When the invite came in for Team BMC’s southern California training camp, it took me about zero seconds to fire back my “count me in!” reply. As the new colors of World Champ Cadel Evans, US champ George Hincapie, and ex-World Champ Alessandro Ballan – the ‘new ‘ squad hasn’t just stepped it up – they’ve taken a giant leap up the ladder of serious contenders.
While the team was on a two week camp split between Santa Rosa (where it rained most days) and Agoura Hills north of Los Angeles (where it sunned most days), the world’s cycling media was invited to join for two days to include a ride with the team, some interviews, and some tech time with BMC.
The reality of this camp, like most camps where the team bosses hope to generate some good press by arranging face time between journos and riders, was that the riders are there to train and focus on prep for the coming season. Time with the media is a distraction most riders avoid, dislike, or are just unprepared for. Our time with the team was limited, but I found it revealing nonetheless.
BMC got to custom paint some pretty nice bikes for the year ahead.
To a lot of casual eyes – this may seem like a ‘new team’. But don’t be fooled by their lack of presence on racing’s top stage in recent years. Sure, the current incarnation took form about 3 years ago, but the management structure has a LOT of experience at the Pro Tour level. Team co-owner Andy Rihs also owns Phonak Hearing Systems (and a lot of other stuff), but pulled out of the sport after being disgraced by so many of his riders’ drug busts in 2006. But he loves cycling, and only a couple years had passed before he remerged with a much smaller budget and set up team, riding his own Swiss BMC bikes. Did I mention he owns BMC too?
In fact much of the old Phonak team management is back – Andy Rihs, DS John Lelangue, press man Georges Luechinger have all worked together at the highest levels before, and even won the Tour in 2006 (maybe not their fondest of memories, but an achievement in anyone’s books).
Team co-owner Jim Ochowicz was there from the start of modern era of American cycling.
On the racing side: BMC Racing Team President and the other co-owner, Jim Ochowicz, knows a thing or two about the big leagues – anyone remember the first US team to crack Europe? Yep – 7-Eleven was Jim’s baby.
Since the current team’s incarnation 3 years ago, they’ve raced mostly US-based events, with a few sojourns abroad, like the obvious Tour de Suisse in 2009 as well as several other premier races such as the Dauphine Libere and Paris-Roubaix.
More strength on the bench – Assistant DS’s Renй Savary & Fabio Baldato. I went out for a small group ride with Rene and can tell you he is fit… claims he hasn’t ridden a bike since November but seems to have no problems turning some big early season gears.
But 2010 signals a big step up. So unlike a lot of teams who grow their budget by pulling in another (or more) major sponsors, BMC’s owners just decided to increase the team’s budget to attract some big name talent that could do some serious damage – like win a Grand Tour or Classic – this year.
Why did my parents never send me to this kind of camp?
The team is a mix of some established riders and some ‘getting-established’ riders from earlier versions of BMC teams, and a batch of imported big hitters like Cadel Evans, George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, Karsten Kroon. Of the 8 American riders, for some, like young Chad Beyer, this is a big chance to learn and grow as a rider, but not without more pressure to prove he’s worth a spot supporting some of the sports biggest stars.
George says his new BMC Racemaster looks “cool as hell”.
The evening of our arrival, we joined the BMC team management for dinner, then we spent time with the team on a 90 minute ride on day 1, followed by an hour-long session of group interviews with the three leaders that afternoon, plus some time for 1 on 1’s with the other riders after that. On day 2, we gathered outside the team bus to watch the team gather for their ‘official’ photo before they set off for another few hours of riding. Later that morning we sat in on a 2 hour presentation about the bikes by BMC’s chief designer Rolf Singenburger.
The team photo was the usual ‘hurry up and wait’, but then again, that’s not what these guys are hired to do.
After the round-robin group interviews, the three headliners posed for the obligatory mugshots.
My initial impressions of Alessandro Ballan – winner of the ’07 Flanders and ’08 Worlds, were how tall he is, and how young he looks. Maybe I’m just showing my own age, but he’s for sure one of the youngest looking 30 year olds I’ve seen – or maybe it’s something to do with a diet rich in extra virgin olive oil… he doesn’t speak a lot of English, but as the official language of the team he’s promised to learn it in the coming months.
His interview was handled with an Italian translator – BMC’s western sales head Soren Krebs. Our 20 minutes interview revealed these tidbits:
• Why this team?
He mentioned that both Hincapie and Kroon had already signed on, and with his interests in the Spring Classics, he liked that this was already a strong team. Even so, he added that his role has not been defined, but he is hoping for a shot at those Spring races he loves, as part of his 3 year contract. I thought it noteworthy that Alessandro mentioned the opportunity to work with new staff in an American team – which suggested to me at least – that the old days of being the outsider (experienced by Jim Ochowicz) have been replaced by the Euros wanting to do things the American way … how things change. And while he’s a new guy on a new team, he’s already felt the respect from the other riders he’s earned over his 6 professional years… Flanders champ, Worlds Champ, what’s not to respect?
On the bikes: Alessandro noted the BMC SLT01 Team Machines are both compliant, stiff where needed, and handle well. He said he felt at home on the bike from his first ride.
I joined the George Hincapie interview ‘already in progress’ and realized that likely my two plum questions – the ones we hope no one else would have asked – had already been well discussed. Undaunted, and thinking only of PEZ-Fans’ loyal thirst for knowledge, I lobbed my probes into the mix between another journo’s repeated variations of the new team and the Spring Classics questions. In spite of being wired with two separate microphones, George was casual and laid back… he knows what he’s doing.
As one of the premiere riders in pro cycling George’s options must have been wide, so why step down from a Pro Tour level team to BMC? George mentioned part of the appeal was working with Jim Ochowicz again – whom he worked with way back at the start of his 17 year pro racing career. Another bonus was the chance to wear the clothing line that bears his name – although he maintains this was not a deal breaker. George also cited working with legendary trainer Dr. Max Testa – whose “training really fits my riding style”. As far as leadership aspirations go, George says he only wants to be leader if he’s 100% on that day.
On the bikes: George is riding the RaceMaster – BMC’s new for 2010 carbon/ aluminum combo frame that is their stiffest race bike yet. George agreed it’s much stiffer than carbon, but that it reacts very well, and perhaps more importantly “looks cool as hell”.
Even that front derailleur chain guide is custom painted…
My third interview of the group was the World Champ – who was understandably surrounded by the biggest group of inquiring minds. I’d wondered about his reputation as being prickly with us press types – and who’s to blame him after years of answering so many thoughtless questions from media hacks too lazy to know their subject.
But right from the start he was smiling, from pulling on his shoes in the pre-ride morning sun to being surrounded by 20 journos in these orchestrated and time-limited ‘interview’ sessions.
Cadel was specific in his praise for a team management that truly believes in him, and is prepared to give him the support he needs to win races.
When asked about what drew him to the team, the answer was again about the people – Cadel mentioned it was Andy Rihs’ “faith and confidence in me”, and the passion of his group to “work together to win the Tour de France” that impressed Cadel each step of the process (which started many months ago). And with all that support, he added he wants to prove himself worthy, but also do what he can to help the young guys too.
Cadel told me he loves the fit of his new SLC01 Team Machine.
When I asked if he can win the Tour, he replied that he’s “definitely going to try.” He doesn’t boast the same kind of self-belief some other champions do, but modesty is by no means a bad thing. To me it speaks more to his modest nature, and European-ization after years of living in Italy – creating a life as a foreigner in a strange land. Under promise and over deliver.
But as a guy who can attest to the power of perseverance, I sense Cadel has crossed into a new phase of his career – one that’s gonna see some payback for the work and suffering (both physical and mental) of the past few seasons.
While the ride was more of a group chase behind the team, it was most revealing for me to observe how the riders interacted getting ready for the two daily rides we saw as well as during the interview session.
Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves – riders, managers, directors, support personal all seemed to be really pumped for the season ahead. The addition of the big name pros has both motivated and frightened the younger riders – who see both a chance to take their own riding up several notches, but also see some more pressure to deliver the on road support a World Champ demands.
At such an early time in the season, there are few juicy details to report. No one has real form yet, and the key races are still weeks away. But during the times we saw the team, everyone really did seem in good spirits, and genuinely looked to be enjoying themselves.
Of course the hired leaders are World Champ Evans, current US Champ Hincapie, and ex-World Champ Ballan. Assuming training and racing goes as planned, and accidents are avoided as planned, these are the guys we should see making the mark at the top tier races. But don’t be surprised if the good vibes from the California camp carry a bunch more of the BMC riders to some podiums this year.
• Many thanks to everyone at BMC for including us, and be sure to see the team online at BMCRacingTeam.com
• Also thanks to Brian Hodes of VeloImages.com