Lance Armstrong’s Trek Butterfly Madone was astonishing, extravagant, and controversial in equal measure – not unlike the disgraced American’s career.
The one-off creation – essentially an artwork on two wheels, created by the idiosyncratic British artist Damien Hirst – would go on to become the most expensive bike ever sold at auction, fetching a jaw-dropping $500,000 for charity.
However, the inclusion of real butterfly wings in the design sparked outrage among animal rights activists, and the doping scandal that would ultimately consume Lance Armstrong adds another layer of infamy to the Butterfly Trek Madone.
In this article, we’ll revisit the story of one of the most notorious bikes ever built, covering:
- The Background of the Butterfly Bike
- The Bike Itself: Trek Butterfly Madone Details and Specifications
- The Most Expensive Bike Ever Sold: The Trek Butterfly Madone At Auction
- How Did Armstrong Fare at the 2009 Tour de France?
Let’s dive in…
The Background of the Butterfly Bike
As if the bike’s story wasn’t star-studded enough already, the Trek Butterfly Madone wasn’t dreamt up by Armstrong himself or some marketing guru at Trek. As with every good cycling yarn, its origins were altogether more bizarre.
Believe it or not, the bike was actually the brainchild of U2 frontman Bono.
The Irishman approached renowned British artist Damien Hirst to create a bike-based artwork to be sold for charity, celebrating Lance Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France in 2009 after the (then) seven-time champion’s initial retirement in 2005.
Damien Hirst had already flirted with infamy for his series of artworks incorporating the bodies of dead animals in his sculptures, the best-known of which was 1991’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living featuring a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.
Unsurprisingly, Hirst was more than willing to stoke controversy once again with his design for Armstrong’s bike:
“The technical problems were immense… I wanted to use real butterflies and not just pictures of butterflies, because I wanted it to shimmer when the light catches it like only real butterflies do – and we were trying not to add any extra weight to the bike.”Damien Hirst
Animal rights activists were outraged, with the design slammed as “barbaric” by some and condemned by PETA – with the media storm and resulting notoriety only serving to inflate the bike’s eventual auction price further.
The Bike Itself: Trek Butterfly Madone Details and Specifications
Beneath the hundreds of lacquered butterfly wings adorning the frame and wheel rims, the frame the artwork was built on was the 2009 Trek Madone 6.9.
Lance Armstrong rode the Trek Butterfly Madone on the final stage of the 2009 Tour de France, with its traditional finish on Paris’ Champs-Élysées, so it features all the same performance specifications of the standard Team Astana bikes used that year.
The bike features a full SRAM RED groupset (first introduced in 2007), completed with butterfly-lacquered Bontrager wheels and finishing kit. Bontrager is an in-house arm of Trek.
Perhaps the most notable difference from present-day Tour de France bikes is the use of rim brakes, which have almost unanimously be rendered obsolete in the pro peleton with the switch to disc brakes.
Though the exact specifications of the Butterfly Trek Madone are unavailable, we can assume that Armstrong would have had the bike fitted out almost exactly the same as the custom Trek Madone he rode at that year’s Giro, listed below:
- Weight: 7.26 kg* (custom artwork may have added marginal weight)
- Frame: Trek Madone 6.9 OCLV Carbon Fiber Red Series (Size 58)
- Fork: Bontrager Race X Lite E2
- Drivetrain: SRAM RED (Shimano Dura-Ace chain)
- Shifters/Brake Levers: SRAM RED DoubleTap
- Brakes: SRAM RED caliper rim brakes
- Wheelset: Bontrager Aeolus 5.0
- Tires: Hutchinson Tubulars
- Headset: Cane Creek E2
- Pedals: Shimano Dura-Ace SPD-SL PD-7810
- Seatpost: Integrated
- Saddle: Selle San Marco Concor Lite
- Computer: Trek Incite 9i
- Finishing Kit: Bontrager
The Most Expensive Bike Ever Sold: The Trek Butterfly Madone At Auction
Following the Tour, the Trek Butterfly Madone was shipped to New York to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s auction house, in an event titled “It’s About the Bike” on 1 November, 2009.
It was the centerpiece of a collection of six custom-painted “art” bikes ridden by Lance Armstrong following his return from retirement, with the proceeds of the sales going to the Texan cyclist’s Lance Armstrong Foundation, promoting cancer research and advocacy.
The first lot up for sale, the Damien Hirst-designed Trek Butterfly Madone sold for a whopping $500,000, making it the most expensive bike of all time.
The other five bikes on sale were auctioned for a total of $800,000, which together with the Butterfly Madone raised an astonishing total of $1.3 million for charity.
Here were the other custom-designed Lance Armstrong bikes to go under the hammer that day:
Kenny Scharf: Trek Equinox TTX Time-Trial Bike
The galactic-themed creation by New York’s Pop Art icon Kenny Scharf was apparently influenced by “lightspeed”, and the imagery of Armstrong tearing across the finish line.
Lance Armstrong rode the bike in the time trial at the 2009 Giro d’Italia, which was the first time he raced the Italian Grand Tour.
The Kenny Scharf bike was the second bike sold at the auction, with bidding ending at $45,000. Remarkably, this made it the cheapest bike of the collection.
Trek Yoshitomo Nara Speed Concept
The third bike in the auction was another time-trial machine, this time designed by Japanese modernist Yoshitomo Nara with his signature cartoonish stylings.
The Texan rode the bike during the time trial at Annecy during the 2009 Tour de France.
As with many of the bikes at the auction, Yoshitomo Nara’s design featured the number 1274 prominently, representing the number of days between Armstrong’s retirement and his return to professional racing.
The Trek Yoshitomo Nara Speed Concept ultimately sold for $200,000, making it the second most-expensive bike sold in the collection. Together with the Butterfly Madone, it remains among the most expensive bikes of all time.
Shepard Fairey Trek Madone
The third bike at auction, Shepard Fairey’s decal-peppered Madone was used by Armstrong at the 2009 Giro d’Italia.
Fairey – perhaps best known for Barack Obama’s iconic “Hope” posters during the 2008 presidential campaign – opted for the signature black and yellow colors of Armstrong’s Livestrong charity.
Alongside the “1274” motif, a small decal reading “WNW 2009” was planted on the bottom of the down tube. It apparently stood for “Winners not Wankers 2009”, suggesting Armstrong wasn’t interested in just making up the numbers on his competitive return.
The Shepard Fairey-designed Trek Madone collected $110,000 under the hammer.
KAWS Trek Madone
The KAWS Trek Madone was arguably the most storied of the collection of bikes at auction besides the Butterfly Trek Madone.
First used by Armstrong at the 2009 Milan-San Remo, it was later crashed by Armstrong at the Vuelta a Castilla y León who broke his collarbone in the process – earning the bike the ominous nickname, “The Widowmaker”.
The KAWS Trek Madone was auctioned off for $160,000.
Mark Newson Trek Speed Concept
Another custom time-trial bike, Australian industrial designer Mark Newson’s contribution was based on the Trek Speed Concept frame.
Newson was no stranger to bike creation, having previously engineered the radical MN Bicycles for Danish firm Biomega, which remains a classic in modernist bike design.
The standout feature of his Trek Speed Concept for Lance Armstrong was a geometric pattern of dots on the rear disc wheel, which generated an optical illusion that it was pulsating when the wheel was spinning.
The Mark Newson Trek Speed Concept was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $110,000.
The “Stolen” Trek Livestrong 1274
The final Lance Armstrong bike sold on the night was also the only one not featuring a custom design from a famed artist – although it had already hit the headlines for its own reasons.
The time trial bike was used by Armstrong at the 2009 Tour of California’s prologue, but was stolen from the Team Astana van overnight.
The theft prompted a massive community search for the then-revered Texan’s stolen steed, organized with apparent involvement from Californa Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office.
Four days later, the bike was mysteriously handed in to a Sacramento police headquarters, with little explanation. It ultimately sold at the Sotheby’s auction for a hefty $130,000.
How did Armstrong fare at the 2009 Tour de France?
With all the hype around Lance Armstrong’s return to professional racing, the 2009 Tour de France was among the most hotly anticipated in history.
While the Tour wasn’t short on drama, it ultimately proved a personal disappointment for Armstrong.
Despite an impressive third place overall, the Texan was bested by his teammate Alberto Contador, who shunted him into the background as “co-leader”, taunted and tormented him while dropping him on the decisive Stage 15 climb that all-but secured the yellow jersey for the Spaniard.
Though his career achievements – including this third-place finish – were ultimately stripped when the doping scandal surfaced, we can only speculate as to how much more iconic the Butterfly Trek Madone would have been (and how much more expensive at auction) had it paraded Lance Armstrong along the Champs-Élysées in the yellow jersey for an unprecedented eighth Tour victory.