Greg Vollet: Le Patron
May 13, 2013 by Robbie Lawless · 19 Comments
As the manager for the Salomon International Team, Greg Vollet has found himself as something of a figurehead for the sport of trail and mountain running, a constant presence at races and at the shoulders of some of our sport’s biggest names. His journey there is an interesting one, encompassing a sport-filled youth, professional mountain biking, disillusionment with a sport he once loved, and an online job application that would, ultimately, lead to him becoming ‘The Boss.’
iRunFar: Greg, you were born in Fontainebleau, France in the mid-seventies. The highest point of the area is a little over 200 meters! When did the mountains become a real passion for you? Can you remember your first visit to the Alps?
Greg Vollet: Being born in Fontainebleau and living along this big forest was very a big opportunity for me. The Poligny forest is, for me, one of the most beautiful forests to have fun in during a run or a ride. It has plenty of big rocks, roots, sands, pine, and technical singletracks where you always need to adapt your body to the path. It’s not really a normal forest for me, it’s a playground where I can have a lot of pleasure for many hours! So this forest influenced me a lot in my choice to have an outdoor life. My parents brought me to the Alps when I was a kid, our holidays were always one year to the sea and one year at the mountain to hike. My favourite holidays were always to the mountains!
iRF: Cool. Tell us a little about growing up there, the events and people that influenced your young self and, perhaps, shaped the way you are now. You always loved the outdoors, right?
Vollet: I started with sport at six years old. That was with running. I was in a club until I was 16 years old and my passion was to run cross country in the mud during the winter! I had a coach, Jean-Pierre Lucien, who supported me for many years, always with the same passion. He was an important person to me because he gave me confidence in my ability. My father didn’t want me to get a cycling license before I was 16 years old, so I was waiting to turn 16 to start what became a deep passion. The mountain biking came naturally because of my passion to ride in the forest and for the respect of the nature.
iRF: Those early running years sound fun. Did you ever think about continuing your running career? I mean, were you getting some good results and enjoying the races. Or, was the plan always to get the bike license once you hit 16?
Vollet: The fact was that my brother, who was six years older than me, was competing in road bike, and many of my best friends, too. So I was influenced by them. The mechanical approach of the sport was also way more interesting for me at this period where I was able to spend hours disassembling and rebuilding my bike!
iRF: Of course France has a long history and culture with bike racing, the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix being world-renowned races. In the 80’s, when you were a kid, the likes of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon were the kings. You rode cross-country mountain bikes later, but did the bike culture influence you when you were a kid? Was that your main outdoor activity back then?
Vollet: When I started to become a real MTB addict–reading all the MTB magazines, spending time working on my bike, and focusing all my life on my passion–John Tomac from the US was my inspiration. He was a spectacular rider who always had a lot of technique. A poster of him was attached above my bed! He was able to win cross country or downhill races in the world cup series! He was certainly the most talented rider that I have never known. And he showed me how the enjoyment is important to perform.
iRF: Moving on to your cross-country days, Greg, you raced on the world cup tour, winning a stage in Sydney (beating future Tour de France winner Cadel Evans) and finishing second in the European championships in 1999. Can you tell us how you came to race professionally, your journey to the cross country world cup?
Vollet: When I was at university, nothing was more important than my MTB life. I was in the middle of France, Clermont Ferrand, to study sport. At this period, I had 18 hours of school each week, and I was on my bike almost 25 hours per week! All my focus was on MTB at this time, and I was able, in those mountains, to develop my technical side, which became my strength in every race. If it was sometimes difficult for me to follow the best rider going uphill, I was able to make a real difference in every downhill. It is that skill that meant that I won some good races!
iRF: You mentioned once that trail running can learn from the countless mistakes that cross-country mountain biking took in their transformation to professionalism – we will talk about that later – but was that a factor for you finishing your cross-country career? Or was it just time to try something different?
Vollet: When I started MTB it was really similar to what trail running is today. All the races were new experiences where it was possible to explore new trails and where the technical side was really important because of the adaptation and improvisation needed on unfamiliar trails. Then, after cross country became an Olympic sport, all the spirit of MTB was modified, and riding on a loop a few kilometres in distance was not fun. Plus, I was not able to make big differences on the technical sections anymore because there was no more improvisation, everybody was able to ride fast on downhills. I was sad with the evolution of the sport.
iRF: After your mountain-bike career, you became very involved with team adventure racing and multisport events, right? Tell us a little about these times.
Vollet: Yes, when I was a product manager within cycling equipment, I made a partnership with an adventure racing team who was competing in the world cup series. One day they asked me if I would be interested in coming and competing with them! It was an opportunity to travel again, and explore new horizons. It was a fabulous experience where I was able to help all the team. It wasn’t an individual sport, and I was able to push myself to the limit to help my teammates. I have a lot of good memories from those times where the collaboration, the team spirit, was the main value of this sport.
iRF: Cool, Greg, so let’s talk trail running! Your own journey to trail running seems quite organic. Biking led to adventure races. You mentioned in another interview that you struggled with the trail runs during these early adventure races, so this led to entering some local trail races and improving, finding your rhythm, and building it up from there. Can you give us some more insights into this transitional phase?
Vollet: After a cycling carrier, my legs were not adapted to the shock of running, and I was struggling on the trail running sections during the adventure races. So I started to train and to take part in real trail running races to improve my capacity, always with the goal to help my teammates. But I had real enjoyment when I discovered a sport that had similar values, very close to what MTB had at the beginning of the 90’s!
iRF: When you began to focus on trail running again, did your experience and technical ability from MTB help with the technical descents in trail races, you think?
Vollet: At the beginning, no! I was not able to run fast on the downhills, not even for a few minutes. I had too much pain in my legs! Also, I was running without any technique, from the heel to the toe! But when I started to run with Kilian [Jornet] and I saw how I should run to go fast downhill, then I discovered the real enjoyment, the same as when I mountain biked, completely the same feelings of speed, fear, and jumps! Today, it’s my favorite part!
iRF: So from trail running for fun, the freedom and the culture and lifestyle that surrounds it, you become the head of marketing at Salomon and the boss of the international trail team. How did that happen?
Vollet: After some years as a product manager, sales manager, and marketing manager, trail running was really becoming a deep passion. I applied to a job that was on the Salomon website! Without any expectation I was selected from more than 100 people to a final selection. It was crazy and completely changed my life!
iRF: Cool, did you realise how visible your role would be? I mean, you are quite a recognised figure in the sport now.
Vollet: No, I work as much as I can in the shadow. Sometimes I need to express my opinion for people to react, to help the sport take the right direction. I feel like a guardian of the sport in some ways.
iRF: So, you are four years in the job now, right? During that time trail running has been experiencing a huge boom. Going back to your statement about learning from cross country’s failure while becoming ‘professional,’ it’s essential that trail running doesn’t sell its soul, isn’t it? How do you think we can prevent that from happening?
Vollet: To understand what we need to do to take care of our sport, we need to look at what happened in some other sports. I will tell you about MTB because it was my sport, but this is also true for snowboarding, etceteras. When MTB was booming and becoming interesting from a business standpoint for a federation, the UCI was developing their plan to help the sport become an Olympic sport and creating the opportunity to receive more money from the governments. For that to happen, they started to make a UCI world ranking, where the athletes were ‘forced’ to compete in the UCI events if they wanted to be part of the ranking. They organised a world championship, national teams, and all that was needed to follow their business plan.
They changed the essence of the sport to become more spectator friendly, where the athletes rode 10 loops of 5k to attract more spectators and to be able to film the events more easily for television. No one was asking the everyday riders if they were happy about this modification. And these people disappeared from the races because, when the first rider was catching a rider who was one lapped, then that rider was obliged to stop the race. That’s why some races finished with less than 50 riders sometimes. Today, MTB has completely changed, and for what? For 50 riders who are on the Olympic start line every four years? And then four years later MTB doesn’t know if it will still be part of the next Olympics because it’s too expensive to film and to build an artificial race loop.
Today, I see a IAAF World Championship that will be on five loops in Wales. I’m not sure that the IAAF really understands what the values of trail running are today, freedom, nature, respect, humility, emotions, sharing, pure, inspirational, open, challenge, discovering, simplicity, spirit, improvisation, adaptability, enjoyment, cohesion. This is what makes trail running, and this is what we should take care about.
If we lose these values, we will lose our sport. We will inevitably change the state of mind and the essence of our sport. Some sports have made the choice not to be part of the Olympics, and they are continuing their dreams. This is the case for surfing and skating, for example. What we have today that we didn’t have 20 years ago in MTB is social media. The full community of trail running can become stronger than any federation today. If the whole community wants to take care of these values, of our sport, then we should all be part of the same group who will have the power to influence the sport in the right direction.
iRF: It’s a very interesting topic, you mentioned surfing, Greg. They have their professional ‘Dream Tour’ which is all about the best-of-the-best surfing, the best waves in the world in the most amazing locations. It’s obviously an elite tour, not open to the masses, but do you think the Skyrunning World Series is shaping up to be our sport’s equivalent, except everybody can take part!?
Vollet: For me, skyrunning should remain on their points of difference, which is the most technical terrain in the world’s toughest places. Of course, the elites are looking for this type of racing, and this circuit is attracting more and more runners and teams each year because it is the only credible international circuit today. What is interesting in skyrunning today is that they highlight a global circuit of high-level competitions and not a federation. Everyone can remain free and that equals the essence of the sport.
iRF: So what would your personal vision for trail running in, say, five years? What would you like to see with regards to professionalism and races?
Vollet: I would like to see all the brands investing in trail running in term of teams, organizations, and product developments. The more the brands invest, the more the sport will grow and the more consumers, athletes, retailers, and media will benefit. For the consumers this will mean a larger choice of products, races, magazines, and social media.
In term of races, I would like to see some downhill races, some enduro races, some new formats that will bring a lot of fun into our sport to reach a new, younger population who desires the most exhilarating sensations. And, also, another circuit dedicated more to the masses, more accessible and where each one will be able to dream to run a trail legend. Not necessarily with a ranking, but more as an accomplishment.
iRF: Okay, great. Let’s talk about the international team. Without doubt, an amazing group of athletes! Some of them were involved with Salomon when you joined but how did you go about creating the team model that we see today?
Vollet: When I arrived at Salomon, the international team did not exist. It was for me an opportunity to develop the awareness of the brand. For that, I used all my different experiences that I had during my personal sport career to find the best way to work with the athletes.
iRF: Can you tell us a little more about the birth of the international team? Do you remember the first meeting with the original athletes? Who was there then and what you discussed?
Vollet: Yes! It was at the Advanced Week 2010, at Mont Ventoux. the last week of March. It was the first time I met trail running athletes from several countries all gathered to give their opinions on product development. After a week, I had promised to put them on an international team and take care of them. There was Kilian, Thomas Lorblanchet, Ricky Lightfoot, Ryan Sandes, Jonathan Wyatt, and others! Six months later, it was done!
iRF: Now the team seems to have a very strong synergy, which has led to dominance in a majority of races. Yet you have said yourself that there is no pressure put on the athletes to win. Do you ever think ‘wow, I’ve created a monster?’
Vollet: My main goal is to create a real family. A group of people who have fun together, who are happy to meet during races and where each one will be able to help the other, the team spirit. There is no pressure, because nothing is imposed. It’s the athlete who chooses the dream they want to realise. I’m just here to support them and to give them advice.
iRF: Sounds good! So if one of the team turned up one day and said, ‘Greg, I don’t want to do races anymore. I just want to become a soul runner, live in a cabin in the mountains, and send out video posts of the places I run,’ it would be okay with you?
Vollet: Ha! I already have a request like that! And if the athlete is able to assume a good communication around what they are doing, then yes! Trail running is not only about competition! It’s a lot about freedom, and this is what I try to show across all our videos. We are not communicating about a victory, but around our spirit which is a much deeper part of our trail running passion.
iRF: It seems the team’s dominance, though, has led to some negativity. But I guess there is nothing stopping other major companies within trail running from creating their own international teams and investing heavily in the sport like Salomon has. Why do you think this has not happened yet?
Vollet: I think that we were a little bit in advance, ahead of our time, on sport marketing. But now a lot of brands are following our way and will be able to develop the sport with us. With more competitors, our dominance will be less and the stories will be better!
For me, the more the brands invest in trail running, the more the sport will be developed, more the consumer will be happy. It’s easy to understand. Trail running is a small cake, and Salomon is X percent of the cake now. If tomorrow, with the investment from all the brands, trail running will become a big cake, but Salomon keeps the same percent of the market, it will be growth. The athletes will be able to have financial contracts, the organiser will have a better field, the mass people will have more races, the retailers will sell more, the brands will develop more products, the consumer will find the exact product that they need. This is why I’m very open to showing the other brands in the Salomon videos, to show our respect, to incite the brands to invest. My role is to develop the sport all around the world.
iRF: Trail running in the last couple of years has really become an international community, with more than a little help from the Internet and sites like iRunFar. You guys have really embraced this aspect, too, with Salomon Running TV and your social-media involvement. Do you believe this online community has an important role to play for the future growth of trail running?
Vollet: To develop a sport, you need to respect the community and to be part of the community. It’s never easy when you are part of a brand, because people have no confidence from people who want to do business. But this is not my first role. Somewhere, business will come naturally with the sport’s development. It’s important to be an inspirational brand, to be legitimate and credible in the community. This is why we developed many videos and why our athletes are very active on the web.
iRF: You raced a bit in 2012, too, and it seems like you have been spending much time in the company of amazing trail runners. So much, in fact, that you have become one. Fifth at Pikes Peak, 10th at Zegama, and 14th at the TNF50 to name just a few results. Any plans to give up the day job?
Vollet: I have the job of my dreams, and I dedicate my life to my deep passion, trail running. I run just for the pleasure, my career is behind me. I’m here to pass the relay on to the young generation and to show them that they don’t need to be serious to perform!