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A Prime Alliance
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 8/8/2002
A Prime Alliance
 

The Prime Alliance Cycling Team. Two years old, this US team sits at number one on the NRC rankings. Its ironmen Chris Horner and Danny Pate are number one and number two respectively on the NRC individual rankings.

Its string of successes is long, its roster impressive: veteran pro, Olympic medallist and seasoned coach Roy Knickman the general manager; veteran pro Kirk Willett the road manager; Chris Horner, Mr. Power himself, the team leader.

Thereís Danny Pate, 2001 U23 TT Champ; 1999 U23 National Time Trial winner Ryan Miller; time triallists Matt Decanio and Svein Tuft. Sprinters John Peters, David McCook and Jonas Carney; all-rounders Jame Carney and Mike Creed (who just won the Espoirs National TT, his second consecutive U23 TT title), 2001 National Team Pursuit Champion John Walrod as well as 2002 additions Alex Candelario and Russell Stevenson.

What is the formula that has made this team a powerhouse? It is a unique combination of factors that definitely starts at the top.

From the Top
Tom Irvine, CEO of plastics industry service provider Prime Alliance, started the team in early 2001. Prime Alliance is not your average corporate sponsor, nor is Tom your average team owner (his Paceline Team Sports owns the team).

First off, Tom is an avid cyclist; cycling permeates his life. Asked why he started the team, Tom says, "...because I saw an opportunity to do something Ďout of the boxí for Prime Alliance that would create a positive feel-good reaction within our company and our industry. If the USPS Cycling Team could make the Post Office look good, then just think what we could do for the plastics industry!! I really felt that there was an untapped business angle that could be mined. On a personal level, it was a new challenge that had the potential to be fun and rewarding. I also saw the opportunity to immediately make a difference and an impact on the sport...it was fun to have so much enthusiasm going into the start up of the team."

His relationship with the team is very personal. When Tomís kids hear the word Philadelphia, they do not think of Ben Franklin or the Liberty Bell, they think the USPRO Championships.

About his family, Tom says, "My kids are real fans of the team. They have a hard time sitting still and watching a race for 3 or 4 hours straight, but they love the event side of a race. My kids all had good first experiences with guys on the team, that really helped. The first race that my oldest son watched, Jonas Carney won and gave him his gold medal. They love having Mike Creed and Danny [Pate] visit the house...they are buddies with these guys."

Mike Creed is Tomís favorite houseguest because "he makes my kids look neat and organized," and Jonas Carney will probably go snowboarding with the Irvine family this winter (Jonas thinks this is pretty cool). Tom also says, "My wife has been a saint in all of this. She has been at my side at many events and hosted the team and riders on many occasions. She still thinks Iím a dork for riding with my team clothing on..."

According to the team and management, Tomís personal involvement is in fact the glue and the direction for the team. Jonas says, "Tom is awesome. Ever since the beginning of this team he has been involved with everything. The riders spend a lot of time interacting with him. I would say that it's very nice to race for a sponsor that I can also consider to be a friend. Tom provides a ton of leadership to the program. I don't think that is common for a sponsor." Creed says, "Tomís a friend, not a boss. I think that helps a lot."

But Tom demurs, "...it is really hard to even hint at overshadowing what Roy and Kirk have done, and currently do, to make this team a winner. I'm kind of uncomfortable with praise knowing they put their backs into it."

No matter whom you ask though, respect and personal involvement are repeating themes, and Irvine says these have made the team a success: "Passion, integrity, hard work and a unwavering respect for each other. Now that may sound canned and trite...but when you are able to start from scratch with those driving principles it sets a good foundation. From that basic foundation, Roy Knickman and Kirk Willett have been the brains and the glue for the organization. I thank my lucky stars every day that we found each other to build this team. They have taught me everything I know about this sport and hopefully they have picked up a few tidbits from me."

Thinking Big with Sponsorship
Knickman says that part of the teamís formula for success is that Tom "thinks BIG," that "he wants to create the next generation D-1 Tour team with the next generation of riders. He gives me a push not to be too content. I guess it goes along the lines of, if you are not moving forward, you are moving back. No standing still."

Tom does think big. He has involved Prime Alliance clients as sponsors, including BASF, Bayer, Cyro, Dow, DSM and Solutia. When asked how he has managed to engage his clients in sponsoring a pro cycling team, Tom says, "I am very fortunate to have long term business relationships with the companies you mentioned. I think it is a testament to my companyís standing in the plastics industry that has enabled totally new sponsors to get involved with cycling. It hasnít been an easy sell lately; our industry is still mired in a brutal recession.

"The upside is that many of these companies are using team visuals in annual reports, press releases and web site content. We are also reaping the benefit of some cross promotion, cross development activities with our plastics companies and cycling product manufacturers. For instance, Bayer is supplying the polyurethane gel that goes into our Fizik saddles. Solutia is developing a special acrylic fiber that will be used in cycling socks and undergarments. Our engineers are working with Speedplay on some new pedal design concepts. That was my real hope, that we could justify our involvement by creating new business and new access to business. That whole scenario is my pet project...

"If all I did was be a Ďsponsorí then it would be purely a business decision. Challenges for pure business sponsors are weighing the promotional and intrinsic value versus the cost. The challenge is activating your team sponsorship to do all that itís capable of doing for your company. Sponsoring a team is like having a high powered computer...if you know how to use it you can reap great benefits from all the functions. If you donít, itís just a good-looking box that sits on your desk. Iím learning how to use my computer and the team more effectively.

"I think that all the companies that sponsor cycling teams should be supporting each other. Saturn could be buying plastic through our group, we could be driving Saturns or Mercurys as fleet cars...maybe Navigators could be our insurer...I certainly eat more than my share of Jelly Bellies!! This type of mutual support for each other goes on in the ownership ranks of pro football and pro baseball...why not cycling?"

Involving the Company
This "global" approach also permeates the Prime Alliance company as a sponsor. Asked how the team sponsorship pervades and influences the corporation, Tom says, "I could give you all the text book reasons that it has been good, but the most important reasons are that it makes people feel good about their company and their jobs, and most importantly, themselves. It has been something that we can include families in...so itís not just another company function where the spouse and kids have to stay home...we get our employeesí families, friends, neighbors out to races...wearing our hats and shirts and rooting on our team. It makes people proud of their 8 to 5 lives. Another very positive side effect of the team is that we have many of our people more concerned and interested about their health and fitness. Itís really satisfying when I get an e-mail from someone telling me that they bought their first bike in 30 years and have started a regular riding schedule."

The team itself is also involved with the company employees. Jonas says that, "I think that it is great getting to know all the people from Prime Alliance. We interact with them quite often. It's a very unique sponsorship, and it's more personal than with most teams I have experience with."

Willett says: "Tom and Prime Alliance have been behind us 100% in building a team that can take on everyone. That 100% isn't just financial, but it also reaches into the environmental aspect of the team ...the team is a big deal to him, the company, and everybody involved behind the scenes. It is very family-like. It's not just a small piece of some huge company's marketing budget, but a truly integral part of the company that everyone can be involved in. That goes a long ways towards creating a motivational and rewarding atmosphere that is ripe for success. No matter what our future brings, that atmosphere is here to stay!"

Meeting Sponsorship Challenges Head-on
Tom also has interesting views on the challenges of sponsorship, not so far off from having started a team himself. When asked how he avoids team sponsorship becoming a "money pit," he says, "My role with the team is a bit different than traditional sponsors; since I own the team as it is more personal. It is easy to get carried away. One of my first instructions to Roy and Kirk was not to ever take advantage of my ego. It would be easy to dig a huge hole if you didnít have trusted managers that respect a long term relationship."

Tom has also commented on sponsorship as an obstacle for teams, stating that it is not an item of focus for either the UCI or USCF. Asked if fostering team sponsorship wouldnít also help these organizations, and what changes would strengthen and encourage sponsorship of pro teams, Tom says, "I donít want to jump on the bandwagon bashing the ĎFedí or the UCI. The organizations are always easy target for outsiders. All I can say is that when I sought out help and advice from USA Cycling two years ago, when I had the idea to start this team...I got zero help or information. I couldnít believe that I was telling these people what I wanted to do and what companies I had behind me...and they couldnít help me with anything. My point, it should not be a major undertaking for someone to get demographics or statistics or even a sample team budget for a potentially new sponsor. If I hadnít been so bull headed, I would have stopped the project then and there. Obviously, stronger sponsors will help the governing bodies. I also think that USA Cycling might be helpful in facilitating business to business connections between sponsors.

"As for attracting new team sponsors...neither the UCI or USA Cycling make that a priority. Priority #1 is funding their own coffers. New sponsors are brought in one at a time without the benefit of Ďofficialí data points to work with. Somewhere in every sponsor organization is an avid cyclist...finding that person is the needle in the haystack." [Of note is that Roy Knickman is now the USPro representative to USA Cycling and is putting together exactly what Tom was looking for a couple of years ago. In Tomís words, "...wonder how that happened?"]

Tom also takes a hard stance on the subject of doping, and has an interesting view to controlling it among riders. "I hate this problem more than anything with cycling. Our policy on our team is Ďyou dope,í the team is over...period. Not Ďyou get caught,í we talk about it and maybe suspend you....itís zero tolerance. I will not put my company and my business reputation at stake over a doping issue. I think if a rider dopes and takes a team down because of it, he should be financially and legally liable for damages to the whole team. If I were part of the Mapei team, I would be figuring out a mini class action suit against Garzelli. If you create a serious enough financial hardship, then I think you will greatly reduce the frequency of doping. If the economy doesn't kill off sponsors, the continued doping scandals will."

Asked about sponsorship shakeups in Europe, Tom says, "I think some of it is cyclical. Sponsorships do run their course after a while. Itís pretty unusual to have sponsors stick around as long as some of them have. The economy is obviously the biggest culprit right now. Add to that the doping and potential negative publicity given to sponsors and itís just a tough period to be fundraising for cycling. I think you are seeing a rise in stature of the American rider because the playing field is being leveled by better doping control. Clean American riders can more than compete on an equal level with clean Euro riders, so they are being sought out by the Euro teams more than ever.

"Mapei's exit from the sport is the worst loss the sport has seen in many years...Mr. Squinzi was a passionate and generous sponsor who used mostly his own resources to fund the best cycling organization in the world. Hopefully, Mapei's exit from the sport will be as meaningful as any of their competitive success."

And Then Thereís the Team...
The combination of riders and management is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. But Tom and his managementís leadership cannot be discounted, as again, there is nothing but mutual admiration and support across the boards. This is best described in the teamís own words.

Knickman gives this assessment: "On the rider side we have put together a team that sacrifices 100% to produce the win. We have leaders capable of winning and riders strong enough to support. No one holds back, thinking they need their own result. They know their effort will be acknowledged and rewarded. Very simple. On the staff side, Kirk is a very intelligent director and uses the riders very effectively. Kirk, Tom and I all treat the riders with respect and compassion. They are not just cogs in the machine. They are people with personal issues that sometimes need to be dealt with by the management, with understanding." He says Tom provides the right guidance. "There is personal involvement and understanding of the ridersí natures, ups and downs as well as personal needs. This needs to come from the top."

Willett: "The biggest way that this sponsorship differs from other teams I have been involved in is the personal involvement and ambition that Tom has for the program's success. He's not just a sponsor, he is part of the team, the owner in fact. That type of involvement is a big reason why the team has such potential."

Kirk continues, "...a lot of it has to do with providing the environment and the direction for both new and established talent to shine. It is really hard to get anywhere without talent, but if the talent can't shine, you don't get anywhere either! We recruited a lot of young and Ďnew to the sportí guys to the team, all of whom are learning their strengths, their weaknesses, and just what it takes day to day to race a full professional season. The common denominator among them is talent, although each a bit different. Combine that horse-power and youthful drive with a team leader with the superior work-ethic of Chris Horner, and all I really have to do is get out of the way!"

Horner: "Prime Alliance is still a growing team so all involved are motivated so see it succeed. We all appreciate Tom; he backs us all 110%. Itís nice to have a sponsor relate to you on a personal level while still running an extremely professional outfit. Tom has also made great choices concerning the directors, Roy Knickman and Kirk Willett. Everything is very organized and the riders don't have to worry about missing the paycheck."

The riders also concur that the drive from above to win is not overbearing. According to Matt Decanio, "A winning team always starts from the sponsors. Prime Alliance with Tom Irvine is the best sponsor I have ever had. He never puts stress on us to win. Therefore everyone is more relaxed. Also we have a great chemistry for leaders and workers. Everyone is happy to give up their chances at every race for our leaders. As soon as guys get selfish, the team will start losing in my opinion.

Horner: "The team is successful because it is such a low stress atmosphere and Tom has really allowed us to focus on racing. The entire team gets along, and truly enjoys each otherís company. We are able to have a good time doing what we love, and at the same time we are able to get the job done."

Jonas Carney: "I think our team is successful and consistent as a result of the environment that Roy, Kirk, and Tom have created. They've done an excellent job of selecting riders and staff. Everyone is treated very professionally and with respect. They are also very understanding of the difficulties of professional racing. Nobody can ride well all the time. Kirk, Tom, and Roy always stand behind the riders no matter what and that can go a long way. I've been racing full time for thirteen years now and I've never been a part of a team like this. Everyone is having fun, everyone is happy to be here, and you never feel the negativeness that is normal on many teams."

Adding Up to Success
And what about the teamís success so far this year? Tom says, "I must admit that my expectations were pretty high going into this season. Our team kicked into hyperdrive the last couple months of the 2001 season. We brought Chris Horner on last September and the Chris and Jonas Carney duo was something to behold...I think those guys won 4 out of 5 of the final NRC races last year. Throw in a World U23 TT Championship by Danny and a World Cup Points Championship by Jame Carney and the stage was pretty well set for some great things to come this year.

"We have had a great season so far, but so have many other teams...itís just been incredible racing this year. There have certainly been races in which our results were disappointing...I felt we should have fared better than 3rd at Housatonic. Lancaster and Trenton were big disappointments for the guys, but they rode well at Philly and Danny came away with 3rd place...and hopefully a well-deserved thank you from Walters and McRae. As for the rest of the season...we have high hopes...the Saturn Classic, and everybodyís favorite, the San Francisco GP."

[High hopes indeed: Prime Alliance riders took podium spots in each stage at The International -Toona, with Pate and DeCanio first and second overall; Candelario finished fourth at the NYC Championships; the team came in first at Cascade with Creed as KOM winner; Horner and Pate came in first and second overall at Fitchburg Longsjo; Decanio and Pate were 2nd and 5th overall at Beauce. Their 2002 palmares are extensive, and can be found here.]

Tom continues: "Our overall competitive goal for the season has been to win the Individual and the Team NRC ranking. If Chris continues to ride well and stay off his motocross bike, I think he will accomplish our first goal. I donít think itís too big of stretch to see Danny finishing second either. As for the team NRC goal...that will continue to be nip and tuck." [Mercury is breathing down their neck.]

Europe on the Horizon?
We also asked about the team plans for Europe, and how the riders felt about riding there. The team has focused on the American road calendar in 2002, though Tom says, "Europe was on our schedule this year, but a combination of scheduling problems and event changes pretty well scotched our plans. I think next year we will be much better recognized by race promoters in Europe and we wonít have similar problems. Our plans most likely would be to do a series of races in late April and May, then maybe again in late summer. Most of our stage race guys would go, I think: Horner, Pate, Creed, Decanio, Tuft and Candelario would be a strong core at any race in Europe. Several of our sponsors are based in Europe, so they want to see our boys in person."

Decanio says he wants to go back to Europe, "but when I am much older. Racing in Europe is so hard on your body. I want to go in a couple of years, of course I have to also have the results that will place me back on a team over there. So I have a hard road ahead of me but hopefully with hard work and determination after the next 3 years I can make my way back. I think everyone on the team can make it in Europe if they work really really hard and don't give up no matter how hard it gets!" Tom says, "I want that to be a goal for him [to get on a team in Europe]; hopefully we will be there to give him the opportunity Ė if not, by all means I want him to follow his dream (and talent)."

Mike Creed, known for being rather out-spoken, has ridden in Europe with the USA National Espoirs team and says racing in Europe "has been great! Although Europe isnít much fun when the form is bad." Asked how riding in Europe has influenced his riding in the US, he says, "It shows you how hard you have to work to be at the top of amateur racing; I canít even think of pro racing!" How would it be to race in Europe with Prime Alliance? "I think we would rock those Euro geeks to the ground!"

For all his vision, stellar team picks, management philosophy and "thinking big," Tom Irvine certainly has a winning combination, and has burst onto the US racing scene big style. But perhaps most impressive of all is his continuing enthusiasm. "Itís been the coolest experience that I have ever had, being involved with this team. Iím still like a kid in a candy store...sometimes I have to pinch myself!! Work and fun can go together."

Yes, it can.


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