By Neal Rogers
There’s a new title sponsor in domestic road racing this year, one that has already built a growing legacy in the sport.
Bissell, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based floor-care products company, enters its sixth year in pro-cycling sponsorship. Bissell’s support for the sport began in 2003 with the U.S. Postal Service team. From 2005 to 2007 the company co-sponsored Discovery Channel, and last year it co-sponsored the Priority Health continental team. When that company scaled back its commitment, Bissell stepped in as title sponsor.
Mark Bissell — the chairman, president and CEO of the company that bears his name — is the man behind the sponsorship.
“It was kind of a dream of mine, after the Discovery sponsorship, to roll it into at D3 [UCI continental] team,” Bissell told his team at a recent training camp in Santa Rosa, California.
While there doesn’t necessarily have to be a connection between a title sponsor’s product and bike racing, it isn’t too much of a stretch to link healthy living, diet, exercise and a clean home, Bissell said. For marketing purposes the company explains that its involvement in the sport stems from its “passion and commitment toward healthy and cleaner living.” However, Bissell, a fit rider and a member of the USA Cycling Development Foundation Champions Club, admits that his passion for the sport played no small role.
“It’s a personal privilege for me,” Bissell said. “I look forward to spending time with the team. We are in it for different reasons than some sponsors, and having fun is a big part of it.”
For 2008 the team (www.bissellprocycling.com) has grown from 12 riders to 14, with nine returning riders, among them Ben Jacques-Maynes, Tom Zirbel, Garrett Peltonen and Scott Zwizanski. Five new riders have joined the team, among them Aaron Olson (from T-Mobile), Burke Swindlehurst (from Toyota-United) and Kiwi Jeremy Vennell (from DFL-Cyclingnews.com).
Last year was a coming-out party for the 29-year-old Jacques-Maynes, who placed in the top 10 of both time trials at the Amgen Tour of California, including third in the prologue, and won time trials at the Central Valley Classic and Sequoia Cycling Classic.
Jacques-Maynes was also the man most affected by a controversial commissaires’ decision following stage 1 of last year’s Tour of California into Santa Rosa when race leader Levi Leipheimer was caught behind a massive pile-up that brought the majority of the peloton to a standstill.
Only a group of about 40 made it through to contest the sprint, including Jacques-Maynes, who crossed the line about 1:30 ahead of Leipheimer. It appeared the race had a new leader — until race officials made the unusual decision to neutralize the clock from the moment of the pileup.
“I can’t say that I got robbed, because I can’t have something that I never had taken away from me,” Jacques-Maynes said later. “But it is a bitter pill to swallow when you think that you could be leading your home-state race, the biggest race in the country. To have an opportunity like that would have been a career moment for me.”
Zirbel, a former runner who started the 2007 season with a 12th place at the Tour of California stage 5 time trial, missed the core of the season after a blood clot led to a pulmonary embolism. In Zirbel’s absence Jacques-Maynes took up sole leadership for the team, finishing second on the NRC individual rankings behind Health Net-Maxxis rider Rory Sutherland.
Other 2007 team highlights included Zirbel’s fourth-place at the national time trial championship in August, September wins by Emile Abraham (the U.S. 100K Classic) and Peltonen (The Tour of Leelanau) and stage wins at November’s Tour of Southland for Zirbel, Zwizanksi and Vennell, in his first race with the team.
Returning at the helm of the squad are Kiwi team director Glen Mitchell and team manager Mark Olson (no relation to Aaron Olson.) Asked if he played any role in rider selection, Bissell said he’d put his faith in Olson and Mitchell.
“I believe in hiring the right people for the job and putting my faith in them,” Bissell said. “I’m thankful for the job Mark and Glen have done.”
With the addition of Olson, Swindlehurst and Vennell — and Zirbel back up to full strength — Jacques-Maynes said he is thankful to shoulder less pressure this year.
“With Tom and a few other guys injured, everyone else was racing a lot last year and I had to be the NRC guy,” Jacques-Maynes said. “But what we got out of that was a real camaraderie, where guys were just selling out for the team goal.”
Jacques-Maynes cited the NRC title as a goal for 2008, but added that the team hopes to win races regardless of which of them crosses the line first. One such rider might be Zirbel, who has fully recovered from the embolism that forced him to drop out of the Cascade Cycling Classic and miss six weeks in the heart of the season only to return and take a pair of stage wins at the Tour of Southland.
“I expect to win, or at least make the podium, at every time trial I enter,” said the 6-foot-4, 194-pound Zirbel, who goes by the nickname “Thor.”
“Races like the Tour of California might be a different beast, but at the national level I think I can win time trials.”
Olson returns to North America after two years racing at the ProTour level, first with Saunier Duval and last year with T-Mobile. Olson said it was during last year’s Giro d’Italia that he made the decision to return to the U.S., where he last raced in 2005 with Colavita Olive Oil.
“I was close to coming back after Operación Puerto hit in 2006,” Olson said. “But I really wanted an opportunity to race the Giro. I wanted to really punish myself in 2007, and I liked what T-Mobile stood for. But it all got to be too much over there. When I came back for Philly Week I talked with a few teams, and I wanted to find one with the best atmosphere. I wasn’t chasing money, I just want to have fun and get some results, and share some of my experience with the younger guys. Hopefully it will be more fun, and less suffering.”
Vennell, 27, also had a taste of the ProTour in 2007, racing for the continental professional DFL-Cyclingnews squad. A 6-foot-2, 165-pound rouleur, Vennell competed in events such as the Tour of Belgium, Three Days of De Panne and Ghent-Wevelgem, riding in support of 2005 G-W winner Nico Mattan. Vennell was behind Frenchman Jimmy Casper when Casper famously crashed face first on the descent of the Kemmelberg.
“I learned how to suffer for five hours,” Vennell said. “I did races where I never took my thermal jacket off for the entire race.”
Vennell said that riding under Mitchell, a hero in their homeland of New Zealand, was an alluring reason to try a season in the U.S.. Vennell added that with an outside shot at making New Zealand’s Olympic team, it made more sense for him to “get results in smaller races than not getting results in big races.”
Nearly 35, the evergreen Swindlehurst is the team’s top climber and said he will target high-altitude stage races such as the Tour of Utah, the new Colorado Stage Race, and Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic and Mt. Hood Classic.
“I’m hoping to bring as much to this team as I can,” Swindlehurst said. “I’ll try to help the younger guys. And Ben is just scratching the surface with his abilities, I hope I can help him out with that.”
Mitchell named the statewide tours of California, Georgia, Missouri, Utah and Colorado as team goals. And with strong time trialists such as Jacques-Maynes, Zirbel, Vennell, Olson, Teddy King and Zwizanski all towering over 6 feet tall, Bissell is a stage-racing squad that, on paper, could be tough to beat at upcoming team time trials at the Tour de Georgia and the International Tour de Toona.
What the team lacks, however, is a pure sprinter. Richard England, the 2006 Australian national criterium champion, is perhaps the quickest man on the squad, but at 6-foot, 143 pounds, he’s built like a climber.
“We’re built heavily on tours, but we’ll be vulnerable in criteriums,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have the horsepower of some other teams in terms of finishing speed. But with this team we’ll have more options than we’ve ever had. The big difference between 2007 and 2008 is that last year Ben had an incredible season, but now we’ve got Burke, Aaron and Jeremy, and that opens opportunities. It’s not going to just be riding for Ben Jacques-Maynes at every race.”
Bissell scouted the first three stages of the Tour of California during its recent training camp, run out of several rented homes nestled atop Santa Rosa. Mitchell named Jacques-Maynes, Zirbel, Olson and Swindlehurst as guaranteed starters, with the camp doubling as a tryout for the team’s remaining four California spots.
“The guys needed some intensity training to match European teams coming to California that have raced in Qatar or Malaysia,” Mitchell said. “So I organized a five-day inter-squad stage race, complete with climbs and time trials.” The inter-squad competition wrapped up Sunday.
Bissell will also return to the Tour of California with its appropriate sponsorship of the race’s broom wagon, re-titled the Bissell “Clean Sweep” Wagon.
But don’t expect Mark Bissell to ask his riders to show up there.
Bissell Pro Cycling Team for 2008
João Correia (Por)
Richard England (Aus)
Graham Howard (USA)
Steven Howard (USA)
Ben Jacques-Maynes (USA)
Omer Kem (USA)
Teddy King (USA)
Aaron Olson (USA)
Garrett Peltonen (USA)
Morgan Schmitt (USA)
Burke Swindlehurst (USA)
Jeremy Vennell (NZ)
Tom Zirbel (USA)
Scott Zwizanski (USA)