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Toyota-United Owner Sean Tucker passionate about cycling (2)
By Lyne Lamoureux
Date: 9/17/2007
Toyota-United Owner Sean Tucker passionate about cycling (2)

I sat down with Sean Tucker in Greenville SC, the evening following the US Pro Time Trial. At that point, the Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team was second in the National Race Calendar (NRC) team standings with one last race to be contested in the NRC season.

On the first part of our interview , Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team Owner Sean Tucker gave us his views on his team after two years of operation and on the state of cycling. He freely shared his thoughts on possible solutions to doping, and his ideas on a league to improve the business of cycling in the USA.

In the second part of our interview, we conclude our conversation about doping by comparing with other sports, and then came back full circle with looking back at 2007 and looking forwards to next year.

Lyne: Some people say that there's a lot of doping in other sports, but they just handle it better via marketing or spin, or that they hide it better. What are your thoughts on that?

Sean: I don't know so much about the marketing or the spinning portion of it. Let me tell you what I do know because I recently had to do a meeting regarding anti-doping for Toyota. And I did a bunch of research with WADA and USADA, going on their website, talking to them and stuff.

What I do know is that, at least for USADA in the United States, that cycling is the third most tested sport of sixty-eight sports, they call them Olympic sports, we're talking swimming, track & field, cycling, bobsledding, there are all kinds. There are sixty-eight Olympic sports, cycling is the third most tested, it's about 800 tests a year, that's in competition, out of competition, that's during National team training camps. The two more tested sports, track & field is number one at about 1700 a year, swimming is second at about 900 a year and cycling is third at 800 a year.

Interestingly enough, of those three sports guess what two sport have the most offenders each year? Track & field and cycling. So credit to swimming. I did the math, if you go down and look, I think I did the top 10 sports that test the most, well they have the most offenders, because it's a numbers game. You're always going to get a slice of people in life, in business, in colleges, in sports, they're just going to try and cheat for whatever reason. So that much I learned through the process is that sport is just a mere reflection of life, of society let's say. The bottom line is, to cycling's credit they are testing a lot and therefore it seems like suddenly they're catching all these people.

The other thing I learned which quite frankly I didn't know, it's my ignorance, but USADA and WADA didn't even start til the end of 1999. So for the first two years, they didn't do any testing, they were just setting up the company, and setting up the charter, and where's the bathroom. They were just getting started for the first two years. Then they started testing, then they started getting more funding, then they started increasing the amount of tests and then they started having better tests. It's a process just like when you start up any company. The first thing is that you open the doors, then over time, you get more profits, you have more inventory.

So these guys have only been around like really six years and in terms of testing like four, four and a half, so it's all very new. To me why is it suddenly we're catching all these people? I was thinking there are more dopers now, but the reality is before there was no testing, now there's testing, but there's better testing.

Now what I also learned is that there's been doping going on back to the beginning of time, back to the Greeks. So what I believe is really been happening, is that over these hundreds of years, thousands of years, people have always been doing something. But now with the media of television, internet, newspapers, agencies that actually exist, actually have funding, actually do testing, each year doing more testing and in fact having better testing methods, suddenly now 'we have all these dopers', No it was always there we just have a structure to actually capture it all, in any sport, so when I learned that it was like 'wow I didn't know that'.

Back to the NFL and places like that, I suspect that they don't do the actual testing that we do but I don't know that for a fact, but I would bet that that's the case. They certainly don't have nearly the amount of penalties that we have.

Having said everything I said, I can't stand the excuse which I've heard from people in the governing bodies and others that 'kudos to cycling that they are attacking this problem, kudos to cycling that they are the most tested sport' which they're really not, but they're one of the most. I don't buy that, it's like you shouldn't say that, that's an excuse, to me that's an excuse. I mean the bottom line is that nobody should be doing it, I don't care that football controls it, I don't care about that, I just care about our world, and we could be doing more. And there are these little tweaks I'm talking about, this could be done overnight, certainly within a quarter. One quarter of time you could have all these changes implemented and say this is the way it's going to be.

Lyne: So why doesn't the UCI do something?

Sean: I can speculate. My speculation is, you have to look at politics, at business. I always look at 'who has what to benefit' and 'who has what to lose'. This is the way I see it and I could be totally wrong but the way I see it is first and foremost, it's cultural.

I really believe it's cultural, and Pat McQuaid said this recently and I actually believe that. That as example, in America everybody knows that you do not run a red light, you just don't do it. When you drive into a city anywhere in this country, you don't blow through red lights because everyone is deathly afraid that if they blow through a red light they're either going to kill somebody or get killed, or a cop is going to pull you over and throw the book at him, so you just don't do it. That's it, nobody questions it.

I believe, conversely in Europe, I believe that the doping is so ingrained in the culture, again not just in cycling but in all sports over there, but it's so in the culture that if you're a kid, like I got involved in cycling at ten, if the guys that were my coaches told me 'here take this', whatever it was, you would have done it because that's just what they tell you to do, because that's normal.

So I think that a lot of it fundamentally is the culture, so for the UCI to just tell all of Europe and all of these people, 'we're changing the thing overnight', that's a huge ask on that one. I'd do it personally because I'm American and to me it's like running a red light, you just don't do it but I understand the other side that it's a cultural thing. So that's number one.

But number two is, on the monetary side. I would say thinking from their point of view I would definitely be concerned that if we make all these changes overnight pffffttt like this guy Tucker is saying, just bang like that, my concern would be that they are going to lose a lot of teams, they're going to lose a lot of bank guarantees, all the interest on that money they make which is a lot because we don't get it back, they keep it.

Lyne: Really, they keep the interest?

Sean: That's right which I do not like by the way. We do not get the interest, they get the interest. I don't know about you, but I can earn six percent on my money all day long buying t-bills. Well I don't get anything for fifteen months while they have my money which I think is not cool. So you have to look at who has what to gain.

I pay for the right to benefit the sport and they keep the interest. So from the business side, they're keeping, well let's call it six percent and quite frankly with the way the euro does against the dollar, they are making money just taking money. But the point is that they have a lot to lose on that end of it as well as the more teams that go out of business because of the exchanges, the less bank guarantees and their revenue is going to go <whistles> in terms of application fees, you know license fees and the interest that they earn on the actual bank guarantees so they have a lot to lose, we're talking millions of dollars.

If there's millions of dollars to be lost that means people are out of jobs, and being Swiss the whole 'we have to give them jobs, keep people employed, that's just what we do', you see where I coming from?

I believe those are two of the fundamental things, the cultural aspect and the monetary aspect. Because if they want to earn that interest, if we were getting the interest, maybe not that much to lose but there's still application fees which is significant but the bank guarantees, I can tell these ProTour teams are putting up millions of dollars in bank guarantees. Do the math, I've done it, it's a lot of money in a month. It's millions of dollars they'd be losing. Just like in politics, follow the money.

Lyne: What do you think is the state of cycling in the US?

Sean: Cycling in America is really good right now. The prize money stinks but there's a lot of races, a lot of really good races, and there are a lot of teams with a lot of depth and next year is going to be even better.

I've been in cycling since 1979 and I've seen it all, when I was around, I was racing during the eighties when it was our heyday you know 200 juniors at a race and all of them were good, you know. I know that the junior memberships are up quite a bit, I know that there's a lot of pro American teams and I know that there's a lot of pros and I know that there's about five teams that have a lot of depth that anyone of us could win, we're one of those I consider us, anyone could win on any given day and there's a lot of races.

The only thing that I would say is a negative, to me, is that the prize money is really bad, honestly the prize money is terrible. The prize money is about less than half what it was twenty years ago.

Lyne: Why is that?

Sean: Sponsorship. It's just sponsorship. If you look at the value of the US dollar, the value of the US dollar is about a third, actually it's about thirty-five percent less today than it was twenty years ago. So not only is the prize money less than half but what that dollar that would win buys is also reduced by a third, so the net money to the riders is significantly reduced, I mean significantly.

So the good news is that there are lots of races, lots of promoters, good races, lots of teams but the dollars have really shrunk.

Lyne: There seems to be no up & comers or new US young riders in the ProTour next year, is that a sign of a problem? Or is it because US racing is getting stronger?

Sean: That's an interesting question. Let's just say, I wouldn't say that there are none that are good enough. But I would just say that there's a lot that are not going to Europe, they're staying here, they're making the choice to stay in America and not go to Europe.

It's a choice that you have to make. Racing here and in Europe, they are two different things. Any pro cyclist will tell you that they are two different animals. But I think we have guys that are talented, they just don't want to go and be part of what is happening over there now.

Lyne: Looking back at 2007, what would you consider were the highlights of the year?

Sean: (Ivan) Dominguez winning the final stage at the Tour of California for me that was probably the biggest highlight, I blew out my voice in about thirty seconds I was screaming so loud. Because you know a lot of the Toyota people were there because they are in Torrance and it's real close and we had a lot of our sponsors' people there. We had a really bad week, guys were sick, crashing, not feeling well, just bad luck and just .. we're normally a pretty lucky team <knocks on wood>. But that week, guys were going 'we can't, we're Toyota-United we can't leave town like this' and Dominguez had a really bad day the day before, a really bad day he just wasn't himself and had a bad day. Nobody said anything, but we knew, he was going to come out firing and he came out the next day and won. So that was huge because the day before we were bad.

That was big and then (Ivan) Stevic winning a stage in Georgia that was huge in the way that he won it, he did it with panache, that guy is awesome. So the way he won that. I would also say Henk Vogels winning his race because he hadn't won a race in four years I think it was, that was exciting. Those are the three just off the top of my head, I'm sure there are a lot more, at least on the racing side.

Lyne: Okay, so what were the highlights on the non-racing side then?

Sean: I would say our sponsorship of this guy Dan Sheret. He emailed me back in, I think it was back in February or March, with this long email about his trip that he was going to do and he asked if he could have an autographed signed jersey to help raise money. I was so impressed and inspired by what he was even talking about doing nonetheless actually doing it, about riding his bike around the world and I thought 'this guy is a stud'.

I emailed him back and I said 'look if I do this for you, it's not even going to get you out of your parking lot because you're not going to raise any money with this thing'. So I said I'd like to participate, the truth of the matter is I really did out of the goodness of my heart, I wanted to help this guy, there was nothing more.

I had no idea he was going to blow up like he had. So we gave him a bike, some money and some equipment, and lo and behold this guy has turned out to be a great ambassador for his causes, for our team, for Toyota. He was on the Larry King show which was just out of this world. That was just a really nice surprise. To do something nice out of your heat not expecting anything at all in return and to have something come out like that, that was really cool.

Toyota-United Team Owner Sean Tucker (left) and Toyota-United sponsored endurance cyclist Dan Sheret
Photo Charles Herskowitz

Lyne: The goal for this year for your team was the top step of the NRC team standings?

Sean: We were, and we still are. We can (still win) because the numbers that were posted on the USA Cycling site are wrong. We've been working with them to rectify them for quite some time. They know they're off, they just haven't posted the right. We're down I think it's 192 points, they're off by 45 points, 48 points. We're mathematically still in it, the odds are really really small. But I sent the guys an email the other day, I haven't asked them if they laughed at it or now, I laughed at it, I thought it was funny. I basically sent them an email that said it ain't over til it's over, I said I know it looks impossible and personally to me it looks like it is. But if you look at the US hockey team at the 1980 Olympics, they beat the Russian and won the Olympic gold, if you look at Roger Bannister when he broke the minute mile, both of those things people said are impossible. So I said, remember the Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, something you just have to say What The.... that's what I said. Let's go down there and give it our best. We have to get like first, second and twelfth I figure would do it. But the reality is the chances are slim to none, and slim has left town.

We're bringing 10 guys, that's the way I think, that's the way everyone here thinks, as long as it's possible, we're going to give our best. If it's not possible, that's different. It's mathematically possible so we're going to try. We really, really want to win this thing, we've tried so hard this year and it's just been a really ... Health Net has been amazing, taking nothing from them, we've given it our best and for whatever the reasons are, we're behind. If you want to win, you have to be ahead.

Following the final NRC race, the US100K Classic, Health Net presented by Maxxis won the NRC Team Classification and Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team finished in second place.

Lyne: You seem that have had a lot of bad luck and injuries this year, was it more than usual?

Sean: Yeah we had a lot more than usual, but that's cycling you know. Every team has problem, I know Health Net, Karl Menzies' father passed, everyone has problems. We like to look at it like yes it's a fact we had a lot of injuries or whatever but we like to look at it, it's just a little bit of a bigger challenge, we have a lot of quality and depth on this team, and our goal is not make excuses, and just go out and execute, execute and if at the end of the day, Health Net proves to be the best team then so be it.

Lyne: What's the plan for next year? Are you still planning on becoming Continental Pro team?

Sean: <laughs> go faster. Next year, we're going to be Continental. We thought we had to be Continental Pro based on the rules. Speaking with the folks at USA cycling and re-reading the rules, it's very complicated the way the rules because they do a translation from French to English so the way it read, we've been thinking for over a year that we had to be Continental Pro based on our age limit, but as it turns out there's a way through it or around it or however way you want to get to it, so we're going to stay Continental because there is no reason for us, we just race in the US. So for us, it's really an added expense. So in talking with USA Cycling, there's a way to make it happen so we're just going to stay Continental which is fine by us. That doesn't mean anything even if you're ProTour, the bottom line is that they're just a bunch of men getting on their bikes and racing here, there and everywhere and whoever wins is the best man. It doesn't matter what your team name is, and it doesn't matter what level you're at. Whoever wins, wins. So for us, it was just going to be an added expense.

Lyne: Are you keeping the same number of riders?

Sean: We'll have more riders but we're bringing back most of our guys, not all but most. It will be announced not too long. Most of the guys are coming back, most of the guys are already in fact on multi-year contract. We feel in the end we are bolstering the team which you'll see by the people we hired but I wouldn't say it's a huge upgrade, but I would say it's an upgrade. I would say we're definitely advancing the team, at least on paper. And that's all you want to do every year in anything you're involved in is try and get better than before. So we feel that for different reasons, not that there's anything wrong with the guys we have now, we had some holes that we needed to fill so we've chosen to, we almost had two many people of a certain type of rider and not enough of another type, so we sort of lightened up here and added here to make it more balanced, that's really what we are doing.

Lyne: How do you figure out which rider to hire?

Sean: Results matter, but for us we're looking for people that really, truly are team players. There are a lot of people in sports that are not team players, they might say they are but they're really not, you can see it week in and week out. I would say for us, if I had to say percentages, I would say for me speaking, I'm not the director, I would say that your results or your sheer genetic power if you will, that probably counts for sixty-five to seventy percent, probably more like sixty-five and then I would say another twenty percent is just who you are as a person, you know we're looking for people that they're humble, they're not big-headed you know what I mean.

You've seen that with our guys, they're just nice people. That's a big part of it. And then the last fifteen percent is just really just having that sense that they are a team player, really a team player. Again, it's hard with percentages because if they're really really strong and not a team player, but they have to have the whole package.

I mean I don't care how strong you are, we have what is called the no asshole policy. If we think you're an asshole, you're not getting on this team. We talk to the riders, that's the one thing that anyone on our team will tell you that they love it on our team, we ask their opinion about everything, equipment, riders, staff, everyone here has a say, we take all that it, weigh it, balance it, we have to consider budget and this and that. But all in all, I would say honestly, you can ask the guys, I would say ninety percent of the time whatever the consensus is, is generally what we do. From what they tell me, every other team they've even been on, you show up, 'here's your bike, here's where you're riding, here's your this, here's your that and go'. We like to really include people. My management style is really inclusive, and including people because people on their own just want to do better, everyone is connected that way and they had a say in the direction that the way the boat is being steered.

Lyne: What is the goal for next year?

Sean: The goal for next year is going to be more like the first year, win every race we enter. This year we focused on the team NRC which unfortunately due to the way the system is set up, which we don't agree with by the way, but it is the system, it totally changed the tactics and we really didn't like it this year so.

Lyne: What would you change in the NRC system?

Sean: I do think they just need to change the system, they used to have it like this and it was better before. What we think it should be and all the teams do, is all the top five guys of any race get points. So it doesn't matter who from your team got first or fifth, they just go 'oh Toyota United you get twenty points for today' and it goes into your bank account.

Because right now they only count your top six guys so as soon as the first two months of the season is over, you go 'who's our top six guys?', 'okay you guys are riding the rest of the races and we need you to get points'. And so everyone knows each other's strategy. That's Health Net's top six guys, that's Toyota-United's, as soon as one goes up the road, you just mark each other, so it's really negative racing. It's not a good system. so what all the teams are pushing for is that they go back to the way it used to be, back to the old system, is that you just measure the top five or ten guys in each race, whatever team they're from, you get points. That was it is truly about the whole team. For a smaller team, they might be a smaller budget, or just ten guys, it doesn't matter, their best guy is their best guy and they get points. It's just a way of leveling the playing field. Because right now, all year long we've been kind of marking each other, it's just not the way you should be doing a bike race.

Lyne: What is it about cycling that brought you back?

Sean: <laughs> You know it's been my passion since I was a kid. I had to go make money for awhile and you can't make money in cycling so I left cycling to make money. So once I made some money I said okay let's go back and have some fun now. That was really the main reason.

Lyne: So are you having fun?

Sean: I'd like to be having more, it's a lot of work. I'm okay with doing a lot of work but it's been a lot of work. The good news is that it's been getting easier. I'm very hands on kind of manager so I'm trying to get away from that and be less hands on so I'm sort of going through an internal change to do that because otherwise I won't have as much fun as I could be and the reason I came back here was to have fun. Otherwise I'd stay in high tech and make money.

It's becoming more fun, it started out originally, it was really really hard but we were winning just all the time, that kept me going. But now the honeymoon is over and things have settled in a little bit, it's becoming more of a job, it's a job that I love but it's still a job so I'm trying to figure how to work less and have more fun.

Lyne: Last question, do you have any regrets?

Sean: God no. None at all. Honestly for me, when we won, quite frankly, before the Tour of California where JJ Haedo won for us, before that was Brea Criterium that was in Los Angeles and we went and did that the week before Tour of California and I was a nervous nelly because I spent all this money and all this time putting together this team that was incredible on paper and we were attacking, and it was a local race, we were attacking, attacking and we couldn't get away. I thought 'Oh my God, that has all been in fantasy in my head, are we going to be able to win this thing', we've tired ourselves out, but we got first and second. JJ won and Dominguez got second, and by quite a lot. So right there, it was like phew we're for real.

And then we went to Stage 1 at Tour of California, and JJ won with all these great riders and all these people and right down there I felt like I could have died and gone to heaven, I got everything out of it that I wanted so really from that day on, it's been kind of gravy. That one win at that big stage, I can be done tomorrow. As much as I love to win and I do love to win, I just want the guys to have fun, show up prepared, give it everything they can, I really don't care if we win, don't get me wrong I love to win.

Like today, (Chris) Baldwin trained his butt off, I know he was prepared, he rode an amazing race and he got beat. That's what happens in sports. But I felt good that he felt good, that he gave it his all and that was it. So I'm okay with that, I got that whole ego thing when we won that stage at Tour of California, so now it's all gravy.

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Toyota-United Owner Sean Tucker passionate about cycling

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