With the recent exclusions of Astana from the Tour and Rock Racing from the Tour of Georgia the very real question needs to be asked. Why is the sport of cycling so determined to eat it's young? As you might remember, when Liberty Seguros pulled the plug on it's team in 2006, Astana, which is a conglomeration of a number of Kazakhstani business ventures stepped in to save the team. After the debacle at the 2007 Tour, the sponsor still stayed. In 2007 several long-standing domestic teams either ended entirely or underwent radical downsizing. Rock Racing stepped in to fill the void and gave jobs to a number of domestic and euro pros.
There are lots of very, very good reasons to keep Team Astana in the sport, but in this blog I am focusing on Rock Racing. Besides giving jobs to riders, at the recent Amgen Tour of California, Michael Ball, the head honcho at Rock and Republic which owns the team, gave $500,000 to race organizers AEG to be a sponsor. Also, Ball loaned the race his helicopter to the get those great overhead shots you all saw on Versus. In Sacramento, Michael Ball donated $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento and in Solvang, Michael Ball donated $10,000 to the Sheriff's Activity League to benefit youth sports programs. Add in the tab for the daily TV commercials and Ball estimates that his financial outlay at the Tour of California came to about $1.2 million dollars.
That's a lot of money, but its not all about the Benjamins. A recently Bicycling.com poll asked 'What pro cycling team will you be rooting for this year?' Over 16,000 votes were cast with Rock Racing receiving a whopping 60% of the total vote. That means that Rock Racing was more popular than all other teams combined. Whoa. That's huge. Obviously Ball and his boys are doing something right if over half those polled are rooting for one team. I can totally believe these numbers after seeing the daily scrum at the Rock Racing booth at the AToC. The place was a mob scene.
Something else worth mentioning is the appeal of Rock Racing to the younger generation. Whether you like it or not the only guarantees are death and taxes and if you want this sport to survive you need to attract new, younger eyeballs. There is no doubt that Rock Racing is doing just that, bridging the gap between pro bike racing and the X-Games crowd. How can somebody argue with that?
Well, the folks at Medalist Sports weren't buying any of the Rock Racing hoopla. Medalist managing partner, Jim Birrell, told Velonews.com, I like all the riders he has on his team its just that renegade approach and his desire to steal the limelight away from the platform that has been created for everybody else is what troubles me." I don't know what went on behind the scenes at the AToC and I think Jim Birrell is a good guy, but if Rock Racing brings in the fans then what is the problem with having the team at the Tour of Georgia? I have covered European racing and US domestic racing for years and I can tell you that during the Lance Armstrong years the Texan totally stole the show and was, even at the Tour de France, bigger than the events in which he participated.
To be balanced, Michael Ball does do things his way. He is definitely not old school and yes he could be described as a renegade. When he rolls, we all know it. Whether you think that is style or arrogance, people are interested and they are coming to the races and with the state of cycling worldwide new fans and a genuine interest is critical for long-term survival.
Maybe Rodney King said it best, "can't we all just get along?". Would a little tolerance and understanding help smooth the waters and allow those who march to a different drummer find a place in our sport? I think so. I must admit that my first impression of Michael Ball was less than positive. But, after I met the man, had a dialog, saw his passion and why he is in the sport of cycling I think I understood him. Here's hoping that the new sponsors don't get chased out of the sport and that governing bodies and race organizers listen to the fans and figure out a way for everybody to be happy.