The Nike Chalkbot - Five Years Later

Introduction

It has been five years since the Nike Chalkbot debuted on the Tour de France. Two of the members of the original Chalkbot team, Marcelino Alvarez and David Evans, are now colleagues at Uncorked Studios. For the fifth anniversary, they’ve decided to share some never before told stories of that inspiring production.

There have been many stories told of the Nike Chalkbot - both in case study video form as well as award show acceptance speeches, but of those have been distilled for their respective audiences and do not paint a complete picture of that production. Meanwhile, its value has also been watered down by the Lance scandal, which is an unfortunate event that clouded the accomplishments of a cancer organization via the performance enhancing behaviors of its lead spokesperson.

The Chalkbot was a seminal piece of work in advertising because it drew insight from an ages-old tradition and modernized it for the purpose of raising awareness for a cancer foundation. On the world’s largest athletic stage, the Livestrong brand could tell their story through the words of individuals whose lives had been impacted by cancer. For Nike and its advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, the Chalkbot proffered the real time opportunity to connect emotionally beyond the barriers of a TV commercial.

For those of us who worked on the project, it changed perspectives on what it meant to build a product that integrated hardware, software, athletes, and a large event. It made all other work seem meaningless. For a three-week period in the summer of 2009, the world revolved around this machine and the messages it printed on country roads.

Here for the first time, David and Marcelino give an inside look into how the production went.

It's About You

The Chalkbot Was Not the Big Idea

Many people look at the case study video and see a beautifully integrated campaign featuring TV spots, digital, media, and physical. But the truth is the Chalkbot was just one component to an overall campaign with the tagline “It’s About You.” The Chalkbot was an out-of-home concept, not the central idea. Beyond limited internet exposure through web banners, there was no media supporting the Chalkbot.

It was during the second week of the Tour when the “What is Chalkbot?” video we had shot was picked up by Versus (kudos to the W+K media team for making that connection). Versus (which went on to be acquired by NBC Universal) was hungry for content, so they ran our video which was nearly two-minutes in length throughout the Tour coverage.

Politics and Chaos

On the ground in France, we were partnered with Nike France’s event agency, Sporty’s, to help secure road access for us to print messages. (They were later acquired by the ASO, the sports organization that runs the Tour). To be fair to them, it was probably difficult to imagine what we would need to effectively pull off the event production safely. But in their effort to follow bureaucratic protocol, they made life way more difficult than it needed to be. It many instances, it was a frightfully dangerous production - driving hundreds of miles daily on little to no sleep, subjected to abhorrent sleeping accommodations (not being an agency diva here -MA), and relying on amateurs to provide road safety while we were out printing at the crack of dawn. Beyond the danger, some of the scenarios we were subjected to were outright hysterical.

The Nike Chalkbot makes its way along the Swiss Alps during the 2009 Tour de France.

License Plates

Apparently if you tow a vehicle in France, it needs to have the same license plate as the car you are using to tow it. However, in order to get matching plates, you need several months of paperwork in place. This was impossible for us to procure because the Chalkbot was built in eight weeks. So the Sporty’s solution was to mount the Chalkbot atop a flatbed trailer with straps holding it down. Not the most stable solution in the world - whether it be a boat or a two-ton dot matrix printer.

Remy.

…Yes, he’s supposed to be directing traffic.

Remy was our assigned driver for the Chalkbot-on-a-flatbed. He was also part of our road security detail. He was good at neither. Another thing he was good at neither of was speaking French or English.

None of us was allowed to drive the Chalkbot around. Not even to just back it up a few feet. We had a well-meaning, angry, smarmy, weird, sleepy older French gentleman who had a short fuse, hated being told what to do, was usually confused, and was - above all else - a horrific driver.

Here’s a picture of Remy “cleaning” the road before printing with a branch that he found. He had never done this before, and there was no reason to do this and of course it had no effect.

Remy couldn’t speak a whit of English. Remy could only understand French when he felt like it. In order to get any point across, we needed by no fewer than three people yelling instructions as loudly as they could in at least two languages. If no one left the conversation fuming about something, Remy didn’t lift a finger. If you’re looking for this guy, the easiest way to find him is to look for a man sleeping somewhere public while several people are looking for him.

Remy nearly got us killed about a half-dozen times. As a road security person, it was always a treat when he would put down his “STOP” sign, and call someone in whatever town we were in, simultaneously forgetting that he was supposed to be directing traffic. In those instances, cars that had been waiting for some period time (minutes not hours) would quickly accelerate and drive into the area he was supposed to be protecting. In more than one occasion, we were almost run over by a car speeding through because he’d forgotten to keep traffic stopped.

The Milk Man

Pulled alongside us, rolled down his window, made a gesture that symbolized a single testicle (a reference to Lance’s nickname, Juan Pelota), then tried to run us off the road. Repeatedly. Over a 20 mile stretch of road going over 100 MPH (several thousand km/h).

3am Call Times

Our hotels were typically a couple hours away from where we needed to print. Because the roads would close several hours before the caravan would come through, we would need to awake at 2am, leave the hotel at 3am, arrive at the print location by 5am, print, and get off the roads by 7am. Driving to the next location would often take all day, so we would have no choice but to drive hundreds of miles on very little sleep.

If you take a quick look at a map of the tour from 2009, you can see that large swaths of the tour actually traveled via plane or train. It simply is too far a distance to cycle or for cyclists to sleep on a bus and stay on schedule. Not for us. We had to cover all that ground in a car. With the robot. And the team. Overnight in most cases. This led to some very entertaining road trips.

Honestly, when I think back about how much time I actually spent in a car, I’m glad that my memories outside of the car trump the memories of being in a car. It was a lot of driving. We’d drive to Spain one day, awesome, we’d get ready for bed and get a call that we had to be in Andorra (They're in the UN, I promise) the next morning at 6am. Look up and route Andorra, realize that you have to leave NOW to get there. Start driving. Sleep in the car. Drive. Wake up in some part of Europe you’ve never heard of. Drive. Wind around on back roads to see where the printing location was. Drive to the end of it making notes on where the best spots to print were, or if there were puddles, etc. Drive back. Let everyone know. Drive to the end of the print run again. Walk back to follow along. Drive to hotel. Drive to dinner.

The Chalkbot Caught on Fire.

Once, it was our fault because we didn’t think of building an exhaust for our cover. The other time it was because our French driver had never driven an automatic and rode down the Alps using his brakes.

The really interesting thing about driving around in the Pyrenees is that they look almost exactly like every movie you’ve ever seen that is set in Europe. There were miles and miles of people camped out on the side of the road. RV’s tents, etc. Seemed to be a major vacation destination during the TdF. We had to keep moving, or there would be more pictures of this. Many of them looked exactly as cliché as one might expect a french camping trip to look - small folding tables with tablecloths and bottles of wine and baguettes on them. Cheese was, of course, readily available as was uncured ham (the “Jambon Classique” sandwich became a staple of our diet - uncured ham, butter, and emmenthaler cheese on a baguette. I ate so many of these that when I came back to the US, I spent weeks trying to recreate it as closely as I could - with mixed success).

As for the robot catching on fire, we were in a car behind the trailer and noticed the fire. We stopped. Were dismissively assured by people who had no idea what they were talking about that it was “fine” and continued on our way - assuming that at any moment we would have a massive fire on our hands.

Cultural Differences in Team Management

Nike France smoked a lot. This wouldn’t be an issue in most cases, except for the fact that we were trying to promote Livestrong, which is in glorious conflict with everything tobacco related.

Much of the friction in the production process could probably be attributed to cultural differences in how events are run between the US and France. In some cases, these probably exemplify bad stereotypes about either country, probably more so the US than France.

We were there on a mission - to print out these messages and represent the values of Nike and the Livestrong foundation, and to a similar degree, Lance’s message of hope and inspiration (leaving it all on the road) for those who were undergoing treatment for cancer.

Those values did not resonate as well with our French counterparts for a variety of reasons. First off (and it turns out they were right), Lance was a much maligned individual who had dethroned the cyclists who had held the previous record of five TdF victories - Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Secondly, the US team was all about getting things done quickly and efficiently. Quick meals, laser-like focus on the goals and above all else, the plan. We were there to do a job, and the sooner we finished our job for the day, we could then take in the surroundings. The French teams had a totally different approach. I was repeatedly asked “Will someone die if we’re not there on time?” which was frustrating at first, but later made sense. They would sit and eat a very long breakfast, sip juice and coffee, and smoke before we could even get the gear loaded into the cars. The night before the first leg of printing, Marcelino and I were up almost the entire night checking and rechecking everything. We woke bleary-eyed and frazzled.

C’est Impossible

The one French word that became like nails on a chalkboard really quickly was “impossible” - pronounced with the maddeningly unattainable French accent. This was a catchall phrase for almost everyone we met which more or less meant “I don’t really feel like doing that” or “That might take more than a couple of minutes” rarely did it actually mean the American “impossible” of being “actually impossible” or just “that would take years or millions of dollars.” On the last night of the tour, I was having a drink with one of the French members of our team and I decided to get the scoop on this. What I learned was that we had been dealing with a very subtle and nuanced cultural difference on success. He was very forthcoming about how odd it was for them to deal with us, our attitude was apparently very off-putting in that we would roll in “like, you know, Americans” and make requests that weren’t always expected. Their use of impossible actually ties into their aspirations as a culture. They aren’t a country full of people looking to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They do not win at all costs. They are not willing to make enemies just to succeed at what they have set out to do. The conversation lasted a very long time. He was fascinated by my side of the story: That in the US, “impossible” had very well better mean “there is no way to make this happen. None.” as opposed to the more French “that is probably something that can be done, but since no one has done it before, I don’t want to be the one to test those waters.” It all made a lot more sense after that conversation. We were running in like some sort of comfort-culture John Wayne, demanding things like a cot in a room with two beds. Things that just didn’t make sense in a country that has operated just fine for hundreds of years with two beds in a room. What we viewed as straightforward, they viewed as completely outside of the realm of reason. In retrospect, we must have seemed so strange on so many levels. We had laptops - all of us - we asked for wifi everywhere we went.

The Tour Did Not Sell Out.

(It was commercial to begin with.)

The Tour is already a commercialized event. There’s an hour-long parade each day brought to you by the sponsors. The trophies and jerseys are sponsored. We received a lot of flack early on about the commercialization of the tour by Nike and Livestrong. Those people have clearly never been hit in the head by a packet of candy thrown from the side of a giant float with a skantily-clad water cannon operator. It has the atmosphere of a month-long Super Bowl telecast that comes to your front door.

GPS Does Not Work in France

The reason for this, not sure if it’s true or not, is because people complained about traffic being rerouted through small towns. So the shortest distance between two points in France is not a straight line, but the line which inconveniences locals the least. This led to all sorts of amusing chaos.

If your path through a city seems very straightforward, it likely goes through a park or into a ditch, or some sort of medieval horse torture width alley. It will also be the only way through a given city somehow. (I’m looking at you, Lourdes.)

Cleanup Was a Bitch.

We had to use special non-cancer causing paint for a very valid reason. The paint we used was a chalk-based paint that used a soy protein as a binding agent. It was water soluble. It would come off the road using a simple pressure cleaner.

However, the teenage volunteers hired by Sporty’s had a difficult time following instructions. And due to their inability to get paint off the road, we could only print at a pace that they could clean up. That greatly impacted our ability to get messages on the ground. We also had a unique problem - the pressure cleaning cleaned up the roads so much that it left inverse graffiti. Somehow this was our fault too.

This ignored the other simple truth of the tour - that while we were responsible for cleaning up our water-soluble messages, those who painted entire mountainsides with giant phalluses were not held equally accountable.

We Stole WiFi From McDonald’s.

It was the most reliable source of internet in France. We would eat there, then hang out in their parking lot till the wee hours of the morning uploading processed images back to our server.

Challenges, Language, and Other

One of the more nuanced interactions one has when mooning around a foreign country with a giant robot in tow is explaining as quickly and succinctly as you can that its a robot, and they can text it. You pray for no followup questions. This usually works out really well, except when your robot, cars, hats, shirts, shoes, pants, hoodies, bracelets, sunglasses, and water bottles are all emblazoned with the associated branding of a sports figure who isn’t very well liked in that foreign country. The number of times we had to explain that we were, in fact, not on Lance’s team, but there with Livestrong, but also that Livestrong - despite a very thorough and successful personality ad campaign - was not exactly pro-Lance, but kind of was, made it hard to make friends sometimes. Some of the more choice run ins with this situation came when we were staying in Switzerland one night and the Astana (Lance’s then-team) team rooms were searched and the riders were all given random doping tests. At the border crossing, all of their buses were searched as well because the med staff etc were checked as often as the riders themselves. None of us spoke French, and we found ourselves stuck at a border crossing behind the Astana bus being searched. Luckily, we had gotten into the habit of pointing at our car’s “Technique” tag (which ostensibly identified us as “Technical Staff” of the TdF) and usually the security folks, including these border guards, identified us as just some chumps who happened to be driving in a car that had some ads on it. Sort of like if you rented a car and it had a big Shell logo on it - just by chance.

Fun Facts

We couldn’t get Livestrong bracelets to hand out - we had to buy them from the street team.

We actually didn’t get to see much of the Tour. We were always ahead of the cyclists and completed printing well before they would pass through the roads. Occasionally, we would make the conscious choice to stick around and watch the race. That meant setting up camp wherever we had printed and waiting several hours for the Caravan to come through, followed by the cyclists several hours later. Once the cyclists had passed through, the roads would slowly open up and we could make our way to the hotel for that night. Choosing to watch the tour often meant that we would not get to our hotel till the late hours of the night.

We had dinner one night on David Evans' insistence at an American-themed restaurant in podunk South France. We had burgers with mustard, fries with mustard, lots of cowboy imagery, and indigestion. Worth it for the kitsch and experience? Nope. Just a lousy chain restaurant.

Sometimes when you’re in Switzerland, and you want fondue, you can make the mistake of going to a Mexican fondue place. Apparently Mexican fondue in Switzerland is just chicken broth and a BIG plate of raw chicken for you to dunk in it. It is also extremely expensive.

The only truly “rude” person I ran into was a Swiss concierge.

Europe Isn’t Just Beautiful

My own admittedly very North American understanding of Europe was that it was all small towns and cafes just everywhere, naturally. It had never really occurred to me that there were rural areas, there are seedy industrial zones in the shipping cities (we have a set of stories about staying in a hotel in one of these areas that aren’t really fit to print), there are suburbs, in those suburbs there are strip malls, and sometimes those strip malls are Carrefour stores so large as to make Wal-Mart seem sort of cozy.

All of these things are, like here, the majority of the settled areas we were in. This isn’t to say we weren’t anywhere quaint and awesome by any means (castles, old castles, abandoned castles, ruined castles, farms, more farms, towns populated entirely by members of a circus, farm castles, etc.) The weirdest part was that it was a real culture shock when there was no culture shock happening.

Fairly certain Nike did not approve this ad.

Conclusion

In the intervening years, we’d spent time doing other things, starting other companies, but the bonds we formed while on the road for that month stayed very strong. We learned how to work together under very extreme circumstances and came out alive. We learned a lot about how the other reacts to stresses that make no sense to most people, which is why its been a natural that we’re working together again.

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