Tales from the peloton, March 21, 2007
The 2007 Health Net presented by Maxxis squad has an aura about it. They come across as a jokey, chatty bunch but there's a battle-weary camaraderie between riders and staff - an underlying vibration that radiates toughness and dedication to winning. Cyclingnews staffer Steve Medcroft got to see this camaraderie first hand in January when the squad held a dinner for their sponsors and media in the barrel room of a winery in Temecula, California.
Despite the postcard-perfect surroundings, the dinner was a loose affair. Health Net riders, directors, mechanics and support staff were peppered throughout the room, chatting up the guests and each other. The crowd loosened up with glasses of Chardonnay and Merlot and the dozen or so crowded tables buzzed with conversation; about racing, about products, about this rider or that. People laughed a lot and competed with each other to be heard.
But when team director Jeff Corbett rose to introduce his roster give his key sponsors a chance to speak and be recognized by the group, everything turned to business. Until Corbett cracked a joke about the first rider of course. Then it all turned Health Net again.
"We try and strike a balance between being professional but also want to keep things light," Corbett said later. "We have obligations to our sponsors that we need to fill and we try to be on time and present a professional image and race well. At the same time, behind the scenes, the guys like to hang out and have a good time together. No one's going to be a millionaire on this team so it's important for us to have a good time and laugh together."
Growing up Green
Originally built around sprinter Gord Fraser and hard-man Mike Sayers, the Health Net/Maxxis squad stepped into a void that opened in American cycling when programs like Saturn and Mercury, both dominant and well-funded teams, fell apart at the beginning of the century. Health Net/Maxxis immediately took charge of domestic racing, winning USA Cycling's NRC (National Race Calendar) rankings and winning many of the races they entered. They went on to lead the NRC for the next three years so it was no surprise to hear Corbett announce that he expects them to earn a fourth title in 2007. But with the number of talent-stacked teams in the US on the rise, he doesn't expect it to be easy.
Then there's the expansion of the US professional road season to include a new level of competition. "The (UCI) US Pro Tour is the new thing," says assistant director Mike Tamayo, who is new to the team after six years running the Victory Brewing women's program. "Although we're still finding out the details, the point tables and all that, it's opening the playing field to ProTour teams in the US. We'll see teams that don't race here all that often; a different breed of racer."
Will the handful of UCI races in the US really draw the attention of the European-based ProTour teams? "I doubt it," admits Corbett. "American ProTour teams will want to do these events but the impact will probably be greater for smaller pro teams and amateur teams because they can now be more competitive in the NRC."
Because, he says, the points that were available to Health Net/Maxxis at races like the Philadelphia Championships, the Tour of Georgia and the Tour of California are gone now those races are part of the US Pro Tour. "Winning the NRC is important to us," says Corbett. "But we have to play in two different fields at once so we'll have to fight it out with everyone else at all the non invitation races."
To bring the team's goals home, Corbett and staff have somewhat revamped Health Net/Maxxis, losing some key domestic riders but adding a punchy mix of fresh young talent. "We're a lot more international," says seven year pro and second year Health Net rider Tim Johnson. "And we're different; we don't have a single, dominant sprinter this year, we have multiple sprinters. And our GC guys are awesome. We have a lot of guys nobody knows about yet. Downing, Sutherland, Ryder [Hesjedal]. What you can expect from us is a lot of dynamic racing - we don't have one thing to stick to, there's not a certain thing we'll do in stage races, a certain thing we'll do in a criterium."
"We want to develop the next generation of champions and every year we try and take people on board that we can develop," adds Corbett. The younger signings seem significant; Hesjedal is back racing in the US after leaving the highest levels of North American mountain biking to ride with the Discovery Channel team, former British National Champion Russell Downing broke out with the European-based Continental squad DFL/Cyclingnews squad and 2004 Australian Under 23 National Champion Rory Sutherland has had a taste of ProTour racing with Dutch team Rabobank.
Then there is the veteran presence of riders like Nathan O'Neill and Tim Johnson. "Johnson is a quarterback on the team," says Tamayo." He makes a good captain. The riders respect him. We can only see so much of the race from the team car. You need someone out there who can feel the race and give us information as well as make some calls on the road that we can't make."
"It's a role this team developed even before I came along," says Johnson, a bronze medallist at the U23 Cyclo-cross World's in 1999. "While the directors are in the car, it's nice to have another read on the race, another person keeping an eye on the plan we laid out before the race. It's also nice for the new guys - especially the international riders who haven't done a lot of the races here - to have someone help them know what they're in for."
On the road again. I just can't wait to get on the road again
Health Net/Maxxis opened its fourth season of competition at the Tour of California and it looks like it's going to be planes, trains and automobiles all year. But with the Tour of California pushing the start of the US season earlier than ever before, team director Corbett has been careful not to overload the team right out of the starting gate. "Everyone got to go home for a little over a week after camp," he said by phone two days before the start of the Redlands Cycling Classic. "And we skipped the [Quad Knopf Sequoia Cycling Classic] weekend to recharge because it's a long, busy season."
As well as a strong showing at a long list of American races, the team will also continue to satiate its thirst for international competition. To kick off the 2007 overseas campaign, a five-man contingent from the team is currently racing the Tour of Taiwan (where American Sean Milne took the first stage). A European trip is planned in April which may extend into May and the team is also hoping for an invitation to the Tour of Britain in September.
But don't mistake ambition overseas for softness on the domestic front says Corbett. "We'll actually spend less time in Europe this year. We've never made any bones about the fact that we're an American team and winning in America, being number one in America, is the most important thing to us."
With all the options available to the team, what race is Corbett's squad most looking forward to? "There are so many races out there that I like but there are two things I'm really looking forward to. One is Philly week. It's always been such a great week. It's a week for strong men and we've got a lot of tough guys - Milne and Menzies, Pipp and Sutherland (for example). Guys who have shown well in these races before and are ready to step up."
As for the stage races featured in the new US Pro Tour, Corbett says: "I'm excited for the Tour of Utah. Utah did a great job with the event last year and now we're going to approach it a little differently, with a bigger squad. I think it will really be chance for Nathan, Ryder and Jeff Louder to shine. That's a race I'm looking forward to."
The 2007 Health Net presented by Maxxis roster:
Matt Crane (USA), Russell Downing (GBr), Kyle Gritters (USA), Ryder Hesjedal (Cab), Tim Johnson (USA), Roman Kilun (USA), Jeff Louder (USA), Karl Menzies (Aus), Shawn Milne (USA), John Murphy (USA), Kirk O'Bee (USA), Doug Ollerenshaw (USA), Nathan O'Neill (Aus), Frank Pipp (USA), Rory Sutherland (Aus).
Also see the 2007 Cyclingnews Teams Database.