Introducing: Team Health Net
In a time when the sponsorship of cycling racing seems to be in crisis, one group of dedicated racers and fans has succeeded where even the biggest teams have failed – that is pulling together the needed sponsors to fund a brand new trade team. I’m talking about the new Team Health Net – a Div 3 squad – based in Oakland, California.
I recently talked with Kevin Klein – the team manager, who’s also a team rider, about getting the team started, and their year ahead…
IN THE BEGINNING
“Perhaps the most amazing thing about the formation of the new squad is that the entire undertaking, which is truly an immense amount of work and effort – finding the sponsors and riders, setting up the team and it’s program – was accomplished in just under a year. We started the process in the early spring of 2002 and finalized everything just before Christmas 2002”. Kevin explained: “It was a big challenge finding sponsors to commit when we didn’t have riders signed, and getting riders to sign when we didn’t have sponsor commitments in hand. It really was an enormous undertaking — a great deal of thought, planning, foresight and hard roll up your sleeves work went into making this Team a reality.”
In the end, things have worked out. Kevin has signed 18 riders and 23 sponsors, and the team finished its first training camp in mid-January and is in the process of finishing its second camp in early February. A press conference is scheduled for February 10th at the Claremont Resort in Berkeley, CA to announce the kickoff of the Team. Passion for cycling, as most readers know, generally runs pretty deep in those of us who’ve been bitten by the “pedaling bug”. The same goes for the level of commitment the riders have here…
Though the Team’s operating budget is not huge – it’s estimated to be less than those of the other older, more experienced Div II and III teams they’ll be racing against—the Team is very carefully run by a management team that is typically unknown to the industry—loaded with expertise from the Fortune 500 corporate world. Additionally, the Team’s riders are also contributing to the goodwill of the Team by foregoing many expected creature comforts of the bigger teams wherever possible, thereby helping the Team through its year 1 “start-up phase”. Kevin says: “This is a lot like starting a company. The first few months and years can be tough, but we do it because we all see a rainbow at the end of the tunnel. We plan to be here for the long term, and the Team’s sponsors know what our expectations are for year 2 support and beyond. The sponsors also know we plan to live up to our side of the bargain and deliver a big return on their investment; the guys (on the team) all understand the importance of delivering results this year…”
The team owner’s garage served as headquarters during the January training camp.
Like many teams involved in cycling, the passion for the sport extends to the sponsors as well. Rusty Beall – Health Net team member (who happens to write PCN’s “Life In the Gutter” column), reports that: “Health Net (www.healthnet.com) is one of the largest publicly traded managed healthcare companies in the nation, providing benefits to about 5.3 million people nationwide, so cycling is a natural fit and they are psyched to be a part of it all.” Kevin confirms their title sponsor’s interest as a “top level love for cycling. Senior management at Health Net like bike racing to align with a healthy lifestyle and a competitive sport. Just about everyone has ridden a bike, so as an activity, cycling touches more people than almost anything else – much like quality health care.
HEALTH NET VS DOPING
Health Net has also stated how serious they are about the credibility of the cycling team as an extension of their corporate marketing efforts, given the widespread risk of “suspect” performance-enhancing substances in all sports today. Kevin tells us: “In our very first team meeting with our Title Sponsor Health Net, the company’s senior managers told the riders that they’ll walk from the program if there is even one instance of doping on the team.” This message may do more for the team, and the sport than individual rider sanctions – given that every rider knows that he carries even more responsibility for the ongoing success of his team
THE RACE PROGRAM
The Team’s race plan is an aggressive one – that starts in mid-February and carries right through September, taking in the NRC races like Redlands, Sea Otter, Cascade Classic, and the bigger events like US Pro Champs, SFGP, and hopefully the new Tour of Georgia.
Although the official kit wan’t ready, it didn’t stop the team from getting down to the business of riding.
The team is an interesting mix of American riders and a good helping of Belarussian pros with some surprising homegrown and Euro-level experience. The union reminds us how far we’ve come from the US vs. Soviet sports battles of past decades, and also underlines the teams desire to hire the best riders possible, regardless of nationality. Kevin remarks that in looking for riders, he “had his eye on guys who can pull the top 5’s in the great stage races, all-rounders who can read a race, and definitely guys who can time trial and sprint, which is so important to winning the US races.”
On the “homeboy” side, the roster includes an impressive mix of familiar talent like Mike Sayers – the former Mercury-man with 11 years pro experience, Russell Stevenson – who’s got lots of in-the-break experience from the “three hardest races in the States”, Dave Smith – 1997 National Criterium Champion & 2001 State Criterium Champion, Chris McGovern formerly of JellyBelly, Scott Price – the current Canadian champ with over 103 major victories, and riders like Rusty Beall, Bob Hooks, John Hunt who’ve got depth from lots of NRC racing.
The Belarussion contingent includes riders like Yauheni Seniushkin (Eugene) comes with some impressive Grand Tour experience – finishing the Giro twice, and riding both the Vuelta and Milan-Sanremo, Alex Ivanov and Alex Kozlov (who finished the Giro) – both former national team riders from their homeland, Sergei Badeka U23 Belarussion national team rider, and team coach/ mechanic Dimitriy Badeka who’s experience includes winning six world junior championships as Belarussion National Team Cycling Coach for 15 years.
As a rider on the team himself, Kevin’s commitment is obvious when he talks about his own racing goals: “I want a successful team, if I have to give up my whole season and sacrifice myself for a team win – I’ll do it.”
And the team is off to a great start, they won their their first road race just this weekend, and have just signed ex-Mercury & US Postal all-rounder Gord Fraser.
JUST THE FACTS
Owner: Momentum Sports Group, LLC
Gregory R. Raifman
Chairman of the Board, Momentum Sports Group LLC
President, Momentum Sports Group LLC
Title Sponsor: Health Net
Other Sponsors: Veltec Sports
Team Coach – Dimitriy Badeka
Kevin Klein – Team Manager
U23 Development Riders
TEAM CONTACT INFO
Health Net Cycling Team