The Outer Line: Jonas Carney on the challenges of running a pro team

Rally Pro Cycling's team manager Jonas Carney reflects on the challenges his team faces and his years as a pro rider in the 1990s.

In part two of our interview with Jonas Carney, we talk more about the issues and problems faced by the overall sport today, and how Team Rally has approached those challenges. Although Carney tends to shun the limelight and refrain from commenting about the doping era in the sport, we also asked him to reminisce further about his own racing career, the circumstances in pro racing during the 1990s and 2000s, and how he thinks the sport has changed today. We also ask him what an aspiring young racer should be focused on today.

Read part one of this interview >>

TOL: What would you say are the main challenges that you face in the sport today, versus when you first started coaching — greater financial pressures, more demanding sponsors, changes in the doping/anti-doping situation, changing rider attitudes, closer media scrutiny, etc.?

JC: On the sporting side, many of the challenges we face today are about the same as they’ve always been. The biggest challenge we face in North America, like all the other teams, is the shortage of sponsorship dollars, for both teams and for races. While we have been fortunate and our team is doing well, the sport, in general, is in rough shape — and that’s bad for everyone, including us. Over the last 10 years, as the economy has grown, we continue to lose teams and events — and that’s concerning.

One big difference I’d point to is the way social media has exploded in cycling, like it has in all industries, since I was racing. It’s where people get their news and it’s where our partners reach a worldwide audience. It’s where many athletes build their own brands and create their own sporting personalities. Social media has changed the sport; the team has to have marketing, public relations, and graphic design professionals to keep us relevant and competitive.

TOL: What are the other specific challenges faced by a mid-level Pro Continental team like yourselves, versus the challenges faced by the bigger budget international teams?

JC: There are challenges at every level. Most of the same challenges that we had as a Continental team, we still have. We used to lose some of our best guys to Pro-Conti teams. Now we face the problem of losing our best guys to WorldTour teams. It’s hard to build a team when your best riders are constantly being poached. But we’ve built a program where riders thrive and we’ve continued to have success despite losing many of our best athletes. The key for us is building that foundation, keeping the core of the team together, and fostering that positive culture. That helps us to retain our current guys and attract recruits that will thrive on our team.

The biggest challenges we face are the ones that everyone is talking about — the general uncertainty of the structure and economic sustainability of the sport. We want to race the biggest races in the world and we want to be a WorldTour team someday. Once you reach the WorldTour you are guaranteed to race all the biggest races, but as a Professional Continental team, nothing is guaranteed. We’re carefully studying how to reach the next level, but then the target always seems to be moving too. It can be frustrating — we are just starting to digest the most recent info from the UCI and trying to figure out how to proceed.

Jonas Carney
Sepp Kuss is one of the high-profile Rally riders who went on to ride for a WorldTour team, signing with LottoNL-Jumbo for 2018. Photo: Sam Wiebe | Rally Pro Cycling

TOL: What it will take, besides more money and bigger sponsors, for Rally to get to the WorldTour level?

JC: Aside from money, it really comes down to infrastructure and time. It’s not easy for an American team to make it in Europe and you can’t do it overnight. It’s a pretty big project to transition from American racing to European racing all while running a team. Starting from scratch in January we’ve made some great progress. We now have our own 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Spain, we have four full-time employees living in Europe, our European fleet of vehicles is expanding this winter, and we will soon be setting up housing for our North American staff and riders. These are all investments we are making now with the vision of racing at the highest level in a couple of years. It takes time to organize all of these things.

TOL: Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit more about how things were during your racing career. Particularly within the U.S. sport, you always had a reputation of being a strong advocate of clean racing.

JC: That’s a long story. Unfortunately, the prime of my career was in the 1990s and sure, I was faced with the same decisions as most guys my age.

I had a lot of success as a junior and the first couple years as a senior. Everything was on track. But I wasn’t a very mature kid, and that kind of early success and expectation didn’t really help my career. Things started going wrong for me and I started having a lot of injuries and illnesses. Some of it was normal stuff that most athletes deal with, but much of it was my fault because I was reckless and didn’t take care of myself.

By the time I sorted out my health issues, it was the mid-90s and EPO use had become widespread. It didn’t take long before I was convinced I couldn’t make it in Europe without EPO. I felt as though I had to start doping or give up the dreams I’d had since I was eight years old. So yeah, I seriously considered doping during that period, but ultimately decided against it. It just wasn’t for me and I didn’t want to take any risks with my health. We were all just young kids in a tough situation, being forced to make very difficult decisions. Different people made different decisions. A lot of those guys are not bad dudes and some of them I still consider friends.

I thought that my best option was to race domestically, try to be the fastest field sprinter in the U.S., and try to make the Olympic team on the track. I never again did the volume or made the sacrifices necessary to compete in longer and more difficult road and stage races. I trained for the 1-kilometer time trial on the track and to be a pure field sprinter on the U.S. domestic scene. It wasn’t very glamorous and I didn’t make a ton of money, but I also didn’t have to make all the sacrifices that the guys in Europe were making. I had a lot of fun.

TOL: Did it hurt your racing career? Do you feel like you were cheated out of possible greater success?

JC: This is tough to talk about. It’s a complicated subject and my feelings have changed quite a bit over the years. I would never say that I would have won this race or that race. The fact is that I may not have been durable enough to make it in Europe or I may have continued having health issues racing at that level. That being said, staying clean during that period meant that you got cheated on a regular basis — even if you were just racing in the U.S. I absolutely felt cheated by guys doing EPO to win criteriums and NRC races. There was a time when I was bitter and angry, but I eventually realized it was a huge waste of energy. Now I’m just happy with my decisions and with the way things turned out for me.

TOL: You are still kind of recognized and held up as a symbol of clean racing. Is this ever a problem or disadvantage for you today?

JC: Yeah. I have learned that speaking out about this can make me a target. I don’t need enemies in this sport who may treat my riders or my team unfairly because they were offended by something I said. So I’ve found that it’s just better to focus on what I can control. I may not have a lot of influence in this sport, but I always want to make the right decisions for my riders and my team. That’s the best way for me to have a positive impact.

TOL: Let me ask you a slightly different question, the one that everybody asks these days. Do you believe the peloton is cleaner today than it was while you were racing?

JC: The peloton is absolutely cleaner today. There is still a lot of work to do, but from my perspective, the sport has made tremendous progress. What really confirms this for me is seeing what guys like Mike Woods and Ben King have been able to accomplish. I know those guys, and there is no way they are doping — and look what they’ve done! It’s great to see this generation of guys have the opportunity to race clean at the highest level and make a good living. I’m a little jealous. It would have been nice to be born about 15 years later.

TOL: Any final advice for young riders looking to enter the professional ranks today?

JC: Don’t think about the money when you’re young. Focus on finding the best program. Find a team with a positive environment that can provide you with the best race program and try to surround yourself with people who are supportive. Race as much as you can and don’t pigeon-hole yourself at a young age. The skills you learn racing track, cyclocross, mountain bikes, or criteriums can all help you succeed someday at the top level in Europe. Become an all around great bike racer. Have fun while you are young because someday it’s going to be really hard and feel more like a job. And for God’s sake, spend less time looking at your power meter!