Becoming a professional cyclist is a difficult journey. But trying to make it to the top end of the sport starting in the U.S. is much different than in Europe, where there exists a much more elaborate structure of progression from young ages up through the Espoir (U23) level.
Thankfully things are slowly changing for the betterment of young racers in the U.S. From established clubs to the national team to high-end Espoir teams like Trek-Livestrong and Team Holowesko Partners — younger U.S. riders have more opportunities to gain valuable experience than ever before.
However, a trend among some U.S. riders is that they often come to the sport a little later in life — perhaps as a second sport in high school or discovering it in college. For athletes at the ripe old age of 23, they find themselves no longer eligible to race for national or Espoir teams and have to try to make the step to the pro ranks largely on their own.
Trying to fill that gap is the Verizon U25 Cycling Team, and it is doing so while also integrating the latest technology of its sponsors to lengths that some pro teams do not even go.
Just browsing through the team’s web site, which rivals many pro team sites in terms of content, shows how serious the team is taking its relationship with technology. The stories, photos and video are all impressive and give a unique insight into the team throughout the season.
The team’s title sponsor, Verizon Wireless, provides the team with smart phones, notebooks and MiFi devices. In turn, the team uses this technology in a variety of ways, from traditional uses to some pretty ingenious applications.
“I really saw an opportunity to provide value to the sponsors,” said Billy Dwyer, who manages the sponsorship side of the team. “I saw there was a start with the technology being showcased, both within cycling and outside to the technology arena. With Verizon being the largest wireless provider, they want to know how can they encourage their current customers to use their technology more.”
A unique way the team is promoting this effort is by providing race organizers and officials with MiFi connections and notebooks to upload results instantly and give announcers access to information about any rider to enhance their commentary.
“(Announcers) are also using our MiFi device to talk to the back side of the course,” said Dwyer. “It makes the races a lot more exciting for the fans. At the Tour of Elk Grove we were showcasing a lot of this technology.”
Indeed, the stage announcers at Elk Grove used the MiFi with Skype and were able to speak live to a third announcer who had a team 3g netbook and was calling the action on the far side of the large course, with the announcer coming through crystal clear to the fans at the finish.
Dwyer said that the success of the technology use this year is only the beginning for the team. “We can create a live feed and make bicycle racing more accessible and exciting. Out ultimate goal is to have a live video feed from the bike! We have also talked with USA Cycling to see if it is OK to have a radio on a couple of the riders, and to have announcers talk to the riders during the race.”
On the racing side, the team has had relative success, most notably with 23 year-old Mike Sherer. Sherer is another product of the Little 500 race at Indiana University, made famous by the film “Breaking Away.” Though he has a dream of racing as a pro, he took the prudent approach of finishing his degree in kinesiology. But by doing so this made him too old to even be considered by an Espoir program, and so the Verizon team came along at a good time. As well, he and his father came to an agreement about his post-collegiate plans.
“My dad kinda gave me a year off, hoping some good things come along,” said Sherer. “We have a great group of guys with no drama, and a breakthrough year. We had big wins at Tour of America’s Dairyland and Glencoe. Also some NRC podiums and the younger guys getting results, so I would say it has been an amazing year.”
Sherer netted some notable wins, including the elite amateur race of the USPRO criterium championship in Glencoe, Illinois, and finishing fifth overall in the pro category at Dairyland. “Glencoe was a bigger win because it was in front of all the pro teams, even though it wasn’t a totally elite field. But fifth overall at Dairyland was.”
Leaving the nest
Sherer is hoping that his results will land him a pro contract for 2011, something that the team management is helping him do. “We are shopping him around trying to kick him out of the nest for next year,” said Mike Ebert, who handles the racing side of the team. “Ideally nobody rides for us more than a couple of years.”
“The goal is always going to be to provide a home for young up and comers — guys that do a stint with the national team but are now 23 and don’t qualify for that anymore. We fill the gap to give guys a place to have structure like a pro team and race at a level they will need to be at for the pro level. Even if we give them only support in races we want them to take that next step.”
That support, even if it is simply having a camping chair to sit on before a race instead of reclining on the concrete curb, or a cold drink ready after a long race, can make big difference.
“It’s been an amazing year going from a team that had little support to a ton of support,” said Sherer. “Team cars, staff support… even chairs set up for us. I got to live the life of a pro!
But the pro lifestyle is not limited to that. The team is pushing the training technology envelope too, thanks to sponsors like Quarq and ANT+.
“Quark is on board and with Verizon everyone can upload their data, so that same night I can be at home looking at their development and I can accelerate their learning curve. ANT+ is another sponsor we have so we use Garmin devices combined with carbon FSA cranks with Quarq’s tension meter.”
And like the biggest pro teams, Ebert and the riders communicate directly with the sponsors about improving their products. “We talk with the technology-focused sponsors and facilitate relationships between them to take their products to the next level. We have Verizon engineers talking to the riders and other sponsors about the fitness aspects.”
Ebert also said that the angle of a team made up of younger riders also aids in sponsorship efforts. “The angle that we used and proved this year was being a team of young riders that have social media in their DNA, so we can provide sponsors much more promotion. The guys (are) blasting out when someone does well with the race. We are able to tell a story about these young riders battling against the pros. We hope it resonates more than just a picture with a product.”
Down the road
For 2011 the team is looking to expand beyond its eight-man roster to be able field a couple of squads simultaneously.
“In our first year I didn’t think we would perform this well, but it all came together,” said Dwyer. “Next year we are still going to focus on pro development, looking for the riders that have the potential to go to the next level. We don’t want them to worry about anything except racing their bikes. There are so many kids out there that don’t have the opportunity.”
The usual story for a team like this is to eventually go to the pro level so that sponsors get more and higher-level exposure. Yet this team sees both sides of that coin.
“I think we are always going to focus on development,” said Ebert. “We might look at a UCI continental license over the next couple of years, but always focusing on that kind of a rider.”
“Longer term, I don’t know if we will become a pro team in five years,” said Dwyer. “In some ways I hope not, but it also depends on where our sponsors take us. We want our sponsors to be more than just a name on a jersey.”
Indeed the sponsors do get more than that, and more than some pro teams, as the team provides them with monthly updates on the number of impressions the sponsor gets.
So while the team might not race in the biggest U.S. races or rack-up as many wins as the big pro squads, they are fine with that, because that is not their mission.
“The sponsors that I approached didn’t know a lot about cycling,” said Dwyer. “So it was selling them on the impressions and creating more awareness of their technology within cycling. Going forward now, after our successful season, we can tout ourselves as the up-and-comers and the next generation of cycling.”