News feature, November 23, 2005
While the 20 ProTour teams have reaped the benefits of the new ProTour structure and the various Continental Teams now enjoy their own calendar of racing, it is the Pro Continental Teams who have arguably undergone the most significant change in 2005. Anthony Tan spoke with Navigators Insurance team manager Ed Beamon, whose team has felt the full force of the UCI's restructure of professional cycling.
In the space of a year, the gap between what used to be called Division I and Division II squads appears to have widened. This season, the 24 Pro Continental Teams received few opportunities to compete with those in cycling's major league, and when they did, it was hard to be competitive.
Of course, there were exceptions. Colombia-Selle Italia enjoyed their best season to date, winning the mountains and combativity classifications, a stage and a place on the final podium at the Giro d'Italia with flyweight Jose Rujano (the Venezuelan also finishing second at the Tour de Langkawi), as well as another two Giro stages courtesy of Colombian Ivan Parra. After next year's Tour of Italy, however, Rujano will join Quick.Step. Then there's Ag2R-Prévoyance, who have seemingly done enough to earn themselves a ProTour place in 2006; that said, they're probably the only Pro Continental Team with a budget capable of signing riders like Francisco Mancebo and Christophe Moreau without going broke.
Ed Beamon, team manager of Navigators Insurance, the only American-based Pro Continental Team, told Cyclingnews of his experience during the team's stay in Europe this year, centred around Belgium and Italy this spring. "I think it's tough for a Pro Continental team to show up to some of those events in the early spring and be competitive against ProTour teams," he said.
"Each of those teams has half a dozen guys whose whole season is based on those first three months and the smaller teams are basically trying to figure out how to their form through nine months of racing because they don't have 30 guys on their roster."
As a consequence, the time Navigators spent in Europe may have impacted on their ambitions elsewhere, rather than provide their riders with race-winning form. The Tour of Georgia, Wachovia week, Qinghai Lake and San Fran were all key events, yet the team's best result was Nathan O'Neill's eighth place overall at Georgia - a solid performance, but far away from making headlines. Bad luck also plagued one of the team's star riders: when climber Cesar Grajales was in a winning position at Qinghai Lake, a collision with a race motorbike ended his chances and left the team leaderless.
Despite the lack of results, Beamon isn't making any excuses. Instead, he's planned a few subtle changes that will hopefully make the difference between winning and... well, to avoid use of the 'L' word, not winning.
Splitting their European campaign into two, a more committed focus Stateside and recruiting some solid performers that include former U23 world champion Sergey Lagutin and talented Australian all-rounder Ben Brooks are all part of a strategy designed to create a better balance and maximise their chances of making the top step of the podium.
Cyclingnews: Firstly Ed, on a general level, how was the year for the team?
Ed Beamon: It was okay. Across the board, it was a little bit disappointing in terms of what our expectations were. We had some events and some periods we were really proud of, but there were a bunch of days where we felt we could of done a lot more and were below expectations.
CN: What were your expectations going into this year?
EB: We were really looking forward to having a good ride at the Tour of Georgia; it's a really big event here. It was an event dominated by ProTour teams and we had some great rides from a few of the guys and wound up with O'Neill finishing in eighth place, which is a laudable place - certainly better than any other domestic team could come close to.
We hoped to definitely have a better run in the Wachovia Series - Philadelphia, Lancaster, those races... that's the other really big week here and we really didn't do a good job there at all. I felt Langkawi was a good event for us and [it was] our first time doing it, and that was an event where wanted to make a little bit of a splash. Tour Down Under, the team was active and involved in the race, those were things we wanted to do.
In terms of the overall goal for the year, we really wanted to make a little bit more of a noise in the domestic events. We were always making the race happen, but sometimes coming up a little bit short on the victory.
CN: Was it a combination of bad luck, bad timing, or did the team not gel as well as well as you hoped for?
EB: I think it was a lot of bad luck. We had some terrible issues with Cesar Grajales, who is a phenomenal climber and a guy we had really focused for a few races, Langkawi being one and Qinghai Lake, I really believe he would of won that race had a motorcycle not put him in the hospital.
He was four minutes in front of [Ryan] Cox and Ghader Mizbani going into the climbing stuff, and on the first climbing day he got a puncture and a Shimano moto took him out after the wheel change and ended the race for him. He just had bad luck all year; every race we focused on, it was one problem after another.
So luck was one factor and I think we took a little bit of time getting used to one another. Once the season got going, in the more tactical races they functioned very well as a unit, but sometimes got a bit indecisive and came up a little bit short... a few races guys were finishing second, third and fourth, but not winning the race.
CN: How about your time spent in Europe? Do you feel like each year, you're learning a little more about how to best approach those series of races you do in the spring?
EB: Yeah, absolutely; in fact, next year, we're going to tailor it quite a bit differently than we have in the last couple of years. A little bit less time total in the spring, and also keep the riders a little bit fresher through that period that we're over there. And also try and focus on races we feel we can be a little bit more competitive in and not be reaching for too many events that are ProTour dominated.
CN: Does that mean taking the focus away from those spring classic-type races, then?
EB: Yeah... I mean, we probably won't get over there until early March anyways, so that takes off a bunch of those early classic-style races in February. And rather than keep pushing for the Gent-Wevelgems or the Het Volks, maybe try and concentrate a little more on the dot-ones and the HCs a little deeper into the calendar, where the weather's a little bit better and the guys are a little bit acclimated and up to speed, and the pure classics guys on the ProTour teams aren't going full gas.
I think it's tough for a Pro Continental team to show up to some of those events in the early spring and be competitive against those ProTour teams, where each of those teams has half a dozen guys whose whole season is based on those first three months and those smaller teams are basically trying to figure out how to their form through nine months of racing because they don't have 30 guys on their roster.
CN: So how long do you envisage spending with the team over in Europe next year?
EB: I imagine we'll have a presence over there from early March through mid-May, and I see us going back there late summer and try and take advantage of some of the races late August and definitely through September. We generally have guys doing the world championships and it would definitely be to their advantage to do high level racing as they approach the world championships, because about the only thing going on in America [at the time] are criteriums.
CN: Speaking about the domestic racing in America next year, how are you feeling about the Tour of California being so early in the calendar?
EB: I'm definitely excited about there being a Tour of California, yeah. It's a little bit daunting to imagine a race of that magnitude so early in the year domestically, but obviously for us, it's going to be an extremely important race. It's arguably one of the three or four biggest races in America, and it's at a time of year you're really not sure how strong the team is and which riders are at their strength. You complicate that by having half a dozen ProTour teams and potentially, a hostile environment; I mean, California is not the most climatically desirable place in the world February and March - it can be very wet and cold in the north[east]. But the timing of it, I'd probably be more excited if it was a May race, but we're definitely stoked to have a race of that quality and that calibre added to the calendar.
CN: Are you planning on coming to Australia again for the Tour Down Under?
EB: Yeah, definitely, and we'll probably have the Tour of California crew doing that race, so that will provide a good opportunity to get the guys firing.
CN: Have you planned out a series of other races you'd like to target? Georgia, Wachovia Week, Qinghai Lake and San Fran are obvious targets, I'd imagine?
EB: Yeah, largely... we're waiting on our actual national race calendar to be published [which is now available - ed.], but the one thing that will be a little bit different is our expectation to have one part of the team do a little bit more racing in the States in the spring also. In addition to the Tour of California, we'll also have some guys represented at places like Redlands and Sea Otter and some of the California race events that go on in March. But definitely, our big focus is going to have to be Tour of California and Tour of Georgia and Philadelphia.
CN: You've lost a few riders, you've gained a few for 2006. For example, Nathan O'Neill is off to Health Net, but you've signed another talented Aussie all-rounder in Ben Brooks; can you tell me a bit about the team changes next year?
EB: I'm really excited about Ben. He's a guy that every year we talk and its never worked out for one reason or another, but he's going to be a big plus; he's a really solid, confident guy in so many different areas, so I'm really hoping it's going to work out well.
Glen Chadwick [from Team Cyclingnews.com-Fondriest] is also going to be coming on, I'm excited about that, too; he's a guy that's going to bring some experience and a funny accent to the team... at least they'll be three guys that can talk to each other! [the other being Hilton Clarke - ed.] So we'll actually have three Aussies on our team for next year, which is a record for us.
We've lost a few Americans - Chris Baldwin, Kirk O'Bee and Jeff Louder have all gone on to other gigs - but we've picked up some interesting guys. Sergey Lagutin, 2003 U23 champ at Hamilton, is going to ride with us next year. [Oleg] Grishkine and [Vassili] Davidendo, [Siro] Camponogara, Mark Walters are all coming back; Burke Swindlehurst, who rode with us a few years ago is back on the squad, a super team guy and a really good guy in the mountains when he's on form, so he'll hopefully complement Grajales in the mountains.
CN: How's Cesar feeling about what happened this year - I guess he has to put what happened behind him and move forward?
EB: Yeah, that's exactly right. This year was a huge learning curve for him, because it's really the first time he's been exposed to international racing. It's something he's been dreaming about for a while, but as you know, the racing in Europe and other parts of the world is not the same as racing in your home country; certainly the European peloton is a heck of a lot different from the American peloton or the South American peloton.
So it was a learning experience there, learning how to balance the travel... and now, having done several races that he hoped to do, he knows what to expect at those events, and having a certain knowledge that last year was a great unknown is really going to help him in the off season. I know he's really stoked, because he knows some of his biggest disappointments this year were based on bad luck, and you can have only so much bad luck! (laughs)
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