By Neal Rogers

Bahati on the top of the U.S. professional criterium podium last year.

Bahati on the top of the U.S. professional criterium podium last year.

Photo: Action Images

When national criterium champion Rahsaan Bahati rolls up to the start line of the June 28 Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, he will do so once again as a professional cyclist.

Bahati, a two-time winner and the defending champion at Manhattan Beach, signed a pro contract with Rock Racing, the team he has ridden with since 2007, he told VeloNews Friday.

The winner of the national criterium championship last August, Bahati was one of several professionals bumped to Rock’s amateur team during the off-season as the squad’s line-up overflowed in the face of UCI developmental rules, while financial difficulties prevented the team from fulfilling contracts.

All riders downgraded to amateur status were not allowed to compete at UCI-sanctioned events, or national championships, as they were not members of a USA Cycling-registered professional team. Those riders could still compete at USA Cycling-sanctioned pro/am events, such as races on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar.

Racing as an amateur, the Carson, California-based Bahati — he lives two miles away from the Home Depot Center Velodrome — has won several races this year, including the Dana Point Grand Prix and the Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic Criterium. And even though he still received a paycheck as an amateur, criterium results aren’t what he was looking for from his 2009 season.

“I was making the same salary, that never changed from when I was a pro,” Bahati said. “The main reason it was disappointing to be moved to the amateur team is because I’ve expressed that I want to race full-on for the next five or six years, and I’m only getting older and older. I’m trying to make it to a bigger stage. I wanted to go to Europe (with Rock Racing’s “A” squad). That opportunity was taken away from me.

“I know the year is only half over, but frankly I felt I’d wasted my talent this year. Everyone knows I can win criteriums. I am trying to get out of that state of mind. I went to training camp with a new attitude, and I was climbing better than I ever have, and I thought I had chance to make the Tour of California team. To have that taken away was a disappointment. In a way, I was insulted. I won the biggest races for our team last year. If you take away my victories, the team wouldn’t have a whole lot else to show for itself.”

Two other former professionals relegated to Rock’s amateur team and later fired, Chris Baldwin and Mike Creed, went on to sign contracts with pro teams; Baldwin with OUCH-Maxxis and Creed with Team Type 1.

Bahati admitted that his relationship with Rock team owner, fashion designer Michael Ball, has been somewhat contentious over the years. Ball famously told Bahati he needed to deliver wins or face unemployment in 2007 and Bahati has been openly critical of his amateur status. But Bahati said that that since the two came together in late 2006, when he helped Ball launch the team, their relationship has grown to leave room for bilateral criticism.

“From the start I think Michael took a liking to me,” Bahati said. “We shared a few common things. And I feel our relationship was always stable enough that I can be brutally honest with him, and he can be brutally honest with me, and we still respect each other. We may have had some differences. We may have even wanted to slap each other around a bit from time to time. But we can agree to disagree, and the next day we can go for a bike ride together and everything is fine.”

Rock Racing found itself with a hole in its roster with the retirement of suspended rider Tyler Hamilton, however Bahati said it was the return of Cuban-American sprinter Ivan Dominguez, from Fuji-Servetto, that opened the door for him to finally land a pro contract.

“We lost a few guys, and the team did some reshuffling,” Bahati said. “When Ivan told me he was coming back to Rock I was shocked. I asked him ‘why would you want to be involved with the team after everything it’s gone through?’ But I spoke with Michael Ball — he knew I’d been shopping around because I wanted to race my bike more — and he eased me into the idea, and I thought, ‘maybe it will work out.’ But Ivan’s coming over helped me make the decision. I think it will be fun to win some races together this year.”

With the addition of Dominguez, a teammate at Saturn in 2003, Bahati said he realizes he may no longer be the team’s top sprinter, opening the door for the possibility that his own teammate could deprive him of a third consecutive win at Manhattan Beach.

“We have the team to make it three in a row,” Bahati said. “Adding Ivan on board definitely changes things. I’m not sure how our roles will pan out, and who will lead out who. We’ll have to discuss it next week. It will be interesting to see what Michael Ball has in store. Normally that is something we would work out within the team, based on how we are feeling and who has the confidence that comes from winning, but I know Ivan is very motivated right now, and I know Michael will put in his two cents as well. Whatever we decide, as team we’ll come together to bring home the win.”

Beyond Manhattan Beach, Bahati said he hopes to defend his national title at Downers Grove, and to show what he can do against the world’s best sprinter, Mark Cavendish, at September’s Tour of Missouri. Though there’s been no definitive announcement that Cavendish will race in Missouri this year, the Manxman won three stages last year, and the Columbia sportswear company announced Tuesday that it had signed on as the official sportswear sponsor for the race.

“Originally my goals for the season were to race in Europe, and here in the States, to race California, Philly and Missouri,” Bahati said. “At this point, I want to see the team ready for USPRO Criterium at Downers Grove, and to send the best possible squad, and then maybe I can go to Missouri and do something. But I haven’t been racing enough. I’ve done maybe 25 races this year. I wanted to be prepared for Missouri after seven or eight months of hard racing, to be one of the contenders for the sprint stages. I honestly don’t know if that’s possible now.”

With more time on his hands earlier this year, and to help supplement an income previously largely garnished from prize money, Bahati — a father of three — made the decision to host a July 16-19 training camp in Aliso Viejo, California.

“Everything that’s happened with the team really opened my eyes to the fact that the team could be gone at any time, and I would have to do something else to keep the ball rolling,” Bahati said. “I bought a house two years ago and I don’t want to lose it. When I signed the papers, I told myself I would do what I can to keep it. I have three kids and a wife, and losing the house would be hard to deal with. The camp was an idea I’ve always had, and with some help from a buddy and from Cannondale, we were able to make it happen.”

Bahati said that even with his change in status, he still intends to host the camp; by then, however, he should once again also be receiving a paycheck — as a professional.