Cooke one of many facing unknown future after Exergy team folds

Mont Mégantic winner faces unemployment, potential retirement after energy company pulls out

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Thirty-five days isn’t much time to find a new job — particularly with the holidays thrown in the middle.

Yet that’s what a dozen Exergy riders face with the news that their contracts for 2013 will not be honored after the team’s sponsor, Exergy Development Group, pulled the plug Tuesday.

Exergy CEO James Carkulis said in a statement the team was folding, not because of his company’s ongoing financial problems, which include several federal lawsuits, but rather due to the “scandal and deceit” in the sport that have been exposed in light of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service Team.

The Exergy riders face an exceptionally saturated job market after recent news of North American teams SpiderTech-C10 and Chipotle-First Solar folding; earlier this year domestic teams Kenda-5-hour Energy and Competitive Cyclist merged, also leaving several riders without contracts.

One of those riders affected is 33-year-old Matt Cooke. The 2006 elite national road champion, and winner of the Mont Mégantic stage of this year’s Tour de Beauce, Cooke has ridden for several top domestic pro teams, including Navigators Insurance, Health Net-Maxxis and Mountain Khakis.

A talented climber, Cooke raced with Exergy in 2011 and 2012, and said he turned down 2013 contract offers from other teams earlier this year in order to continue with Exergy. Now, he’s struggling to make ends meet as he faces unemployment.

“We were told the whole time that we had valid contracts, and that everything would be bigger and better next year,” Cooke said. “And we got into big races this year. We would see James (Carkulis) at big races, he would fly out in his private plane, just to talk to us. I was paid well this year, and I was promised I would be paid even better next year. That’s why we all said yes and turned down other offers.”

Now, Cooke said, those same teams that had offered him contracts are all full.

“I’m not in the sport to get rich, just need enough to live,” Cooke said. “I’ve been calling people since last week, when I first heard things might not be happening for next year. I was calling people all weekend long. I even offered to ride for free — because I am hoping there might be a settlement, a severance — but there is just no room, all the spots are full. Even riding for free costs a team money, in terms of travel, hotels, clothing, bikes, and everything else.”

The settlement Cooke is referring to is the vaguely worded language in Carkulis’ letter claiming that Exergy would “ensure that each rider is placed and provided for.”

Cooke said he’s heard nothing yet on how that might work.

“Honestly, I have better connections in the sport than the management of this team,” Cooke said. “And those managers I’ve reached out to have already said to me that it’s not going to happen, there’s no spots left.

“They [team management] want to do right by us, but I’m not sure if they have the money,” Cooke said. “I mean, I think James has the money, but the team doesn’t have the money. He did say he wants to make it right. Who knows? Maybe he’ll come forward and give us some of our 2013 money. He has come through before — the team went through a tough financial time, and he came through for us.”

Asked about Carkulis’ statement that, “the company requires massive overhaul to the system to produce a sport that can be trusted and respected before it returns to its previous sponsorship participation,” Cooke said he didn’t accept it.

“That’s not the reality, I think that’s something they made up,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a 100-percent clean team, everyone is outspoken as an anti-doping advocate. None of us condone doping in sport, so that can’t be true.”

Asked when he last received a paycheck, Cooke said he “would rather not say.”

“I do like the management of the team, they are well-intentioned people,” Cooke said, referring to managers Dave Beck and Remi McManus. “James said he wanted to make everything right. To me that means pay our 2013 salary. This is creating very real financial problems for me, and it’s not just me — multiply that by 10. I just spoke with my teammate Kevin Mullervy, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his December rent. I don’t, either. I’ll be skipping Christmas this year. It’s my reality.”

Moreover, Cooke said he’s worried that his professional racing career might have come to an unceremonious end.

“I want to race next year,” Cooke said. “I want to win a UCI race. I want to beat Francisco Mancebo and Rory Sutherland on an uphill finish. I want to keep going.”