By Neal Rogers
When you’re on top, there’s only one thing to do — do your best to stay there.
It’s something the riders and staff of Health Net-Maxxis, the number one team in USA Cycling’s National Calendar Rankings for four years running, know all too well. Entering the 2008 season with a scaled-down roster means the team will be facing its biggest challenge yet as it tries to maintain a hold on that No. 1 position.
Returning with just 12 riders, three fewer than last year, Health Net at least has history, if not its former depth, on its side. The team has parted ways with top domestic GC rider Nathan O’Neill, along with Ryder Hesjedal, Jeff Louder, Shawn Milne and Doug Ollerenshaw. Health Net picked up Phil Zajicek and Matt Cooke from the now-defunct Navigators Insurance squad and has also added Corey Collier, who spent the 2007 season riding with the Colorado-based Einstein’s Bagels amateur team. The team also returns as a UCI continental team, rather than as the continental professional team it was in 2007.
In addition to its top team ranking, over the past four years Health Net has twice placed a rider on top of the NRC rankings — in 2005 with Scott Moninger and in 2007 with Aussie Rory Sutherland.
Moninger, of course, has moved on, retiring as a competitor at the end of 2007 and now taking over as director of Toyota-United, Health Net’s chief domestic rival over the past two seasons. Sutherland, however, returns to Health Net along with compatriot Karl Menzies, team captain Tim Johnson, U.S. national criterium champion Kirk O’Bee, Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium winner Frank Pipp, support rider Roman Kilun and developing young riders Matt Crane, Kyle Gritters and John Murphy.
After four years at Navigators Insurance, Zajicek comes to Health Net to serve as co-leader with Sutherland. His hiring reunites him with Johnson, a teammate at Saturn in 2003, as well as with O’Bee, with whom he rode at Navigators in 2004 and ‘05. Zajicek won last year’s Cascade Classic and finished second at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, and hopes to return to take the top step at both.
“I’ve always had respect for this team,” Zajicek said at the team’s recent training camp, which ran from January 28 to February 3 in Solvang, California. “I believe in being loyal to my employer, but this was a perfect opportunity for me. I think Rory and I will complement each other well, but it’s a deep team — everyone on this team can win.”
BMC Racing signed O’Neill to ride in 2008, but he’s now fighting a positive doping result from the 2007 Tour of Elk Grove and is not currently listed on that team’s roster. Health Net team president and marketing director Thierry Attias explained that the squad made the decision not to bring O’Neill back well before news of his positive result.
“We have to look at a rider’s value versus cost, and we decided a guy like Phil Zajicek was more valuable for the cost,” Attias said. “Nathan was very good for 35 days a year, while Phil can be good 80 days a year. Nathan was very good at time trials, but Phil also one of the top time trial riders in North America, and he isn’t afraid to go to the front in a criterium and help out his teammates.”
Attias acknowledged that the team’s scaled down 12-man roster is a direct result of a smaller 2008 budget.
“We run this team similar to a business, and like any business, there is some ebb and flow,” he said. “We’re operating with a little less, but we’re confident we can produce a quality end product.”
Sutherland won multiple stages at the Redlands Classic and Joe Martin Stage Race in 2007 and returns for a second year of racing in the U.S. He said he wouldn’t target another NRC title so much as focus on “winning bike races.”
“We just want to win races, we’re not looking at individual or team rankings,” Sutherland said. “If that comes along, great, but we’re not targeting anything so much as taking opportunities as they come to us.”
Sutherland, who recently finished second at the Australian national time-trial championship and third at the national road championship, said that the team was smaller in 2008, but had “no less passion, or motivation or talent.”
“Every one of these guys was hired for a reason,” Sutherland said. “We have guys who know how to perform when they need to. We’ve got a selfless group, still the core group from 2007, and we’re essentially a group of friends that race together. And when we’re happy and having fun, we tend to race well together.”
Also gone is former team director Jeff Corbett, the men who led the team to those four successive team titles. He has been replaced by Mike Tamayo, who spent the 2007 with the team as an assistant director. Attias noted that still Corbett maintains a relationship with the team and is expected to help out on a limited basis.
Tamayo and Attias were in agreement on the team’s goals for 2008: “To dominate bike racing domestically.”
Tamayo said that after four years at the top NRC team, adding a fifth year would be nice, but that shouldn’t be the sole ambition for the team.
“We want to be the animators,” Tamayo said. “We want to make the racing harder, and be dominant. We asked the sponsors how important it was for us to take a fifth title, and they told us, ‘Maybe it’s time to go for something else.’”
Something else will likely mean the team will try to on its record of stage wins at the three U.S. “grand tours.” Health Net has not taken a stage win in two editions of the Tour of California or at last year’s Tour of Missouri — where Louder took the KOM title. Its last stage win at the Tour de Georgia was in 2005, when Gord Fraser won the final stage in Alpharetta. Hesjedal secured the KOM title at the 2007 Tour de Georgia, while Greg Henderson took sprinters jersey at the 2005 edition.
Attias and Tamayo acknowledged that the Tour of California is an important event, particularly for its title sponsor, the California-based Health Net, which returns in 2008 as a sponsor of the race.
“We’d like to have a good Tour of California,” Attias said. “We’re not eyeing a GC podium, but we’d like a stage win or several podium appearances.”
Tamayo named listed Health Net’s Tour of California roster as Johnson, Pipp, Menzies, Sutherland, Zajicek, Crane, Murphy and Kilun. Zajicek said he’ll aim for a top 10 in California, but added that he’s primarily hoping to take a stage, and would be willing to gamble a top 10 GC placing to try for a stage win.
One big streak the team hopes to maintain is its record at Philly Week. Health Net riders have won five of nine events over the last three years, including a remarkable sweep of all three races in 2005.
“We want to perform well whenever eyes are upon us,” Attias said.
Health Net-Maxxis 2008 roster