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By Neal Rogers
Down, but far from being out, is the theme this week; applicable notjust to Aussie Nathan O’Neill, who proved skeptics wrong last week witha dramatic Australian national time trial championship only six monthsafter a potentially life-threatening spinal injury, but to the mid-AprilHyundai Sea Otter Classic road stage race and to the Tourde Georgia, which goes into 2004 with a renewed commitment from its titlesponsor, Dodge.A smaller, tougher Otter
Originally a mountain bike event, the Sea Otter Classic — a UCI-sanctionedstage race won by O’Neill last year — had well-documented road course troublesin 2003, including an annulled opening stage in Redwood City, deemed toodangerous by the men’s peloton but contested by the women. The followingday, as O’Neill opened a minute-plus gap over the field on the time trial,it was announced that the third stage had been relocated to the LagunaSeca raceway after speed bumps on the Santa Cruz criterium course raisedconcern.For 2004, Sea Otter chief Rick Sutton hired on former U.S. nationalteam coach and Saturn team director René Wenzel to design a stagerace that would prove challenging without raising safety concerns as lastyear’s courses did.A closed-course 5km circuit in Sutton’s hometown of Redwood City, anhour north of Laguna Seca, was originally planned to open this year’s event,but ultimately the stage was canceled due to lack of funding. The stagecould have been held, Sutton explained, but not to the standards he feltnecessary to wipe out the memories of last year’s rider protest.“We’re making the best decisions for the racers,” Sutton said. “Whenwe didn’t have the financial support to put on the best first stage possible,it seemed like the appropriate thing to do not to race in Redwood City.”So with just three stages remaining, Wenzel then made the decision toshorten the stage 2 time trial from approximately 14 miles over the rollinghills surrounding the Laguna Seca raceway to a quick 3km prologue, a decisionthat will surely affect TT specialists like O’Neill.“René had some qualitative issues with the time trial,” Suttonexplained. “Depending on how you look at it, there is either an upsideor a downside to a 14-mile time trial. He felt the race became protectiveto those with a strong time trial lead. We did some research and team managersand said, ‘Here’s where we are, with three stages.’ We were able to followup with riders like Chris Horner [Webcor] and Trent Klasna [Sierra Nevada],and in the end René decided to cut the time trial to a bare minimumto create different dynamics.”And that it definitely will. Stage three, a circuit race run over LagunaSeca’s raceway, has been lengthened from 36 miles to 60 miles for the menand from 22 miles to 38 miles for the women; the final stage, a 100-mileloop through the Salinas and Carmel Valleys, remains the same, althoughwithout the long time trial the final day of racing should be much moreaggressive than last year. And even with just “two-and-a-half” days ofracing, Sutton promises that the event will retain its UCI 2.5 status (2.92for women).Citing UCI rule 2.6.001, which states that, “Stage races shall be runover a minimum of two days with a general time classification. They shallbe run in one-day stages and time trial stages,” Sutton explained thatthe Sea Otter still qualifies — a fact that will no doubt prove importantas pro teams decide whether or not they will make the trip to central Californiato compete in a race that ends less than 72 hours before the six-day UCI2.1 Tour de Georgia begins, the highest ranked stage race in the U.S.Dodge is back in Georgia
Speaking of “down but not out,” Tour de Georgia race organizers endedmonths of speculation Wednesday when they announced that Dodgehas renewed its title sponsorship for the 2004 event.The 2004 Dodge Tour de Georgia is scheduled to run from Tuesday, April20 to Sunday, April 25, with proceeds benefiting the Georgia Cancer Coalition.“We are extremely pleased to renew Dodge as the title sponsor and tocontinue building the prestige and global scope of the Dodge Tour de Georgia,”said John Rice, Chairman of the Georgia Partnership for Economic Development,the non-profit foundation of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade& Tourism that owns and operates the Tour. “With the corporatesupport and proven expertise from Dodge, we are assured of making the 2004event bigger and better than ever.”Details of the race course and a list of the teams committed to participatingin the event will be released at a media event in early February. LanceArmstrong said late last year that he would be there, but the late confirmationmayhave complicated that. Expect to see O’Neill, third in Georgia last yearbehind Saturn teammate Chris Horner, to line up for the time trials in2004 wearing the green and gold skin suit of the Aussie national champion.The time of his life
His January 16th national TT win — his fifth and this one nearly twominutes ahead of second-place finisher Peter Milostic over a 39km course— was a triumphant and emotional return to the top for the 29-year-oldfrom Toowoomba, Queensland.The win bolsters O’Neill’s chances of representing Australia in theOlympic Games, but more importantly, announced to the world that O’Neillhas rebounded from an injury that could easily have severed his spinalcord and left him paralyzed or worse.Just six weeks ago, O’Neill was searching for a team and working hardto regain the form that saw him leading the general classification Altoonabefore a sprint crash sent him to the tarmac, fracturing two vertebraein his neck. After spending most of August in a halo neck brace, he underwentsurgery to have one of the vertebrae fixed with a titanium screw.Once he signed with Colavita in December, along with former Saturn teammatesMark McCormack, Ivan Dominguez and Will Frischkorn, O’Neill was able tofully concentrate on training for the Aussie national championships.“I just didn’t leave any stone unturned,” O’Neill said of his preparation.“I ate right and slept right and trained better than before.”O’Neill also credited a new coach, German Heiko Salzwedel, and Salzwedel’sspecific SRM power meter training tips as key to his return to form.“We didn’t have much time to work with,” O’Neill said, “and with SRMtraining essentially no time has been wasted. It allows you to train efficiently.If you have only three hours a day your time is utilized.”“But that was just the physical side of it,” O’Neill continued. “Thissounds pretty cliché, but it’s nonetheless true: Strong faith inGod has been the number one factor. [God] had a hand in my rehabilitation.He allowed me to not be paralyzed, and he saw me through the surgery withoutany complications, which was very risky. It was one thing to be able towalk, but to compete at the level that I was at before…God gave me themental stability to fight back and concentrate on doing my job. My familyhas been incredible. The church back home has been very supportive. It’sbeen great. I can honestly say I’m a witness to the power of prayer. Thisstuff doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s been phenomenal.”O’Neill will be joining his former Saturn teammates on the 2004 ColavitaOlive Oil Pro Cycling Team presented by Bolla Wines. This year sees thereturn of Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil as official title sponsor, withBolla Wines as the official presenter.Late in 2003 Team Colavita Sports decided to develop the professionalcycling team into one of world-class stature. The signing of USPRO championMark McCormack as team captain began the process of developing the “new-look”squad. Following in the footsteps of McCormack was the signing of ex-Saturnstars Dominguez, O’Neill and Frischkorn. Their former Saturn teammate TimJohnson was also signed, but later got an offer he couldn’t refuse andhe joined up with the new Spanish-based Division I Saunier Duval team.Colavita released him from his contract without any objection.“The signing of Mark McCormack was the leap needed to develop the squadand acquire a solid road captain,” said Colavita directeur sportif ChadDavis. “Having Mark on the team was more than any director could ask. Theadditions of experience, youth, speed and extraordinary talent in IvanDominguez, Nathan O’Neill, Will Frischkorn, Todd Herriott [from HealthNet] and Aaron Olson [from Schroeder Iron] has bolstered our roster tomake us one of the top teams in 2004.”With Davis’s pointing to McCormack as team captain, one might wonderif O’Neill will be forced take a backseat to the current USPRO champion.Not so, O’Neill insists.“We spoke about that,” O’Neill said. “The team captain is the captain,and the leader can be someone different. Mark is given that title out ofrespect; he’s the oldest guy on the team and is the current USPRO champion.Mark is a friend and a great guy and he will likely be the team leaderfor certain one-day races, but whoever is the strongest rider will be theteam leader for stage races.”Riders Tyler Wren, Thad Dulin, Guatavo Artacho, Sebastian Alexandreand Juan Jose Haedo have returned to the squad from 2003 to round out the11-man team. Colavita is focused to defend McCormack’s USPRO Championshiptitle in Philadelphia this year, and with O’Neill’s recent win the teamhas already shown its strength.The team will ride FeltSC1 bikes, outfitted with Mavic wheels and brakes,Maxxis tires, Speedplay Pedals, FSA bars, stems and seat posts, Velo saddles,Shimano drive trains and Tacx water cages. Giordana clothing, Diadora shoesand Rudy Project helmets and eyewear will outfit the team. Alitalia, theofficial airline sponsor, will fly the team to Italy this summer to racein some European events; while Olive Garden Restaurants will continue toofeed the team while on the road.The official Web site for the team is www.teamcolavita.com.