News feature, March 22, 2006
After a solid 2005 that was more about building foundations than winning races, ex-professional Jon Vaughters' TIAA-CREF squad has broken through for its first win in Europe. US national criterium champion Brad Huff showed good speed and tactical nous to secure a win on stage 1 of the Tour of Normandie, the team's first European win since its formation in 2004. Les Clarke reports.
"Brad's an interesting guy in that he's a little bit older - he's 26 years old but he's only really ridden for three years, so I still consider him an up-and-comer," said team manager Jon Vaughters. And that's what the team's all about - nurturing the best in riders who need it in order to bring out their potential; Vaughters adds that Huff is one of a number of riders in the US who can make the most of a developmental team like TIAA-CREF.
"He's nowhere near his full potential yet, and you see that quite a bit in the US; guys that never even consider riding a bike until they've finished college. Maybe they do it in their last year of college...and that's where Brad is with it at the moment. He's obviously found a niche for himself in that he's a really good sprinter and a really good track rider as well.
"People weren't giving him a chance as far as US teams are concerned, but I figured, 'if this guy is going that fast on the track there's no reason he can't convert it onto the road'," said Vaughters. "You look and see what happens and he's off and running."
In 2006 the focus has changed to obtaining results in Europe within an overall goal of eventually obtaining a ProTour licence. Solid results in early European races have provided the spark for bigger results such as Huff's, and that's just the start of things according to Vaughters.
"You get a couple of performances like this and everyone realises that, 'hey, if I want to keep my spot next year I'm going to have to raise my game as well'," he explains. "That's what leads to some long-term momentum that gets us to the point in two or three years when we're knocking on the door of the Pro Tour."
A big part of this is the fact that for 2006 TIAA-CREF have established two operations - one in Europe and the other in the US. "Last year we were packing up everything and taking eight guys over to Europe for a month of racing before packing everything up and coming back, which we did a couple of times," said Vaughters.
"This year we're just doing the full 100 days of racing in Europe; we've got two cars, a truck, a motor home and all that over in Europe, and it's just there full-time. And then we've got the guys in the US, so we've got a staff based in Europe and a staff based in the US, so we're just pulling riders back and forth, not all the logistics. As opposed to doing 30 or 40 days of racing over there, we can do a full 100-day calendar."
This allows riders to gain more experience, which can only lead to bigger and better things, as shown in Huff's win. But for Vaughters it's not just about the wins, but the overall performance, which is looking good so far in 2006.
He said the old adage of 'success breeds success' applies with his young charges, especially now the infrastructure is in place. "If you look at the results so far this season - [Etoile de] Bessèges and races like that - it's been really solid. We were really solid at the Tour of California, and within the program all the guys are feeding off each other.
"If one group of guys does well in one race, then the other guys in Europe or the US want to outdo the group that's on the other side of the ocean - so it's just feeding off itself," he said.
In terms of becoming a mainstay of the pro peloton, Vaughters' approach is paying off, and he knows that you can't just buy success, although the money always helps in keeping the good eggs in the basket.
"Brad Huff was a relatively unknown rider who wasn't expensive to bring onto the team - but now that he's done something like this, and if he has a few more performances like this one, it's going to definitely cost me some more money!
" In general we've developed the reputation in the US and Europe as a place where guys want to go to - it's not a team where guys say, 'well, if they pay me enough I'm going to go and race there'; it's a team people want to come to because we've got a really good race programme; and for the most part we're organised and professional," said Vaughters.
"We're doing really good races and trying to take of the guys and make sure they get the attention they need to perform at their best, so it's not like anyone's getting lost in the shuffle."