The New Professional Team Model

Sep 23 2010

Taylor Phinney by flickr user OTBPhoto cc-by-ncI wrote (before my little break) about two investment approaches taken by various teams: a willingness to develop riders, and settle for good-not-great results in the process, versus full-on pressure to glean the best possible results immediately. I argued—using the example of Bernhard Kohl and the 2008 TdF—that while the first method may seem inferior, its long-term returns outweigh the short-term gains of the second approach.

Perhaps more evidence of that comes courtesy of Taylor Phinney’s recent decision to pledge the first few years of his for-real pro career to Team BMC. Phinney’s acquisition by Livestrong’s U23 squad was viewed something of a coup (as well as a personal swipe by Armstrong against Slipstream’s Jon Vaughters) back in 2008, and I think his contract decision is just as significant this time around.

While the recently-crowned US TT champ cited “mental security” and not having to fiddle with a new bike before he rips the legs of the world at the 2012 Olympics, I think the fact that RadioShack was assembled as one-shot profit-seeking vessel for Comeback 2.1 might also have something to do with it. I dunno—maybe looming disciplinary hearings and federal investigations for team management aren’t the deterrent I’m assuming them to be, but RS 2011 doesn’t strike me as something I’d want the rest of my career to hinge on.

BMC, on the other hand, seems like a team taking a longer view of success. Though ostensibly built around Cadel Evans, the Aussie’s season-long approach to racing and long history of near misses (in many cases to the less-scrupulous) defies the RadioShack mold. Similarly, the rest of the team’s efforts have been day-in, day-out workman-life affairs, and beyond a brilliant pair of legs from Marcus Burghardt at the Tour de Suisse, more notable for misses than the wins.

It’s also worth noting that, organizationally, BMC began as a US Continental Squad, battling it out at decidedly less prestigious American and Suisse events. Sure, Och’ and Andy Riis might have had some atonement to do—an alleged “Floyd-brication” indicates as much—but it’s got to be re-assuring when sponsors and management are coming in on the ground floor, rather than throwing cash at an existing product and hoping for an immediate return.

While the Phinney signing seems to add further evidence that starting small and building your way up (remember that Garmin kicked off as as a minor US development team in 2003), both BMC and Garmin also illustrate that at some point, you’ve got to try and make that jump to becoming a full-fledged international squad. Though the team put on an excellent show at the Tour this summer, BBox’s inability to land a sponsor for next season should provide ample warning on the dangers of languishing in a particular niche for too long.

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