he’s involved in. I think that’s the reason he overcame his bout with cancer; he was not about to let some disease beat him down. That’s probably why he runs marathons, now; I actually thought it was going to be triathlons. You can’t just turn off that switch of being ultra-competitive.

As to his softer side - if he has one - he is intensely loyal to his friends. You can see this in the people that he confides in. I see this, because I’ve known Lance since he was 19 (I think I was 29 at the time). This was before cancer, before the Tour de France, and before he became famous. But then, I was just a ‘worker bee’ in Shimano. I just wish that I (and Shimano) could have done more for Lance when he was going through his bout with cancer. Personally, I’m hoping to make up for that by being involved with the Livestrong Foundation.

Tell us about the seven years of winning the Tour with Lance and his team riding Shimano. What impact did that have on your business?

More than the commercial impact, this was one of the greatest single achievements that Shimano has been involved in. Lance was the first Shimano-equipped rider to win the Tour. Up until that time, we had been involved with Giro and Vuelta winners, and winners of the World Championships. The Tour was the only race that eluded Shimano. But, we were not going to ‘buy out’ a sponsorship contract to get that win.

We knew that over time, there would be a Shimano-equipped winner from one of the teams that we have been involved with over a long time. The US Postal / Discovery Channel team had its humble beginnings with the Subaru-Montgomery team. This was Lance’s first pro level team while still an amateur – when he still competed in triathlons and road races. I think Thom Weisel Partners and Shimano are the only two sponsors that had been with the team from the beginning until the end.

On the commercial impact, it’s difficult to say. We sponsor many teams, that win many races. There is one product (SPD-SL pedal) that I remember. It became known in the bike business as 'the pedals that Lance won the Tour on'. We sold so many of those pedals, we couldn’t make enough of them.

How often do you chat with Lance?

We chat every so often. I consider him a good friend, but I don’t think I’m part of his inner circle. He knows that I’m not a groupie, even though I’ve joked with him becoming part of his posse. We e-mail back-and-forth to communicate, but they are not lengthy conversations. It’s usually a short (few sentences) reply from his Blackberry. I feel I know him well enough that I knew he would enjoy the custom surfboard I gave him, with his name and Texas state flag on it.  

I think I did good in getting him his retirement gift. What do you give a man that has everything or can get it? He had always been wanting an all-black group to go with his Livestrong themed bike. Shimano presented him with an all-black Trek with a black DuraAce group (with yellow DuraAce logo). You know the guy is happy – when he stares at the bike, then responds: 'Wow! That’s way cool!'

You're one of his Livestrong Foundation board of trustees. What role do you play?

I’ve been involved with this board for about one year. So far, my obligations have been to attend regularly scheduled meetings. In the future, I see that I will be asked to find potential donors and sponsors.  

Basically, wherever I can be of help, I will be of service. The Livestrong philosophy is very important to me personally. My uncle, Keizo struggled with cancer. There’s a Letter to the Editor (below) that I submitted to VeloNews when Lance won his first Tour in 1999. Although I was not able to be there, I wanted as many people as possible to know how I felt about that achievement. Keizo lost his second bout with cancer. But in between the first and second battle, he realized the “obligation of survivorship" that Lance so fondly talks about. Although Keizo was not able to fulfill this obligation, I feel that I'm fulfilling this obligation through my work with the Livestrong  board.

A Tale of Two People

Lance Armstrong’s victory in the 1999 Tour de France has special meaning for me.  A sense of accomplishment for two people that I have met – one has had a great impact on my life, while the other offers inspiration for the future. One has conquered the dreaded disease of cancer; the other fought a valiant battle but lost.

Obviously, Lance’s achievements (winning the World Championships, overcoming cancer and winning the Tour de France) have been widely chronicled over the past month. He is the topic of conversation amongst everyone in the bike industry. The other person lived in relative obscurity.

These two people could not be more different. Lance is a product of the 1970s and '80s. Raised by his mother in Austin, Texas, he came to national prominence as a triathlete and has proven himself as one of the world’s premier bike racers. Triathlons, road races, and now mountain bike races – along the way, he beats cancer. Is there anything this man can’t do? I congratulate Lance on being superhuman and a true role model.

The other person is a product of the 1940s, growing up in Japan during World War II. He to was a driven man; always challenging what could not be achieved. Always questioning the status quo (wanting to crash his car to see if the airbag really worked). So patriotic, he was about to lie about his age so that he could join the Navy (lucky for us, his father caught on before he enlisted).  

He too was an aspiring athlete, as he was one step away from a professional baseball contract (once again, his father intervened, convincing him to work in the family business, instead) – his idol was Ted Williams. Instead of baseball, he earned a college diploma (in mechanical engineering) and then joined the workforce as Japan was emerging from the ruins of a war torn Japan.

You may have heard of this man’s accomplishments.  He was a true fan of bicycle racing. He founded the Shimano Cycle Racing Team (one of Japan’s premier amateur road racing teams) as a tool to develop the World’s best bicycle components. This man was running ‘Shimano Skunk Development’ before it even existed! He was the driving force behind the development of the original Dura-Ace (Shimano’s first road racing components), the original Deore XT (World’s first mountain bike components), SIS (Shimano Index System), Hyperglide, SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics), STI (Shimano Total Integration) shifters.

This man is my late uncle, Keizo Shimano.

Keizo was doing cartwheels in his office when Freddy Maertens won the first World Championships by a Dura-Ace equipped rider. He flew to Italy when Andy Hampsten won the Giro. I know he is smiling as Lance rides into Paris. Lance is the first Shimano-equipped rider to win the Tour de France. After 25 years, Keizo’s goal has been achieved. Unfortunately, Keizo could not witness this great feat, as the disease that Lance has defeated was too great for Keizo to overcome.

Congratulations, Lance, on your victory and thank you for the inspiration.

Kozo Shimano, July 1999

Armstrong's 1999 Shimano-equipped Trek with yellow jersey, on display at the Osaka Bicycle Museum. Andy Hampsten's 1988 Giro-winning Huffy and Gianni Bugno's 1991 world championship-winning Bianchi are below. 

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