By Neal Rogers
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profiles on domestic road teams. Watch for stories on other American teams over the coming weeks.
After a wet start that included a week of torrential rain, warm California sunshine broke through for the final four days of the Toyota-United team camp, held January 22-31 in Solvang, California.
The third-year team returns in 2008 with title sponsor Toyota Motor Sales USA and bike sponsor Fuji, as well as with an identical jersey design as in 2007.
Leading Toyota-United is Len Pettyjohn, the former director of the dominant Coors Light team of the 1990s and race director of the defunct Saturn Cycling Classic. Pettyjohn will serve as team manager while recently retired Scott Moninger, one of the most successful racers in American cycling, will handle most of the directorial duties on the road.
“People have been calling me for the last five or six years, asking me if I would run a team,” Pettyjohn said. “I kept telling them they should hire Scott Moninger. When [Toyota-United team owner] asked me if I was interested, I told him ‘If Scott comes with me, I’m there.’ Everything came together.”
The addition of Moninger reunites the veteran with Aussie Henk Vogels and American Chris Wherry. All three rode together on the powerful 2002 Mercury team that won over 100 races — also on Fuji bikes.
The 2008 Toyota-United roster is its most international mix yet, with six Australian riders and just three Americans — Wherry, Chris Baldwin and Justin England — making up the team’s primary roster of 14 riders out the 23-man roster registered with USA Cycling.
Like many domestic teams, Toyota-United signed several “specialist” riders to satisfy the UCI’s rule requiring the majority of continental team riders to be under 28 years old. Those riders, while registered with Toyota-United, were not at camp and are not expected to compete with the team this season.
Returning to Toyota-United are Vogels, Wherry, Baldwin, England, Sean Sullivan, Ivan Dominguez, Ivan Stevic, Heath Blackgrove, Jose Manuel Garcia and Caleb Manion. Key additions include Australians Ben Day, Hilton Clarke and his younger brother Johnny Clarke. The team’s final signing, in November, was French Canadian Dominique Rollin, who took third at last year’s inaugural Tour of Missouri.
Over the past two years Toyota-United has won seven stages at America’s three big stage races, the Tours of California, Georgia and Missouri, surpassing any other domestic program. And with returning fast men Dominguez, Vogels and Stevic combining forces with Rollin and Hilton Clarke, Toyota looks to be the team to beat in domestic bunch or field sprints in 2008.
“We’ve got at least 50 percent more horsepower,” Vogels said. “We’ve got guys like Hilton and Dominique that can win out of breakaways, and if the break gets caught, Ivan wins.”
During the initial wet days of the camp Pettyjohn invited Boulder Center for Sports Medicine exercise physiologist Neal Henderson to conduct lactate threshold testing and amass power-profile data for the team.
“The power profiles are what really assess a rider’s strengths and weaknesses,” Pettyjohn said. “That’s how you can identify where you can get better. Everyone is so good these days, it’s that one percent that separates people.”
Vogels pointed to Rollin, a 26-year-old rider who resembles Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen in look, build and riding style, as the rider most likely to impress in 2008.
“When Len told me the team had signed Rollin, I said ‘Thank God we don’t have to chase that animal around this year,” Vogels said.
To that Pettyjohn added, “It’s going to be Henk’s job to help [Rollin] reach his potential, to rein him in and turn him loose when the time is right.”
With a team built heavily on speed, Day, Baldwin and Wherry will serve as the team’s primary stage race contenders. Pettyjohn said that chasing USA Cycling’s NRC team crown — a contest where Toyota-United has finished twice to Health Net-Maxxis in the last two years — was of no concern when he designed Toyota-United’s 2008 race calendar.
“I didn’t even look to see if races were UCI, or NRC, or neither,” Pettyjohn said. “To chase the NRC title would be to chase something that is essentially only of interest to VeloNews readers. Toyota USA wants to reach a more mainstream audience, so we will target important, good races with good crowds and good prize money.”
Pettyjohn also announced Toyota-United’s roster for the Amgen Tour of California, which includes no Americans. Instead, Toyota will send Rollin, Dominguez and six riders from the southern hemisphere — Day, Vogels, Hilton Clarke, Manion, Jonny Clarke and Heath Blackgrove.
Nine Toyota-United riders will head to San Diego this weekend for a pair of races, the Boulevard Road Race, hosted by the UCSD Cycling Team, and the Red Trolley Classic Criterium. Riders from Kelly Benefit Strategies-Medifast, Jelly Belly and Rock Racing are also registered to compete this weekend.
From there, five men — Rollin, Day, Dominguez, Vogels and Garcia — will head to Mexico for the six-day Tour of Monterrey, which begins Monday.
A pair of riders spent Toyota-United’s camp nursing repetitive motion injuries. Stevic, the UCI B world champion, has been fighting hip and knee imbalances since the summer of 2007. Stevic is only now beginning to train into fitness, and will return to racing at Redlands, with hopes to target later races such as Philly Week and the Beijing Olympics. Sullivan, who has been battling an inflamed IT band, is also not race ready and returned to Australia following the camp.
Those injuries were an unwelcome reminder of Toyota-United’s Achilles’ heel in 2007. Last year the team saw Vogels, Stevic, Dominguez and Manion miss major blocks of the season to injury. However with a beefed-up roster, the sentiment within the team seems to be one of confidence given any situation.
“We have so much depth on this team, we really have 14 potential race winners,” Moninger said.
Wherry agreed. “Of course I’m biased, but I think we have the strongest line-up of any domestic team,” he said. “We’re all comfortable with each other, we all support each other. There’s no doubt we have the best team Toyota-United has ever had.”
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Jose Manuel Garcia
Len Pettyjohn, general manager
Scott Moninger, team director