An interview with Frankie Andreu, February 25, 2006
They've already taken two stage wins in their first outing at the Tour California, but there's more than a few scratching their heads at this gang of big-name riders wearing Captain America outfits. Chris Henry answers the question, 'Who is Toyota-United Pro?'
It's hard to be a fan of American cycling and not know Frankie Andreu. Twelve years as a professional on the biggest teams from the United States, Andreu is a seasoned veteran of two Olympic Games (finishing 8th in 1988 and 4th in 1996), nine Tours de France (including US Postal teammate Lance Armstrong's 1999 and 2000 victories), and tireless support for his teams in World Cup classics and major stage races throughout the seasons. Following retirement from the peloton in 2000, Andreu kept himself involved as directeur sportif for US Postal in the United States, as well as landing television broadcast work with the Outdoor Life Network's cycling coverage in the U.S.
In 2006, a few years removed from the team car, Andreu is throwing his hat back in the domestic team ring, taking the job of co-director for the new Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team. A few hours after the team's big unveiling at the ESPN Zone in New York's Times Square, Andreu managed to make time and find the energy for an afternoon chat with Cyclingnews back at his hotel on 7th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Sitting in the lobby bar, going incognito in blue jeans, a faded Michigan t-shirt and a knit cap, Andreu offered his usual, friendly "what's up?" to start the proceedings before recounting with some enthusiasm his chance encounters with race car driver Jeff Gordon and 'some boxer...'
More than anything, Andreu admitted that he was relieved to simply 'let the cat out of the bag' on the newest venture in domestic U.S. racing. News had been percolating for some time about the new United Pro Cycling Team venture, but details on sponsorship, star riders, and the exact make up of the venture remained unconfirmed while the team management stayed tight-lipped.
The early recruits
Andreu was in fact the first person courted by team owner and visionary Sean Tucker, himself a former independent professional cyclist. Tucker approached Andreu at Redlands in 2005, proposing his new business model and the concept of rotating sponsorship that followed the model of franchise operations. It didn't take long for the sales pitch to work.
"I wasn't really looking to direct a team again," Andreu told Cyclingnews. "But this was very different from any other time I was on a team. It appealed to me. The ideas were creative and new."
Both Andreu and co-director Harm Jansen, another accomplished former professional, signed on with Tucker in July. From that moment on, it was time to buckle down and start signing riders, which was not going to be an easy task with a 'creative' business model for a new team.
"The first question guys would ask was, who's the sponsor? We needed that first big name... Some credibility for the team."
That first big name to take the leap of faith was Antonio Cruz of Discovery Channel and Andreu's former US Postal team. For Toyota-United, Cruz provided foundation that would show other riders that they weren't alone in signing on to a new venture. Andreu drew on his experiences as a rider, as well as his personal relationships, to generate interest in the team.
"Tony's a family man," Andreu said of Cruz. "Racing that much in Europe is hard, and the fact that it's hard racing often makes being away from home that much more difficult."
Andreu knew that despite his capability to perform in the toughest European races, Cruz was likely to consider a chance to spend more time at home and compete at the top level in the United States. "He's still getting better," Andreu explained, "and the angle was that he'd be able to continue [to improve], the pressure would be on, but because he would be closer to home it would be an attractive offer."
And so, with Cruz on board and team owner Tucker building the business and bringing on sponsors and investors, "the resumes started to flow."
The result is a first-year team set to make its mark with such talent as USPRO champion Chris Wherry, Ivan Dominguez, Ivan Stevic, Chris Baldwin, and Jose Haedo, among others. Andreu made it clear that the team's goal was "to dominate" in its first season.
Europe? First conquer California
The Toyota-United team's first public appearance on the road will come at the inaugural Tour of California (February 19-26), where the team will be tested against several UCI Pro Tour teams as well as the United States' best riders. Coming on the heels of a successful team training camp and the excitement of the official media launch, the team will count itself among the top contenders for the first California title, even if Andreu recognizes the challenges that will come on day one.
"The training camp was beautiful," he said with some added enthusiasm. "Everyone got along great, laughing, telling jokes... But it's going to be a different ball game in California and Georgia. The ProTour teams will have racing in their legs before California. That's a definite advantage."
And what about Europe? How does this new powerhouse of a team see itself growing into the European arena?
As much as the level of racing in the United States continues to grow, Europe remains the heartland of professional cycling. It's no surprise that any rider or team making waves in the domestic scene is expected to cross the pond and test the waters with the best in the sport. Andreu sees this as a goal for Toyota-United Pro, but knows that in its formative years the team will focus entirely on U.S. racing, registered as a Continental team with the UCI. Andreu and Tucker tried to establish the team as Pro Continental right from the start, but failed to convince the UCI of the team's viability given the unorthodox business model, seemingly generic name, and - at the time - lack of major title sponsors.
"We were trying to be Continental Pro to make a statement, but Continental is fine with us," Andreu acknowledged, explaining that in 2007 Toyota-United will look to make some forays outside the U.S. to race in events in the home countries of some of the team's international riders. "We have to make sure we're dominant here before we think about Europe," he added.
Building on successes
Having supported Lance Armstrong in two of his seven Tour de France victories (and completed nine Tours in his 12 year career), Andreu should know as well as anyone what the success of an American in the sport's most prized event can mean back home. The health of U.S. cycling owes much to victories by Greg LeMond and Armstrong in the Tour, and Andreu and Toyota-United hope to keep the momentum going at home.
"We need to keep people hooked and attract a new fan base," he said. "Knowledgeable fans will latch onto guys like Levi and Floyd, but if it's not those guys then it will be a powerful team like United here. Fans can follow the team, buy the bike, get the membership, and so on," he added, referring to the team's membership structure and proprietary bike brand, United Bicycles, L.L.C., which will build the team's bikes and sell a limited number of team-issue models to sell to the public.
Asked whether the traditional existence of one of two extremely dominant teams in American cycling is healthy for the sport, Andreu didn't have to choose his words carefully.
"I don't really worry so much about the health of cycling... Our goal is to win," he insisted. "But the health of U.S. cycling is good."