PEZ Talk: Mike Engleman
From top pro on the American and International scene to director sportif, coach, mentor and more Mike Engleman has seen a lot in our sport. Now working on developing women’s racing we recently caught up with Mike to get his take on all apsects of our sport from tactics to wages and more.
Mike Engleman was a pro for a dozen years; a gifted climber and prolific winner on the North American scene he also had wins in Europe and Australia. There was no, dreaded ‘one season too many’ for Engleman who quit when he was still winning.
Like many professionals before and since he headed into team management but whilst just about everyone wants to be a World Tour staffer, Engleman involved himself with ladies racing – a facet of the sport he’s championed ever since through Mission Sports Group.
Here’s what he had to say to PEZ, recently:
You had 12 seasons as a pro Mike, which was your best and why ?
Well, I guess if we go on wins then I think 1991 was good one as I won 19 races as a pro but my career all sorts of runs together in my old mind. Over the years I set come climbing records in North America and Europe, all broken now but that is what records for, and I won the Herald Sun Tour but that memory is more about food and wine in Australia. Overall I can’t put much importance in my cycling career except for what I learned. I had a pretty good career but there is often that “if I had known then what I know now” and I would think it a waste if some of it can’t help a current athlete.
Of all the teams you rode for, which was best and why ?
Coors Light; Len Pettyjohn. Len knew how to pick a perfect mix of experience and talent. He believed in “hire good people and let them do their job.”
I was an assistant DS at T-Mobile when it was the women’s US National Team and Bob Stapleton said the real value in a team is its staff and I fully believe that! Experienced DS, mechanic, swanny, etc. is what makes a team function well. What I always tell young athletes is to ALWAYS be “pro” or “out-pro” anyone you work with. The best teams do the same.
Did you ever consider becoming a ‘EuroDog pro ?’
I considered it a few times. I got a few offers but my big issue was that, in those days, you went to Europe early, stayed there and did all the races. If it had been a little more like now where athletes focus more on specific races (I was more a stage racer then a one day rider) I might have made the jump. Still, I was older, having started pro cycling at 27, so my options were limited and I really liked riding for Len.
Why did you get involved in ladies racing ?
Because of the world class people and to be a small part of history. So much talent in the rough and while I don’t coach much (I only coach Lauren Hall) I ALWAYS think like a coach and a former DS and I am so excited by all the talent out there. We are at a time where a talented woman can make an impact in only a few years, though it takes a good head, not just a good engine.
So much of the business is the grind of phone calls and proposals but the joy is seeing an athlete love riding an bike, not be famous or make a bunch of money, but because they’re good at it. I have been lucky enough to know and work with athletes like Jade Wilcoxson, Lauren Hall, Kristin McGrath, Mara Abbott . . .
All athletes who others did not see the talent in at first even though it was really so obvious to me. I practically had to force a team to sign Jade but we all took pride on where she went from there. I remember when Lauren won her first National Championship on the track and she walked off the track and with wide eyes said in a very surprised way “I just won a national championship”. Here was someone who just a few years before was a lady with a Masters degree in Business Management, working in a Child Nutrition office in Mississippi and now she is a National Champion. It was pretty amazing when Mara won her first road national championship too. So many special things to be a part of!
I guess I love seeing where a person comes from, more then where they go. All the best athletes I have known have something special that is often hard to quantify, yet I know it is there. I always wanted to help those athletes find the help they need and more importantly, deserve. Mike Farrell signed me to a pro contract at Schwinn-Icy Hot even though I was just a goofy ex-runner who, obviously, knew little about racing a bike because he said he always dreamed of signing some unknown that would win a big race. I won a stage of the Coors Classic that year and I can understand his thrill.
Here is a hint for scouting talent: Look at athletes coming from collegiate soccer. They are tough, fit, not afraid of contact and they understand the team concept. Kat Carroll, Lauren Hall and Cari Higgins are just a few examples.
Tell us about Mission Sports Group, please.
Mission just sort of branched off of the Women’s Cycling Development Program I started in 2005. The program really scouted some good talent and mentored those athletes but I came to the slow realization that while pro manners and fitness could be taught there was really a big shortage of doors for an athlete to knock on.
I had put together a group of people and global connections who believe in women’s cycling so Mission is really just a rally point and action committee, a phone and a really big Rolodex and we are not afraid to bother people and companies. Mission consults for and works with race promoters, corporations, bike clubs, non-profits, bike companies, bike shops etc. We are getting things accomplished because those that know us trust us to give a straight honest answer. USWCDP was a non-profit, Mission is a for profit, though our accountant is not seeing the big difference yet.
Most girls are on $6,000 or even expenses only – why is that ?
The sport needs to be more popular and it needs corporate sponsors that see the value. It takes a ton of money to run a team right and most teams never get that amount of money so it comes down to less staff (all over worked) so that the travel budget can get covered.
Look at the numbers; top men’s teams are working with MILLIONS of dollars while women’s teams, even some of the best, are getting by on a few $100,000. Figure travel expenses alone and the budget is down 1/3 or more.
It must be difficult for you to earn a living wage given the paucity of cash on the ladies scene ?
Well, I made really good money as pro rider and lost it all working in women’s cycling (laugh). I, as do many others, don’t work on the women’s side of the sport for the money, we work here because we support great athletes who happen to be women. Personally, I also see tons of value and it has become a stubborn walk (or stumble) of mine to convince, or force, more people to see it too.
What’s your opinion on a minimum wage for ladies – some say it would scare sponsors off ?
I just don’t see the money being there yet, I wish it was but it isn’t. We have a bunch of building still to do in this sport. BUT, what I do hate is when a team uses these small salaries as an excuse to offer small, or no, salaries. The sport is growing, very slowly but growing, and it needs supporters and sponsors that want to see it be a positive influence AND understand why we cannot continue to expect athletes to compete with so little financial support.
It still comes down to value to sponsors and if you take a serious look at the purchasing power of women these days, not to mention the actual places in power women have now, that there are sponsors that see the value of teaming with educated, well-spoken and community involved women athletes.
Do you think that prize money parity will ever come ?
I would at least like to see more efforts toward parity. I think with road racing it is so tough for a race promoter (Mission works with a number of race promoters so we know the numbers) to find the money no matter their honest intentions, though highlighting that disparity could be a pitch to a few companies to bridge that dollar gap.
I just often don’t think it is fair to only blame a race promoter. There are other factors that affect the sport as it evolves one issue just being how that prize money is spread and to whom. One example is the former Nature Valley Grand Prix which occasionally got a little flack for not offering equal pay but what most don’t know is that NVGP offered some travel money to small teams so that they could attend. Nature Valley also sponsored the Nature Valley Pro Chase which gave some women a chance to race on a “pro” team and learn to race. My point is, there are many ways to use dollars in a good and productive way.
Mike talking about the power of an athlete’s mind back at the 2012 Nature Valley race.
If you had the power at the UCI what changes would you make to ladies racing ?
I actually think the UCI is doing a better job now and I think that will grow. Personally, I see North America as a huge new possibility for women’s racing and I wish the UCI would look at ways to place a better focus.
There are many current races looking at going UCI for the women and while there may not be the historical value of classics here, North American races could give many other teams a place to race and learn. One of my personal issues with attempted progressions for the women is why do we have to try and force our way in the men’s side? Let’s work on our own model and write our own history.
It must be frustrating to see the funding that the likes of The Netherlands on the road and GB on the track provide for ladies ?
Government and/or Federation money would be great but we need corporations that believe in the sport and will use it as a feature for their products. USAC does a great job of getting US talent to trips to Europe (I am a huge fan of Jack Seehafer!) but USAC can only do so much. I see the progress needed as being done by teams who have the budget to scout and develop their own talent and that means sponsorship dollars and that is a road we are still bumping along on.
With all the big companies I am talking to, I keep saying to view it like they are hiring these women athletes, not just sponsoring them. It is also a chance to help write history. Of course there are always those that like to jump in late and gain credit but that works too.
How can GB find a sponsor like Sky; but in the USA – the richest nation in the world – you can’t ?
I’m working on it! I am pleased that some very big companies are at least looking at women’s cycling and educating themselves.
There are three USA World Tour teams now; a long ways different from when you rode pro – but US ladies teams have progressed nowhere near as much, why ?
I think the US women’s teams are progressing! One issue of course is what if we did have a bunch more UCI international teams where would they all race? But look at the teams that are UCI for 2015: TIBCO, UnitedHealthcare, Optum, Twenty16, Pepper Palace. Specialized-Lulu certainly made a big impact as a UCI team too!
I can say too that we are talking with three groups that are each considering starting new women’s UCI teams in 2016 so I see a positive direction with things.
Sometimes ladies racing doesn’t do itself any favors – the Worlds was a real ‘lifeless’ race . . .
I have seen plenty of boring men’s races too (let eight guys go up the road, gain eight minutes-bring them back-sprint). Men’s fields have tons of horsepower, race experience (both on the bike and in the team car), technology (GPS, radios, etc) so while the speeds get high and the power numbers big the tactics are often not beyond much of a surprise.
I would say to look at the great races: the final stage at the Tour of the Gila every year is a good one. One of the best races ever, tactically and full of drama, was the 2013 US National Championships in Chattanooga! Optum went one-two (Jade won, Lauren Hall was second, both are athletes that were scouted and mentored by the USWCDP) which makes it look like they had it all under control but it was an epic race.
Look at the Giro that Mara won (another athlete the USWCDP athlete assisted from the beginning), it was an incredible effort by the US National team to help keep Mara in pink. Reality is people see one or two races a year on TV and if one of those is boring, they think they all are. Women’s cycling needs far more TV time and exposure from those that can tell the real story.
When will your job be done ?
My job will be done when I am really tired, like “dead” and tired. But by then lots of others will be working too. The world goes on; things are always in-the-works.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.