Commentary

BMC Racing surviving and thriving

Updated: May 18, 2010, 12:46 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- The BMC Racing Team, named for the eponymous Swiss bike manufacturer but licensed in the United States, took a huge leap in stature late last year when it announced the signing of two established stars, world champion Cadel Evans of Australia and veteran George Hincapie, who is wearing the stars-and-stripes kit of the reigning national champion for the third time in his career.

The team, which races on the Pro Continental level -- one tier below the elite Pro Tour -- ratcheted up its goals along with its personnel, earning invitations to Grand Tours and virtually every other important race it sought to enter in Europe and North America. That includes the Giro d'Italia and Tour of California, which are running concurrently this week.

A slew of injuries, a couple of inopportune suspensions and one firing thinned the roster to the point where it wasn't easy for BMC to field strong teams on both continents. Yet so far, the team has managed to make a lot of noise in Italy -- where Evans has already worn the overall leader's jersey for a day and won an epic stage in the mud -- and plans to do everything in its power to launch Hincapie to a stage win in California. Norway's Alexander Kristoff got BMC on the podium early with a third-place finish in Sunday's Stage 1 sprint finish, earning the Best Young Rider's jersey that day.

Is it possible to shoot for the moon and not have growing pains? In the past few weeks, BMC has seen both ends of the sporting spectrum.

Evans' success at the Giro was preceded by winning the classic Fleche-Wallonne race. "He's really honoring that [world championship] jersey," said BMC assistant director Mike Sayers. Young U.S. rider Brent Bookwalter -- one of three Americans racing in his first Grand Tour -- kicked off the Giro with a surprising second in the prologue time trial.

But this spring has also brought its share of unwelcome news. BMC suspended riders Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio after they were named (but not charged) in an Italian police doping investigation. Santambrogio was reinstated after the team conducted an internal investigation, but the official probe is still ongoing.

In April, Swiss rider Thomas Frei tested positive for the red blood booster erythropoietin and immediately confessed. He subsequently gave a newspaper interview in which he detailed his doping practices, saying he had been microdosing with EPO for two years and would have continued to do so, confident he could beat the test simply by drinking enough water beforehand.

Sayers, a veteran of the domestic scene who is guiding the team in California this week, said Frei's bust and his comments were a terrible blow to morale but by no means a fatal one.

"He was at my race [the week the positive test was announced] and I had to deal with him," Sayers said. "The Swiss guys took it hard. You could really see they were struggling. It was a big wake-up call that the riders need to be there for each other. Thomas only thought about himself. We trust the riders, the riders trust us, and he violated that trust."

The means to handle both success and deep disappointment will likely come from the same source: BMC's seasoned management and ownership, which has experienced all the highs and lows the sport has to offer for the last three decades.

BMC wouldn't have a team in the field were it not for the willingness of the bike company's owner, Swiss businessman Andy Rihs, to reinvest in the sport after walking away from the ashes of the Phonak team after Floyd Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone, costing him his 2006 Tour de France title. Landis' case was the backbreaker for Phonak after a string of high-profile doping convictions, including that of fellow American star Tyler Hamilton.

Rihs, who also owns Phonak (a hearing aid manufacturer), folded that team's tent and decided to focus instead on what was then a lower-tier developmental team sponsored by his bike company.

He quietly formed an alliance with Jim Ochowicz, the former USA Cycling president who managed the 7-Eleven and Motorola cycling teams, and began recruiting mostly U.S. and Swiss riders. Ochowicz initially worked for the team as a sponsorship consultant, but also drew on his network of contacts to help the team gain entry to races. He later bought into the team. Hincapie's decision to leave HTC-Columbia, where he had spent two happy, productive seasons, was due in large part to his connection with Ochowicz, who gave him his start in pro racing.

"Ochowicz kind of tempered Andy a little bit on his expectations," said team physician Eric Heiden, the quintuple Olympic gold speedskating medalist who also rode professionally in the '80s. "There hasn't been a lot of getting ahead of yourself, the cart before the horse sort of thing."

Evans, the enigmatic former mountain biking star who has twice finished a frustratingly close Tour de France runner-up, rode for years for Belgian teams where he was somewhat of a square peg in a round hole and never had cohesive support. His world championship win last year seemed to infuse him with a new confidence and comfort in the spotlight. "When we signed him, he came into an organization that was strong enough to support his endeavors," Ochowicz said in an interview earlier this year.

Several key figures from Phonak have made fresh starts at BMC, including team director John Lelangue, who comes from a prestigious Belgian cycling family and formerly worked for the Tour's parent company, Amaury Sport Organisation. He said earlier this season that he loves working with younger Americans.

"You can feel real motivation about the fact that, 'We are there, but that's not the end of the dream. We want to go even further. We want to get to a podium, we want to be in the top 10,'" Lelangue said. "Look at Australia, too, the development of Australian riders is maybe a little bit the same. In Europe, maybe they don't have the same motivation."

Chad Beyer, a 23-year-old rider from Tucson, Ariz., is among that group. He rode his first full classics calendar this season, his second with the team, and won the sprinter's jersey at the Tour of Romandie. His former coach with the U.S. developmental team overseas, Noel de Jonckheere, also migrated to BMC this year.

"It's a laid-back atmosphere," Beyer, who is riding the Tour of California this week, said Monday. "We aren't super results-driven. We just go out there and have fun and the results follow."

Another U.S. rider, 29-year-old Jackson Stewart, has seen the organization evolve since he joined BMC in 2007 and said he doesn't differentiate it from Pro Tour teams anymore.

"Everything's jumped," he said. "Our races have jumped, our infrastructure's jumped, our staff numbers and the ability of the riders have come up a level. I don't think of the divisions anymore, I think about us as a huge team and one of the best."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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