This excerpt is from American Pro: The True Story of Bike Racing in America by Jamie Smith.
PROFESSIONAL BIKE RACING IS AN AMAZING SPORT with loyal fans who happily stand along a remote section of road for hours waiting for a glimpse of their heroes. They’ll dress up in ridiculous costumes and hike up a mountainside to cheer on someone they hardly know. After their favorite rider passes by in a whoosh, they’ll wait another 20 minutes for the last rider to trundle up the hill. The costumed fan will scream a litany of positive encouragements to the first and last riders and everyone in between, truly believing that it has an effect on the rider’s ability to make it to the finish. And it may.
These fans wear their hearts on their sleeves. Their workspaces are adorned with the trinkets recovered from bike races: race posters snagged from the cafe window, routing signs off telephone poles, and stickers from the team cars. The water bottle that Brent Bookwalter discarded onto the side of the road is treated like the Great Chalice of Antioch. Of course it never held a drop of wine, but it once held some of the best hydration mix that Skratch Labs has to offer.
Every spring at the Amgen Tour of California, legions of fans wait for the team buses to pull into town with cameras and felt-tip markers in hand to meet their favorite riders. They come from all across the country to see cycling’s version of LeBron James and Ricky Fowler, to actually reach out and touch the riders they’ve watched on TV racing in the Tour de France. The true aficionados know precisely what time to arrive and precisely where to stand so that they’ll be positioned in front of the door when the team bus is finally parked.
The teams that ride in the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour de France are the major leagues, the crème de la crème. They are, in a cycling fan’s mind, every bit as famous and wonderful as the New York Yankees. But teams like Astellas are not part of this scene.
The Astellas Pro Cycling Team raced at a level of pro cycling more on par with the Trenton Thunder, the New York Yankees’ double-A farm team made up of promising young players who were paid a pittance while gaining valuable experience that they hoped would carry them up to the major leagues.
Despite racing at the lower level of the sport, the Astellas team had their own corps of dedicated followers who tracked their progress throughout the season and made pilgrimages to see them race. Granted, their pilgrimages were likely across a county instead of an entire country. They may not have dressed in costume, but they made poster-board signs and rang cowbells at the bike races. And they knew where the team parked its van each year for, say, the Clarendon Cup in Virginia, and would stop by to say hello before the race.
Over five seasons the Astellas team developed a loyal fan base, and the team earned key victories in popular American races thanks to their willingness to race hard against much tougher opponents. It took five years of bike racing to reach their zenith at the bottom rung of cycling.
It began years before as a daydream.
BIKE RACERS OF ALL LEVELS and abilities think about some strange things when they’re on a training ride, including the fantasy of owning a pro team. They let all of their best ideas play out as if $10 million landed in their laps and they could choose the riders and design everything from the ground up.
Sure, it’s a fun mental exercise to help fill the hours on a long ride, but the idea of actually starting a professional bike racing team is daunting enough to keep it safely within dreamland. The wherewithal and the shear amount of work it takes to acquire sponsors, organize logistics, and manage a group of athletes is a dream killer.
But that didn’t deter Matt Curin.
Matt Curin is your typical bike racer, bike-racing fan, and dreamer. He dreamed the dream and began to mull over all the decisions involved in managing a competitive team while watching the Tour de France. It was years in the making, but Curin eventually set his dream into action.
Curin’s racing career began in 1989 as a 15-year-old racer in a local club, the Cadieux Bicycle Club in Detroit. He had as much enthusiasm and ability as everyone else, but not enough raw talent to have a shot at becoming a pro cyclist himself. He raced a lot, spending his summer traipsing across the Midwest with his teammates in search of the next bike-race high that came with winning $30. He learned how bike racing worked and how it didn’t. Even as a teen, he picked up on the exasperating and frustrating aspects of the sport that kept it from becoming as mainstream as baseball and football. He readily accepted the idiosyncrasies, as most cyclists do, as he took the unofficial oath of a USA Cycling licensed member: “It is by no means a perfect sport, but it’s a damn cool sport regardless, and I love racing my bike, so, flaws be damned, I’m a bike racer for life.”
It’s not a well-worded or inspirational oath, come to think of it. But it’s binding.
Matt Curin is the kind of person that cycling fans would want undertaking a project that helps the sport grow. One of the most polite people walking the Earth, he maintains a deferential demeanor, often self-effacing. Even on issues he knows well, he speaks in a nervous rush as if to get out of the way of the next speaker. He hasn’t a mean-spirited bone in his body. And he truly loves the sport of bike racing.
Lacking the skills to garner a pro contract, Curin attended the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy and took the path that diverged from that of a pro cyclist—one leading to a comfortable bed, a full refrigerator, a car that starts, six fully functional bikes in the garage, a wife and kids, medical benefits, a dental plan, and a steady paycheck. In his sophomore year, he took over the presidency of the University of Michigan cycling team in an elaborate procedure that involved raising his hand and expressing interest. At that point in time, the club was at a low organizational ebb and in desperate need of leadership.
Under Curin, the team grew from eight riders in the first year to almost 20 in his senior year due to his enthusiastic recruiting efforts. The team represented the Wolverines at National Collegiate Cycling Association (NCCA) events throughout the Midwest and attended collegiate nationals for the first time in the program’s history. Despite the minuscule funding typical of club-level activities, Curin left the Michigan cycling scene better than he had found it, and the experience he gained by chasing funding across the campus proved helpful later on. He made a promise to himself that, were he ever in a position to funnel money into the sport, he would do whatever he could to make it happen.
Two years out of college, after filling prescriptions at small pharmacies, he began working at Pharmacia, a Swedish-American pharmaceutical company. Once established in his role at the Pharmacia offices in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he took his first steps through the looking glass in an attempt to push his dream into reality. He sent emails to anyone in the organization with “marketing” in their title asking them for money to fund a cycling team. He stopped short of begging, but he didn’t stop asking until he finally found someone willing to earmark $15,000 from the public relations budget—enough to fund a five-person team consisting of four men and one woman who raced as amateurs throughout the Midwest.
Pharmacia’s first team carried the name “Detrol LA Cycling Team” to promote a drug that treated the symptoms of urinary incontinence. Granted, it was not a romantic name for a cycling team but was exactly what one might expect a pharmaceutical company to select. The money from Pharmacia was not necessarily granted to the team with a marketing strategy in mind. It’s probably more accurate to say that the money was burped out of an overstuffed budget.
Curin had every intention of helping his company as much as his team. He was off and running.
Detrol LA Cycling was somewhat invisible in the peloton with only two riders who could finish in the lead group of any given Category I/II race, usually around 11th place. Every now and then, they would find themselves on the podium of a regional race, placing among the top three finishers who are invited to appear at the awards ceremony, an accomplishment in any bike race. But with a national sponsor emblazoned across the front, sides, and back of their jerseys, they fooled competitors into thinking the team was a force to be reckoned with.
When a cycling kit is imprinted with the logo of a local bike shop (or chiropractor’s office, or engineering firm, etc.), bike racers assume that the rider doesn’t pose a big threat. Even if they aren’t familiar with the bike shop, their assumption remains unchanged, and nine times out of ten it will be fairly accurate. But when a bike racer sees a national sponsor taking up most of the room on an opponent’s kit, they’ll do a double take. Even at the amateur level, national-level sponsors usually indicate—rightly or wrongly—a big budget and strong riders. Even if there are only two riders wearing the kit in a race, other racers will draw the conclusion that there exists somewhere a complete team of highly trained and well-supported riders, and that the rest of those riders must be racing elsewhere this particular weekend . . . thank goodness.
But that is not always true. The notoriety of a sponsor does not directly predict the caliber of the team.
Though they garnered only a handful of results, Detrol LA’s riders were able to race a full schedule of races they might otherwise have missed. They traveled out of the peninsular Michigan cycling scene, and they represented a professional company as professionally as possible. For Curin, it was a great first effort and the “proof of concept” needed to initiate a second season.
In the second year, the budget grew to $60,000, considered by many to be massive for an amateur team. The team’s name changed to the much sexier sounding Pharmacia Cycling Team. The roster grew to eight riders, including some rolleurs who would eventually turn pro. Canadian Jacob Erker rode with Symmetrics and Kelly Benefits Strategies later in his career. Ben Sharp was the reigning national criterium champion and later became a US National Team coach. Adam Watts, former national champion Dave Wenger, and Ohioan Andrew Frey rounded out the roster. Frey had a dual role as rider-manager, handling logistics and spending the boatloads of cash handed down by the sponsor.
The team jelled quickly and developed a one-for-all, all-for-one attitude that helped them get results even against stiff competition. On the very tough Oak Glen stage of the Redlands Cycling Classic in California, without hesitation, Ben Sharp gave his bike to Jacob Erker, who had suffered a mechanical failure that threatened to cause Erker to lose time on the final climb. That and other unselfish moves helped them finish as the top amateur team at that event, a huge result for a new team.
Giddy with the success at Redlands, Matt Curin started to dream of shrink-wrapped team cars, matching warm-up suits, and air travel. But the dream vaporized less than a month later.
Pharmacia had agreed to make four payments over the course of the season totaling $60,000. The first check arrived, and the team was virtually swimming in money. They didn’t have time to count it. By the time they arrived in Georgia for the Athens Twilight Criterium in mid-April, Pharmacia had been gobbled up by corporate giant Pfizer, for whom cycling was not a priority. Pfizer promptly cut all funding to the cycling project, leaving Curin in the awkward position of having to hastily call a team meeting in the parking lot of the Atlanta Marriott, where he apologized profusely to the riders, dismantled the team, and put his dream back on the shelf.
Curin soon left the company to join another pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis: Lilly. His move had nothing to do with Pfizer’s pulling the funding; it was purely coincidental.
The consolation was that he had actually done it, even if on a very small scale. Curin’s modest success at managing a cycling team only fanned the flames further. Sure, he had made some mistakes along the way, but he embraced it as a learning experience.
Curin was just a regular guy. He didn’t wear a superhero’s cape, and thanks to his rigorous work as a pill researcher, he no longer had the time to maintain a superfit body. He looked the way you’d expect a pharmacist to look: normal. He didn’t possess a one-of-a-kind set of management or organizational skills. The only thing that distinguished him from anyone then, and still today, was moxie. He had the unmitigated gall to ask his employers for money.
And, with the exception of Pfizer, they all said yes.
After a year spent getting to know the lay of the land at Lilly, he tried again and was able to procure a budget of $60,000 by using the “ask everyone” method that had been so successful at Pharmacia. He received the funding, but he found that there was no interest in bike racing to accompany it. As makers of a synthetic insulin, Lilly instead earmarked the monies for a corporate cycling club that would participate solely in fund-raising events such as the Tour de Cure, a charity ride benefiting the American Diabetes Association. A departure from racing, sure, but still a victory of sorts for Curin, who was now adept at finding money from within and creating cycling partnerships that benefited his company.
After eight years with Lilly, Curin moved to Chicago to work for yet another company. Until he applied for the job, he had never heard of Astellas Pharma. It was a relatively new company, the result of a 2005 merger between two large Japanese pharmaceuticals, Fujisawa and Yamanouchi. Boasting more than $14 billion in assets, Tokyo-based Astellas was in the process of developing its own oncology division and was looking to reach oncologists with its new brand. If that didn’t ring bells in Curin’s head, nothing would. Cancer and cycling had been sewn together by Lance Armstrong in the early 2000s. Curin’s pitch for funds had the perfect set-up.
CONSIDERING THE NET WORTH of a corporate giant it’s easy to assume that, say, Coca-Cola or Ford Motor Company could hand over a large pile of money—certainly enough to fund a cycling team. Surely, there must be extra money in Coca-Cola’s $56 billion, Ford’s $199 billion, or Astellas’s $14 billion that a rounding error could cover. A measly $200,000 would not be missed. This is, for the most part, a fallacy. Large corporations may waste money in creative ways, but they have a team of accountants keeping close tabs on where their money is wasted.
In fact, pitching the concept of a cycling team to the marketing department of Coca-Cola or any other company might be the most difficult sell ever made. In the supermarket of sports, cycling is located so far up the niche sport aisle, it’s invisible to the naked eye. It sits atop a high shelf out of reach of children and wedged between other sports like rowing, luge, and short track speed skating. These sports get their 15 minutes of Olympic fame every four years, only to quietly retreat for the next 47 months. However exciting these sports may be, the marketing executives of nonendemic sponsors (and even sponsors within the industry) are highly unlikely to back them. It’s the participants in niche sports who foot most of the bill. Anyone who has a child playing on a travel hockey, soccer, or softball team can attest to the high cost of participation.
Today cycling has devout followers in every nook and cranny of the country, and bikes are being sold in greater numbers than ever before. Still, the selling power of American cycling barely rises above a whisper. Cycling events such as Tulsa Tough, one of the most popular races on the US calendar, draw crowds numbering in the hundreds and thousands of online viewers but they remain hardly worthy of corporate notice. Meanwhile, the third round of the 2016 Colonial, a PGA golf tournament, drew a 1.4 rating/4 share on television and 80,000 spectators on the course. If you’re Coca-Cola, in which direction will you be looking? In the case of the Colonial, west. It’s played in Dallas.
Curin knew the many challenges he faced. If there was going to be an Astellas team, there was no way that he could run it while accomplishing his assigned duties. Not only would it be impossible from a time management standpoint, it would also be a conflict of interest within his company. He would need to find someone else willing to take complete charge of the operation. He called former Pharmacia team member, Andrew Frey. Frey had kept himself busy as a schoolteacher and as a USA Cycling official while Curin was with Lilly. He also had a degree from Miami University in a field related to the job: sports and recreation organization. Like Curin, he loved the sport of bike racing.
They agreed that the timing might be right to start another team. If Curin could find the money, Frey, now working as a full-time stay-at-home dad, would have the time and inclination to do the legwork. Curin conducted his own research before knocking on doors at Astellas. He contacted Amgen, a world leader in oncology medicine, and asked for whatever marketing research he could get his hands on linking Amgen’s success with their Tour of California to the increased awareness of their brand among cancer patients, oncologists, and other stakeholders. Luckily for Curin, Amgen was quite gracious about sharing marketing information. He was put in touch with Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owners of the event, who were well aware of the challenges Curin faced. Even though Astellas competed directly with Amgen, the marketing goals of the two companies were vastly different and Amgen was interested in seeing cycling projects like Curin’s succeed.
Curin also had an insider’s view of how marketing money is spent. He saw the corporate year-end reports, so he knew that the Astellas marketing budget wasn’t being fully depleted. If he could convince the right people in the correct order, taking into account the interests of the company, he believed he could create the perfect vehicle for promoting the oncology brand.
Such a simple-sounding endeavor took several months to carry out. It took hundreds of emails and hallway conversations to find the right decision-maker who could get the company to move in the right direction. Being told “no” repeatedly and remaining undaunted is probably Matt Curin’s greatest contribution to cycling because it finally paid off. In late 2011, Astellas agreed to fund a cycling team.
One glaring error that Curin made during this process was lowballing the budget. When the “yes” finally happened and he was asked how much it would cost, he blurted out a very low $60,000 because that was the amount he had worked with at Lilly and Pharmacia.
“I should have asked for a million,” Curin said later, in perfect hindsight. He joked that, really, he should have asked for $2 million, because $1 million is too round of a number, but $2 million would have sounded as though he’d put careful thought into it.
With a $60,000 budget, he was off and running. Or at the very least, walking. Moving forward nonetheless.
Curin didn’t consider this project to be an opportunity to carve out a new job description for himself. He was a pharmacist who loved the field and a cyclist who knew cycling well enough to know that his family would appreciate his pharmacological income more than that of a cycling team manager. Anything that he did with the team would be done on his own time with no compensation. But he loved cycling enough to get the ball rolling and find the right people to make it happen out on the road.
He delivered the good news to Frey, whose first act was to establish the Cycling Development Fund, a nonprofit organization through which he could manage the funds properly. As a stay-at-home dad, his strength was his ability to juggle most team duties during nap time. Team members would eventually learn the napping habits of Frey’s growing family and would time their phone calls accordingly.
Frey’s own racing career began in Toledo, Ohio, at the age of 15. Because he lived only 90 minutes from Curin at the time, they raced against each other almost every weekend as juniors. They also competed against each other at collegiate races within the Midwest Conference. During (and after) college, he worked for a popular Ohio race promoter on several races each year. That led to an interest in officiating, which Frey did for 10 years. His innate desire to help people guided him to the field of education, where he worked as a teacher and administrator until he met his wife and started a family.
A helpful person will find success when running a cycling team. It requires being part parent, part college professor, part circus performer, and part nursery school teacher. Frey also possessed the rare ability to sleep in any position on any surface, a talent that came in handy when there were only six beds available for thirteen people.
Spending many evenings talking on the phone after their kids were in bed, Frey and Curin set out to spend the small pot of gold that they had acquired from Astellas.
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American Pro lays bare the heart and soul of a struggling sport—and shares what’s wrong and what’s right with American bike racing. Bike race announcer Jamie Smith follows a fledgling professional cycling team on its five-season rise and fall, revealing the personalities, passion, and business side of the sport.