Tales from the peloton, April 7, 2008
The Tour de Georgia recently announced the fifteen teams invited to take part in the sixth edition of the race. While there were not many surprises, the announcement of this and the other major North American races, such as the Tour of California, always comes with disappointment for some, elation for others and a bit of finger pointing - usually in the direction of Medalist Sports. The top two questions usually are, "Why them?" and "Why not more?" Cyclingnews' North American Editor Mark Zalewski spoke with Medalist Sports managing partner Jim Birrell and the team liaison for Medalist's events Kevin Livingston about the team invitation process.
Shocking as it may be to some, the process for deciding which teams to invite to races such as the Tour de Georgia, Tour of Missouri and Tour of California is not made with a dart board - nor is it quite as complex as deciding the 64 teams for the NCAA college basketball tournament known as "March Madness" - it is somewhere in between. A lot of external factors go into the decision calculus, including UCI regulations, budget considerations and, frankly, the number of hotel rooms available to house the race. So while the UCI allows for up to 200 riders in a road race, it is not always as easy as that.
"When you get up to the north Georgia mountains, housing is a premium," said Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports and race director for the Tour de Georgia. "Cost is high, sure, but bed space too. There just aren't many hotels there period." This is one of the reasons why, after six years, the Tour de Georgia has added an additional day to its race, but not expanded beyond a limit of 15 teams for its peloton.
But beyond simple supply and demand limitations of hotel space, the cost involved in bringing more teams gets rather high, and the cost-benefit curve begins to flatten out. Adding to the problem, the Tour de Georgia is still riding a thin margin in terms of budget and sponsors, running a deficit last year even after signing AT&T as a title sponsor in the 11th hour.
"When you get up to the north Georgia mountains, housing is a premium." -Aavailable housing is a big issue for race organisers
The costs of increasing the peloton also come in terms of safety, according to Birrell. "We have been very successful with a 15 team model, economically and from a safety point of view," he said. "If you have 15 teams that means 30 team cars in the caravan - if you increase the amount of teams you increase the length of the caravan, which gets more difficult to control."
Indeed, a race caravan with 30 team cars, plus six official's vehicles, eight organisation vehicles, 10 police vehicles - oh, and 120 cyclists - takes up between two and three miles of road on a rolling enclosure. That's when the race is neutral. When a break goes up the road, the road closure envelope increases to five or six miles long. Trying to keep civilian traffic off the road before the race comes by, or out of the gap between the leaders and the peloton, is an immense challenge - especially in a country with a general population not known for its understanding of closing roads for a bicycle race.
Pick me, pick me!
With the number of teams invited staying at 15, being invited becomes important. For the United States domestic teams it is even more important, as UCI regulation 2.1.005 states that the 'hors categorie' rating of the race allows the organiser to have up to half the peloton made up of ProTour teams. Since ProTour teams mean more media coverage, a maximum of seven slots could go to them leaving only eight for pro continental, continental or national teams.
In the U.S. alone, there are two pro continental teams and 14 continental teams; more than any other country in the world. Canada has three continental teams, as does Mexico, resulting in 20 North American continental squads.
However, for this year's Tour de Georgia there are only five ProTour teams, allowing for a few more continental squads - compared to the Tour of California, which had the maximum amount of ProTour entries. This is a result of a combination of factors, according to Livingston, but for the Tour de Georgia it is mostly a cost issue, since the organiser must cover the expenses of the teams traveling to the race per UCI regulations. This means more money is needed from the sponsor - something that is less of an issue for the deep pockets of AEG and Amgen at the Tour of California.
"It's nice that we get international teams requesting [to race over here,] but with them we just run out of room," said Livingston. "With the budget we can only afford about five ProTour teams [in Georgia,] so we look for teams with American riders - and then teams like Saunier Duval, who came and helped us make the Tour of Missouri a success last year."
There is also a stipulation in UCI rule 2.1.003 that to be on the international calendar, a race must include a minimum of five teams from foreign countries. Again, the Tour of California had no problem satisfying this with all but one ProTour team based outside of the U.S. However, the five ProTour teams of the Tour de Georgia include Team High Road, which is technically head quartered in California, making it a U.S. team. The fifth team to satisfy the foreign team requirement came in the form of killing two birds with one stone - thanks to the Canadian Symmetrics team.
The Tour of California organiser AEG was criticized for not including the team of the UCI America Tour winner Svein Tuft in their race. Instead it opted for U.S. teams, particularly ones with California sponsor connections, such as Jelly Belly.
"We had [Symmetrics] in Georgia in 2005 but in 2006 there wasn't a lot of communication between us and their director," said Livingston. "In 2007 we got back with them and they rode really well at Missouri even though they were pretty beat up after chasing UCI points in South America. They had a guy in the break almost every day."
"AEG wanted to really focus more on the US based continental squads for their event," said Birrell. "That is why a Jelly Belly would get the invite. But local ties also help for sure. Jittery Joe's is our hometown favourite and we drink a lot of Jittery Joe's coffee."
The sponsorship link is also evident in the Tour de Georgia, with the selection of the Chinese registered GE/Marco Polo-Trek team. "Discovery helped support them last year, and the GE connection supports the race," said Livingston about the selection. "Fuyu Li got a point so that he could qualify for the Olympics and it also adds another international team. They are very modest but I think they are a good team who will ride well. They have some pretty good names on the team like Leon van Bon."
One U.S. continental team that has been left out of the selection for Tour of California and Tour de Georgia is the Colavita-Sutter Home squad. Livingston said that the communication with the team did not work out to include them in the first two events, things are on track for them to be included in the Tour of Missouri and the new Colorado Stage International Cycle Classic in August.
Win and you're in
It does not take a degree in particle physics to figure out the most important ingredient to securing an invite to one of these big American races is winning. "Get in as many of the NRC and US Professional Tour events as you can, and then race hard and race aggressively," said Birrell about keys to an invite. "The more stage wins or tour wins... we pay a high level of respect to those victories."
But beyond winning, just riding in a way that makes the race you are in more interesting can be enough to attract attention. Take the Kelly Benefits-Medifast squad - last year an up-and-coming but largely untested team. Some strong riding at big NRC events earned it an invite into the Tour of Missouri and then strong riding there, plus the bolstering of the squad with some key names, ensured its place in this year's Tour of California.
However, just like predicting the Final Four basketball bracket is nearly impossible, there is also no magical algorithm for ranking the teams to decide invites - especially at the beginning of a new season. "That's the hardest part," said Birrell. "There isn't a mechanism out there that fairly represents the teams. The NRC points do a pretty good job, but it's really hard to compare all the teams against one another. There are always three or four teams that are tied.
"We don't take it lightly, we spend about two weeks going over it," said Livingston of the selection process. "And I told Jim that as soon as you skip a team they will start to ride well. Last year Jelly Belly rode California and Missouri, but not Georgia. And then Bajadali goes and wins Redlands [in 2007] right before Georgia!"
"It's a good thing, but we just can't have all of them in the race," Livingston said about the problem of having a lot of American teams. "There has to be some selection in order to keep the competitiveness high."
Along the same sentiment, the number of foreign and ProTour teams wanting to come race in the States is a positive sign for events on this side of the Atlantic - both in what Euro-pros think of the race organisation and what they think of the actual racing. "There are more ProTour teams that want into the American races than we can host," said Birrell. "There were three teams that wanted to be in [Georgia] but we couldn't afford it. Domestic racing has really increased in stature - they see the level of racing, the logistics and media that is available here, and right now we are able to take advantage of that."