News feature, October 20, 2006.
The T-Mobile women's team has geared up its rider roster and changed its management in view of the 2007 season, the second year of its existence on European racing territory. The magenta girls gathered for a first meet-and-greet at the shores of beautiful Lake Lugano in Switzerland last week, and the get-together wasn't only intended for bike fittings and photo shoots, as Hedwig Kröner found out.
"Don't you get used to it, it's surely not going to be like this all year round!," joked the new team manager Kristy Scrymgeour as many expressed their positive surprise at the luxury of the four-star hotel 'Villa Sassa' in central Lugano - where T-Mobile held their team meeting event. While high-class accommodation has become more of a standard within the men's peloton - especially at the German squad sponsored by the mobile telephony giant - the women surely still seem powered by their passion for cycling rather than a fancy life style and big pay rolls. But they are part of the T-Mobile family, and therefore backed by one of the most important sponsors in cycling, which got them well-deserved special incentives.
Bob Stapleton, the team's founder in the U.S. and manager during the 2006 season, will be taking over the - much more famous - men's ProTour team next year, which is also in profound reformation. Taking his place within the women's team will be Kristy Scrymgeour, a former cyclist herself, who leaves her position as an advertising manager for Cyclingnews to join the team.
Last season's directeur sportif Andrzej Bek will be replaced by Australian Anna Wilson, a former world ranked number one road rider. A new coach has also been appointed in Petra Rossner, who can look back on an extremely successful career as a pro cyclist herself.
The new roster for next season is - to say the least - a promising one. With three riders staying on from this year (Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Judith Arndt and Kim Anderson), the squad of eleven counts eight newcomers from six nations: Kate Bates, Chantal Beltman, Suzanne de Goede, Emilia Fahlin, Alex Rhodes, Linda Melanie Villumsen, Anke Wichmann and, last but not least, 2004 and 2005 World Cup winner Oenone Wood.
The overall feel of the loose get-together in Lugano was rather familiar: with 'only' eleven riders, the women's team of T-Mobile is a much smaller group than its male ProTour counterpart with a rider count that reaches 28. With the female peloton being much smaller in general, many of the newcomers already knew each other from previous teams and racing events: Oenone Wood, Kate Bates and Anke Wichmann were teammates already at Equipe Nürnberger this year, and will now be once again under the guidance of former Nürnberger directeur sportif Petra Rossner, who will act as coach at T-Mobile. She will thereby re-join Judith Arndt, who changed to the magenta team at the end of 2005.
Dutch girls Chantal Beltman and Suzanne de Goede, although from different teams, naturally know each other, as well as the large Australian contingent of the team. Emilia Fahlin, a 17 year-old Swede coming straight from a local club, was the only one feeling slightly intimidated as the other team members hit it off right away - but "she'll get over it" as Ina-Yoko Teutenberg said, by far the most extroverted character within the new roster.
But enjoying the comfortable hotel was not the management's only intention for the season's end meeting, scheduled just before the Australian members of the team flew back Down Under. A surprise day 'out in the woods' awaited the group on Wednesday, October 11, and when the girls got into the bus, nobody knew where the trip would lead to. Finally, after half an hour's drive, 15 kilometres North of Lugano towards Lago Maggiore, the shock set in for Anke Wichmann: "What? We're going up there?" she asked when the bus stopped at the foot of a cable car lift in Rivera. Being afraid of heights, Wichmann really tested herself that day.
Halfway up the Alpe Foppa on Monte Tamaro, the team exited the gondola on Piano di Mora (1150 metres), where an adventure park awaited them. The park consisted of an acrobatic course through the forest canopy along a series of cables and rope bridges between wooden platforms built into the beech trees, as high as up to 12 metres above the ground. Just the right thing for Wichmann! As the team got into their gear (seat harness, two carabiners, pulley and helmet), a queasy feeling creeped up on everybody, merrily dissimulated by chatting away the most as possible...
Starting out with the 'Green course', barely one metre above the ground, one could get accustomed to balancing on a single cable between two platforms while holding on to another, walking a loose rope ladder or installing the pulley on a cable to jump and sail through the air on what is apparently called a 'Tyrolean Traverse' - at the end of which one was caught in a cargo net, just like a fish. Feeling slightly silly, the team was eager to get on to the real thing, but as they climbed up a fixed ladder for the next, much higher 'Blue' trail, different reactions abounded - not looking down started to become essential.
One-by-one, the tarmac loving cyclists were exposed to acrobatic balancing acts on steel cables, rope ladders and wobbly wooden bridges. While the riders were constantly secured to the uppermost cable with two resistant carabiners, their knees still started to get slightly shaky. The nerves weren't helped when Kim Anderson forgot about earlier instructions and put carabiners on a Tyrolean section - where a pulley had to be used. There she hung - instead of flying - unable to move until Anderson realised she had to dangle back to the platform by moving along the steel cable with her bare hands.
But the girls cheered each other on from section to section as the afternoon went by. "It's really interesting to see how the girls react to this situation," said the team's new coach, Petra Rossner. "Some of them need to express their thoughts and feeling a lot, while others concentrate without talking. You can see each of the girls' characters come out: some wait for the next on the platform, some continue straight on...It's very constructive for me to see their characters mingle this way. Just look at Wichmann - yesterday she wouldn't even take the cable car and actually walked down from 1600 metres, today she's up there in the trees! This is going to be a perfect example throughout the season to make the girls see what's actually possible if you only try."
Overcoming initial fear and gaining confidence in one's abilities were just two of the team building event's outcome. Learning how others reacted to the challenge also made the women understand more about themselves. "I liked to go second, because that's always easier," said Oenone Wood. "At least you've got an example of what to do." On the other hand, being the last in the group wasn't that a good idea, as more teammates then watched from the ground, which could increase mental pressure. Just like in cycling?
"It was a perfect opportunity to see how the new riders would react to certain stress situations," continued Rossner. "I think there are correlations to high pressure situations in cycling, when you are motivated to reach a defined goal. It's also interesting to see how you get on about a challenge which, at first, seems impossible to you."
According to Scrymgeour, the new team manager, one of the most important criteria in the selection process of the team was personality. "We looked for riders who would fit together and support each other in every situation," she said. "I think that every one of the riders can win races in their own right, but if you put them together, they also have to be able to work as a whole. Look at what Judith did: In the year after she'd won the World's, she didn't win a lot of races at all because she helped others win them. That year, Oenone won the World Cup. So that's what we looked at, personality and character - as well as ability."
But Wood almost left cycling this season. After Amy Gillet, a very close friend of Wood, died in the terrible accident in Thüringen, the electronic engineer had thought about quitting cycling altogether. "I found it very difficult to motivate myself again to race after that," the Australian said. "Also, I had spent two years with Nürnberger and I felt it was time to move on to a new opportunity." T-Mobile, who also took on Wood's husband to become the team's masseur, "is going to be a fantastic team and it will provide a great challenge to improve myself as a rider," Wood added. "I think for a team to work well, everyone needs to have a lot of trust and respect for each other. It certainly helps if you're having fun, too! I think the adventure park was a great way to be introduced to new teammates. You can see pretty quickly how different people respond to challenges and what roles people naturally take."
Almost all of the team made it through the entire park, including the 'Black course extreme', end everybody was feeling quite satisfied with themselves at the end of the day. "I'm very much looking forward to my new job as directeur sportif," said Anna Wilson. "It's going to be quite different from being a rider! But I think our choice of riders is quite harmonious. The first girl we hired was Oenone, then we gradually selected the rest of the roster. I think we will be one of the strongest teams in the peloton next year."
Six nations are represented in the 2007 T-Mobile women's squad, and specialists for every aspect of road cycling were found. The addition of Wood, Villumsen and the two Dutch girls De Goede and Beltman will make the roster more versatile for classic one-day races and small tours. "Our first priority will be the one-day events on the World Cup calendar," said Scrymgeour about the goals set for the coming season. "We've got great talent in the team, so many riders who can win different types of races on different courses, we don't really want to limit our tactics to working for just one athlete, however we do have riders on the team who are capable of winning the series overall so we will just have to play it by ear."
After the European off-season, the team will gather again on Mallorca in January for the team's official launch - traditionally held in the 'Robinson Club' in Cala Serena. It will be another short immersion in a luxurious hotel, before the harder part of women's cycling starts again!
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