Rock Racing team owner Michael Ball is a passionate and polarizing figure. The founder, CEO and head designer of the premium denim fashion line Rock & Republic rubs elbows with supermodels and rock stars, has made headlines for his legal battles with rivals in both business and romance, carpet-bombs conversations with the F-word, embraced heavily tattooed riders Kayle Leogrande and David Clinger, and has told his riders, “You either win or you’re fired.”
Ball has made clear his intentions of building his domestic squad into a Tour de France-caliber team, telling VeloNews earlier this year, “I want a yellow jersey on my wall.” And though he failed to sign Chris Horner and unsuccessfully tried to bring Mario Cipollini out of retirement for 2008, Ball did sign three-time U.S. national champ Freddie Rodriguez; Michael Creed, Doug Ollerenshaw and Cesar Grajales; and a pair of Colombian veterans, Victor Hugo Peña and 2002 world time trial champion Santiago Botero. Phonak benched Botero in 2006 amid allegations that he was involved in the Operación Puerto doping scandal, but he was later cleared by the Colombian federation and spent 2007 with the Colombian team UNE Orbitel.
I asked Ball for an interview after hearing rumors from several sources that Rock Racing’s Kayle Leogrande, the 2006 elite national criterium champion, had tested positive after the International Cycling Classic – also known as Superweek – where he won three events, finished second at three more and finished second overall by five points to winner Marco Rios of Kahala-LaGrange.
Ball agreed to speak with me, but when I asked to speak with Leogrande as well, he replied that neither team riders nor staff would speak with the media until 2008.
“I learned last year to control those guys,” he said. “There’s no more comments coming from the riders until the season starts. Everyone is on a hiatus, if you will, or you can call it lockdown.”
However, the man whom VeloNews has named “Most Controversial Team Manager” for 2007 (see our annual awards issue, due out December 17) was happy to discuss Leogrande, Botero and Horner, USADA and a sport that he says seems intent on “eating its young.”
Neal Rogers: First off, there have been quite a few people contacting me about rumors regarding Kayle Leogrande having tested positive at a race this year. What can you tell me about that?
MB: There are a lot of rumors about Kayle. I know Kayle. He has, and adores, his three children, and he’s a business owner, an entrepreneur [Leogrande runs Classic Tattoo Studio in Malibu]. I can’t imagine him putting himself at risk in that way. He’s a family man. He would never, ever, jeopardize that relationship with his kids. He’s a real down-to-earth guy. He’s actually coming out tonight to the Lakers game with his girlfriend, who I know very well, I know her family very well. And I wouldn’t have someone like that around me, frankly. There is someone out there that has a huge hard-on for that man and is looking to take him down, for whatever reason — maybe he doesn’t fit a certain image for that sport. We all know this is a pretty conservative sport, all in all. The likes of myself and my company have shaken up a lot of different folks. But for the most part we have really given this sport a shot in the arm and a kick in the ass, so I think it’s a positive thing. But as far as dope is concerned, I wouldn’t have someone like that around me.
NR: The specific rumor I’d heard is that there was a positive test from this year’s Superweek.
MB: Absolutely not. This is all horrible rumor. Kayle just received his “Congratulations, you are negative” letter from USADA. It’s just bullshit. Someone is out there trying to get him, and I will take it to the mat, dude, let me tell you. As I’ve said before, this sport is eating itself, they are eating their young. These rogue elements, if you will, within the USADAs and the WADAs, are absurd, and are killing this sport, for whatever reason. They might think in their warped sense of righteousness or crusading to save the sport, but they are killing it. I, for one, am an individual that refuses to allow that to happen. As far as Kayle is concerned, I will support him. The main sponsor, Rock & Republic and/or Rock Racing, which is the new brand, will support him, will not pull out of racing, will not throw him to the wolves. I wouldn’t do that to my rider, whether it is Kayle or a local rider who has done well and has the opportunity to do something very big. His numbers that have come back from testing are amazing. They are unbelievable.
NR: Kayle’s numbers?
MB: Yes, Kayle. We’ve had him tested by Max Testa and Max stepped out and said, “You have a Tour de France contender. At the very least this man can win a stage.” Okay? That’s significant, and maybe that is what this is about. Maybe people don’t like seeing someone that looks like Kayle, or another one of my riders, David Clinger. It’s a perfect exercise in prejudice when you look at someone like Kayle or Clinger. You look at Clinger and you create these ideas, and these prejudices. I’ll be honest with you, dude, it was shocking the first time I saw someone like Clinger, and it’s got to be shocking to see Kayle with full sleeves and legs. It must be shocking to those that are conservative and don’t get it and don’t want that in this sport. Some people, for some reason, their prejudices take them to a completely different level. And because they are in power, they think they can apply that power to an individual. Well I’m here to say no f—ing way. It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and I won’t stand for it. And for the most part, I believe Americans as a whole — you might have those naysayers, you might have those conservative f—s — but at the end of the day, what’s right is right, and Americans, the U.S. fans, know what’s right. When an organization comes in and flexes its muscle against an individual who doesn’t have the bankroll to defend himself, or go to some banana-republic arbitration where they have no right to defend themselves in the proper way — it’s he said, she said, in those arbitrations, and it’s unbelievable how much power they seem to want to wield against these riders. And it’s wrong. It’s Gestapo tactics, frankly.
NR: Are you speaking from personal experience, or more generally?
MB: Not personal experience, but certainly from stories of those that are in the peloton, have been in the peloton, nationally and internationally, who have expressed these things to me. For whatever reason that they’re not able to stand up, whether it’s for fear for their job, because they’ve got commitments and families… why there isn’t a union to protect these riders … as I’ve said before, at the end of the day, if you don’t have your athletes, if you don’t have your riders, you have nothing. You know what you have? You have a nice cruise along some country roads in France. Or you have the Solvang Century. If you don’t protect those riders, if you don’t support them, if you don’t have a union, for them to be policed from within, not from this outside organization, then you have nothing. So first things first, there needs to be some sort of a union. I know it’s been talked about in the past, but nobody’s stepped up. I am an individual that’s willing to step up for that. From the riders that I’ve talked to, riders past and present within the pro peloton, they are in agreement. It only takes one individual to be the catalyst, to be the lightning rod, if you will. I’m willing to take that shock, to change this sport in the right way. Enough is f—ing enough, man. The fact that T-Mobile pulled out is a tragedy. You look at these riders whose lives are destroyed. I mean, you think of some of the top guys, millions of dollars in contracts, right? Overnight, they are done, they can’t get a contract, they are suspended, whatever the case may be. How do they support their family, their lifestyle that they have become accustomed to? And what about those riders in the future who will never have the opportunity to have a multimillion-dollar contract based on their talent, just because of what is happening right now? It’s so short-sighted. It’s a tragedy, what is happening in this sport. There is not another sport in the world that eats its young the way cycling does. As you can see, I’m a passionate individual, but I’m very passionate about that, especially when I hear these things about Kayle. When you look at what happened with Puerto, and you look at [2007 Tour de France winner Alberto] Contador, he was involved in that, he’s still racing. Of course. Why? Because he is the son of f—ing Spanish nationals. Period. What, are they going to throw him to the wolves? No way. [Contador was cleared by both a Spanish judge and the UCI.—Editor] And what about all the soccer players? Why don’t we hear anything more about them any more? Because the league is a multibillion-dollar organization. That’s why. Unfortunately in cycling you can leverage your power against the sponsors because you know that they don’t want their bottom line to be affected by this bad press. And that’s one of the reasons T-Mobile is gone, I’m sure.
NR: You’re not really speaking to whether anyone is guilty or not. You’re saying Contador was “involved,” and that soccer players were “involved.”
MB: Look, at the end of the day, when you have organizations that are willing — or the government, if you will — getting involved in these individuals’ lives, that’s when I draw the line of whether they did or didn’t … [Establishing guilt or innocence] now is gone. It’s not even a question at this point. The question now is how can you even get to truth when you have an organization that’s holding these powers that has an agenda — that has created this witch-hunt? You can’t. It’s gone. All the legitimacy that may have been brought to the fight against cheating is now gone, it’s evaporated. There’s no legitimacy in it anymore. I have riders being threatened by USADA.* And USADA going against their own protocol and their own rules to try to fry somebody is absolutely wrong — no ifs, ands or buts, man.
NR: So there was no hesitation for you to bring Botero to the team even though he was implicated in Puerto?
MB: F— no. No way. There is nothing there, man. Nothing. Zero. The Colombian national federation has cleared him, there’s nothing else there. And there’s another tragedy right there, that’s another case of an amazing talent that has been spooked and run out of cycling.
NR: So what kind of role do you see Botero taking on the team? What sort of races will he be doing? Will he be the team’s main GC rider?
MB: Oh absolutely. Are you kidding me? [Laughs]
NR: Well, we all know he can time trial, but we also know that American racing is a lot different than ProTour racing.
MB: You know he can time trial, huh? Well, he’s won the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour de France, and he’s won a couple of stages. I think he’ll do just fine at the Tour of California, I don’t know about you [Laughs].
NR: I’m wondering more how he’ll do when he’s bumping elbows with scrappy crit racers at stage races with tricky criterium courses, like say the Redlands Classic.
MB: Well, I’ll tell you something — I’ve got some strong enforcers that will be surrounding his butt, guys who know what they are doing. I think we are going to be just fine. Botero has been living at altitude [in Colombia] for the last two years, and I’m not talking about 5000 feet like in Colorado, I’m talking about 8000 feet going up to 15,000 feet for training rides.
NR: How about losing Horner — a bit of a blow?
MB: No, not at all. I’ll be honest with you, I offered Horner three times as much as he is making right now, for a three-year deal. And he played us. He wanted to stay in Europe, and I don’t blame him, but he should have been honest about it. We never had any problems with any of the other riders, who are far more experienced and talented than he, being Botero and/or Peña … Horner’s never worn the [Tour’s yellow] jersey, he’s never won a [Tour] stage. So he’s great in the U.S.? Big deal. And the reason why Horner was important, Botero was always on the plate, and I wanted Horner to support Botero, that’s all. If you look at what the boss from Predictor-Lotto said about Horner recently, that is that, look, Horner could have never helped Cadel Evans win the Tour de France, not ever. But with Popovych, who they just hired, that’s different. That’s a different perspective. And Horner asked too much, he thinks too much of himself, frankly, so they had to let him go. They couldn’t give him what he wanted. He wasn’t worth it. And the truth of the matter is he pissed away an amazing deal. He’s with a team [Astana] that may get into the Tour de France. But there again holds the hypocrisy of the Tour de France, because they probably will get in there. Yet they have how many guys that are suspected? And the team was thrown out of last year’s Tour…
(After this interview with Ball was posted, Chris Horner contacted VeloNews.com to offer his view of how those negotiations proceeded. – Editor)
NR: Astana’s standing with the Tour organizers could be a big question mark for the 2007 season.
MB: It’s all politics. I’m sure they will get in. Come on, the reigning Tour de France champion? And that will be the nail that goes into that coffin of the Tour de France.
NR: What can you tell me about what happened with Mario Cipollini? I saw some reports on different Web sites, he was talking about riding with Rock Racing, that it was all a joke, or a misunderstanding.
MB: I really can’t speak to that, but let’s just put it this way — Cipollini will probably spend some nice sunny days in the U.S. next year. I think it’s really healthy for him. He’s a great guy, and whether he comes back and rides or races again is irrelevant. I met him, we hit it off, and no matter what he’s become a friend of mine. Whatever happens happens, that’s great. But that’s not for me to say, or for me to will. It’s just a matter of, he’s a great guy, period, and he’s great for the sport.
NR: Can you talk to me about Frankie Andreu’s role as a team director? In the times that I’ve spoken with him since he joined Rock Racing, I get the sense that his role as team director is not as hands-on as other team directors. It seems like you have a more prominent role in terms of rider selection, speaking for the team, and so on.
MB: Without a doubt. I’m 100 percent; I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t be putting in my time, my effort and my infrastructure into this without having a say. Anything I do in life, I touch. If I don’t touch it, at the end of the day, whose responsibility is it if it goes wrong? If it goes right, I will let other people take credit. But if it goes wrong, it ends right here. No one has the responsibility the way I do. And I live it, and I believe it.
NR: So how would you describe Frankie’s role on the team?
MB: He’s definitely the director sportif. He’s a significant part, but I don’t know what the traditional sportif is, I couldn’t tell you. But in terms of race strategy and that type of thing, he’s certainly part of it. But in terms of day-to-day business, you’re talking to the guy.
NR: What about rider selection?
MB: He’s got some input, but you’re talking to the guy.
NR: So he’s more there to be in the car, directing the race, providing on-the-road tactics, that type of thing?
* Asked to reply to Ball’s charge that he had riders “being threatened by USADA,” the agency’s chief operating officer, Travis Tygart, replied: “I am not familiar with the Rock Racing team, and I don’t know Michael Ball from Adam. I can assure you, our only purpose is to protect the rights of clean athletes and the integrity of sport. We have heard all of these types of outlandish attacks before, whether it’s Marion Jones or Floyd Landis accusing us or anyone else, it is simply not true. I can’t comment on any particular athlete, but I would think if someone is going to make these allegations about USADA they ought to pick up the phone and call us to address them and not just launch baseless attacks against us in the press.” — Editor