It’s mid-October and while the Tour of Lombardy is this weekend, the domestic racing season is over. It’s the time of year when battle-weary riders rest their tired legs, reconnect with family and friends, quit shaving their legs and maybe even put on a few pounds. It’s a time that’s supposed to be relaxing, a short counter-balance to a long and stressful race season that now runs from February’s Amgen Tour of California through September’s USA Crits finals in Las Vegas.
Health Net-Maxxis rider Kirk O’Bee has been spending time with his 5-year-old son Samuel, riding him to kindergarten and back on a new bike. Slipstream-Chipotle rider Peter Stetina has been sleeping late, reading and walking around downtown Boulder, Colorado. Kodak Gallery-Sierra Nevada’s Pete Lopinto is spending October managing his online cycling gear company and planning his wedding for later this month. Toyota-United’s Stefano Barberi has been working on his second love, his Mitsubishi Evolution. Navigators Insurance rider Matt Cooke has been watching movies and going out to eat.
All five have one very stressful situation in common — none have jobs lined up for 2008.
This off-season a larger-than-usual number of riders is far from relaxed. The withdrawal of sponsorship by American programs Discovery Channel, Navigators Insurance and Kodak Gallery-Sierra Nevada, combined with the replacement of half of Slipstream-Chipotle’s squad, has produced a team director’s market. Scores of established pros face unemployment come January, once their 2007 paychecks cease.
“You want to be relaxing, having a good time in the off season, but there is this constant mental stress,” Stetina said. “Negotiations take so long, you just have to be patient. It’s hard.”
None is without impressive results on his resume. O’Bee is the current USPRO national criterium champion. Cooke was 2006 elite national champion. Stetina was 2005 national junior road champion. Lopinto was the 2005 FIAC national criterium champion. Barberi took the King of the Mountains title at this year’s Mt. Hood Cycling Classic.
“If someone just had a little money they could put together a fantastic team that would be right there with everybody else,” said Frankie Andreu, director of the Rock Racing squad that is courting Chris Horner. “There is so much talent out there unsigned, and it’sa shame they may not have a spot to race.”
It’s not just domestic riders looking for jobs. Andreu said several riders from the ill-fated Unibet.com ProTour team have contacted him. Indeed, moments after winning the opening stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, Aussie Matt Wilson used the opportunity to send a message through the press. “If there are any directors out there,” Wilson said, “I need a job.”
While riders are out of jobs for differing reasons, the response they are hearing from team directors is usually similar — budgets are tapped out, or they are waiting to see what happens with other, higher-profile, higher-salaried riders. Some directors are hoping more sponsors will come on, bringing more money and therefore more room for additional riders. Some need young riders to stay within the UCI rule that requires a majority of riders on continental teams be under the age of 28; others are looking for experienced riders.
“It’s proving hard to find a job for next season because everyone wants the proven 30-year-olds instead for some 20-year-old up and comer,” Stetina said. “A lot of guys who are older and more proven are looking for a job, and team directors are looking for bigger names to get into bigger races like the Tour of California.”
However the UCI rule, which was implemented to promote development in the sport, works both ways — riders under 28 can market their age, however often don’t have pro-level results or the cachet to get a team into big races; riders over 28 often have the results and experience, but can throw off the team’s age ratio.
And while there are a handful of amateur programs rumored to be applying for 2008 professional status before USA Cycling’s October 30 deadline, Lopinto noted, “most of the rosters of these new teams are made up of half of the amateur guys from the existing team, so it necessarily doesn’t mean there’s a bunch of new spots.”
O’Bee: Plagued by the past
One might think a two-time national criterium champion with nine years of racing experience wouldn’t be struggling to find work, but that’s the case for O’Bee. When his Health Net-Maxxis team of two years scaled back its budget, the offer for 2008 left O’Bee — a 30-year-old veteran who demands a mid-range domestic salary — looking for a new contract.
O’Bee said he’s been told by more than one organization that his one-year doping suspension for an elevated testosterone/epitestosterone ratio has been a red flag for team directors. What O’Bee most regrets is a general perception that he admitted to doping.
“Although I agreed to a one-year suspension in 2002, I have always been a clean rider,” O’Bee said. “In 2002, I was a victim of a bad test and fuzzy science. However, because I faced an expensive battle that would last longer than the suspension itself, and because I had inadequate legal help and because I had a new son on the way, I decided just to stop fighting and serve a one-year suspension. I had no more money left. It didn’t look good at all and didn’t represent my case — it looks like I was admitting to doping, and in no way did I feel that way. Although that experience made me bitter, I served my time and fought back.”
O’Bee returned to racing in 2003 with Navigators Insurance. Upon switching to Health Net in 2006, he immediately won the early-season Tour of Taiwan, and in 2007 he took a pair of stages at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the Tour de Gastown and the stars-and-stripes criterium jersey in Downers Grove, Illinois.
“When I won, I was tested, and I was also tested out of competition, and each test came back clean,” O’Bee said.” They came back clean because I won clean. I want everyone in the sport to know that even though I agreed to a suspension in the past, I have always been clean. I don’t want my silence to be interpreted as indifference about the issue.”
Health Net team captain Tim Johnson, staunch in his opposition to doping, has nothing but praise for O’Bee.
“All of us wanted him back,” Johnson said. “The team just didn’t have the money. He’s such a great rider, and he had such a great second half of the season, but with all the teams folding, the market was becoming depressed at the time he went on the market.”
Stetina: Hoping to stay professional
While Slipstream’s big step up for 2008 has been seen as a boon for American cycling, particularly given the demise of the Discovery Channel program, the unfortunate byproduct is a handful of riders that now find themselves hitting the streets. That list includes 2006 national criterium champion Brad Huff, two-time national under-23 champion Ian Macgregor and Stetina, the 20-year-old son of 1980s cycling star Dale Stetina.
A 5-foot-11, 140-pound climber who excels in the high mountains and longer stage races, Stetina joined the Colorado-based 5280 developmental team when he was 15, jumped over to TIAA-CREF as an under-23 rider and made the cut when Jonathan Vaughters upped the team to continental professional for 2007.
Though Stetina admits he didn’t have “very good results” in 2006, it was largely because he spent his first elite season getting his bearings in Europe as one of the youngest riders in the pro peloton. But he did finish every European race he entered that year, including the UCI 2.1 Tour de l’Ain, where he was the youngest rider to survive the Alpine climbs and pace set by teams like Discovery Channel and Crédit Agricole. At season’s end, Stetina placed 15th out of a strong field at the USA Cycling national professional road championships in Greenville, South Carolina.
Stetina’s 2007 season was another spent adjusting to the rigors of European racing. Though he was the best young rider at the Tour de ‘Toona, where he placed 12th overall, and he finished with the front group of 65 riders at his first ProTour event, September’s GP Plouay, Stetina said he was “a little disappointed” this year.
“I was hoping for more,” Stetina said. “The team put me in more of a spring classics schedule, to learn how to race in Europe, which is important. I learned how to race, but those races didn’t really suit me. I’m normally more of a climber, more of a stage racer. Instead I was doing races like the Tour of Belgium, flatland races, with cobble sections, bouncing all over the place while 180-pound guys were flying past me.”
Stetina found out late in the game that he wouldn’t be part of Slipstream’s 2008 roster. He said that while he’d like to continue racing in Europe, he’d also like to sign with a domestic pro team for 2008 and try to ride at the front rather than just trying to finish.
“I’d like to get the mentality back for winning and racing for the win,” Stetina said, adding that he thinks his chances of signing with an American pro team might be hampered by his lack of results in the U.S., which consist only of Toona and 17th-place finish at the U23 nationals in July.
“I’m not really on the radar of a lot of team directors,” he said. “I sent out some resumes, but they see someone who was 10th at this criterium here versus me who got 40th at the Tour of Belgium, and they almost see 10th as better. I believe that the European racing is harder, it’s a select few, and the difference from 15th place to 70th place is within one percent of each other.”
Stetina added that trade rumors might have hurt his chances at getting a contract. A Velonews article, “Making Sense of the Silly Season,” cited Stetina as rumored to be riding for BMC in 2008.
Stetina acknowledged that he has had discussions with BMC, but said nothing has been inked with any team, and he worried team directors that saw the article might be under the false impression that he’d signed.
“Teams who I sent resumes to probably believe this to be true, and may have moved on,” Stetina said.
Stetina has one ace in the hole — Vaughters’ new under-23 team, called VMG-Felt, to be directed by Chann McRae. Vaughters said the team would consist of six or seven riders, depending on what Stetina decides to do.
“[The U23 team] is basically a place for riders to race in the U.S. when they’re not racing with the national team over in Europe,” Vaughters said. “But Peter wants to be on a pro team. It’s funny because the offer we gave him to be on the U23 team is a better offer than what our team was two or three years ago. In the long-term, I think Peter is sort of a slowly developing rider, but that means he will be a lot better three or four years from now than he is right now. I hope that some team decides to take him on as a rider, but if they don’t, he certainly has a place on our U23 team.”
A New Jersey native, Lopinto started 2007 as team captain at Kodak Gallery-Sierra Nevada, looking forward to building on a 2006 season that was cut short after a hand injury. Instead, Lopinto came down with the Epstein-Barr virus and missed the second half of the season, returning to racing at September’s Tour of Missouri, where he learned the team was folding at season’s end. With virtually no results for more than a year, Lopinto, a 27-year old sprinter with six years professional experience, now faces unemployment.
“I’ve been offering to work for little pay, below minimum wage, and I can’t even make that happen,” Lopinto said.
Lopinto said he’s holding out hope that his old Kodak directors will be able to put another program together. He added that if he doesn’t find a pro contract he’ll return to amateur racing and look to rack up some results. It’s a strategy that worked for Lopinto’s former Ofoto teammate Andy Bajadali, who spent 2005 riding for Colorado’s Vitamin Cottage squad before signing with Jelly Belly in 2006.
“I want to have a healthy, injury-free season to show what I’m capable of,” Lopinto said. “If it goes well, great, I’ll move on to a pro team. If not, then it might be time to retire, but I’m not ready to yet. I feel like there is too much I can do when I’m healthy. I still have the desire to race hard.”
After turning pro with TIAA-CREF in 2005, Barberi spent the past two seasons in a support role at Toyota-United. Looking for new opportunities to “grow as a rider,” Barberi is striking out on his own but striking out in his job search, due in part to the lack of results that comes with a support role.
“I knew from the beginning I would be support rider at Toyota” Barberi said. “When I first joined I was 21 and I was racing for guys like Chris Wherry and Chris Baldwin, guys who have won pretty much every race in the U.S. I don’t regret anything, I learned a lot, but it’s come to a time where I need to go somewhere else to improve as a rider.”
Barberi said he would be racing again next year somewhere; support from his family means he won’t go hungry in 2008.
“I don’t have to depend on cycling to make a living, there are other things I can do, but I do have support from family, so one way or another I will be racing a bike next year. I just don’t know where yet.”
After spending just one year as a professional Cooke, a 28-year-old with Navigators Insurance, is hoping his rookie season wasn’t his only shot in the big leagues. The former triathlete won the 2006 elite national title and landed a pro contract with Navigators, but with the 14-year program coming to an end, Cooke is now navigating the pro-contract waters without a compass.
Like Stetina, Cooke’s time riding the cobbles during Navigators’ European campaign didn’t suit the 130-pound rider, and it didn’t bring anything resembling results.
“I’ve got to be one of the lightest guys in U.S.,” Cooke said. “That European campaign was a little scarring. To be honest, I wasn’t really prepared for that. But as traumatizing as it was, it was a good thing I did it.”
Cooke’s best results came at the early-season San Dimas Stage Race, where he finished third overall. Since then, he’s ridden in a support role, his only hope for recognition that team directors at races he’s done have seen the effort he’s put forth.
“At stage 2 of the Tour of Britain I was riding out of my skull on the climbs,” Cooke said. “There were guys from CSC and T-Mobile there. Okay, maybe they weren’t their A squads, but I dropped them all and it was a cool feeling and I’ll take it. I just have to hope someone noticed. The absolute truth is that I haven’t won a race this year. That’s black and white, you can judge someone off that, but I like to think there’s a little more than just results.”
Like Lopinto, Cooke is hoping that his former employer, Navigators director Ed Beamon, puts something together for 2008. Cooke said he’s been calling a handful of other directors, and even bought his own ticket to Interbike to look for a job, but said it’s hard to discern between being persistent and being a nuisance.
“It helps you feel a little better when you know there are a bunch of guys in your situation, good riders that don’t have jobs,” Cooke said. “We are all making these phone calls, saying, ‘Come on man, take a chance on me.’ I’ve got four directors I call, always asking, ‘Do you have a job now?’ I sympathize with the team directors, trying to make that decision. But I don’t have animosity towards these directors, I know they are just making business decisions.”
Cooke said that after a taste of riding as a professional, he’s not ready to throw in the towel yet. Like Lopinto, he’ll race as an amateur next year if he has to in order to pursue the dream.
“There’s no way I am quitting,” Cooke said. “I’m not going out like that. I’ll race amateur next year and beat the pros, then maybe I’ll get a job. I’ll fund myself if I have to. I’m only on this earth once, I only have this physical strength right now and I’m going to go for it. My attitude is that if you really want to be a pro cyclist, the hell with that, get back out there and give it a good shot.”
Cooke and the rest of the domestic riders looking for jobs aren’t being unrealistic in holding out hope. Two new pro teams that are hiring include TeamType 1, headed up by former Saturn manager Tom Schuler, and the Canadian Team RACE (Race Against Cancer Everywhere), directed by Steve Bauer.
“I expect Schuler’s team will be well-funded,” Health Net’s Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he got some good guys off the market, pretty quickly.”
Team RACE is registering as a Canadian continental team for 2008. Bauer and Josee Larocque are taking over management of the young Canadian amateur squad, and are in the process of recruiting three more riders. The squad should be finalized by the end of October. The team’s roster is mainly composed of Canadians, however Bauer and Larocque are currently negotiating with two Americans to join the team.
“We would like to help as many riders as we can by joining our team, however we are at the growing stage and our budget is limited.” Larocque said. ““The arena of pro cycling is very difficult these days,” There are plenty of out of work riders who would agree.