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By Steve Medcroft, Special to VeloNews.com
The sponsorship of domestic cycling teams is a volatile venture. In the past few years, it seems that almost every brand-name team lost its marquee sponsor. Saturn and Mercury, for example, were dismantled and their riders, some of the most competent and successful racers in America, were scattered to the four winds. But turmoil, as tough as it can be, almost always leaves a vacuum. And a vacuum can be an opportunity in the right hands.
One group of racers and their sponsors taking advantage of this vacuum is Health Net-Maxxis. Formed only three years ago on a shoestring budget and around the core of sprinter Gord Fraser and perennial hard-man Mike Sayers, the team has posted impressive results. In a time when sponsors can be unstable and hard to find, Health Net-Maxxis has grown its budget, resources, staff and roster. To understand more about the team’s hopes and plans for 2005, we wanted to talk to someone deep on the inside.
That brought us to Mike Sayers. Still at the center of the team, Sayers is not a leader in the traditional sense – the designated guy the team will work for in races – but he’s the behind-the-scenes voice of the riders. Elder statesman, motivator and punisher, Sayers is a major reason the team has the work ethic and results that it does.
Born: 01/12/1970, Sacramento, California
U.S. world championship team, 2002-03
We talked to Sayers in late January, as he was packing at his home in Tucson to leave for the team’s first race of 2005.
VeloNews: You’re off to the Tour of Southern Chile. Have you ever done this race before?
Mike Sayers: Have not, have not. I’ve never been to Chile before, nor have I really been that far south in South America before. Since we didn’t get into Malaysia, and since racing in spring is really important to us, a couple of us felt like it might not be a bad idea to actually get some racing in before we have to start winning. We’re just going to play it by ear, though; there’s no pressure on us to get results. We’re down there to get some fitness, to get some speed.
VN: A training race for you?
MS: Yeah. We don’t get that many races to go and train. This is going to be the one of the year.
VN: Who else beside yourself is going?
MS: John Lieswyn, Scott Moninger, Justin England and Doug Ollerenshaw.
VN: Doug Ollerenshaw. That’s a name we saw a lot of in domestic racing in 2004.
MS: He was with Jelly Belly last year and with us a little at the end of the year. He was with Broadmark before that. Doug’s a very strong racer. And he’s probably officially taken over the mantle from Derek Bouchard-Hall (a former teammate of Sayers’ on Mercury) as the smartest guy in the peloton. He just got his masters degree in, okay, it’s like aeronautical launching systems.
MS: Yeah. It’s ridiculous. And he’s a good kid. Very quiet. Keeps to himself a little bit but he’s got a lot of talent. And he’s not in school any more so he gets to dedicate himself full bore to cycling.
VN: Would you consider him something of a score for the team?
MS: Yeah. He just came on the radar last year but people already know about him. We’ve yet to see him with a full season in his legs, where he doesn’t have anything else going but cycling. But I think he’ll put up some pretty impressive results.
VN: Who else is new? I see Walker Ferguson on the roster?
MS: He’s not new, exactly. He was with us part time last year and he’ll stay a part-time guy with us this year. The three really new guys are Ivan Dominguez, Doug Ollerenshaw and Justin England. Ivan’s made a name for himself already as a sprinter so there’s no surprise why we’d want him. We talked about Doug. Justin was with Webcor last year. He’s pretty young – 27 – but he’s only been racing his bike about three years. He made a very quick rise to the top. He ran cross country in college and was nationally ranked so we know he’s got the engine. He’s a pure climber. He’s about 125 pounds and he could be, and I always hate to put stigmas on guys, but he could be the next Moninger.
VN: The team’s 3 years old now?
MS: Right. 2003 was our first year.
VN: How did it all start?
MS: In 2003 I got a call from Greg Raifman (chairman and CEO of Momentum Sports Group). I had officially retired; I couldn’t find a job after Mercury. I was frustrated with cycling because I felt like I wasn’t getting a fair shot to work. I knew I was one of the best riders in America but nobody seemed to want to have me on their team. My wife and I decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore so I retired.
Raifman told me he was putting this new team together, mainly a local thing, and if I could settle for the absolute minimum pay, he could get me through the year. I had been trying to find a real job up to then and it wasn’t going very well, so I just said, “Why not?” It was really a no-lose situation for me because he said if I didn’t like it at any point I was free to walk away and keep whatever money he’d paid me.
I moved back to California – my wife stayed here in Arizona – so I could be closer to the team on a day-to-day basis. The one thing I told them immediately was that I could lead the team but we have a bunch of young guys who don’t know how to win races. I don’t win that many races myself. That’s just the kind of rider I am; I can get top five a lot but I’m not going to win a lot. At the time, Gord Fraser had offers from some Belgian teams, and he probably wasn’t enthused about going back to Europe, so we worked it out and got Gord on the team. Including time at Mercury, Gord and I have been together for eight years now, almost nine. We just made a commitment. I told him, “I’ll get you where you need to be if you can just finish it off. And the races that you’re not good at, I’ll do whatever I can to get results.”
VN: What made that first year work?
MS: I think Raifman saw how dedicated Gord and I were to making it work, how we lived it every day and took our jobs so professionally. He’s decided to put it in overdrive, put the full-court press on Health Net and all the sponsors to come through and seriously build the team. So 2004 was a hundred times better than the first year, but we still had things to learn. Reynolds was learning more about their wheels. Giant was learning more about their bikes. Some of these other products, Cytomax and Peak Bars, were getting tons of input. I think what was happening was that a bunch of companies that were trying to get better in their fields all kind of came together at the same time, and now all the sponsors have a real good working relationship.
VN: Working with the team helps tie these companies closer to each other?
MS: It does. Take Health Net for example. We’re getting the employees really involved now. We go to the main office in L.A., sign autographs and talk to the employees. Jason Lokkesmoe decided he really wanted to be working full time and do cycling for fun so he’s racing with us but he’s also working for Health Net in their sales department. Which is great for the team because he explains to the executives how this cycling thing works. There are just a lot of things on this team that are coming together. It didn’t just explode, it’s a growth process and I think the growth process is continuing on. The team’s got a five-year plan and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to fulfill the goals this team has.
VN: And what are those goals?
MS: I think it’s no secret that they want to take the team to Europe. They want to, someday, like every team, do the Tour de France. I think their dream is real. One thing I learned with Mercury, though, is that you just don’t want to get close and then lunge for that brass ring. You need to build a foundation. You need to build that foundation on results and professionalism and growth. Slowly, brick by brick. That’s what the team is trying to do. So we might, and I stress the word might, go to Europe at the end of the season for one trip just to do some races.
VN: What’s the domestic program for 2005 then?
MS: For every major U.S. event, Health Net will be there with a full squad, 100 percent dedicated to winning that race.
VN: What other team do you view as your main rival in domestic racing?
MS: I don’t think anyone else out there has the full package yet. Jelly Belly’s been around a long time; they’ll do some damage. Another team on the horizon is Symmetrics out of Canada because I think they have a lot of young, talented guys who are hungry to succeed and I think they do have support for the long term.
VN: So that puts a lot of expectation on Health Net to come into these races as the big-dog team?
MS: There’s no secret; there is a lot of expectation on us. But that’s what this team is all about. You’re told from the very beginning that there are a lot of expectations on you as an individual. You’re told that if you don’t want those expectations, you probably don’t want to come here. Every guy has on the team has accepted that challenge.
VN: You’ve said that part of what makes Health Net work is that maturity. But the core group is getting older. What happens in the next couple of years?
MS: You don’t have to sugarcoat it – we got old guys on the team. We all know that. Part of our responsibility is to teach our younger teammates how to lead. There will be a lot of instances this year where guys like Henderson, Mike Jones, Justin, Ivan Dominguez, are going to have responsibility for winning races. I think that part of my job is to try and help guys like Moninger, Gord and Lieswyn take pride in teaching these young guys how to win races. We don’t want to leave this team depleted as we all retire. The good news is that I think all the older guys are really embracing that role.
VN: How is that help structured? Does each younger rider get a mentor? Is there a de facto voice of the older guys or is it confusing – are they getting three different opinions from three experienced racers they respect and believe in?
MS: It hasn’t been an issue, really. Every one of our older guys has experience in different areas. I can’t tell guys what it’s like to be in a mass group sprint because that’s Gord’s job. And Gord can’t tell them what happens when there’s a group of five on some 10-kilometer climb with 3K to go; that’s Moninger’s job. We each have our own areas of expertise. As for formalities, Jeff (Corbett) is the one who gives the orders. He takes input from me and I take input from pretty much everybody else. It’s a filter system. Besides all that though, we mostly communicate through example. Not too many words need to be said. If the older guys just go about their business, the younger guys will pick up on it. Most of the guys on this team are cut from the same cloth.
VN: And what is that cloth?
MS: I think it’s pride in what you do, realizing that none of us would have any of what we have – houses, the good paycheck, the good team, good equipment, good clothing, good management – none of us would have any of that if the cycling doesn’t come first. So training comes first. We’ve all got life things we have to deal with, but the training comes first. And that’s about it. I mean, you can’t win races unless you do the training. I had some of the young guys come and stay with me this winter and they always hear the same thing. I say, “Men, it’s Tuesday and I know you want to go and just hang out at the coffee shop and check the girls out or whatever – we can do that after 3 p.m. But from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., we have got work to do.” I think, especially in America, cycling comes first 60 percent of the time for a lot of guys. In my house, the cycling comes first ninety nine point nine percent of the time.
VN: On the Health Net team Web site, you talk about working part-time at a regular job over the winter and you’ve also talked about eventually transitioning into other work. Do you think much about what you’ll be doing after cycling?
MS: Yeah. It’s heavy for me. It’s the anchor that I pull around. And part of me getting the part-time job this winter was to show myself why cycling is so good for me. I went to work for a big retail company – I’m not going to say who it is. I told my wife that part of doing the details this year was that every time I get frustrated with cycling and don’t want to do it anymore, when cycling’s really pissing me off, I wanted something in my head to help me realize what I had. And what I realized from doing that part-time job is that I have got it so good with cycling it’s ridiculous. It taught me that yeah, if I have to go and get a job for eight bucks an hour and put my head down and get it done until something better comes my way, I can do it. But I definitely don’t want to rush into it.
So yes, what happens to me if I get hurt or can’t ride anymore weighs heavily on me. It’s given me a real sense of urgency. It’s why I’m never going to show up at a race and say, “You know what, I don’t feel good today, I’m just going to sit at the back.” And I’m not going to let anybody else on this team say that either.
VN: Tell me about your scholarship fund with the Northern California High School Mountain Biking League.
MS: I’ve taken a lot from cycling and I came to a point where I realized that I had to start giving back. As an athlete, you become so entwined with what you are all about, with what’s going on with you, that you can forget about what’s going on outside of you. The Norcal Mountain Biking League is such a good organization; it’s in my home region and I really like what they’re trying to do; giving high-school aged kids a chance to race mountain bikes. Some of the kids in the program are from the Bay Area, from the inner city, and they don’t have a lot of money. I was lucky enough to have parents who took care of me and let me do the sports I wanted to do so I love helping them. I don’t feel obligated.
VN: What role do you actually play for the league?
MS: Right now, I’m trying to spread their message and I’m raising money. All the money I raise goes to my scholarship. My scholarship is mainly set up for the here and now; to take care of kids who don’t have the money for entry fees, for a bike or for the gas to get to the races. It’s about giving them fewer excuses to not do the sport. They say, “Well, I can’t afford the entry,” and we say, “Okay, here it is, we got it.” They say, “Oh, I can’t afford the gas to get there,” and we say, “”No problem, we’ve got that too, so you’re oh-for-two.” It’s fun.
VN: Who administers the fund?
MS: Matt Fritzinger, the guy who started the league. He and I together decide where the money goes but since he’s more hand-on and he sees the kids more on a day-to-day basis, he basically says, “Hey, we could use the money here or there,” and I’m mostly cool with it. I’m just here trying to raise as much money as I can.
VN: And how do people give if they want to?
MS: If they want to give money to the cause, they can send a check to the league office. If they put on the check that it’s for the Sayers scholarship it will go right into that fund. If they want to email me at email@example.com, my email address for the fund, I can help them get money to the fund too. The easiest way though is to go to the league Web site and get the address right off there.
VN: The 2005 season is kicking off. What would be the perfect year for you?
MS: The perfect year for me would be Health Net winning 100 races. We did it on Mercury, I would love to do it with Health Net. I usually have two or three races that I target to do well at myself so I’ll keep after those. I seem to get on a podium at one NRC stage race a year, so I’d like to keep that streak going too.
And, of course, there’s the big daddy of them all; Philly. And that one just … it’s hard for me to watch the movie “Pro” because I know how much that race means to me. It’s such a big event. If I retire and don’t win it, it’s not like I’m going to look at my career and think it was a waste but, like every guy, I want to win it. I love that race so much I can’t even stand it. If I could just win that race, or win the jersey, I don’t know – I’ve told people before that if I cross the line and win that jersey I might retire on the spot. I’d give up every other win combined if I could win that one race. If I could, I’d have done everything I ever wanted to accomplish in cycling. I’ve done 99 percent of everything I ever set out to do in cycling already and winning Philly is the one thing left.
VN: Your first race of the season is in Chile. Then what?
MS: The California series starts on the first of March (Merced, Fresno, Pomona, Redlands). After that we’ll send teams to races like Gila and Bisbee and Sea Otter is a priority, but we’ll be gathering ourselves for Georgia.
VN: Best of luck.