It is a new year and that means it is time for a few resolutions. I am not going to bore you with the 'lose weight', 'ride more', 'train harder', 'win the Tour de France' and all those other cliche and mundane resolutions. These are big, earth shattering, life changing, global planet resolutions/wishes.
-buy a clue for the UCI. Every year I do this, but every year the UCI seems to lose it. I just don't understand how the governing body of our sport can continue to make such bonehead moves as dumping the individual pursuit from the Olympics.
-get a peace pipe for Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. Enough already. The Tour was finished five months ago and you haven't ridden together, or against, each other since. Here's an idea. Let your legs do the talking.
-find Floyd Landis a team. OK. The big rumour is that Floyd is going to Rock Racing and that is probably true, but let's give him one more chance to put the events of 2006 behind him and get back to rocking it on the bike.
-get the World Road Championships moved back to late August/early September. The titles shouldn't go to riders who don't have anything better to do in October.
-push for the USA to have a national tour like the Tour de France. This may seem to be a bit provincial, but let's lose the Tour of Georgia, Tour of Missouri and Tour of Utah and just let the awesome Tour of California become, like the Dallas Cowboys, America's Tour.
-get women's cycling some more credibility. While the men's ranks are loaded with depth, women's racing really suffers from depth of field. We need to attract more quality female riders to the sport which will make those victories both much more deserving and also exciting.
-get more cycling on TV. It is great that NBC Universal Sports has stepped in to pick up the slack as Versus seems to want to focus more on getting more high profile sports, but both of these channels are now owned by cable giant Comcast. We need to get cycling on the four major networks so we can all watch and not have to become tools of the Comcast empire.
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.