Interview with team management
By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Last week Prime Alliance unveiled its roster for a new Division III road team. Included on the roster were some heavy hitters, including Jonas and Jame Carney, Colby Pearce, Danny Pate, Mike Creed and NORBA national champion Steve Larsen. The day after the team was announced, VeloNews spoke with team owner and Prime Alliance CEO Tom Irvine, team director Ian Birlem and rider-manager Kirk Willett about how the team came about and what its outlook is for the coming season.
VeloNews (to Tom Irvine): How did you get involved, and what’s the major thrust for Prime Alliance to get into cycling.
TI: I guess I’ve been interested in cycling for a number of years. My older brother back in Iowa has a bike shop, so it kind of goes back 20 years, the interest. I’ve never raced or anything. My family and I moved back to Boulder about a year and a half ago, and I got back into cycling and met Ian and some of his staff at Pro Peloton and it got me reenergized in cycling again. I was originally looking at options of maybe a local sponsorship for a club team, and really one thing led to another. I started to talk to some of the companies I do business with, and they were equally excited about being involved on a larger scale, and the next thing I know we’re putting a full-blown team together and thinking long term about it.
My company, Prime Alliance, is actively weaving the cycling sponsorship into the whole marketing and advertising and sales promotion campaigns for the next year or two and we think it’s going to be a real viable avenue.
VN: But Prime Alliance doesn’t interact at all with the consumer …
TI: Our business is totally business to business. We don’t get involved at all on the retail side. What we are is a distributor of plastic raw materials, and we represent companies like Dow and BASF and Solutia, and a number of other global chemical manufacturer’s that make plastic resins and we in turn sell those to injection molders and extruders throughout the United States and also provide design services and engineering and technical support. But there’s always a lot of the same principles of marketing and advertising and relationship building that exists on a business-to-business standpoint as it would on a retail or consumer standpoint.
VN: So aside from getting the name out, do you have anything in mind as to how you’re going to use the team?
TI: We’re really looking at the team as a rallying point for our sales with our suppliers and customers. We’ll involve both our suppliers and customers at events and races, and really do our best to indoctrinate all of those parties into cycling. The positive result will be if our business increases, our relationships improve with the companies that we do business with, and if we get some more major companies involved in cycling sponsorship.
VN (to Kirk Willett): Have you talked with Tom about certain events being key for one of [Prime Alliances] customers or partners, have you looked at the schedule that way?
KW: He’s going to schedule some stuff around certain events, and we’re going to do our best to put on a good show there. We’re still really working on that to see what fits into the schedule of the company and their partners. We’re going to incorporate that into who we send to races, and which races we actually go to within the calendar.
TI: We’re certainly trying to highlight some of the races where there’s a predominance of customers or Prime Alliance personnel in those particular areas, so we’re still working on that.
IB: And Colorado as well, since we’re both based somewhat out of Colorado and there’s such good races on the calendar.
VN (to Ian Birlem): Where did the idea come from to do another team, separate from what you’re already doing with your local [Pro Peloton] shop team?
IB: Tom actually approached me. Tom came into the shop and mentioned that he was interested in doing a cycling team and wanted to know what it would take … and the rest is history and now we’re here. It’s exciting to be at this point, definitely.
VN: How did it snowball from that beginning to being a UCI-registered team?
TI: I think it was a natural progression. Once the financial sponsorship was at a certain level it was realistic to do that, it made sense to do it.
IB: And there’s such a wealth of talent out there also. There was definitely a place for another pro cycling team to fill a void and give a home to a lot of the good quality riders that are out there, like Jonas and Jame and Carney with Shaklee going away. So it kind of grew on its own really. It was one step after another.
KW: And once I became involved in December, I kind of put my own little spin on how do you build a team. I wanted to have a solid core of riders and a solid calendar, and have the Division III stuff kind of be on top as you kind of build a broad base for the program, instead of starting at the top and working your way down to fill out the base, I was really focused on that kind of build-up, like they were saying, a natural progression … build, build, build, build, and then all of a sudden, it makes sense to do it, take that extra step.
IB: It’s true, we got to that point where we had the riders, we had the infrastructure, we had the sponsorship and we had Prime Alliance being really excited, and then we finally just got to the point where Kirk decided we needed to go Division III, and it was that natural next step. USA Cycling was really good about allowing us to get our paperwork to them. It did come together at the very end of the period, and they were really good about helping us with that stuff.
VN: It sounds like a two-year progression that took place in four months.
TI: I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the country where you could pull off a deal like this in the short time frame, with the professional riders that live here, and the contacts, both organizationally and throughout the industry, that are based in Boulder, it’s just, this is the place to put a team together. I had a lot of help from local people who’ve had years of experience in racing and organization. There’s a whole lot of helpers behind the scene that have made this whole thing happen for both Ian and I and Kirk.
VN: Who were some of the key people?
TI: Well, Thomas Prehn was very helpful, he connected me with really who I needed to know. Bob Stone, our attorney, made connections that were invaluable. Really, my priority on this team was that I wanted to have the infrastructure set, and a solid foundation, and then between Kirk and Ian, I was confident that they could put the riders together and fill the skill positions, but on a business side I wanted to have that set.
VN: Let’s talk about the cast of characters. You have some strong personalities on the team. What do you have to do to mesh those individuals together?
KW: It’s a diverse bunch. But a lot of the guys on the team that have those strong characters, kind of have different niches in their abilities, and so, it’s difficult to match guys that are competing for the same niche, but when you have guys who aren’t competing like that within the team, it’s a lot easier to accommodate a wide range of people. That’s one of my tasks for the year, team chemistry, and making sure it moves along smoothly. It’s gonna be fun. It’s good to have some character. I think it adds a lot to the flavor of the team, and adds some excitement out there.
VN: What have you learned in your years with John Wordin that you’ll carry over to this team?
KW (laughing): I’m not afraid of any personalities on this team compared with some of the stuff I’ve seen.
I think it’s just a matter of being up front with everybody. Any conflicts that arise, you deal with them immediately and don’t let something build. I think that’s just common sense anywhere.
VN: Where is Steve Larsen going to fit in, what’s his role going to be?
KW: Well, he still has a full-time mountain-bike obligation, but Prime Alliance is going to be a sponsor of his mountain-bike program. He’s going to be involved with the team just to supplement his pretty well-rounded program. He’s got roots in road, and he’s interested in being involved with a team that allows him to compete and get the fitness for his mountain-bike stuff. Instead of just being a free-lancer at the races as he has in the past, he’s going to be associated with a strong team, and be more involved, instead of a lone wolf.
IB: Last year at Cascade, it was kind of him versus an eight-man Mercury squad. We’re going to be able to give him support. If he’s fit and ready to win the race, he could potentially seal the deal for us.
KW: He doesn’t have a full schedule with us, but he has eight to 10 events that he’s going to do with us throughout the season and he’ll fit that in around his mountain-bike stuff and his preparation for world’s. But he’s going to be a major player for us. The type of events that we’re going to send him to are events that suit his abilities. It’s a big-ol’ piece of horsepower that we can put into the team when we need it.
VN: Any idea what some of those events might be?
KW: Most likely he’ll be at Redlands, Philadelphia week …. Depending on when the schedule comes out for the Zinger, he’ll be here to do that. There will be other events too, but those are kind of the main ones.
VN: What excites you most about this roster?
KW: It’s strong. You see all these teams that came together in August, September, October, November … and we match up really well, considering that a lot of the guys that we signed were in December, in the last three weeks. That’s the amazing part, that we were able to collect this group, of talents both sides of the spectrum, sprinters and climbers. To get people of that ability, on one team, when you’re doing this stuff in December … I’m amazed. I can’t believe it, these guys were still available and we were able to do it.
VN: Does it say anything about the riders, that maybe other teams weren’t willing to take a chance on them?
KW: I think some of the Division I and II teams, they have different agendas, and then the smaller Division III teams don’t have the budget, they kind of have their core of riders and then fill in with a lot more, say, local talent. We did very well with our acquisitions. Maybe it’s just other teams have a different agenda, I don’t really know, why some of these guys weren’t signed.
VN: A lot of it had to do with Frank [Scioscia, of Shaklee] having a right-of-first-refusal clause with some of these riders.
KW: Timing’s important. A couple of weeks later and maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
IB: There’s also an absence of a lot of teams that were there last year, like Nutra Fig and Shaklee and supposedly, I don’t know if it’s true, Jelly Belly. That’s three Division III teams that aren’t going to be around this year. That means that we’re definitely filling a gap where there would have been a lack of professional teams to give homes to these guys. We’ve put together a team where they can have support.
[Editor’s note: According to Jelly Belly team director Danny Van Haute, Jelly Belly will be a registered Division III team in 2001.]
VN: Kirk, how did your departure from Mercury come about? Were you a “casualty” of the Mercury-Viatel merger?
KW: I don’t know if I’d really say I was a casualty. I had heard rumors about this team too. Originally, I had an agreement with John Wordin to race for and manage the under-23 development team that he was trying to expand, and that didn’t pan out. I was kind of at a point where John was going to put me somewhere, and things were just going crazy. The timing was so perfect that this opportunity came up, and it took me like 30 seconds [to accept].
[Editor’s note: The Prime Alliance team will begin its season on the West Coast, with its first big test at the season opener at the Redlands Bicycle Classic in March.]