Women's team aiming to win with 'best ever team'
While the HTC-Highroad will officially end at the month's end, the team's tradition of kinship, teamwork, and likely an unmatched number of victories will continue in the form of the Specialized-Lululemon women's team.
The 13 women on the squad are currently in Southern California for their pre-season training camp and from the dedication, laughter and lively attacks on the training rides it is clear that even the most seasoned veterans are freshly motivated and determined to be the best in the coming year.
Cyclingnews sat down with team owner Kristy Scrymgeour, who has been involved with the team for the past five years - first as women's team manager at T-Mobile and then as marketing and communications director for the entire organisation, and who was critical in keeping it alive.
As the 2011 season wound down, the sponsorship outlook for the Highroad squad was looking bleak, but Scrymgeour said the women wanted to keep the band together.
"When it came to the point it was getting late, and we didn't want the women to lose other opportunities, we told them to go ahead and take their other offers," Scrymgeour told Cyclingnews. "But the girls kind of got together and said we don't want to separate, we want to stay together. They'd won a lot of races together and were a good group, and they asked me to keep trying."
Not wanting to lose should the team fold, the riders gave Scrymgeour two weeks to pull off enough sponsorship to keep the team running. Amazingly enough, it worked.
"We were pretty lucky. We'd been with Specialized for a year and they'd been very supportive. The women won about 60 races on their bikes and I didn't think they wanted that to end, and when we talked to Mike (Sinyard) he said yes, they wanted to keep doing it. That was pretty exciting, and we thought we could keep it alive."
Through Specialized, Scrymgeour was put into contact with Canadian athletic clothing maker Lululemon who supplied the BMC squad with its casual clothing. The timing of that team's recent Tour de France victory and an opportunity for the female-centric company to support a top women's team worked out perfectly.
"It all just came together really quickly."
Three of the riders had already moved on: Judith Arndt has joined the Australian GreenEdge team, Adrie Visser heads to the Skil-Koga squad, and Amanda Miller heads back to Tibco. Yet nine riders persevered, and are joined by four new faces: Germans Trixi Worrack and Lisa Brennauer, Honda Hybrid Women's Tour winner Lauren Rowney and Clara Hughes - a superstar in Canadian sport with Olympic medals in both speedskating and cycling.
While Hughes has had a personal sponsorship by Lululemon, Scrymgeour said her signing came after the team's future had been assured by the clothing maker.
The depth of the team is such that not only can it continue to rack up 50 or so race victories per season, Scrymgeour estimates at least eight if not 12 of the team's riders have a chance at being selected by their country to go to the Summer Olympic Games in London.
For the women's field, countries are still fighting for the top five in the UCI nations rankings to earn four spots, while riders have to accumulate their own results to earn selections by their country. Scrymgeour and her team director Ronny Lauke will have to balance those personal ambitions with the team's goals.
"Our goal as a team is to go to every race and win. The riders know we'll put the team in each race that gives us the best chance of winning, and I try to get them not to focus too much on the qualification criteria, because cycling is such a team sport, a lot of the criteria are very discretionary. A nation has to put a team together that suits the course and with riders who want to work together.
"They know if they race well during the year they'll get selected. We want to help them with their individual goals, too. The Olympics are very important for women's cycling. For us to be able to say we've got Olympians on our team to a sponsor or a future partner is significant.
"We want our girls to make the Olympic games, but we balance that with the fact that we're a professional team and we go to every race with the idea of winning."
The team's first objective is the Tour of Qatar, which they won this year with Dutch rider Ellen Van Dijk, followed by the European campaign of World Cups and stage races.
"The calendar won't change that much, but the difference from last year when we lost a few races to budgetary problems, there's a few new races coming into the women's calendar this year."
New stage races in France and the USA will give opportunities for riders like Amber Neben, Evelyn Stevens and Worrack, who, Scrymgeour said, is more motivated than ever by her inclusion in this new team.
"Trixi has won Tour de l'Aude, and she'll probably have her best year - she's looking very fit. She's excited. I've known Trixi for a long time as a rider, and you can just see it - the day after she signed with us she won a race. She is motivated and fit, and she's ready to go and she's going to have a good year."
Specialized-Lululemon for 2012
Ellen Van Dijk
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