A pair of high profile wins in April puts the Division III NetZero squad on the map
By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
If you happened to be one of the many race fans who took in either of late-April’s big domestic races — the First Charter Criterium in Shelby, North Carolina, or the Twilight Criterium a day later in Athens, Georgia — you might have come away asking yourself, “Who the heck is NetZero?”
Entering the weekend, most people had regarded this Los Angeles-based team as little more than pack fodder in the rough-and-tumble domestic racing scene. This territory belonged to teams like Mercury-Viatel and Saturn, the Navigators and Prime Alliance. Certainly the new NetZero pro team, made up of unknowns and past-their-primers, seemed to be no threat to the top of the podium. Come on, its best rider was 40-year-old New Zealander Graeme Miller. Jamie Paolinetti had just turned 38, and Michael Johnson was 32.
But something happened between the start of the year and the two big crits down South. With two wins in two days, NetZero put itself on the tips of everyone’s tongues — and it had nothing to do with free Inter-net access, the service the team’s title sponsor provides.
“I don’t think anybody was expecting anything from us,” said Miller, who won the race in Athens after hooking up with an eight-man breakaway that lapped the field. “And for a while we were thinking like that a little bit, too. We had really been banging our heads together wondering if this thing was ever going to come together.”
The thing in question was a former elite team that made the jump to the pro ranks when it gained Division III status following the 2000 season. During the last three years, NetZero had been a California-based amateur team that had traveled a little. But last year, especially, things began to take off. Paolinetti, one of the team’s co-founders, puts the win total at 35, plus he was a close second to Rahsaan Bahati at the elite national criterium championship in 2000.
“By the middle of the year, we were winning just about every race we entered,” recalled Paolinetti, who was responsible for the other big win this April, taking the race in Shelby. “Obviously, there was some team chemistry there, so toward the end of last year we started talking about putting together a pro team. Fortunately, NetZero was interested and committed to the 2001 season. Then it was just a matter of finding the right additions to the roster.” At the top of the list was Miller. The former Shaklee rider was no stranger to Paolinetti. The two knew each other from Paolinetti’s first go-round as a pro, when he was part of the Chevy-L.A. Sheriff team back in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “I’d raced against Graeme a bunch,” Paolinetti said. “He was exactly the kind of guy we were looking for.”
Indeed, what Miller and the rest of the NetZero recruits possessed was speed. And like good Internet access, this is what NetZero was all about. “I looked at the money we had and knew we weren’t going to have the ability to sign a big-time, stage-race winner,” Paolinetti said. “There’s just not a lot of those guys around. What we were going to put together was a one-day, criterium-type team. That’s been the goal from the beginning.”
When Miller got wind of the new team and its mission, his thoughts immediately turned to a couple of young pros he had raced with back home in New Zealand. “I knew these kids were looking for an opportunity and I knew they were fast,” Miller said. “It was a perfect fit.”
The “kids” were a pair of 21-year-olds: Matt Yates, a countryman of Miller’s, and Hilton Clarke, from across the way in Australia. “Graeme had raced with both of them extensively, and he kept telling me they were both really eager and super skilled,” Paolinetti said, “There’s no doubt he’s right. The sky is really the limit for them. I definitely could see them riding in the Tour de France in a couple of years. You just don’t find many riders with those kind of qualifications.”
Lots of riders tried to convince the NetZero brass to the contrary, though. Team manager Jim Fryer said when word got out that he, Paolinetti, and the team’s other co-founder, Marty Church, were putting together a pro team, the résumés started arriving by the bundle. When it was all said and done, 14 riders made the cut of the new D-III squad, among them former Navigators rider Jonathan Hamblen, and David Medinilla, who was fourth at last year’s national elite criterium championship. Hamblen and Miller were the only two who had raced professionally in 2000.
The next, and more difficult task, was to turn this hodge-podge of riders into something that resembled a team. “At this level, chemistry is the most important thing,” said Paolinetti, who acts as the team’s coach. “At most races in America there are 50 or 60 guys out there that are really talented and can get into the top 10. The difference in who gets to the top of the top 10 is the ones who are on teams with good chemistry.”
Progress came slowly at first. Miller, Yates and Clarke spent some of the early-season racing at home, and didn’t get to the States until right before the year’s first National Racing Calendar event. Later, a bout of the flu took out most of the team, tearing into more training time. “It’s always tough with a new group of guys to get everyone to click and on the same page,” Fryer said. “In the beginning we kind of jumped right into the big races without really knowing each other. There were only a few guys who were comfortable with each other, so it took a little time.”
The result was some less-than-stellar results. At the first NRC race in Merced, California, a sixth place from Clarke was the best the team could do. Later, at the opening BMC Software race in Austin, Miller’s seventh was tops for NetZero.
After that race
one of the other team manager’s was bitching,
saying we didn’t do our fair share of the work.
But that’s racing.
If they’re going to underestimate us,
we’ll take advantage of it.
But we all know nobody will underestimate us anymore.
But none of this seemed to bother Paolinetti, who all along liked what he had put together. “The vision I had for this team was chemistry and getting guys who had similar abilities,” he said. “That’s what we did with the Chevy-L.A. Sheriff’s team way back when, and that’s what Marty, Jim and I tried to do with NetZero.”
So it wasn’t such a big surprise when Paolinetti and the gang rolled over the competition in back-to-back races on the East Coast. “We saw it coming,” he said. “We’d been right there in a lot of big criteriums that we had done and it just hadn’t worked out. But all along we all thought it would come together.”
At the race in North Carolina it came together when Yates pulled Paolinetti into the lead chase group. Paolinetti then used his ample energy reserves to jump across to the fading leader, Saturn’s Matt DeCanio. It was an easy sprint win from there — but things won’t be so easy from now on.
“Nobody was expecting much from us so they didn’t make us do any work,” said Miller of the race in Shelby. “After that race one of the other team manager’s was bitching, saying we didn’t do our fair share of the work. But that’s racing. If they’re going to underestimate us, we’ll take advantage of it. But we all know nobody will underestimate us anymore.”
Paolinetti admits that when the season first started he set “modest” goals for the team’s first year in the pro ranks. But now things have changed. “At the beginning of the year we had zero expectations for these early-season races,” he recalled. “Now because of the way things are rolling, things are a little different. Our big goal is still the same — we want to excel at the USPRO criterium championships. But at the same time there are a lot of big one-day criteriums left on the calendars. And that’s what this team is all about. So why not try to get a few more wins?”
And unlike the answer to, “Who is NetZero,” the answer to that question is easy — why not.