News feature, November 28, 2007
After the loss of two major American teams and a major shift in two more, the North American market has been flooded with unsigned riders for the 2008 season. One of the riders left without a contract is the reigning USA Criterium Champion, Kirk O'Bee. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski has a look at what led to O'Bee's unemployment and what his options are for 2008.
A lot has been reported on the tough time American domestic riders are having landing employment for the 2008 season. With two major teams closing up shop in Navigators and Kodak-Sierra Nevada, as well as Health Net-Maxxis downsizing and Slipstream-Chipotle replacing half of its team, the fact is that the market, while healthy in terms of quality teams, is just flooded with riders. The depth of talent that remains unsigned this late into the off-season is sadly evident in the fact that the two-time and current USA Criterium National Champion, Kirk O'Bee, still does not have a 2008 ride.
A sprinter and national champion like O'Bee could get a spot on most teams, but not at the rate he was paid this season before winning the jersey. His case is one of bad timing. Health Net downsized its sponsorship budget for the 2008 team and subsequently the number of riders was reduced. Unfortunately for O'Bee he was not considered a key rider and it left him without a contract offer until late in the season, and the offere he did get was a result of his national championship.
"They knew what their budget was going to be, and they wanted their five or six core riders," O'Bee said. "And they knew who they were by June, and anyone else was an afterthought [while they were] hoping for additional sponsors to come through. I was one of those riders on the bubble, and they did make me an official offer, but it was literally half of what I was making this year.
"I can go get a job in construction or cutting down trees for more." - O'Bee on making ends meet.
"They felt bad, but I was more upset, because by June I had proven myself – and then I went and won the national championship! It's a weird situation because I did enjoy riding with the team but I also felt a little screwed. I don't think that people realize that what Health Net was paying would be so different next year with their budget."
After this late date, the budgets of most teams were mostly spoken for and O'Bee found himself faced with a tough question – take a huge pay cut in 2008, or forgo racing for a job to provide for his wife and son. "It's mostly a matter of money, I can't ride for free. I have a son and family that I need to support. Even $20,000 a year isn't enough; I can go get a job in construction or cutting down trees for more."
Though clearly not asking for six figures, O'Bee said some of the resistance from teams had to do with his past suspension for an elevated testosterone level, even though no exogenous testosterone was ever found. "I have couple of managers or teams having an issue with my past. So that was part of it and I don't have a job."
With the UCI deadline for registering riders looming, and having seemingly exhausted every option on this side of the Atlantic, his only hope may be to find a ride in Europe – a place he has ridden before, with Mapei-Quick Step in 1999 and with US Postal in 2000. O'Bee also has results from overseas during his time on Navigators, including second place and the KOM title at the 2005 Ronde van Drenthe.
"Pretty much since I've left Postal I've tried to go back every year," he said. "I'd love to go back there. I'd accept the UCI minimum for a ProTour team, which is next to nothing for them – and be super motivated to ride for them." Based upon his 2007 results in USA championship races alone he is going well, finishing a strong seventh at the USPRO road race to go with his criterium title.
In the mean time, O'Bee is still training, but more on the track near his home in Vancouver, Canada. "When it comes down to December, let's go to plan C or D! The other thing I am working on is training for the USA track talent pool, because there is an indoor track here. They have a new way of qualifying with the endurance events, so I am going for that – and the pursuit as well.
"I've talked to the coaches and they know where everyone stands, and no one has made the mass start times. My goal is to not just make the time but do really well, and let me go to a world cup and prove myself. It's a bit of a long shot, the whole process, but I think it is feasible."
If it is not, O'Bee is running out of options.
"It's hard to say 'it's a bad market,'" added O'Bee. "There are good teams going out there, but there are too many guys looking for jobs. I've done the debt thing and racking up huge credit card bills after my positive. I'm not doing that again."
"Why even hold a national championship when the national champion can even get a job?"