The tenure of the Rock Racing cycling team may be close to coming to an end. The team which was formed about two years ago and burst onto the international spotlight at the 2008 Tour of California has been hit hard by the financial crisis and is running very low on funds. In the past week, the team has had to lay off the three highest paid riders on its amateur team, Chris Baldwin, Michael Creed and Caesar Grajales and its participation in the upcoming Tour of Gila is in serious doubt.
The Rock Racing team was initially funded by the Rock and Republic clothing company which has annual sales well into the eight-figure range. However, its line of $300+ dollar jeans and similarily priced apparel have been selling poorly as everyone tightens their belts in this uncertain economic times. Rock Racing looked to be shutting down before the 2009 season even started but, Michael Ball, the team owner and co-founder of Rock and Republic told me at the Tour of California that he stepped in to help save the team.
The Rock and Republic Board of Directors wanted to pull the plug, but Ball had all the riders return their contracts so that new contracts, with significant pay cuts, could be put in place. Also, Ball agreed to pay a percentage of the team budget out of his own pocket. However, it looks like those measures were not enough to save the team.
Personally, I would hate to see Rock Racing fold. A lot of my fellow journalists will probably be glad to say good bye to Ball and his crew, but I think Rock Racing was a breath of fresh air. Also, as I have stated before, I was very disappointed that many of my fellow journalists never seemed to take the time to understand Michael Ball and his vision. Many of the early reports in the media were extremely negative. It just seemed like my writing brethren didn't feel the need to gather any background before shooting from the hip.
Some journalists will mock Rock Racing's motto of "here to stay". I honestly believe that if it weren't for this unprecedented economic downturn Rock Racing would be healthy and racing a full calendar. I hear my fellow journalist bemoaning their slumping ad sales. Do you think that might also be the case for Rock and Republic?
Before people start piling on me as a tool for Rock and Republic, I realize that the the way Michael Ball and his crew rolled up to bike races was pretty unique and not to everyone's liking. However, we should all practice some measure of tolerance. Ball and Co. brought a significant number of new eyeballs to the sport of cycling. Isn't that worthy of some understanding?
Rock Racing rolled into the 2008 season on the heels of a huge media blitz. Unfortunately, most of the press was of a negative nature. Luckily, the real(TM) journalists out there who actually took the time to find out what the Rock Racing program was all about quickly realized that while RR CEO Michael Ball was a bit of a renegade, he had a solid message that was worth a listen.
It might not have been the way most of us would have gone about doing business, but you had to give Ball props for doing things his way, sticking with it, sponsoring cycling in the US to the tune of seven figures and oh, yeah, winning a bunch of big American professional races.
Hey, but don't take my word for it. The crowds at all the major races Rock attended welcomed the team and clearly produced the biggest buzz at the events. And for the most part, these were new, young, eyeballs something the sport absolutely needs if it is going to survive.
I am hoping that the traditionalists and naysayers who did not welcome Rock Racing in 2008 can find a way to give them their due in 2009. After all, they will be wearing the stars and stripes jersey of the USPRO National Road Champion, certainly the most coveted American-based winner's jersey.
Hey, but that's not what I wanted to talk about in this blog. If you are a fan of Rock Racing and want to show your support, you can purchase the full Rock Racing kit online(you know how to use Google, don't you?). Throughout the year, the boyz at RR seemed to have a different kit for almost every major race, well, Rock and Republic is all about style. My personal favorite is the "venom" look, the predominately black with florescent green accents that was all the rage at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Not only will the kit set you apart from your riding buddies, but the stuff fits and rides well. Imagine that. You can be stylish and comfortable at the same time. One note of caution. You are making a statement, fashion or otherwise. Please be certain you are capable of handling it. Of course, if you are a fan of Rock Racing, then you probably know how to roll.
A lot of people thought Michael Ball and his Rock Racing team would be a flash in the pan, but as the 2008 cycling season has progressed, the team sponsored by Rock and Republic has proven that they are players in the US domestic cycling scene. And, they are not just leaving their mark on the road; Michael Ball has put his money where his mouth is, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities and becoming a key sponsor at both the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia and other races throughout the USA.
Ball's latest philanthropic effort is to establish a "Catastrophic Injury Fund" a "charitable entity to raise money for professional and elite amateur cyclists who suffer a catastrophic injury as a result of their participation in the competitive sport of cycling" as described in a team press release. Money from the fund will also be available to pro and elite riders in European racing events such as the Tour de France.
Devastating crashes and cycling go hand in hand and currently there is no safety net in place, said Rock Racing Team Owner Michael Ball in the press release. If these riders get seriously injured, thats it. There is no insurance, no pension and no workmans comp. There is nothing. This is the first time there will be a financial support mechanism in place.
Rock Racing will make a "significant donation" to get the fund rolling then the team will donate 10% of all Rock Racing on-line sales as well as 100% of the proceeds from special fund-branded products which they will introduce later this year. The goal is to raise $20 million over the next two years. Also, Ball challenged other industry types who generate revenue from bike racing to also help in funding the charity.
You can say whatever you want about Michael Ball, he certainly talks the talk, but more importantly, he walks the walk and big time. The UCI has shown, time and time again, that the welfare of the athletes they govern seem to be a secondary concern. Hats off to Ball for taking the bull by the horns and creating something, especially with all the serious crashes we have had this year, which has been needed for a long, long, time.
I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the next development from Ball will be the attempt to establish a rider's union, something else that has been needed for a long time. When the riders finally create a unified voice, they won't be treated like second-class citizens by the UCI. Here's hoping it happens.
You gotta love it, Rock Racing will be at the starting line next Monday for the Tour de Georgia. The Pro Tour team Saunier Duval pulled out due to "numerous injuries to key riders" opening a slot for Rock Racing. After their reception and performance in the Amgen Tour of California it seemed like a lock that we would see the boys in black and neon green at all the biggest races on the US professional racing calendar. However, Medalist Sports announced last month that Rock Racing would not be invited to Georgia; 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."
It appears that Medalist and Michael Ball were able to reach an agreement, hats off to both parties for sitting down and making this happen. This is a good thing on so many levels. First off, Rock Racing is the most popular new team on the US domestic racing circuit. Secondly, at the recent Redlands Cycling Classic, with all the best domestic pro riders in attendance, Rock Racing rode superbly and took the overall win with Santiago Botero. And probably most importantly, Rock Racing is bringing new eyeballs to the sport and those peepers belong to the young fans in the always critical 18-35 year old demographic.
On a personal level, the news is bittersweet for me. I am heading off to be one of the event announcers at the upcoming Sea Otter Classic and was looking forward to having Botero, Sevilla, Hamilton, Pena, etc. in the field for the National Racing Calendar(NRC) circuit race on Saturday. I am still hoping the Rock Racing sends a team to Sea Otter, team member Doug Ollerenshaw won there several years back. However, if it takes my disappointment to get Rock Racing into the Tour de Georgia I guess I will just have to live with it.
The next item on the agenda is to figure out a way to get Astana into the Tour de France. Short of the Kazakhstani government cutting off natural gas supplies to France, I think this might be an impossible task. Anybody out there have a solution?
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.
ASO announced the twenty teams for the 2008 Tour de France today and not surprisingly, Astana was not on the list. Coincidentally, the Tour of Georgia unveiled their start list for the late-April event and Rock Racing did not receive and invite. While I support the right of race organizers to invite whichever teams they choose, that doesn't mean I have to agree with them about their decisions. In both the aforementioned cases, I think the race organizers have erred in not inviting Astana to the Tour and Rock Racing to Georgia.
The Astana team with 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador and third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer is clearly one of the strongest squads in the pro peloton and on the basis of strength alone deserve a slot. Keeping them out of the Tour means that all the best riders will not be on the starting line. It definitely devalues the 2008 yellow jersey. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Unfortunately, it appears that Astana's problems are probably linked to Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong's seven Tour wins. It seems that ASO still feels that these two somehow pulled of all those victories in a less than honest matter.
Rock Racing was one of the most popular teams at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California. They had huge crowds at their team bus before and after each stage and their riders responded to the attention with Mario Cipollini taking third on Stage 2, Victor Hugo Pena climbing extremely well and Michael Creed aggressively going off the front on several occasions in an attempt to take a stage. However, Michael Ball tangled with race organizers over the exclusion of three riders, something which appeared to the public to be totally arbitrary. Clearly, Michael Ball marches to a different drummer, but judging by the number of fans and the demographic of those fans, his team is generating a lot of buzz about the sport of cycling.
I think to be fair and un-biased if you believe that Astana got a raw deal you also have to feel that Rock Racing was unjustly spurned. Levi and the boys should be racing in France just as Fast Freddie and his crew should be on the start line in Georgia. I still support a free market when it comes to races. Organizers should be able to invite whomever they want though they should have some published criteria so teams have some indication on what they need to do to be considered. I just hope that they can be more fair and just when it comes to team selection.
Today, Rock Racing confirmed that Mario Cipollini is no longer with the team. Many speculated that il Leone was leaving at the last minute to open the doors for a ride in this Saturday's Milan San Remo classic with Tinkov Credit Systems, but Cipollini denied any such 12th hour move. It looks like Cipo is headed towards his second retirement from the sport.
Hey, but what a ride Mario gave us all at the Amgen Tour of California(AToC). There is no denying that he is a rock star and his involvement with the high-profile Rock Racing Team looked to be a perfect match. When Michael Ball's squad rolled up to a stage start and Super Mario popped out into the crowd the electricity was in the air and the race came alive. He was clearly a fan favorite and he obliged all who sought autographs and interviews. He told me that this second career was just going to be fun. In Vegas terms, this time he was playing with the house's money.
Even with a relaxed attitude, Cipo still delivered, coming third in Sacramento to his heir apparent Tom Boonen and looking and acting like he had just won the stage. It was definitely the highpoint for Rock Racing and was ample justification for the team being invited to the AToC. Somehow, Mario willed his 40-year old body over both Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road the next day. Just to make sure his resolve was still at a professional level, mother nature unleashed her fury on the Hiway 1 down to San Luis Obispo resulting in a seven hour day in the saddle in cold rain.
Cipo's perpetual tan took a beating on that epic day, but he finished with the group and eventually the whole race to Pasadena proving that he still had what it takes to be a pro. During the AToC, Mario confided that his major goal was to take Rock Racing to Europe and participate in some of the great races across the pond. Rumour had it that the organizers of Milan-San Remo were keeping the 25th and final team slot open for Rock Racing with Cipo looking to repeat his 2002 victory on Via Roma where he beat his now-teammate Freddie Rodriguez to the line.
Unfortunately, Cipo and Micheal Ball could not come to agreement on the details the result being that flamboyant Italian has hung up his cleats and the show that is Super Mario has closed once again. Personally, I prefer substance over flash, but with Cipo you got both. I miss him already.
I wrote in my blog a couple of weeks ago how much I hated riding in the rain. Well, the skies have opened up on the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) today and things have gotten messy. This is the showcase stage, 135 miles down ultra-scenic Highway 1. Unfortunately, the seasonal 20-30 mph north tailwind which usually propels the peloton on the race's longest stage to an average speed close to 30 mph, has done a 180 degree turnabout. Not only are the racers riding into a bitingly cold 20-30mph wind, but lashing rain has made it just that much more unpleasant.
OK. These guys are pros and they have to be prepared for a few days of rain here and there, but this is almost a perfect storm scenario coming on the day after the hardest stage in AToC history. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of notable abandons including Tom Danielson, Ivan Dominguez and almost half of the German-based Team Gerlosteiner.
In the press room, watching the race on TV, it definitely looks like a case of "anywhere but here" for the 110 or so riders remaining in the race. These guys are going to need some hot showers, a nice long massage and some good food as tomorrow is the all-important individual time trial (ITT) -- which will almost surely determine who will wear the gold race leader's jersey to the finish in Pasadena come Sunday. Look for a two-way battle between Leipheimer and Cancellara with Millar and Zabriskie as potential spoilers. Don't miss it!
A couple of quick notes: I talked with Tyler Hamilton of Rock Racing yesterday. He told me that, as I reported a few days ago, Rock Racing had a letter from the UCI, dated February 14th, that said there were no open doping investigations on any member of the team. Michael Ball made that letter public at his press conference last Saturday. Tyler indicated that the race organizers claimed to have a letter from the UCI, dated February 16th, that said there was an open doping investigation. However, nobody has seen this new letter. This whole affair seems reminiscent of the movie Animal House with Rock Racing being on "double secret probation."
Word is circulating that the AToC may visit the San Diego area next year. It is not clear at this writing if the race will increase the number of days it will run or if some of this year's stages will be scrapped to make room for the trek south. Stay tuned for details.