By Mark Johnson
With a new title sponsor, a 10-rider squad stacked with junior and elite talent, and Olympic gold medalist and world champion Kristin Armstrong as the team’s director, the Peanut Butter & Co/TWENTY12 women’s cycling team is looking toward a promising 2010 season.
Previously called ProMan Hit Squad, the four-year old team’s Swiss-based ProMan project management company will stay on as a supporting sponsor.
According to team manager and founder Nicola Cranmer, developing riders for long-term success is fundamental to the team’s charter. It’s so important that preparing riders for the 2012 London Olympics is part of the team’s name — TWENTY12. A commitment to nurturing elite-level women cyclists in the U.S. helped Cranmer ink a multi-year sponsorship deal with the New York-based peanut butter company, Peanut Butter & Co. “It all came to fruition this week, ” the British-born Cranmer said. “It’s pretty exciting. And it’s always good to see a new brand come into cycling, especially women’s cycling, It’s encouraging.”
Even without a global recession, Cranmer recalls that attracting sponsors to women’s cycling teams “Is always tough.”
According to Cranmer, the California-based team is distinguished because of its support for riders’ international ambitions. “When one of our riders meets the criteria to receive an invite to race in Europe for the national team, we make that a priority. Strengthening the pool of U.S. riders that ride for the national team is important.” In fact, after Armstrong joined the organization, rider resumes poured in — everyone wanted to be associated with such a towering name in women’s professional cycling. As she screened these rider applications, Armstrong says she was partial to national team riders who already had international racing experience.
International calendar is key
While Peanut Butter & Co. riders will race in the U.S. most every weekend throughout the season, Cranmer says “It’s definitely not our goal to win the NRC. We are happy it’s there for training and American racing, but we are definitely looking beyond that. For a lot of the girls we are looking at their race schedules at 2012 and working back from there. It’s very long-sighted.”
Domestically, Cranmer says the team will target New Mexico’s SRAM Tour of the Gila, Philadelphia’s Liberty Classic, Minnesotta’s Nature Valley Grand Prix, Oregon’s Cascade Classic and both track and road nationals. The team also selected riders like 17-year old Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and Cascade Classic crit winner Coryn Rivera, who will race with the national team in Europe.
“Some of those races will be prep races for big European races like the Giro.” Cranmer adds that the team designedly selected national team riders and takes pride in giving them the flexibility to race with the national team at the highest European level. “We know it’s in their best interest at the end of the day and ours, too.” The team will also race next month ‘s Tour of Qatar.
Conventional wisdom has it that U.S. sponsors are not interested in women’s teams who race in Europe. Why market your products where they can’t be bought? Cranmer and Armstrong’s team is proving this received wisdom wrong. “At Interbike, just selling people the concept of 2012 was really exciting to people,” Cranmer recalls. “They were excited about the long-term goals and long-term vision. And that came from a lot of industry people, too. We actually turned a few no’s into yes’es selling that concept.”‘
“For me personally, especially in light of what’s happening in Haiti, racing is pretty frivolous, you know?” Cranmer reflects. “If we can be a part of something that’s much bigger than just going out on the weekend and racing, I’m all for that. It’s added so much more depth working with the young women. Just developing them as people. Some of these girls that we are working with are 13 years old. They might not necessarily become professional bike racers, but we can help them on the right path to becoming leaders, to being team players, to having self confidence. That to me is really important.”
Armstrong: U.S. junior women at a disadvantage
Beijing gold medalist and current world time trial world champion Kristin Armstrong is the team’s director. Armstrong decided to invest her significant credibility with the team because of its focus on developing young riders. Coming from top-ranked UCI teams (T-Mobile and Cervélo Lifeforce), Armstrong says she wanted to pass on her racing and management experience to upcoming generations. “My interest from the beginning was juniors. When I retired I knew I wanted to stay involved. I thought, ‘Well, I really want to give back. I just felt like I have this knowledge that can be shared with the top girls in America, too.”
Armstrong explains that juniors in the U.S. are at a disadvantage to their peers in Europe because of expectations about when women take up racing. “The biggest difference between Europe and America is when people started riding their bikes.”
While European youth are introduced to racing as teenagers, Armstrong points out that for many domestic pros like herself, they don’t get involved with cycling until after college. “What I saw was, hey, we just need to get more juniors involved. And we need to build these girls. It might take the next eight years to 12 years, but you have to start somewhere. If people don’t pay attention to juniors we are never going to get to where Europe is.”
Even when she was racing professionally, Armstrong had an inkling that Cranmer’s program was the vehicle to help her execute her post-retirement plan to give back. When Armstrong found herself racing in America, “The team that stuck out to me was ProMan. And it was because of what Nicola was doing with these young girls. I thought, this is awesome. I love it. I love how she is getting these girls to race before they are ‘supposed’ to. Meaning, they are not 19 yet, they are in their junior gears.”
Armstrong said she was also impressed by Cranmer’s organizational skills and drive. So, “I thought I’d go to her and ask if she wanted to join forces. From that point on last summer we’ve been working on this and it’s been a perfect partnership.”
Peanut Butter & Co came into the picture when, in Grand Central Station, Armstrong happened to meet a company CEO with a passion for cycling. Armstrong, who also works as a motivational speaker, was giving a talk for the U.S. Peanut Commission in the iconic New York City train station when she met Peanut Butter & Co’s founder Lee Zalben. Like most perennially hungry pro cyclists, Armstrong loves to eat; upon trying Zalben’s products, she “instantly fell in love with his peanut butter. It’s amazing.”
Zalben, who started the company with a gourmet peanut butter sandwich shop in New York City then branched into retail peanut butter products and cookbooks, had been working with a small women’s cycling team. When she linked up with Cranmer, Armstrong thought back to her introduction to Zalban in Grand Central Station. She approached him in early January 2010 and “found that Lee had this huge passion (for cycling) and he wanted his own team.”
Comparing Zalben to her old boss Bob Stapleton, another successful entrepreneur who turned a personal love for cycling into his own cycling powerhouses T-Mobile and then HTC-Columbia, Armstrong says “this partnership is wonderful.” She adds, “Lee is so ecstatic about it, and we are. And it’s really nice to align yourself with a company you believe in. The girls are really psyched beause in America, We all grew up on PB and Js. Peanut Butter is the American Way!”
Functionally Armstrong will have two roles: coach and on on-the-road director. She currently coaches half of the team’s riders, and she will also direct the team at major NRC races. Both Armstrong and Cranmer emphasize the importance of mentoring both young and experienced riders. To that end, they will pair up elite riders with junior riders like 16-year old Ruth Winder at major events. Similarly, experienced team riders like Mara Abbott will always have Armstrong to bounce ideas off.
The team’s focus on races that are two years out attracts a certain type of mindset. According to Cranmer, “The elite women are very goal-oriented. It’s really easy to work with girls that have a clear vision of where they want to go because we can help plot that out for them. Especially with Kristin. She’s been there and done that and knows what it takes. She can really help them. There’s not too many people who can say they have won an Olympic Gold medal.”