By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
Many rumours, speculation and critical reports have been surfacing over the past month about the American-based Rock Racing team, funded by the outspoken and controversial Michael Ball, owner of the designer jeans company Rock & Republic, which serves as the title sponsor. From the confirmation that Tyler Hamilton signed with the team to speculation that Mario Cipollini was in negotiations, the off-season has been tumultuous for the team - and the latest shoe to drop was the mutual separation between director sportif Frankie Andreu and Ball.
"Before Christmas they made some business strategy decisions with me and other members, and that made it obvious to me where they were heading," Andreu told Cyclingnews regarding his reasons for leaving. "Since then I was left out of the majority decisions."
Andreu's departure is one indication of the perceptive sea change for the team - from a new, alternative team with exciting prospects to one that is pushing boundaries, possibly too far. Andreu himself was singing the company's praises to Cyclingnews just last August - and indicating that the team would only be adding a couple of new key riders in 2008 to compete at a higher level. This is in contrast with what has been subsequently reported in terms of additions to the team.
The names of riders that have been linked with the team include Tyler Hamilton, Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla and Mario Cipollini. The signings of Hamilton and Botero have been confirmed in media reports while Sevilla and Cipollini remain rumours. However, according to multiple sources wishing to remain anonymous, both riders are joining the team. Both Botero and Sevilla have been associated with the Operación Puerto investigation, and Hamilton served a two year ban for blood doping.
'Win at all costs' mentality costly
But Andreu said the decisions he questioned went beyond riders and covered all aspects of the team. "Rider choices, sponsor choices, the way they were handling the prospective sponsors... they are an aggressive team and everything they do is aggressive. The cycling community is small and to me it is important to keep friends and not win at all costs."
Andreu said that the signings of some riders were not ever discussed with him. "They had talked about the Cipo thing before but that got all shelved," he said. "Once I was off the team I found out he was going to training camp and possibly signing, along with Sevilla and Hamilton.
Andreu continued saying that when he found out when certain riders were being discussed he expressed his concern over possible negative impacts to the team's reputation -- though he would not name specific names.
"I did a lot of speaking with the management guys there regarding at least a couple of riders and how it could affect the reputation of Rock & Republic. But Michael thought otherwise and wants to grow the team and win races."
Andreu also commented to Cyclingnews that Hamilton was not a concern for him. "For me, Tyler is not so much a problem - he has done his time."
The root of the problem could be Michael Ball's management style, which could be best described as unconventional. Cyclingnews was the first to hear the "win or you're fired" mentality from Ball, and Andreu said his dealings with the owner were quite rare. "I've only ever spoken with Michael Ball actually once. We were not allowed to talk to him directly, I speak with [his staff] who passes it on to Michael who tells them what to tell to me."
Landis linked, despite ineligibility?
Another of the many speculations involving the team came out of Andreu's departure - that Floyd Landis, who is currently appealing his suspension for a positive testosterone test during the 2006 Tour de France, is going to become the new team director. Cyclingnews spoke with Landis directly regarding the idea.
"I don't want to comment... I don't have any agreement with the team," he said. "I know there are a bunch of rumours about it but I don't have any comments." Landis did confirm that he knows the team and Ball, saying that he supports their decisions. "I do know those guys there, the majority of them. I know that Michael Ball has made some very bold statements, but I wish them success. Those guys that they have on the team deserve a second chance."
According to USA Cycling and UCI rules, Landis would be unable to serve in any official capacity as a director, needing a license in order to do so.
For his part, Andreu is not too worried about landing on his feet, having been in a similar position before directing this team. "I'll stick with the television and race announcing. Add for 2009 focus on putting together a team where I can have more control."
"My interest would be to have some younger riders to develop, but to have a good squad to race in the US. The focus wouldn't be completely on the winning. Right now companies want more community involvement to really network the branding for the sponsor to the public. I know how to put a team together, the hard part is finding a sponsor and making it so they get their return. There is more than just winning races for sponsors."
Representatives from the team declined to respond to repeated inquires to comment.