Tales from the Peloton, August 22, 2007
Europe is home to the most prestigious races cycling has to offer; Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race, Milano – Sanremo – take your pick, they are all there. Yet young Australian and New Zealand riders are flocking to race in the United States of America, Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson finds out what's behind the trend setting rider's decisions to buck the traditional route.
Earth's 243 other countries could learn a lot from the way the United States of America does sport. It's a nation where sporting team budgets often exceed the gross domestic product of small countries, where outrunning the law on moonshine runs forms the base of a multi-billion dollar sport. Yes, the almighty US of A knows that sport is a business and like any business it must build, market and sell a product (being entertainment); its approach to cycling is no different.
While certainly a factor, it's not just the money associated with sport on US soil that's drawn the signatures of up and coming cyclists from Down Under to American Continental and Professional Continental squads. For some it's the lifestyle, others the flexibility and for a few it is a financially viable alternate to slogging it out in the lower ranks in Europe in hopes of being noticed by a ProTour or top European squad. Whatever the draw, the riders from the land down under have given the US peloton a distinctly different accent.
"A billion channels on television, Mexican food and women falling over you because of your accent - what Aussie wouldn't want to come here and have fun racing their bike?" -Hilton Clarke jokes about his motivations for coming to America
New Zealand's Glen Chadwick isn't the only rider from Down Under on his Navigators Insurance Professional Continental squad - he has two Australians, Hilton Clarke and Ben Day, also riding for the team. Chadwick, who has raced for teams in Europe, Asia and now America, said he would find it difficult returning to the mentality of a European squad having raced in the US. "With Navigators I have the best of both worlds, I reside in Belgium, ride for an American team who bases themselves in Belgium three of four months each year, so I can live at home," he said. "I get to race here in Europe and do some really hard and good racing, then jump over the pond and race flat out in some pretty cool races throughout America."
Like Chadwick, Clarke sees a lot of positive reasons for Down Under riders to join the American scene. "In Europe, if you don't make the cut, that is it," said Clarke. "You can race for nothing and survive on baked beans and muesli or you can come to the US, the land of opportunity. With so many new teams starting and Australians having such a good reputation here, there seems to be many spots to start your career on a base wage.
"Not to mention the great lifestyle; a billion channels on television, Mexican food and women falling over you because of your accent," Clarke joked. "What Aussie wouldn't want to come here and have fun racing their bike?"
Lifestyle, it seems, is certainly an important element in the decision. Competing in an English-speaking territory has its advantages, but it's also the attitude and professionalism of the teams and their counterparts in the peloton which is winning praise from the competitors.
"The advantages are easy: it's more fun racing here in the US and there's much less pressure. Heaps less pressure," stated Toyota-United's Henk Vogels, who rode for Belgian ProTour squad Davitamon-Lotto last season. "Plus, it's a completely different lifestyle here in the States."
"For me personally, I like the attitude of riders in the US," said HealthNet-Maxxis' Rory Sutherland, who formerly raced for Dutch team Rabobank. "It seems to be friendlier and at the same time a little bit less stressful that European racing."
Chadwick echoed Sutherland's sentiment. "There is less 'Euro' to deal with in the races - some of those country's attitudes and mentalities are right off the scale. I'm sure any Kiwis and Aussies know what I mean," said Chadwick.
Another reason young riders from Australia and New Zealand come to the States is the wide open job market. While getting a slot on a team in Europe is next to impossible for an unknown talent, things are different in the US. "The talent pool isn't as deep [as Europe] so there are more opportunities," noted HealthNet-Maxxis team manager Jeff Corbett. "The US teams have had such great success with Aussie and Kiwi riders over the last decade that several of them are willing to try even unproven talent from Down Under."
Just as with the men's peloton, the women have started infiltrating the American scene in recent years. Riders like New Zealand' Catherine Cheatley and Meshy Holt, Australians Helen Kelly and ValueAct Capital's Katie Mactier have used the US scene to help build their cycling careers. With women's cycling, the important races are still in Europe, which leads to quite a few riders traveling back and forth across the Atlantic throughout the season. Mactier enjoys the multi-continental lifestyle of living in Europe and racing primarily in America. "I am based in Spain for the year and do mix of racing in both Europe and the US," said Mactier. "I think racing in both regions has advantages, when deciding on what is best for a rider, I think its important to work out clear objectives and go from there."
And for Mactier and her career the objective is crystal clear – 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. "USA racing suits me perfectly," she admitted. "While my main emphasis is focused on the track in the 2008 Olympics, I don't need to chase UCI points in Europe on the road in order to get selected for the Olympic team. It leaves me more flexibility in choosing and designing my road campaign.
"I think people underestimate the strength in the women's US peloton," added Mactier. "It works perfectly for me in what I am trying to achieve."
For the women's side of racing, however, Webcor's Helen Kelly believes the UCI's rules is making it increasingly harder to compete in both Europe and America simultaneously – as men's teams like Navigators Insurance do. "They require eight riders to start the women's Giro in July, but you need to be signed with that UCI team," she explained. "It is very difficult to race World Cups as a guest rider as it changes the status of the team taking on the guest rider to a mixed team, not a UCI team.
"Mixed teams have to pay for their hotel and entry fees so this discourages UCI teams from ever wanting to take on a guest rider," added Kelly, who needs to race in Europe during the second half of the season to make World Championships selection and prepare for the September event. "This does make it harder to race in Europe, unless you join a non-UCI team or join the national team."
While there are obvious drawbacks pointed out by Kelly, the United States' cycling scene does also offer some strong incentives in the form of salary. "We don't race for money, because if we did I would still be an accountant, but the financial rewards are better in the US than Europe," said Kelly. "Generally speaking, for women, the salaries are better in the USA.
"Also the prize money in the USA is excellent," added Kelly. "In Europe, from a race, each rider's split would be about 30 Euros, but in the US it is about $700. I usually make as much from prize money as I get as a salary from the USA."
The financial element, like any career path, is an obvious plus for riders on both sides of the gender spectrum. "For riders who are realistically not going to make it in the ProTour, they can still race, enjoy what they're doing and get paid for it at the same time," said Sutherland.
"I think a lot of Australian cyclists who go to Europe up until the age of 25 and don't make it are probably giving up," added Vogels. "It's very difficult to get into a large team in Europe so they go looking for other options, and racing here in the US is not a bad option."
In a typical Aussie larrikin fashion, Clarke added his slant on the financial benefits, saying: "You also get the prize money, unlike in Europe where you maybe get a mysterious amount of money a few years later."
As a team manager always on the lookout to recruit new talent, Corbett can see a few additional reasons why riders from Down Under are hitting the States. Corbett believes that lifestyle has a lot to do with the choice, and even agrees with Clarke on women loving the rider's accents, but thinks weather and the state of European cycling are also contributing factors. "Have you been to Belgium? Have you been to Tour of California? It's a no brainer," he said. "Why spend months in the rain and cold? Our schedule follows the sun. We start out west early, then head south, and don't move north until May when things have improved.
"The last main reason is simple as well," continues Corbett. "European cycling is a mess. We may not be the pinnacle of the sport here in the States, but we don't have a scandal every other day and you can trust that your teammates are clean. So while it may not be the Tour, it's still good, hard, rewarding racing without all the crap."
Of course, every rider's situation is different, thus the American scene has different pros and cons for each individual. For instance Vogels and Chadwick like the fact that America is a relative short flight home to Australia and New Zealand.
While Vogels admitted he could definitely ride out his career in America, although would be keen to ride for an Australian ProTour team, and Chadwick thinks it would be difficult going back to a European squad, America isn't necessarily the career destination for some of the younger riders. Riders like Clarke are beginning to see the United States as not only the world's second biggest racing scene, but a crucial stepping stone to Europe.
"I love criterium racing, which is huge in America," noted Clarke. "At first I came to the US to make a career. After spending the last four years splitting my time between Europe and the US, Europe is where I want my career to head."
As riders like Clarke look to follow in the footsteps of New Zealand rider Greg Henderson, who jumped from American racing to the ProTour with German squad T-Mobile this season, there's good times ahead for the sport in America. "From what I've seen, the US cycling scene seems to be building and changing at the same time," noted Sutherland. "There is more of an even spread of quality riders, on more and more quality teams. If this keeps happening and the momentum continues to build, we could see some big things happening here in the next few years."