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The 2003 Wachovia Cycling Series kicks off on Tuesday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And while there are few certainties in bike racing, one thing you can be pretty sure of is that no matter how the race develops, Gord Fraser will not be winning it in a sprint – or in any other fashion, for that matter.
Fraser also won’t repeat his win from last year at the Wachovia event in Trenton, New Jersey, two days later. Nor will he – or any other member of the Health Net squad – be contesting the finish in Sunday’s USPRO Championship in Philadelphia.
No, Gord Fraser hasn’t lost his finishing kick, and he surely hasn’t lost his desire. It’s just that he and the rest of the Health Net team will not be racing in any Wachovia event this coming week (See “Anew name, but Wachovia is still theweek“) … or in the New York Cycling championship in August or the San Francisco Grand Prix in September. Indeed, the Health Net squad has been specifically disinvited from any bike race organized by David Chauner and Threshold Sports.
Team officials contend that Threshold and Chauner aren’t barring the team for anything it has or hasn’t done this year. The decision, say team officials, is a result of a dispute that dates back three years, to the BMC Software series and a cancelled $250,000 bonus Fraser seemed likely to win in September of 2000.
“We were invited (to Wachovia),” said Greg Raifman, CEO of Momentum Sports Group, the management company in charge of the Health Net Pro Cycling Team. “We had a verbal invitation, but there was also a suggestion that we not bring Gord. When I questioned whether they could dictate who we would or would not bring, I was notified by e-mail that the invitation would be withdrawn. They clearly did not want Gord there.”
Lawyers, sprints and money
Fraser has not always been an unwelcome guest at Threshold events. A look at his race résumé shows the Canadian has won more than his share of big-money events organized by this country’s most successful cycling promoter. But it’s an event organized three years ago that some say sits at the root of the current dispute.
In 2000, Threshold promoted a four-race U.S. series under the sponsorship of the software firm BMC. As an added inducement, the company offered a $250,000 bonus to any male or female rider who swept all four events. Teams and riders licked their lips at the thought of claiming the prize, and interest was high as the series made its debut in Austin, Texas, of that year.
Fraser, then a member of the Mercury team, and Saturn’s Nicole Reinhart took their respective races in Austin, and both followed up with wins in Houston and San Jose, California. Two riders, each with a shot at a sweep and a check for $250,000, arrived for the series finale in a Boston suburb on September 17.
Both were favored to complete the series on top, but, as most now know, Reinhart was killed on the final lap of the women’s race that day, and, understandably, the scheduled men’s event was cancelled.
“I was certainly not in a state of mind to ride at that point,” Fraser told VeloNews. “We were all in shock. I was devastated. We all loved Nicole.”
Threshold and BMC officials quickly arranged to have the women’s prize donated to the newly created Nichole Reinhart Foundation. Fraser said that the men, too, were prepared to do the same.
“We had even discussed the possibility of riding the race just so we could donate the money to her family or whatever,” he said.
Within a few weeks, however, Fraser and his Mercury team director, John Wordin, began asking about the possibility of closing out the men’s series and giving them a chance to wrap up the series bonus.
“I asked and asked and never got an answer,” Fraser said. “I finally called (former U.S. Cycling Federation director) Evan Call and he said they were going to work it out … then a few weeks later he was gone – quit, fired or whatever – and when I called back they tell me that Evan said we were cool with the way things stood. But – and I know how this sounds – but we had put an entire season, an entire team’s full season focus, on that series, and suddenly it was gone. I didn’t know what to do.”
What Fraser did do was to wait for a little more than a year – and then he filed a breach of contract suit against USA Cycling, BMC and Threshold Sports.
The feathers didn’t start to fly right away. Indeed, a few weeks after filing the suit in May of 2002, Fraser – still riding for Mercury – won the Threshold race in Trenton, New Jersey.
“I know that must have annoyed them,” said Raifman. “Here he was winning one of their races and taking them on in court, too.”
Nevertheless, Fraser continued to ride in Threshold events for the year.
“Legally, things really didn’t start to heat up until the season was over,” Fraser’s attorney Scott Biaggi told VeloNews. “We originally filed in Colorado, Threshold’s attorney had been difficult to serve in the case … when they finally took the complaint, they argued for a change of venue to Philadelphia, which is where the case now sits.”
New team, new sponsor… new troubles
By the end of the 2002 season, Fraser’s Mercury squad was reaching the end of a five-year run. Its major sponsor had withdrawn from the sport, and Wordin was having little success in securing a new one. Riders, including Fraser, began to jump ship.
After a long search for a new ride, Fraser hooked up with Raifman’s newly formed pro squad, supported by a first-time cycling sponsor, Health Net, a California-based managed-health-care company.
“It was a good opportunity for us, and they were excited about having a team with guys like Gord and Mike Sayers,” said Raifman. “It was a good situation for a first-year sponsor.”
Part of that good situation, of course, was that the team would be taking part in the country’s top races – many of which happen to be promoted by Threshold.
“It was April 29th when they suggested that we not bring Gord along,” Raifman said. “When I said that I wasn’t sure it was up to them who an invited team had on its roster, I got an e-mail later in the day saying that the invitations (to Threshold events) were being withdrawn and any further communication on the matter should be directed to their attorney.”
Contacted by VeloNews, Threshold CEO Chauner declined to comment on what drove his company’s decision not to invite Health Net to its series of invitation-only races.
“We are one of three defendants named in a lawsuit,” Chauner said. “The judge has issued a gag order in the case, and beyond that I can not comment.”
The response seemed to suggest that he had linked the lawsuit to the invitation, but when asked if that was, indeed, the case, Chauner simply repeated his earlier statement.
“We are one of three defendants named in a lawsuit,” Chauner said again. “The judge has issued a gag order in the case, and beyond that I can not comment.”
It’s a restriction that Fraser’s attorney says he is unaware of.
“Gag order?” Biaggi asked. “Man, if there was a gag order, word of it never got to this office, that’s for sure.”
Where’s the fed’ in all of this?
Of the other two defendants in the case, one of them is in a particularly delicate position.
“Largely, because we have the responsibility to protect both riders and promoters in this sport,” said Gerard Bisceglia, USA Cycling’s chief executive officer.
Bisceglia, too, was reluctant to offer comment on a case he inherited when he took his post less than a year ago.
“We’re looking into it,” Bisceglia said. “My information, now, is just based on the mail we’ve gotten from Health Net. My initial feeling is to take some action, but I want to tread lightly before talking to our attorney and seeing just what the promoter’s rights and responsibilities are.”
Those rights and responsibilities may in fact favor the promoter in this case. USPRO, the USA Cycling affiliate responsible for professional road racing, only requires that a promoter invite the country’s top three teams to major events. At this point, that’s Saturn, Navigators and Prime Alliance.
While Lancaster, Trenton, New York and San Francisco are clearly Threshold events, Philadelphia is a national championship and should fall under the purview of USA Cycling. But it doesn’t. When USPRO awarded Chauner and his firm the right to promote the U.S. national championships, the contract gave the promoter a great deal of latitude, including the right to invite whomever they chose, including foreign nationals. While Fraser is a foreign rider, most of his teammates are Americans. Ordinarily, one would expect that they would have a right to compete.
But Philadelphia has long had something of a dual identity, says USPRO board member Roy Knickman, manager of the Prime Alliance team.
“Is it a UCI invitational or is it a national championship?” Knickman said. “It’s been both. I mean, there were times when my team director cut me from the roster in favor of a foreign rider on our team. The race has always had that problem … of course, it’s many of the good foreign riders who bring a lot to the race, too.”
The bottom line
For Fraser, the toughest part has been the fact that his teammates and sponsor are getting swept up in something that he says was “essentially a separate and private matter from years ago.”
“I would love to be in Philly,” Fraser said. “I would love to see Mike (Sayers) there, too, and all the guys, but they aren’t budging on this. One thing I find remarkable, though, is that the team, the riders and our sponsor are standing by me. That part has been great.”
Health Net president Dave Anderson said the company supports Fraser and the team, but “we’re very, disappointed that someone chose to try to use us as leverage to settle what should be a private matter.”
“This has left us with something of a bad taste, to be honest,” Anderson said. “I mean, we came into this sport looking for opportunities. We also thought it was good for the sport… I mean there isn’t a lot of external support, is there? I assume that in the long run this will affect our attitude toward cycling.”
But Anderson said he’s reserving judgment in hopes that the issue might be settled in the near future. Attorneys in the case have a settlement conference in a week.
“We’re hoping that people can come to their senses and figure out a way to sit down and discuss this thing like adults,” Anderson said.
Raifman said he, too, was hopeful.
“This is not a good introduction to the sport for a first-time sponsor, that’s for sure,” Raifman said. “I am just hoping we can take care of it and quickly. I want to do right by our riders, by our sponsor … the last thing I want to do is go to battle with anyone.
“The bottom line is that we just want to ride our bikes.”
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