Mercury boss discussed plans in December
By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
While the U.S. Postal Service team’s mini-camp began in Tucson, Arizona, earlier this week, the other Division I U.S. team, Mercury-Viatel, is gearing up for its camp in Southern California, with riders starting to arrive this weekend and the camp officially starting on Monday, January 15. Last month, VeloNews sat down with Mercury director John Wordin to discuss the off-season and the team’s goals for the upcoming year. While this interview took place before the addition of Viatel as a co-title sponsor and the addition of riders Peter Van Petegem, Geert Van Bondt, Wim Vansevenant, Laurent Chotard and Phil Zajicek, Wordin provides a good look into Mercury’s plan for its first year as a UCI Division I squad.
VeloNews Interactive will have an update from the Mercury camp next week. Also, look for the complete road season preview in the next print issue of VeloNews.
VeloNews: What was your biggest challenge this off-season?
John Wordin: Everything. Getting the riders organized, getting the staff organized, getting the sponsors organized. Everything. All of it.
VN: You announced most of your signings very early on. Does that hurt you at all in trying to get riders?
JW: No, I don’t think so. It hasn’t so far. If anything, when they find out who’s on the team, I get even more calls. I mean, I got calls from Jalabert, Virenque … “I heard you got so-and-so, I want to come to the team.” It’s pretty funny.
VN: When you’re going after guys, do you give them a pretty short time-frame to decide?
JW: I like to get deals done fast. I don’t like things dragging on because it’s not good for me, or the sponsors, or the riders. Especially for us, because, to be honest, we needed a major effort to get [UCI] points, and I wanted to do it in a way where I wasn’t just getting guys who had points, but I was getting guys who I wanted who had points. That’s not easy.
VN: Would you talk a little bit about the composition of the team for this year?
JW: Right now we’ve got [Pavel] Tonkov, [Niklas] Axelsson and [Chann McRae], those are our main G.C. guys. I think Axelsson for us is one of the key guys for the team this year. He sort of showed it in [the Tour of] Lombardy. I just think back to the year he had, not this year but the year before, when he got sixth in the Giro. He had a great year. He finished the Giro with a broken collarbone and he got sixth. And he’s young. For me, he’s a rider that’s going to make or break our season. Where Tonkov is always good, he’s always up there, he’s always consistent, Axelsson is a guy if he has a good year, we go from being a very good team to being a great team.
VN: What would define a “great” season for you?
JW: I would say winning some major tours and doing well in the World Cup. We have a very good World Cup team. We hope to win a World Cup race, and do well in the team overall in the World Cup. That’s one of our big goals.
VN: What are your goals for the Tour de France?
JW: Stage wins — everybody else’s goals — stage wins, top five, and I would like to do well in the team G.C., and that’s kind of hard to do. Right now our Tour team looks to be Tonkov, Axelsson, McRae, [Andrei] Teteriuk, [Leon] Van Bon, [Henk] Vogels, [Jans] Koerts, Gord [Fraser] and either [Chris] Horner or [Floyd] Landis. That’s sort of the short version of the long team. Some combination of those guys seems to be our best bet for the Tour. You never know with Chris Wherry, he’s another key guy for us. He’s a little bit of an unknown. You know he’s fit in the U.S, but what can he do in Europe? Like Langkawi, we’re taking Axelsson, McRae, Horner, Wherry, and then Gord, Henk and Jans Koerts. Gord, Henk and Koerts, that’s our Tour de France leadout, that’s our stage-winning group right there. They used to have the Red Train, now they’re gonna have the Green Wave. Jans Koerts adds a lot of horsepower to our train.
VN: Now that you’ve taken on a women’s team, you still have your junior and elite team, and basically two teams — U.S. and Europe — do you feel like you’re getting spread a little thin?
JW: I am, for sure. I have brought in a lot more people. The organization, John Wordin Sports, now is getting really big. Right now I’m like the captain of the ship, I sort of just make sure the boat stays straight, and the individual tasks are all handled by other people now.
VN: For you, has the change been good or bad? How do you feel about it?
JW: I’m not sure. There’s a lot of things I like doing. I’m still going to go to the races and work behind the wheel being a director. That’s one of the jobs I enjoy a lot. Especially in the beginning of the year I’m going to be involved a lot, because we have so many new riders. I won’t be involved so much with the day-to-day of the juniors or the women’s teams. Thurlow [Rogers] and Butch [Stinton] and Mike Neel will be running those things, and in Europe we’ll have Alain Gallopin and several other people.
VN: What’s the feeling in Europe about the team?
JW: Everyone expects big thing out of us. That’s good though. I like having high expectations, as long as everybody’s reasonable about whether we achieve them or not. We surprised a lot of people [in 2000] by winning races that Division II teams don’t win. Now we’re a Division I team, so now there’s expectations that, okay, we expect these guys to win some races.
VN: Now that you are a Division I team racing in Europe, you are going to come under a lot more scrutiny with the atmosphere over there regarding drugs. What do you think about that?
JW: We love racing in France. I have no problem. We run our program with our own moral and ethical code. I’ve hired people that will follow the code, and we will not tolerate anyone who doesn’t follow the code — they’re instantly gone. I can’t run the other teams and I can’t tell them how to do it, but hopefully everybody has seen the writing on the wall, that the days of organized stuff being done is over. Stuff that you could get away with one or two years ago, you’re not gonna be able to get away with. You know, the French are really cracking down on cortisone, and we don’t even use it. Our team doctor is not allowed to dispense it without my permission, and to my knowledge, none of our riders, at least as long as I’ve been running the team, has ever taken a cortisone shot. We do things the way that they should be done, and I don’t go to bed at night worrying about being arrested by the French police.
VN: What do you think about the investigation into Postal?
JW: Let them do what they need to do, and if there’s nothing there, then everything will be fine. And if they find that there is something there, it’s not good for the sport. Personally, and professionally, I hope that there’s nothing there. It doesn’t do our team any good or the sport any good.
VN: Domestically, Mercury has been the dominant team over the last three years. Do you see anybody on the horizon stepping up to challenge the team this year?
JW: I hope so. What we’re trying to do is set a high standard, for ourselves and our sponsors. This is the way things need to be done, and this is the way the sport needs to grow. For other teams to catch up — and obviously Saturn’s the best-equipped right now to catch up, they hired some good guys. There’s gonna be a good rivalry there. I think Jim Copeland taking over is gonna help organize their team better …. What we need is more than one good team or two good teams, we need three or four good teams. When you go to Europe and you do those races, there’s 20 teams there racing to win. You go to the races here and it’s us and Saturn and everybody else is just surviving. The more good teams we have in America, the better it is for the sport. It’s going to be difficult for us to have the year next year that we had this year. I think it’s unrealistic for people to expect that kind of dominance again. One of the things we’re going to try to do though is create excitement for the sponsors and for the races by bringing some of our bigger name riders to some of the bigger races in the U.S. — Redlands and Sea Otter, Philadelphia, USPRO Crit. Some of the races that are really important to Mercury, we’re gonna have the stars of Mercury at those races.