Scaled-down Saturn women’s program set to return without director Giana Roberge
By Neal Rogers
After four years with Wisconsin-based Team Sports, Inc., Saturn women’s team director Giana Roberge has announced that on Friday, December 5, she will amicably part ways with the organization that directed the now defunct but highly successful Saturn Cycling and Volvo-Cannondale Cycling programs.
“It’s been an extremely difficult decision for me to make,” Roberge said, explaining that while she and Team Sports’ president Tom Schuler have secured a title sponsor for a scaled down women’s team in 2004, there will not be sufficient sponsorship for her employment. An official announcement of the title sponsor and team roster will be made during the week of December 8th.
“It will be a small team of almost all Saturn incumbents,” Roberge offered. “With Laura [Van Gilder] gone to Genesis-Scuba and Katie [Mactier] with the Australian national team, focusing on the track for the Olympics, you can do the math and figure out who’s left.”
Given Roberge’s intimation, riders most likely to be returning to the yet unnamed squad are Canadian all-rounders Lyne Bessette and Manon Jutras, German sprint specialist Ina Teutenberg and 2002 U.S. national champion Jessica Philips. But although many key riders will be returning, Roberge explained there simply wasn’t enough money to support the director, soigneur and mechanics of the Saturn-era.
“For me to have a salary on that team would have taken away from the riders,” Roberge said. Instead, the team will be run by former Saturn U-23 development manager Brett Meinke, who will also serve as soigneur and mechanic for the women’s squad.
From 1994-1999 Roberge competed as a professional, amassing over 30 career victories — including an overall win at the 1997 Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic — before a relatively common condition diagnosed as supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, forced her to retire. SVT is characterized by abnormal heart rhythms in which the heart beats much faster than usual.
Roberge was then a managerial post with the Timex squad in August of 1999 and spent 2000 as director of the team. Following an instrumental role in the merger of the Saturn and Timex programs late that year, she took the American-based women’s cycling team to new heights in 2001, with Aussie Anna Millward winning the World Cup and the squad taking top team honors. The team repeated its success with German Petra Rossner in 2002 before a downsized budget led to a more domestic emphasis this year, but again the team won the national team standings, led by NRC individual winner Bessette.
Even with the success of both the men’s and women’s teams in 2003, Roberge admits it’s been a trying past few months at Team Sports. She estimates that she and Schuler have collectively proposed sponsorship to “easily over 150 companies.”
“It’s not been a lot of fun,” Roberge said. “This has really taught me something about corporate America. You know, you go and do the dog-and-pony show and they don’t even return your phone calls or send you an email. If they’re not interested, I wish they would just say, ‘It’s not a good fit.’ Some companies were more up front, but we never heard back from quite a few.”
And what of the remnants of the Saturn men’s team, of which Chris Horner, Nathan O’Neill, Will Frischkorn, Charles Dionne, Rahsaan Bahati and Eric Wohlberg are still unsigned for 2004?
“A lot of people sent us leads, and we followed every one of them,” Roberge said. “As you know, it’s very late in the year now. We’re right around the drop-dead date. I know Tom has a few small companies and he’s trying to bring them all together to form a men’s team. I don’t know if that will happen or not.”
For the record, UCI regulation 2.17.010 mandates that the “official” application deadline for D-3 trade team registration be submitted to each country’s national federation by November 30, but those respective federations have until January 31 to “communicate their list of TT/IIIs to the UCI.” According to USAC’s technical director Shawn Farrell, when dealing with the UCI, “there are rules, and then there are rules.”
As for Roberge, she’s won’t be leaving cycling; instead, she intends to stay busy. Ideally, she’d like to pave the way towards a new era in women’s racing via Team Speed Queen her all-encompassing Web site targeted at women of all skill levels, and the Women’s Cycling Initiative, a grassroots committee she helped found earlier this year.
“Women’s cycling needs some help right now,” Roberge said. “I feel like it’s at a crossroads. Now I have some time to take care of that, with help from [Nature Valley Grand Prix race director] David LaPorte, to get this women’s task force up and off the ground.”
The Women’s Cycling Initiative has established a national women’s racing series, with 15 teams committed to entering six national races: the Redlands Classic (March 24-28), the Wachovia Liberty Classic (June 6), the Nature Valley Grand Prix (June 10-13), the Tour de ‘Toona/International (July 26-August 1), the San Rafael Cycling Classic (September 11), and the T-Mobile International (September 12).
In addition, the WCI will offer source lists to women riders, ranging from “how to’s” — how to put together a team, how to help your sponsor find a return on investment — to schedules, bios, race reports, rider résumés and examples of sponsorship proposals.
“At Saturn we had an organization to help us with PR,” Roberge said. “All these other teams can’t afford to hire a PR company, but we want to make sure the sponsors get returns on their investment. It’s the only thing that will keep women’s cycling at this level.”
Make no mistake, Roberge plans on staying busy. She will also be assisting as strategy coach for the Bay Area Velo Girls , a grassroots program of cat.3 and cat.4 racers in Northern California; leading women’s clinics for Eurocycler, a European touring company; putting together a Team Speed Queen annual women’s “how-to” magazine, tentatively titled Women’s Cycling, featuring articles from various women in the sport.
“The magazine will be primarily for health clubs, health food stores, coffee shops,” Roberge said, “sort of a manual to answer all the questions for a woman. It will go through how to find a group ride, train for your first century. I see it as more fitness based, not for an elite cyclist but a recreational rider. All these women are out there, but there is no tool to communicate with them.”
Oh, and one more thing — Roberge has returned to racing. A gold medal in the Masters 30-35 national time trial championship in August was followed by a silver medal in the same event at the Masters world championships a few weeks later. Her heart feels fine, she reports, maybe better now that she’s competing again.
“Racing is part of who I am,” Roberge said. “Most athletes will tell you that if you’re competitive, you’re competitive. It doesn’t go away.”
In 2004 Roberge will be competing for the first time in the Race Across America (RAAM).
“Since I heard of RAAM in 1994, I‘ve always wanted to do it,” Roberge said. “When Saturn pulled out, I thought ‘Now I can do it.’ I have tiered goals, but the first goal is to finish it. There are a couple of rookie records to look at. Sheana Hogan rode it in all through the 90s. She’s been a hero of mine since 1996. I emailed her and asked her about it and she wrote me back and has given me a bunch of tips.”
And what if, this time next year, Schuler was to land another Saturn-sized sponsorship? Would the door be open for Roberge to return?
“Absolutely,” Roberge answered. “It’s an open-ended deal. Tom’s been my mentor, for sure. He’s given me the autonomy I needed as an individual, but he’s also been the guide. He’s helped me get over mistakes, but he always leaves you with this incredible feeling of security that whatever you do, he’s behind you 100 percent. I’m leaving on really good terms. If it were in his financial power to employ me, he’d do it. If the programs come along, I’ll be back, and in the mean time I‘ll be serving as a consultant for the women’s team. Who knows, if Team Speed Queen continues to grow, maybe it will come under the Team Sports umbrella. As you know you have to keep moving forward.”
While discussing the changes in store for her, reference was made to the change of fate Saturn rider Katie Mactier encountered this year. When visa problems prohibited the Aussie from racing in the U.S. during the first half of the season, Mactier took to training on the track with her national program; within six weeks she won the pursuit silver medal at the world track championships. Roberge intends to turn recent events to her advantage in a similar fashion.
“I was devastated when I had to retire from cycling but look at the doors it’s opened for me,” Roberge said. “When Saturn pulled its sponsorship it came as a shock. I really thought they were going to renew. But now I have this opportunity to help the community. Sometimes it seems like terrible things are happening, but hindsight is really 20-20. I think its called making lemonade out of lemons.”