Teams Strive To Groom Tomorrow's Cycling Stars

June 19, 2008 10:20:08 AM PDT
Frankie Andreu can only chuckle when asked about his own transition out of cycling's junior racing ranks and up to the senior level. The one-time Lance Armstrong lieutenant who started the Tour de France nine times says that back in his day the law of the jungle ruled. "It was survival of the fittest. We didn't have anything like [the Tour of Pennsylvania]," recalled Andreu, who will direct the California-based ZteaM at the 420-mile, under-25 stage race that starts June 24 in Philadelphia and finishes six days later on June 29 in Pittsburgh. "After I graduated from juniors, I was always going up against the big boys. I got my tail handed to me every single race because once you turned 18 and became a category 1 racer, you were competing against adults with way more experience than you. That's why this race has really set itself apart. I think it has a lot of importance for these young riders. It can open a lot of doors. If you do well here, you can get noticed and make that next step."

Indeed, from a development standpoint, you can't overstate the importance of the American Eagle Outfitters ® Tour of Pennsylvania Presented By Highmark Healthy High 5®. Similar to Division I collegiate athletics or minor league baseball, the under-25 stage race gives promising riders a chance to compete against their peers - and not dive immediately into the deep end.

"I think if you're the most talented guy coming out of the junior ranks, then you are going to be able to make the transition okay," explained Jonas Carney, a former pro who now directs the Kelly Benefit Strategies-Medifast team, one of 18 six-man squads slated to start the Tour of Pennsylvania. "But some guys don't develop as quickly. They need some races where they can be competitive and learn how to win, as opposed to just learning how to survive. I think you really develop some bad habits if you are always in way over your head. That's why this race is such a great opportunity for these kids. They can come out and race and not be expected to go up against eight Toyota-United pros or a bunch of ProTour guys like you had at the Philly week races."

This need for a middle ground has also launched a slew of development-minded programs. In fact, almost all the teams that will compete at the Pennsylvania tour place some - if not all - of their focus on grooming young riders for professional careers. A prime example is the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Time Pro Cycling team, whose No. 1 goal is educating the sport's future stars.

"The concept of the team is to create an environment and structure where young riders can have the opportunity to learn by doing," said Time team director Erik Saunders. "I mean if you look at your average high school basketball player, he probably knows more about basketball than any cat. 1 cyclist. That's a sad situation. We are trying to help change that because we felt that there was big hole in the development side of pro cycling. That's why we set up our team to be a trade school for cyclists."

The California Giant Berry Farms-Specialized team boasts a similar mission statement. The Watsonville-based squad is made up exclusively of riders that have come up through its club ranks, learning from the team's elite members all along the way.

"We've got people on our elite team who are ages 19 to 42," explained team director Anthony Gallino. "And all those people help mentor our young guys, teaching them what it takes to get to the next level. We try to get to them before they discover girls and beer and cars, and instill the kind of dedication that it takes to advance through this sport. Because we all know that's not an easy thing to do."

No doubt in these days of sponsorship contraction and reduced team budgets, getting noticed has become much harder. There are fewer pro team roster spots than in years past, making opportunity tougher to come by.

"I think this race is very important for the guys in terms of their future careers," affirmed John Robertson, team director of the South Africa-based Konica Minolta Continental Cycling Team, one of seven international teams competing at the Tour of Pennsylvania. "It's a major race that will get major attention within the sport. They'll have a real chance to get good results, and that in turn will help them get bigger contracts."

The Tour even became the driving force behind the formation of the PA Lightning, a brand new development team out of the host state, Pennsylvania. With mostly young home grown riders, all with international experience, the squad hopes that a good showing in their home race will lead to support by Pennsylvania-based companies for national and international competition. The concept was embraced by Pittsburgh-based Seagate who is sponsoring the PA Lightning in the race across the state.

"A race like this is perfect for showcasing the cycling talent coming out of Pennsylvania", said John Gill who is sponsor liaison for the team. "When a company like Seagate steps up to help a young, determined team, it becomes a rallying point for employees that can be extended to their business units around the globe."

Plus the record $150,000 prize purse on the line at the Tour of Pennsylvania makes this the richest Espoir race in the world, something that ensures credibility and international prestige.

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