News feature: January 30, 2007
The Toyota United Pro Cycling team stretched its legs in Thousand Oaks, California this week as seventeen riders and a team of directors, mechanics, support staff and sponsors gathered for a week of riding, meetings and equipment hand-outs.
After an inaugural season where Toyota United scored 55 first-placed victories (including two stages of the Tour of California) and ranked second in the NRC standings, the team is again stacked with talent for 2007. Along with most of the 2006 team, team captain Chris Wherry, USPRO Time Trial Champion Chris Baldwin and star sprinter Ivan Domingiez are all back for 2007.
New to the team is an interesting mix of veteran and promising up-and-coming domestic and international talent. A former pro with the Mercury racing team, Henk Vogels returns to the country where he "did the best racing of my life." Vogels is joined by Irish National and World Junior road-race champion Mark Scanlon, Utah-based climber Burke Swindlehurst and Aussie Caleb Manion.
Managed by former USPRO Criterium and Dutch National road-racing champion Harm Jansen and former pro Kirt Willet (who fills the spot vacated when the team parted ways with Frankie Andreau in 2006), the team is the middle of a ten-day stint in Thousand Oaks, California. "So far the feedback on the guys has been excellent," said team owner Sean Tucker, a California business entrepreneur who raced professionally in Belgium for three years in the mid nineties. "We took it easy the first couple of days because the guys were getting over their travel (some from as far away as Australia) but it will be a hard camp. We'll see who has form and where they stand."
Although 2006 team headliner JJ Haedo moved on to the European peloton (scoring a spot on Bjarne Riis' CSC squad), the core of Toyota United remains the same for 2007. The additions, say Wherry, serve to make that core more versatile. "We had a good team (last year) but I feel like we got stronger with the four new riders," he said. "With Henk, Mark, Caleb and Burke, we refined this machine a little bit. We sharpened it up."
"The signing of Henk Vogels was a huge acquisition for us," Tucker said. "He's an imposing figure. We felt like we needed an enforcer-type captain. We think Henk will make sure that the guys know that we will stick to the plan or that heads will roll."
Vogels, who has already moved his wife and three young children to Boulder, Colorado, says he's fit for the role. "My career in Europe was awesome, but I've been looking forward to coming back here. I just love racing in the States. When I was here before, I did the best racing of my life."
Besides leadership within the team, Tucker Vogels says he brings the kind of experience he hopes will lead to more Toyota United victories in America's notoriously argy-bargy sprint finishes. "As the lead-out man for Robbie McEwen (in Europe during the last two seasons), we won six stages of the Giro" Vogels said. "I'm going to take that experience into the lead-out for Ivan (Dominguez); who I think is the fastest guy in America on paper."
Scanlon brings speed up front as well. "Mark was the junior World Road Champion a few years back and two-time Irish National champion," Tucker said. "He's been on a ProTour team the past couple of years; Ag2r. He's been in two Tours de France. He was in the Tour with Ag2r when Nazon won, I think, two stages; Mark was his lead-out guy. He's very quick."
Tucker says the strategy of putting guys capable of winning sprints in the lead out for Dominguez gives them a triple chance of winning any race that ends up in a sprint.
Wherry says the addition of Swindlehurst gives the team multiple threats in stage races as well. "Burke and I started racing with each other when we were fourteen or fifteen years old. He's going to be super helpful on the climbing stages. And Caleb is dangerous anywhere; he's a tiny little guy and can go up over the climbs but he's placed well in field sprints at the Tour de Georgia."
Perpetuating a new business model
Beyond adding to the competitive dynamic of American racing, Tucker made another impact on the sport with the way he organized the business structure of his team. In a sport filled with well-intentioned teams hanging by the thread of the support of a single primary sponsors, Tucker says he approached the sport with a business mindset first and a passion for racing second. "It began as an idea to address financial sustainability," he said about the unique ways he's trying to finance the team. "We wanted an alternative to the current model where X, Y and Z team is supported by a company and when that company decides that they're done with that team, the team is done."
Tucker says he saw how other sports weathered the volatility of sponsor dependence. "You look at baseball, football and most other sports; the fans support the sport," he says. "Whether its gate revenue, merchandise sales or TV revenue - it all starts with the fans. In cycling, we have the most die-hard fans of any sport but there's no gate; it's free to watch racing. I was trying to figure out a way to give the fans a platform to be part of the team, to contribute."
That contribution comes in the form of a fan membership. Fans get access to content on the team's Web site, newsletters and schwag. The team gets a direct line of communication to a demographic desirable to marketers; a currency the team can use when looking for the support of industry sponsors.
In another innovative move, Tucker also decided to sell bikes under the team's brand name rather than simply ride a traditional bike-company's product. In its first incarnation, those sales (of an Easton-built road bike) were made through the team's Web site. Since sales in 2006 weren't where Tucker thought they could be, he brought in a bike-company partner to produce and sell a United brand bike in 2007. "We really needed distribution," he said. "It was something we lacked last year. Fuji (the partner) has dealers all over the world."
The United Team Issue bike is based on Fuji's Carbon C7 frame and is equipped with Shimano, Easton and Bontrager parts. The team's climbers will ride Fuji's slightly lighter SL-1 frames. Tucker says there are also plans to extend the United brand name to a mid-level range of bikes; including a mountain-bike. The team also sells merchandise at the expos at many of the races they attend.
Is all this alternative thinking making a difference? With a huge touring coach and small fleet of Toyota hybrid vehicles, the team definitely establishes a presence at races. "It's cool to have people come up to us and know who we are," Wherry said. "Sean has definitely taken a business model that seems broken and turned it around. Sean really wants the United Team brand to be around for a long time."
The 2007 race plan
As for the racing side of the business (which Tucker says he leaves completely to Jansen and his team), Tucker says his goals are strictly domestic - there are no plans to take Toyota-United abroad. "Our goal is to be the best team in America. Just like in the days of 7-11 or the Coors Light team, we want to be known as the best team in American cycling. Until the world tells me that the team is, in fact and bar-none, the best team in America, we're not looking to (race in Europe)."
"There are a few races in the world I'd still love to do in my career," Wherry said in support of the team's plan, "but American racing is super healthy and super competitive. We have a great setup here; good racing, good prize money. There are more teams and more jobs here than ever. A lot of the European teams come here to race, so why go there?"
How exactly does Tucker quantify this goal? "Simple," he says. "We want to be the number one team on the general classification for the NRC and the US Pro Tour calendars. Our goal is to be the best and the only way to do that is to win both."
Vogels says that based on his first few days at camp, his new team is up to the task. "The guys are fantastic already. You can tell they feel very at home with themselves. They're all pretty easy-going guys; everyone's piss-farting around already. And if the riders are cool with each other, everything else just sort of happens."
For 2007, the team is once again sponsored by Toyota Motor Sales USA (who are providing team cars featuring Toyota's hybrid Synergy drive engines), along with supporting sponsorship from Bicycling Magazine, Bontrager, Champion System, Fuji Bicycles, Shimano, SockGuy, and Tifosi Optics. The team also received significant support from its 13,000 'members.'
The full roster is: Chris Wherry (USA), Henk Vogels (Aus), Chris Baldwin (USA), Ivan Dominguez (Cub), Mark Scanlon (Irl), Burke Swindlehurst (USA), Bobby Lea (USA), Ivan Stevic (Scg), Justin England (USA), Heath Blackgrove (NZl), Jose Manuel Garcia (Mex), Caleb Manion (Aus), Sean Sullivan (Aus), Stefano Barberi (Bra), Walker Furguson (USA), Ryan Miller (USA), Nate Mitchell (USA).
See the full roster in the Cyclingnews teams database