AMERICAN FORK — A horrific Tour de France crash and infamous response from an ultra-tough Dutch cyclist turned out to be a pivotal moment for Lizard Skins, a 26-year-old Utah company that's carved out a niche of success with products that help athletes keep their grips on the tools of their respective trades.
In stage 9 of 2011's race, Dutch rider Johnny Hoogerland was involved in an incident begun when a French television chase vehicle clipped Argentine racer Juan Flecha and began a chain reaction accident that forced Hoogerland off the narrow mountain road in south central France. Hoogerland flipped over the top of his cycle and flew into a roadside barbwire fence with enough force to rip a post out of the ground. While sustaining multiple lacerations, Hoogerland was undeterred by the accident, remounting his bike — bloodied and sporting a now-shredded jersey — and finishing the stage. The injuries would later require over 30 stitches, but Hoogerland's bullet-proof response vaulted him to fame, even eclipsing that of the eventual winner of the 2011 tour.
As it happens, Hoogerland was using the then under-the-radar Lizard Skins' handlebar grip tape and, according to company founder and CEO Brian Fruit, what came next for the company was a bit like capturing lightning in a bottle.
"It was how Johnny handled it that made it so big," Fruit said. "He got back on his bike, bleeding everywhere and finished the race. Because of his amazing attitude, Lizard Skins just took off."
Fruit added with a smile, "try running a P.R. campaign that looks like that."
While the remarkable resilience shown by Hoogerland helped expand the Lizard Skins customer base, innovation has been the focus of the effort since Fruit launched the company shortly after graduating from BYU in the early 1990s.
While his first product, a simple but elegant and lightweight chainstay protector for bicycles gave Lizard Skins a small foothold in the industry, it was the foray into grip tape, and its various iterations, that has driven the company's growth into 80 international markets. Today's Lizard Skins spans four divisions that cover cycling, baseball, hockey and lacrosse. The privately held company declined to share financial information but has been on a steady growth arc its entire two-plus decades.
Fruit said about a decade ago he and his team were on the hunt for a bicycle grip manufacturer. While the effort proved fruitless, along the way he crossed paths with a company that had a developed a new, polymer-based tape material.
"Using the material, it took us about nine months to (research and develop) a really cool road bike handlebar tape," Fruit said. "It was super different than anything on the market. Other companies were still doing synthetic cork. The polymer looked and felt completely different."
The tape, Fruit said, could also be made in a panel of vibrant colors, but had a drawback that was worrisome. It was significantly more expensive than the other grip tape options at the time. But Fruit and his sales team knew the key was getting a customer to touch the new material and, because it was so different than its predecessors, the cost difference could be overcome.
"Touching the product really would close the deal," Fruit said. "We made display handlebars with the tape so we could get it in people's hands, and even created the saying, 'touch it, feel it, love it.'"
Two years later, Lizard Skins would earn its first pro cycling contract with Vacansoleil, the team Hoogerland was riding for in 2011, and is now affiliated with three Tour de France racing teams.
Fruit's love of cycling, birthed in his student days at BYU when he took to a mountain bike out of frustration with a campus parking situation he said "simply became intolerable," was the driver behind Lizard Skins first family of products. But a product pivot that would give the company its biggest public platform came from a hack of its bicycle grip tape.
Fruit said word trickled back to the company around 2010 that some customers were taking packs of its bicycle handlebar tape and repurposing it as an alternative for wrapping baseball bat grips.
"We started seeing people buying the thinnest version of our cycling tape and using it for baseball bats," Fruit said. "One pack would do four bats. Some people were even loading up their trunks with our handlebar tape and going to baseball tournaments to wrap bats for players.
"We saw a market there and decided to go for it."
The company, Fruit said, launched a development effort and came up with a custom bat-wrapping product that had a modest launch in 2011, garnering around $25,000 in sales. A few years later, the company would earn a much coveted, and rarely granted, on-field licensing contract with Major League Baseball that put them in league with some behemoths of the sports equipment world. Think Wilson, Rawlings, Louisville Slugger, Nike and a few others. But the path to the license was laid by the guys swinging the bats.
"The coolest thing was that our product was received and accepted by the players well before the contract happened," Fruit said. "One of our foundations, really the rock that we built this company on, has been the drive to work with the best athletes in the spaces we work. The absolute best cyclists, the absolute best hitters."
The list of athletes using Lizard Skins grip products reflect the company's high level of success in that pursuit. A sampling of baseball all-stars who wrap with Lizard Skins includes Anthony Rizzo (Chicago Cubs); Amed Rosario (New York Mets); Brett Gardner (New York Yankees); and Eric Hosmer (San Diego Padres).
And of course, numerous road racing and mountain bike professionals are big fans of Fruit's earliest products:
“I love the tape and the special edition they made me. We spend many hours on our bikes and the comfort to my hands is great, the grip is great I can sprint and climb, and my hands are fixed to the bars," Spanish road racer Alejandro Valverde offers in a testimonial
From American cyclocross racer Kerry Werner: “I have used a lot of different bar tape, but Lizard Skins was one that when I tried it out something immediately clicked. It has such a tacky feel, which really makes me feel confident in the cockpit. When CX brings the mud the bars still stay grippy."
And Freeride mountain bike star Darren "The Claw" Berrecloth says: “Always love having a killer pair of grips in my hands when I’m dropping into the gnarliest lines on the planet!"
The company, which employs about three dozen at its Amercan Fork headquarters, continues to expand its customer base with its latest market additions of products for lacrosse players in 2015 and hockey players in 2016.7 comments on this story
Fruit said the days of selling the original chainstay protector out of the trunk of his car seem a long ways back, but he said he and his team are "still having fun," still chasing new innovations and still enjoying seeing their products on some very big stages.
"What's crazy is, if you're watching just about any baseball game or hockey game, you will see our products," Fruit said. "There aren't a lot of cycle racing events on TV in the U.S., but we had two Tour de France teams riding with Lizard Skins last year and we'll have three this year.
"It's been incredible."
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly listed Raleigh as a Major League Baseball licensee. The correct company is Rawlings.