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Postcard from the Tour of California, Part 3

When the BMC Cycling Team surged to the front of the field late in the final stage of the 2007 Tour of California, many people were surprised. Some might not have even noticed the team at all during the race. And considering they missed the day’s breakaway and their best finish was David Vitoria’s 10th place on the first road stage, it didn’t seem like they had a horse for the finish. They had no reason to be at the front. Fans pulling for the breakaway were annoyed, and those who wanted to see the Discovery team earn their victory yet again had reasons to grumble. Conspiracy theorists were imagining secret payoffs from the biggest team in the race to one of the smallest.

While they didn’t have a rider for the sprint finish they were helping set up, BMC had a reason to be at the front. It wasn’t only that BMC owner Andy Rihs (pronounced like Riis) was in the team car. They also wanted to go out on a higher note, proof that they could do more than just follow wheels and grovel in the gutter. They wanted to show themselves and others that they could make a difference in the race. Even though they were down to four riders, they went to the front and helped Discovery with the chase. A neo-pro was trading pulls with the Giro winner. The team had been decimated by the difficulty of the race and the flu that had been making the rounds during this edition of ToC and were holding onto the lantern rouge and residing near the bottom of the team standings.

The most successful teams don’t only have the strongest riders, but the best support. This means not only a great director, good bikes and components and lots of them, but good mechanics, soigneurs, coaches, doctors, cars, vans, a motor home. The support is there so the riders can be rested, warm, comfortable, and fed, as well as a stress-free bubble where all they need to concentrate on is racing and resting. One of the reasons that the US Postal/Discovery team has been so successful over the years is they have assembled a great support team and do a fabulous job taking care of their riders. When Bjarne Riis took over the CSC team, he upped the level of support; anyone who has watched the DVD Overcoming can attest. Not surprisingly, Discovery left the biggest team footprint, but CSC and Quick Step were close behind, with Health Net not much further back. Credit Agricole seemed to be a good bit back with the likes of Team Slipstream. Priority Health seemed to be lagging at the back in the support sweepstakes. BMC, despite being a first-year pro team, was up by Health Net. It offered a clue as to what the team’s ambitions are. They came with two team cars, a van, and a giant motor home. The motor home, all done up to match the team uniforms, is a ‘garage home,’ having a garage in back and living space up front.

They also had Dr. Massimo ‘Max’ Testa on hand as team doctor. Testa had worked with the Mapei and Motorola teams before concentrating on developing a medical practice in the US with Dr. Eric Heiden. He and Heiden were returning to pro racing with BMC, though on a much more limited basis than what Testa did in the past. The medical team came onboard thanks to Jim Ochowicz, who ran the 7-Eleven and Motorola cycling teams, and is currently a consultant to BMC, and president of the USA Cycling Board. The team’s director, Gavin Chilcott, went to Italy as a teen in the early 80’s and turned pro for the Selle Italia team when he was 19. He went on to be a successful journeyman pro who was the captain of the original Specialized mountain bike team, did a stint on 7-Eleven for the northern classics, and rode for the Avocet team before retiring and going to college. Team Performance Director, and Chilcott’s partner in the team venture, is Charlie Livermore, who ran the successful Volvo-Cannondale Mountain Bike team for eight years and currently runs the Endurance Performance Training Center in Mill Valley, CA. Their company, Continuum Sports, is the structure behind the BMC team.

No one wants to finish last, but someone always has to. While racing better would have been nice, Chilcott wasn’t really concerned with results at ToC. ‘Most are in over their heads and are going to come out a completely different bunch of guys,’ he says of his team and the race. It was the biggest race that the team had ever entered, their first race as a pro team, first as a pro operation. BMC came with an enviable set of goals. Build the team, get experience, prepare for more big races and getting results in big races down the road. Not every race, even the biggest race in the United States, counts equally. ‘We want to grow the team, and so it makes sense to plan accordingly and to start up quickly… We’d rather use ToC and use that as a stepping stone to being a better team rather than getting a result at a small race. That’s emblematic of the approach in general, of our approach to racing.’

Hanson rolling inKen Hansen finished as lantern rouge. It was his first race of the year, his first pro race, and it’s hard to be that down on finishing. Half the team didn’t make it. More importantly, ‘everything has changed,’ for this second-year team rider. ‘Team doctors, full time soigneurs,’ better support, which, ‘makes racing easier, but adds pressure.’ Hansen saw it as an eye-opening experience. Of the big-time pros, ‘they’re definitely touchable. In order to be as good as them, you have to get your feet wet.’ The team is hoping to race Tour de Georgia, if it happens, then go over to Europe for several weeks, the Tour of Utah, and the inaugural Tour of Missouri. They want to become players in the biggest races in the US.

Last year, the BMC team was a regional elite squad out of Santa Rosa, California. Chilcott and Livermore were interested in creating a development team. Riders that needed help going from being a regional amateur to a pro. The hope was that they could take the riders to the next level and have them grow the team.

The plan, at the end of 2005, was to work with Phonak and iShares to create a feeder team for the ProTour squad. Livermore explains, ‘The way the BMC team was going to progress, the first year, and years two through five, it was going to be set up as a feeder team to the Phonak team. As the sponsorship with iShares continued, then this team, the BMC team would continue to grow exponentially…That’s kind of how the plan was made to work. It was going to be a great thing, a development team here, and develop riders to ride as stagiares at Phonak at the end of the year, a nice funnel system for riders.’

The team took a number of riders who graduated from the Team Swift junior program in Santa Rosa, California and gave them an opportunity to race at the next level, the elite amateur level. In addition, they selected a number of promising riders for their potential. Nathan Miller remains from Team Swift. Hanson, Scott Nydam, and David Galvin were on the amateur team as well.

Of course, plans are made to be changed. IShares was set to take over sponsorship of the Phonak cycling team at the end of 2006, when l’affaire Landis engulfed the team, which caused iShares to pull out and the Phonak team to fold. Plans had to change. BMC went from being a feeder team to a team with larger aspirations. The team would now be more of a marketing tool for BMC bicycles, with an eye for growth. Rihs is passionate about bike racing and business and is backing the team at least through 2008. Maybe he knows something other bike companies don’t; few bike companies are title sponsors of racing teams anymore.

Moos Fan ClubThe amateur team got some good results, but needed a revamp to go pro. This year, the team is a Continental team, the old Division III, and has a mix of old and new. That’s for a reason. Livermore says, ‘The shift was a focus on building the organization, the infrastructure. A good organization is only sustainable if it has really good infrastructure. Good riders come and go. What remains, and keeps the teams strong is having tremendous infrastructure of management and equipment and resources and that’s what makes it sustainable. It makes it easier to attract good riders.’ The highest profile signing is Scott Moninger, who, at 41, is both the oldest rider on the team and the most successful, at least domestically. He has over 250 victories to his credit and doesn’t seem to be slowing down (Moninger opted off the ToC team, as he didn’t feel he was sufficiently prepared after being snowbound much of the winter in Boulder, CO). He was joined by his Health Net teammate Mike Sayers, who also brings a wealth of experience. Two ex-Phonak riders from Switzerland joined as well. Alexandre Moos supported Floyd Landis at last year’s Tour of California, is a former Swiss National Champion, and also is a top cyclocrosser and mountain biker. Spanish-speaking Swiss David Vitoria was a neo-pro on Phonak last year, and is still only 23. Jackson Stewart joined from KodakGallery, where he proved himself an aggressive all-rounder, winning the most aggressive prize at the 2006 ToC and winning the Lancaster Classic in Pennsylvania. Dan Schmatz also came from KodakGallery, where he notched some sprint wins. Ian McKissick is the elite amateur time trial national champion. Jonathan Garcia impressed Chilcott because he ‘climbed great for a big guy’ at the Tour of Utah, and is still pretty green. Chilcott says Garcia will be amazing when he learns how to be efficient on the bike.

The mix is deliberate. It has to do with budget limitations as well as a need for immediate results and an eye for developing talent. The older riders were picked not only for their successes on the bike but their ability to work with younger riders—Sayers for one had already been in the development position, as he was one of the first riders on Health Net, which started out as a team with a few pros and the rest young amateurs. A number of riders were picked for being experienced and moderately successful and in a good position to do even better, and the rest were picked for their potential.

Chilcott atop Balcolm CanyonFor some of the riders, the team offered something rare in the cycling world, a two-year contract. Chilcott would prefer to develop riders rather than buying them. Livermore believes a great infrastructure will attract and retain riders. Sayers says, ‘BMC committed for more than a year. Gavin has a plan for a quick rise. Don’t know the future of Health Net.’ Stewart, who has tasted a fair amount of success, the team is a nice step up. ‘Best offer I got. It’s much better in every way. Bigger program, bigger budget, better guys, and plenty of growth potential with a two-year deal.’

A race season is long. The Tour of California was a means for the BMC Team. Chilcott says, ‘It was good for the program to have the organization function together. The guys were well-prepared going into the race. Fit and motivated and good frame of mind. The only thing that undermined it was this flu everyone got. That was nothing that could be anticipated and I’m not sure it could be handled any differently. We quarantined riders, didn’t re-use bottles. Bad timing, bad luck.’ They might not have won a stage or made an impact on GC, but it was an important first step for the year. ‘We want to stay focused on developing capabilities and facilitate performances down the road, so we’re looking at that over short-term results,’ says Chilcott. ‘I’d like to see us make an impact on the major stage races this year. The Georgia, Utah, Missouri races, not so much the NRC races. We don’t expect to dominate these races or even NRC, but we have to make an impact here in order to get to the next level.’

The support seems already at Pro Continental level. It will be up to the riders to get the results to make the move. If that happens, they’ll be a rung higher in 2008. And we’ll see if they have the means or desire to move up to ProTour for 2009.