By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor in Las Vegas, Nevada
Victor Hugo Peña, Freddie Rodriguez and more on board
The Rock Racing outfit has had a successful inaugural year, taking out a couple of key major wins with the CSC Invitational and Manhattan Beach GP. But 2008 should be a breakthrough year, at least it looks that way on paper, with the big name signings the team has made. Title sponsor Rock & Republic's CEO Michael Ball told Cyclingnews that his plans for the team are the same he has for any business -- win big and keep going.
"At the end of the day we are here to push our product," he said. "I want these guys to go out on the weekend, stomp on everyone so that come Monday, people are buying up all our merchandise. It's the Ferrari business model."
Ball was on hand at Interbike to announce the launch of a new product line of activewear and as the sponsor of the USA Crit series finale. And his product requires a certain kind of look to go along with it, which is why he hired the riders he did in 2007. "Who wants these bunch of misfits?" he laughed. "No straight-laced company wants these guys representing them. But that's what works for us. Rahsaan [Bahati] and Kayle [Leo Grande] really complement each other."
Ball casually listed off an impressive list of names that he has secured for next season, showing what his long-term intentions are."We are really building in 2008 to go to Europe in 2009," he said. "We have Freddie [Rodriguez], Victor Hugo Peña, Cesar Grajales, Doug Ollerenshaw, Michael Creed and another possible rider signing later today." Ball confirmed that the other rider he was hoping to sign was in fact the much rumored Chris Horner. The additions of Peña, Horner and Grajales will elevate the team to contend in races other than criteriums, which is necessary to gain entry into the biggest races, both here and eventually abroad.
Ball said that the plan is to dominate the North American scene next year so as to establish their name before crossing to Europe. "We have a great relationship with AEG so we will be a part of California next year. We don't want to go to Europe without killing it over here first. Slipstream is backing in, what is that? I mean, all due respect, but that's not how I do things. We want to come in with guns blazing."
Ball's management style is quite evident just by speaking to him. "I told these guys you have to win," he said. "I said to Rahsaan half way through the season, 'I'm not paying you for second or third place. You either win or you're fired.' Same for the rest of them."
One casualty of this style was Sebastian Haedo, younger brother of sprinter J.J. Haedo. Sebastian raced for the team up until August and with good success, but a disagreement over where he would ride in 2008 resulted in Ball sacking him before the USPRO criterium championship. "He was immature," Ball said. "He wanted to be with his friends [next year] so I fired him and told him to go home. I run this as I run my business, simple as that."
Disagree with his style if you want, but the team has posted some impressive results this year and some equally impressive signings for next. Ball noted that the additions to the team are just that, with almost all of the current riders staying with the team. "CSC was huge for us, it really put us on the map," he said. "But any of these guys can win a stage at the Tour de France, or even the points jersey.