Denk and Heppner leading Team NetApp step by step up the ladder

Ralph Denk, the general manager of Team NetApp, started out on the road and made a very successful detour to mountain biking before returning to the road with Germany's only Professional Continental team. He is shepherding the team along, with the hopes of one day in the not-too-distant future of receiving ProTeam ranking.

Denk, 37, rode at the elite level, but stopped at age 23, "when I realized that I wasn't good enough to go further," he told Cyclingnews. In 2000, he created his first team, over on the mountain biking side of things.

It started as the Ralph Denk Cycling Team, an amateur group, but it grew into the Giant Racing Team, one of the best. It led the world rankings for 23 months in 2005-2006, won the overall World Cup, took second and third places in the world championships, then lost its sponsor.

Denk, who had never raced on a mountain bike, returned to the road. "I have always loved road racing. Founding a mountain bike team was pretty much coincidence."

His first road team, in 2007, was an U-19 team, "which we still have. It is our own developmental team, and Michael Schwarzmann, now with NetApp, came from there."

In 2010 he joined forces with former pro Jens Heppner and brought out Team NetApp as a Continental team. From the very beginning, the two had the idea of a base in Belgium as an important part of the team.

During his own active career, Heppner had seen the importance of location, not only for training but also for the ease of transportation. Traveling for several hours before even reaching an airport made racing difficult "and I would never have been so successful in my career if I had stayed in my hometown of Gera, Germany," he told Cyclingnews. He made his new home in Kelmis, Belgium, right across the border from Aachen, Germany.

But the team base in Belgium offers more than a good location. "For a team to really function, the riders must be not just teammates but also friends," Denk said. At the team house in Kelmis, they get to really know one another.

"It's important that they all learn to work together, not just as a team but as friends," Heppner said. "It makes a big difference in races."

The team moved up a notch in 2011, to Professional Continental status, and hopes to keep moving up the ladder. Both Heppner and Denk are cautious, though, about how quickly that might happen. Denk is already in negotiations with the sponsor to extend the contract through 2014.

He has the advantage of an international sponsor, who happens to be based in California. "It is really just coincidence that we have a German licence. Our sponsor is international, as it our team."

However, with the sponsor being based in Sunnydale, California, the Amgen Tour of California is a major - if the not the - highlight of the year for the team. It is also a primary reason that the team signed California native Steven Cozza this season.

To move up to the ProTeam level the team knows that it will have to sign more riders who can bring the necessary UCI points. Denk wants to keep as much of the present team as possible, though.

"Our goal this year is to offer attractive cycling and to help our riders continue to develop. In our situation we don't say that we will bring in 10 wins or 20 wins this season."

But as Heppner pointed out, "We won't predict that we will win 10 races, but we sure would like to win them!"

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