Ball, Birrell debate Georgia snub

The past week has been one Rock Racing’s Michael Ball would likely rather forget. On Tuesday the team owner and Italian star Mario Cipollini announced that they had parted ways, and on Thursday Tour de Georgia organizers Medalist Sports announced that Rock was not among the 15 teams invited to compete this year.

By Neal Rogers

Rock Racing's Michael Ball describes as "weak" the Tour de Georgia's decision to exclude his team from the race.

Rock Racing’s Michael Ball describes as “weak” the Tour de Georgia’s decision to exclude his team from the race.

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The past week has been one Rock Racing’s Michael Ball would likely rather forget. On Tuesday the team owner and Italian star Mario Cipollini announced that they had parted ways, and on Thursday Tour de Georgia organizers Medalist Sports announced that Rock was not among the 15 teams invited to compete this year.

VeloNews spoke with both Ball and Medalist managing partner Jim Birrell late Thursday about the decision not to invite Rock Racing to Georgia and what relationship the two organizations might have in future. (Medalist Sports is contracted to organize statewide UCI stage races in California, Georgia, Colorado and Missouri.)

Rock Racing is, on paper, arguably the strongest domestic stage-racing team. Even without Cipollini, key acquisitions include Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla, Tyler Hamilton, Freddie Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Peña — all of whom have either won a stage or worn the leader’s jersey in one of the three grand tours.

But Hamilton, Sevilla and Botero were barred from starting the Amgen Tour of California after allegations that they were linked to the Spanish doping inquiry dubbed Operación Puerto.

Birrell told VeloNews that the issue “had nothing to do” with Rock’s exclusion from Georgia. Nevertheless, Ball told VeloNews that he had been under the impression the team would be invited to the race after he and Birrell had breakfast together in Los Angeles Tuesday morning. Ball said he found out otherwise through a Web story about the race’s invitees, and didn’t hear from Birrell via email until “hours later.” The official explanation pertained to “logistics.”

Medalist's Jim Birrell says it's tough to decide who rides and who doesn't.

Medalist’s Jim Birrell says it’s tough to decide who rides and who doesn’t.

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“There are a finite number of slots we’re interested in filling, and it’s hard, there are too many qualified teams to extend invites to, and not enough slots,” Birrell told VeloNews, adding that Cipollini’s departure didn’t advance Rock’s cause.

“Certainly Cipollini was an attractive piece of the package,” he said.

“That’s a weak excuse,” Ball said. “Cipollini was part of Rock, but it was all about Rock. For Medalist to say that speaks to just how weak their decision is.”

Asked why Rock was overlooked and the less-powerful Jittery Joe’s team invited, Birrell explained that the Athens, Georgia-based Jittery Joe’s has been at the Tour de Georgia since its inception, is a well-known and well-liked hometown team, and is “always going to be an automatic” invitee.

Birrell added that the two toughest parts of Medalist’s role as race organizer are “telling local organizing committees that we can’t return because we need to change the course, and telling a team they might have all the ingredients to be successful at the Tour de Georgia but they can’t make it in.”

Is it a question of substance or style?

Prior to the Amgen Tour of California Ball very publicly came to loggerheads with AEG Sports president Andrew Messick over the decision to keep his riders from starting the race, based on the UCI’s definition of what constitutes an “open doping investigation.”

At the conclusion of the Amgen tour Birrell made it clear he felt that Ball’s public struggle with AEG, combined with the team’s traveling entourage — including four podium-girl models, a four-person PR firm, fashion photographers, a dozen-man film crew shooting a documentary and Ball’s driver/bodyguard — had overshadowed the race.

“I like all the riders he has on his team — it’s just that renegade approach and his desire to steal the limelight away from the platform that has been created for everybody else is what troubles me,” Birrell told VeloNews in California. “Right now, for Georgia, Colorado and Missouri, I just don’t know if there is a fit for that team at those stage races. We still haven’t finalized those rosters, but I don’t know if they are under consideration or not.”

Asked whether Ball’s conduct at the Tour of California might have played a role in the Georgia decision, Birrell replied, “Their performance at the Amgen Tour of California did not resonate well, but since then they have taken steps in the right direction to get rid of what caused those issues.”

More changes afoot?

What the team has gotten rid of other than Cipollini is unclear. Earlier this week Ball fired Mitch Sebolsky, a marketing director at Rock & Republic who had been brought over to manage the cycling brand. Sebolsky declined to discuss his departure, saying, “I’ve moved on.”

But Ball dismissed rumors that manager Haldene Morris and Mariano Friedick, who directed Rock in California, were also on their way out.

“Mariano is not going anywhere,” he said. “Why would I get rid of him? Haldene is still here — everyone is still here. It’s funny, you don’t hear people talking about who is leaving other cycling teams. We’re in a hypersensitive position, and people are talking about us.”

One rumor Ball did confirm was that he has been negotiating with recently retired Axel Merckx, son of the legendary Eddy Merckx, to direct Rock Racing, which has been without an experienced director since Frankie Andreu left in early January.

“With Axel there is some real synergy there,” said Ball, adding that no agreement has been reached. “He obviously comes from a great background, he’s a great guy, he brings something relevant to our program, and he can help shape it for the future. I need that perspective.

“Axel is a straight shooter, very ethical, very direct. He pulls no punches. When we spoke he told it to me like it is, and I appreciate that. I think there are some real positive things he can bring to the team. To have that last name associated with the team would be huge, and he certainly reflects the greatness of that name.”

Birrell agreed that hiring Merckx as a director would bring instant credibility to Rock Racing, as does the team’s recent decision to hire Scott Analytics, an independent third-party anti-doping agency.

“Those are all the right strides to be a good team in the U.S.,” Birrell said, adding that if the team performs well at other races in 2008, and were to leave its entourage at home, “they’ll be considered in the future.”

In the meantime, all the chatter would seem to prove that Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote in the preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“My brand is doing well,” Ball said. “The Rock Racing Web site got 6.8 million hits that week, and 700,000 people signed up to be part of Rock Racing.

“I knew that [cycling] was a market that needed this. It’s playing out like I knew it would. It will all shake out. We just want to race. I believe the fans want us to race. Sure there are naysayers, people who will take a position on the way we do things, but we just want to race, to promote the brand and turn this into something special.”

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