Tales from the peloton, March 17, 2006
Jittery Joe's-Zero Gravity 2006 Team Presentation
With a slightly slimmed-down roster for 2006 and only three returning riders, the coffee-powered Jittery Joe's-Zero Gravity team is a leaner and more focused outfit than last year, as Mark Zalewski discovered at the team's launch in Athens, Georgia.
We last visited the Jittery Joe's-Zero Gravity team around this time last year at the roasting company's main building for a team launch party. Riders, sponsors and local fans of the team joined together again in 2006 for food, music, team introductions and, of course, coffee. And while there are many similarities from year to year, a few noticeable differences were present. One difference is the size of this year's team, down from 11 riders to a squad of nine. This change perfectly illustrates a shift in attitude and focus for the 2006 team.
"What we've tried to do is take what we had last year and really tighten it up," says team director Micah Rice. "We have nine riders instead of eleven, but all are full-time riders...we really enjoyed having Trent and Kabush with us last year - obviously Trent did a lot for us with results. But everyone this year is full-time on the road, which is nice knowing that everyone is focused on one thing." Rice is referring to two of the mainstays from last year's team; Geoff Kabush and Trent Lowe, two mountain bikers who split their time on the trail and the road with success in both. Lowe has now converted full-time to the road with the Discovery Channel team following his breakthrough 2005 season.
This is one similarity that remains from year to year - the 'stepping stone' phenomenon. Rice readily acknowledges it, saying, "I pick up guys that I know, if we do our job as a team, will definitely not be with us next year. This really is a stepping stone, and I don't see us changing out of that in the foreseeable future."
Continuing the tradition of the 'stepping stone' this year is young Australian Peter Hatton, a former mountain biker. "No one knows who he is," says Rice. "He has a mountain biking background, and you know how much I like mountain bikers! He hadn't raced much road until last year - Trent Lowe actually tipped me off about him. And if Trent Lowe says he is good, then I should pick him up on that alone," explains Rice. "So I called him and we actually came to an agreement when he said he got a ride at the Herald Sun Tour. I said, 'Great, go do it - great experience, and we'll finish the contract when you get back.' And I'm watching Cyclingnews every day, checking results...this kid wins the KOM, the best young rider's jersey and takes fifth overall, never having done a race that big. I was thinking, 'Crap, I'm not going to get this guy now!' He did get some offers, but in the end he went with us."
As for the rest of the team, there are only three returning riders from the 2005 season. Rice says this is intentionally a new direction for building a winning team formula. "I think we've made the middle of the team stronger. The last couple of years we've had some really good results; Cesar with the big finish and Trent doing really well last year were some amazing results from the top of the team, but we've seen the bottom of the team struggle. What we are trying to do is build the middle of the team so that we have more of a team to support those top riders. We have really cleaned house, with only three guys returning from last year. That's obviously a big change, but some people needed to move on, and we are psyched for guys like Trent or Tim Johnson who are getting a chance to move up."
Another change for this year will be the strategy involved in deciding which races to attend in order to maximize the return from all nine riders throughout the season. "We are going to do a better job picking and choosing our races," says Rice. "We've never been a team with an overall goal of doing well in the NRC. Our goal is to really make am impact at the races we do attend." One race the team was already noticeably absent from was the Tour of California, which Rice says explains his whole outlook for the season. "I said to them that we really want to do well at Georgia, and if that means we can't go to California, I didn't really care. It wasn't worth spreading ourselves out so thin. It was a budget decision as well as a rider decision."
The Tour de Georgia is really a backyard race for the team, particularly in terms of sponsors, which will also influence some of the other race decisions throughout the year. "Georgia is a big focus and it always will be. We have so many local sponsors, with Jittery Joes, Hank Aaron, Tifosi and Zero Gravity. [Athens] Twilight and that whole set of races are really important for us. We are going to focus in on the Philly week, and are excited about Tour de Beauce again - especially because of Louis Garneau. They put in a lot for us." Louis Garneau is once again providing the unique service of covering the team from head to toe, with their new Titan Carbon helmet, carbon clothing, carbon frames and shoes...which use carbon too!
There already seems to be evidence of the new focus within the team during their training camp. "The vibe I get at this year's camp is that it's a little bit more focused than it has been in the last couple of years," Rice explains. "The guys that are here are really excited and motivated. We don't really know how good their form is - the only one who knows is Neal because he won that crit at Valley of the Sun. But we don't really know because a lot of other teams have already been racing, and it just doesn't make sense for us to try to do all that. We are kinda coming into it late, but it's a long season."
One aspect of this team that doesn't change is the dedication and commitment from their title sponsor, Jittery Joe's coffee. Not having to worry about securing a new sponsor for the following year really makes a difference for Rice, which filters down to the rest of the team. "The good thing is we do have a foreseeable future - we are going to be around for a long time, which has really let me concentrate on more aspects of the team instead of making sure that title sponsor is secure. It takes such a big weight off the shoulders and allows me to concentrate on all the little things that can fall through the cracks."
A final similarity to last year's team is the addition of a 'Euro pro'. Last year it was Tim Johnson from Saunier Duval-Prodir, and this year it's Australian Trent Wilson from the Colombia-Selle Italia squad. Wilson has ridden the Giro d'Italia twice and brings loads of experience to the team. He is a likely pick to be a top finisher for the team, but Rice is rather quick to point out that he has learned his lesson from last season. "Trent is a good pick. The most experienced, he is definitely going to be our road captain for a stage race. Jeff [Hopkins] is our captain for the criteriums...I think that one guy people should watch is Peter Hatton."