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A Chat with Colavita-Bolla Director Sportif Greg Wheeler
 
By Staff
Date: 10/8/2003
A Chat with Colavita-Bolla Director Sportif Greg Wheeler
 

By Sharon Downey

With the loss of so many womenís races, not to mention Saturn as a sponsor, the world of womenís cycling might look bleak. That is, until you talk to Greg Wheeler, Director Sportif of the Colavita-Bolla team.

Colavita-Bolla had some spectacular results on the US criterium circuit this year, particularly Ashley Kimmet, and theyíre thinking big for the upcoming season.


Ashley Kimmet winning the Univest GP. © Zui Hanafusa

Sharon Downey: My number one question has to be: What can we expect from the Colavita-Bolla womenís team next year? Are you planning on taking over where Saturn left off, by winning just about every race on the calendar?

Greg Wheeler: I think you can expect us to be winning big races and making positive headlines for our sponsors. We fully anticipate becoming the number one team on the womenís U.S. criterium circuit in 2004, and also to be a major player in the Pro Cycling Tour and at other significant road races.

Now, as far as taking over the mantle from SaturnÖ uh, excuse me while I give myself the Heimlich maneuver! First, I personally hope that Tom Schuler and Team Sports find a replacement title sponsor to continue in another incarnation. They have really raised the bar in terms of professionalism in womenís and menís professional cycling on the domestic scene. Thatís good for the sport, so itís good for us. That said, I think we can win some of the important races that Saturn has won in the past, and I plan for our women to race as professionally and cohesively as Saturn has demonstrated along the way. On the other hand, we donít plan to be the number one team in the UCI rankings next year! We need to learn and grow progressively, not in outrageous giant steps. In that way, I think that Ed Beamon and Ray Cipollini at Navigators are nice examples for us to emulate.


Shannon Hutchison © Bill Parsons.

SD: Colavita-Bolla Womenís team has had some great results this season, especially Ashley Kimmet and Jacqueline Paull. Is the team satisfied with the way the season has gone? What have been some of the high points this year? Any low points?

GW: Thanks, and you are right, we have had many great results. In fact, just the other day our teamís General Manager, Rich Bauch, compiled a list merely of our podium appearances this year; it was staggeringly long! Just to see all those results in one placeÖ Mind you, in terms of planning, our womenís elite team in 2003 was virtually an afterthought to our menís TT III pro team. So to come away with the results we did was truly something special.

To answer your question, the team management - Rich, John Profaci of Colavita, me, and others - are more than satisfied with the way the season went. Oh my, thatís an understatement.

If you followed the news and results in U.S. cycling this year, then you saw quite a bit of our womenís names. Shannon Hutchison in particular proved that she is one of the best and most consistent criterium specialists anywhere. Tracy Sproule as well rode extremely well in the spring crits. Meanwhile, Brooke OíConnor and Rebecca McClintock got results in every kind of race and terrain. Rebecca, by the way, is a great hope for the future of womenís road racing in America. I think her 5th place in this yearís hilly Espoir National Road Race Championship, after a winter and spring of training in pancake-flat Florida, is just a small hint of things to come from her. And of course Ashley is one of the finest endurance track specialists in the U.S., if not the world. Lenore Imhof and Jackie Paull flew the Colavita-Bolla flag with great results in our home-base of New Jersey and at regional events. You have to hand it to Lenore - when she signed on with us, she thought she would be riding for a New Jersey-focused team. She ended up riding with a top national-level team, and let me tell you, she rides her heart out for the leaders every time!

There are way too many highlights from this season to even begin to enumerate. Personally, though, Iíd say that every time I had the opportunity to work and spend time with our women was a highlight for me. I started working with them, somewhat serendipitously in fact, around Memorial Day weekend for the Tour of Somerville, and then of course a couple weeks later in Philadelphia for the Liberty Classic. These are simply the finest people I have ever worked with, hands down, and I am not exaggerating. They are divinely talented and impressively focused and motivated; but thatís not really why I love them so much. I love them because they are, each and every one of them, total class acts in all regards. Gracious, niceÖ just great people to hang out with. Iím a lucky guy, wouldnít you say? So thatís my "highlight."

On a sporting level, you have to note the consistent performances of Shannon in the toughest criteriums on the circuit. In fact, until a nasty crash in Bound Brook on Memorial Day weekend, Shannon was the top-ranked criterium rider in the country on USA Cyclingís standings. Ashley won several World Cup track qualifiers early in the season, and even finished 4th in the points race at the Mexican round of the UCI Track World Cup. And she won the end-of-the-season Univest Grand Prix as well.

Low points? HmmÖ any time one of our women crashes is a low point for me. Shannonís crash at Bound Brook in particular was a little nerve-wracking. And Brookeís shoulder dislocation at Wendyís in Ohio, even though I wasnít there to witness it. I have to say I was a little bummed as well when Ashley got piped in the waning moments of the Senior National Points Race Championship in T-town. She was way ahead on points, and thenÖ oh well.

SD: Cycling is losing some key sponsors this year. Will this have an impact on the team, and if so, how?

GW: Well, the market for top-level riders is obviously pretty wild at the moment. So that makes things interesting for us. We definitely intend to recruit top talent - household names, if you will - and we have been in discussions with a number of world-class female cyclists of late. On the other hand, we are looking for the right kind of person and rider, so itís still a difficult process for us, in spite of this being a "buyerís market." And I suppose that any riders we bring on board will have to like me, since we will surely be spending a lot of time together! Come to think of it, weíre in big troubleÖ

SD: Are there any up-and-coming riders that you would like to have on your team? What are you looking for or impresses you about a rider that catches your eye and makes you want them on your team?

GW: Yes. I bet you want me to elaborate on that.

In concrete terms, we will only have so many new roster spots to fill for 2004. So our first recruitment objective is to bring into the fold major world-class firepower. The second objective is then to solidify the team around our leaders, which will likely mean obtaining athletes who have great experience in heavy-duty situations, women who are almost on autopilot tactically in the critical moments of a PCT or NRC event. Unfortunately, that leaves the recruitment of developing riders as perhaps a third-tier objective. Thatís not to say, by the way, that we wonít necessarily bring on a "developing" rider this winter. Let me put it this way: we already have some of the very brightest up-and-coming riders on our current roster, so in essence weíre already there from a development standpoint. All of our current athletes, in fact, are going to rise in level in 2004; thereís no question of that.

Now, as far as what I would be looking for in theoretical terms for an "up-and-comer." First, as with anyone, she has to fit in with our team as a person. That means sheís very team-oriented, easy to get along with, professional, and very conscious of our responsibility to our sponsors, as well as to the public. There are other things, Iím sure, but those are a few sine qua non.

Otherwise, we do quite a bit of "due diligence" on prospective riders. Rich is a lawyer, I was a management consultant, so itís just a reflex for us! I want to know what others in the peloton think: is she a safe, "clean" rider, as in, not riding like a dangerous bone-head? Has she worked well in a team role? How does she approach her training and preparation? How long has she been in the sport, which might be an indicator of her margin of progression?

There are lots of things, but these are just a few that come to mind. Itís obviously a little more of a mental checklist than anything else. I can tell you one thing for sure, though. There is no better source of information than our own riders. None.


Brook OíConnor © Bill Parsons

SD: Which riders have impressed you most this season, and why?

GW: Well, as you can probably tell by now, all the women in our program impress me a lot. People make fun of me because of the superlatives I use.

But of course certain people come to mind as great riders. Laura Van Gilder is a total class act, on and off the bike. The other day I arrived at the Mengoni Grand Prix in Central Park, and my friend, the race promoter JT Tomlinson, said to me, "Kimmet vs. Van Gilder, round three!" I guess the Mengoni GP was the grudge match, after Laura took the Phillipsburg Criterium and then Ashley took the Univest Grand Prix. Anyway, Laura nipped Ashley at the line that morning. But Iíve said before, if it canít be Ashley, Iím glad it was Laura. I mean, Lauraís got her own groupies!

Sarah Uhl is progressing very rapidly in all areas, and I think cycling fans might just see a great showdown next spring between Sarah and our Ashley for that ticket to Athens. And Charm Breon is a great "diesel" of a super-domestic; Iíd love to see more of that kind of riding in womenís cycling. Tina Mayolo Pic is very impressive, always up there for the big ones.

Iím just mentioning a few who I happen to have had the chance to watch up close and who are top of my mind at the moment. There are of course many many others. Didnít Jeannie Longo just win a race out in California or something? As an aside, I remember living in France, years ago, and seeing pictures of Jeannie adorn my bank Crťdit Lyonnais. She was a superstar then, and she still is a superstar in France. Superstar. And Leontien Van Moorsel just broke Jeannieís world hour record. Stunning!

SD: What do you see in the future for womenís racing? Where do you think the sport is headed?

GW: WhewÖ Well, as long as Iím involved in womenís cycling, the future is pretty frightening, Iíd say! Honestly though, I view the future of womenís racing very, very positively. I wouldnít be investing my life in it as this point if I didnít feel that way.

There are a number of reasons why I feel this way. Cycling as a competitive sport is exciting and sexy, as an advertising executive would say. Menís or womenís, it really is beautiful to watch. With promoters such as Threshold Sports in particular, American races are once again showing the larger public just how exciting a spectacle the sport can be. The Pro Cycling Tour helps tremendously in making cycling teams viable marketing vehicles in the U.S. Impressions, impressions, impressions. At least you have a good quantitative argument to make to the marketing folks.

Now as far as womenís cycling goes, I think there remains, at least for the moment, one advantage over menís cycling. The women are not tainted the way the men are by endless doping innuendo. I think womenís cycling can present a very nice, fresh image of a healthy sport and a healthy lifestyle. Kind of like those goofy cover shots on Bicycling Magazine, you know? At the same time, women cyclists are tough-as-nails athletes. Now Iím no expert (!!), but I think itís safe to say that there is a solid trend among American women today for respecting and exalting the tough female athlete. In some ways, I have to wonder if images of women racing up Fillmore Street donít sort of engender the same admiration that images of female kickboxers do.

Goofy bad-ass. Voilŗ, my vision! OK, so it needs a little polishingÖ

In short, I see womenís cycling in America being a progressively stronger and stronger commercial tool for business interests. So the sport will grow. I donít worry too much about the long term effects of the current disarray in sponsorship, even though it is quite disconcerting in the short term. That said, I canít help but find it puzzling that we have this situation as we head into an Olympic year. By the same token, though, I think some new sponsors and formations will come out of the woodwork this fall and winter, precisely because it will be an Olympic year. Womenís cycling is, logically enough, more driven media-wise by the Olympics than is menís cycling. For the men itís all about the Tour de France. So letís hope for the 4-year bump in the curve that the Olympics tend to herald.

Now as far as what form the future of womenís cycling will take, I just donít know. Right now I see the Pro Cycling Tour and those kinds of events as the major draw in the U.S. But you know, if someone were to step up and recreate something like the Nabisco series of criteriums in the 80s, then criteriums could become a huge draw again as well.

SD: Do you think that the shorter womenís races make it look like the women are less capable than the men to race at a higher level?

GW: Good God, you ask hard questions! No, I donít think that; why, do you?

I think there is a different problem than strength and all that. The problem is that a stage race full of 160km stages is bound to be a little boring if you only have a field of 20 riders. You need a large field with lots and lots of depth. And thatís not an indicator of strength or genetics or whatever, but rather of the development side of the sport. Without that size and depth, I think you will see promoters reluctant to put on monster stages.

SD: What races are you focusing on for next year?

GW: We will focus primarily on NRC criteriums, as well as on certain road races. Our core team right now is criterium focused, so with a little extra fire power, we expect to be the best team in the country on the criterium circuit.

At the same time, I think we will be a big player in some of the key road races on the calendar. What we will not be, not in 2004 anyway, is a team to steamroll the competition on GC at Redlands or the Tour de líAude. So GeneviŤve Jeanson can rest easy for one more year, I suppose!

SD: With the Olympics coming up, how will this affect your planning and goals for next season?

GW: Well, for starters, it occurs to me that if one of our women makes the Olympic team then I should line up a ticket to Athens for myself! I mean, how can I miss that?

I want very much for one or more of our members to make the Olympic team, and we will help them in any way possible to achieve that. In the case of Ashley, she pretty much knows what she needs to do in preparation on the track. So my job there is to not get in her way with unreasonable demands on her road schedule, things like that. And also work with our sponsors to get her the best equipment we can for the track.

I also expect our new roster will include some very serious candidates for a spot on the road squad. So that will mean going out to Redlands right after the Liberty Classic. Ugh, thatís a lot of driving.

Other than thatÖ I donít anticipate asking our women to learn Greek or anything like that.

SD: What does your position of Director Sportif entail? Is being a DS something youíve always wanted to do?

GW: What does my position as Directeur Sportif entail? Another good question! Bravo! I wish I had as good an answer. Letís just say it is a work in progress, fluidly defined, something like that.

On a basic level, we have Rich and me managing the team. Thatís a partnership, along with our primary sponsor John Profaci and Colavita of course. So at this point, it just means Iím sharing the load of putting together our new and improved team.

Once we have the financing and roster completely finalized shortly, then my role will become increasingly technical, and by that I mean rolling up my sleeves to actualize virtually every aspect of the infrastructure of the team. You can just imagine, getting all of our women ready to go with the right bikes, shoes, pedals, clothesÖ Not to mention cars, service course material, etc. Itís probably worth mentioning that, at this point anyway, I also wear the hat of chief mechanic. When it comes time to build our new bikes this winter, for example, Iím sure Iíll be getting all greasy. If you ever find yourself riding behind a Colavita-Bolla pro woman, and suddenly some part or other drops on the ground and almost makes you crash, you can just smile and think of me.

Now, once the season gets rolling, so will I. I plan to spend a lot of time with our women, just managing everything you can think of before, during, and after races. The primary responsibility of the directeur sportif, and the professional team infrastructure in general, is to provide an environment in which the women can simply concentrate on the racing, rather than on the bikes, the lodging, the food, etc. I guess Iíll be doing some yapping into their earpieces as well, but honestly, at this point I see myself more in the role of assisting our road captain on the tactical side, rather than the other way around.

Somewhere in the middle of all this we will finalize our schedule for next season too. We have a pretty solid idea of our schedule already though.

So, is being a Director something I always wanted to do? Absolutely not! I have to admit, I never gave it the slightest thought until this year. When I said earlier that I stepped into the role of working with our womenís team serendipitously, that was the truth. Basically, last spring our organization was heading into a critical part of the season, with the Wachovia series on the near horizon, and there was this void to fill. So in step I, freshly downsized from corporate America. Thatís it. Now I love it! To compare it to working in the corporate world and its cubicle farms, the difference in terms of spiritual fulfillment is beyond night and day. More like the sun and the dark side of the moon.

SD: How did you get into cycling? What keeps you motivated during the season?

GW: How did I get into cycling? I got this used, thirty pound Matsuri ten-speed - and by ten-speed I mean five times two, for those of you too young and hip and modern and all to remember that - from my brother. And I started riding and riding and riding. I did my first century at 13 years old, and around the same time I saw my first bike race, the Tour of Somerville, the granddaddy of all crits. And that was it - I was hooked. That was twenty years ago - Lordy!

Since then, it has not exactly been a linear progression for me in this sport, but I have typically fallen back on cycling to stabilize me in life.

What keeps me motivated during the season? I just love the sport, simple as that. And I know myself well enough to know how to dose out the efforts, and particularly the importance of rest, so I avoid burnout. Oh, and caffeine. Espresso, in fact. Espresso keeps me motivated.

SD: What is the hardest part of your job with the team? The most enjoyable?

GW: The hardest part of this job? Hah! No comment!

The most enjoyable part? Well, itís not the payÖ

Thatís actually the easiest question youíve posed. Itís the people. Our women. And the other people in this sport, in our organization.

SD: Favorite race? †Funniest experience racing?

GW: My favorite race? Well, as a couch potato spectator, it is the Tour of Flanders, no question. No question.

The Liberty Classic is really something special, because our women are truly the stars for one weekend, and in a very big way. What an atmosphere. Once I experience the T-Mobile San Francisco race in person, Iíll probably feel the same way about that race too.

Funniest experience racing? You know whatís funny, I canít think of anything really funny at the moment. Well actually, there was this instance many years ago, when an irate farmer decided he would get his revenge on our field of racersÖ Basically, with the rolling closure over the circuit, he couldnít get any traffic over to his open house, for the home he had on the market. There was this truckload of manureÖ itís funny in retrospect, anyway. I donít recall if I was laughing at the time.

I laugh all the time on group rides though. Life is pretty damn good when you are on a long tempo training ride with good friends. Thatís a great time to horse around, crack jokes (Question: Why did the surrealist cross the road? Answer: A fish.).

SD: This is a follow-up to question #7, regarding women looking less capable, do you have any ideas on how to attract more women to the sport?† Do you think there are enough developmental programs available for women, or is there more that needs to be done?†

GW: Ugh, I hate your questions! †I donít want to play anymore!†

Let me answer the second part of your question first, while I collect my thoughts.† No, there certainly are not enough developmental programs for women.† I can see a certain consciousness, though, that is encouraging.† I lived for years in Manhattan, where the storied Century Road Club Association is king of all racing.† Over the years, I have seen them specifically target beginning women, in the form of clinics, women-specific training sessions, etc.† There is also a huge cyclotourist club in the city, the New York Cycle Club, which seems to be a nice feeder and gap-filler between the two worlds.† And so womenís cycling has certainly grown in New York.† Just look at some of the women who have risen right up through the ranks in the city recently: Ann Marie Miller (Verizon Wireless/Cervťlo); Kristen La Sasso (Rona/Esker); Catherine Powers (Richard Sachs), just to name a few.† And you could find them all training and racing in Central Park at ludicrous hours.

Meanwhile in New England, some of the women in that scene realized that the Category 4s had to have a fighting chance, in order to avoid disillusionment racing against the Pro/1/2/3s as newbies.† So they basically coordinated a Category 4 womenís series for promoters.† We have a nice Garden State Development Series for Category 4 Women here in the, uh, Garden State as well.†

And I almost forgot - the Air Products track development program at the Lehigh County Velodrome!† If the UCI ever gave out their own Nobel prizes, that program would have to be on the top of the list of nominees. †Some people say that going to Trexlertown is a sort of pilgrimage for cyclists. †I would have to agree.† Cycling is simply a basic part of the fabric of life in those parts.† Track cycling is a normal, typical sporting activity, like soccer and hoops and baseball.† The list of alumnae from their grassroots efforts is staggering. †Ashley, Sarah, Tanya LindenmuthÖ† the list of star alumnae goes on and on.

But we need to do a lot more. †How many licensed junior women are there in USA Cycling currently?† Iím frightened even to ask.† Not to place the blame on USAC; Iím just pointing to a barometer.† I tend to link womenís and juniorís development in my mind.† Theyíre both a pain in the butt for the "core" of the U.S. road racing community - financially-secure, middle-aged masters men - with which to concern themselves.† What is probably necessary is a comprehensive process for development.† You start with whatever Step A (for example, a community "citizenís" event), and then you lead them to Step B, then Step C, and so on.† Whatís Step B? †Well, how about taking all those citizens who just crossed the finish line, and laying out a plan for building up to competitive cycling. †Give those interested a mentorÖ something!† Not just a water bottle and the name of a local club. †Iím just speaking very top-of-mind here; my point really is that we need processes, not bootstraps and chaos.† Cycling in the U.S. is esoteric and intimidating on so many levels.† Process, demystification, accessibility.† Ah hah!† Iíve just stumbled on the mission statement of my Grand Plan! †Send me your checks and money orders now!

SD: One of the†items covered at the Yoplait Women's Summit earlier this year was the fact that women cyclists tend to be well-educated and relatively affluent - one would think we'd have†more sponsors than†we can handle, but that's not the case. †How can we attract more sponsors to the sport?

GW: I think we have actually covered in our little "conversation" here a number of the elements for attracting new sponsors.† At the very top of the womenís cycling pyramid, at the pro level, the ingredients are already in place.† We can provide an exciting, visually stunning, inspiring sport, and we have some great events to showcase that to the media and public.† Add into the mix solid marketing-savvy team managers, and youíre in business.† And look - we are in business!† And other teams will be as well; I still think this "annťe terrible" will pass.† Hey, maybe the passing of the California gubernatorial will release some pent up energy and creativity, you know, like a big brain burp, and we can all get back to work.

On the other hand, we need to develop the foundations of womenís cycling, the trunk of our pyramid, with all those processes that will lead to fuller ranks.† Fuller ranks will provide a much more attractive platform for the local and regional sponsors. †I am speechless sometimes and not entirely in a good way, by the attention that sponsors can lavish on category 3 masters men.† Cat. 3s!† It kind of stands to reason that if we had local womenís races with fields closer in size to those of the Cat. 3 men, then the sponsorship levels would come into line as well.


Tracy Sproule and Ashley Kimmet © Bill Parsons.

Thanks very much to Greg Wheeler for this great interview. Please visit the Colavita Bolla team website here.

 
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