Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rock Racing's Ball stirs up conservative cycling world

By: Sal Ruibal, USA TODAY

The typical owner of a professional cycling team is a skinny former pro rider who wears fleece vests, drives a sensible European station wagon with bike racks and speaks three languages.

Michael Ball, owner of upstart Team Rock Racing, arrived at Sunday's start of the Tour of California in a black chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom with a Day-Glo green skull logo painted on the side. An entourage of a Cadillac Escalade and a team bus decorated with more green skulls accompanied Ball with the thumps of hard rock music.

Last week race organizers barred three Rock Racing riders from competing because of their alleged involvement in a Spanish doping scandal. While Ball's antics on and off the race course have riled the cycling establishment, fans have embraced the team. "Bike races are usually really nerdy," says Mindy Lim, 23, of Cupertino, Calif. "This is more like a rock concert."
Ball, 44, is a former racer who excelled in the rough-and-tumble world of street criteriums and track racing.

Former Mercury team director and pro racer John Wordin remembers Ball as "tough and tenacious."

A Mexican-American kid from Los Angeles, Ball says "cycling saved my life." He took his racing attitude to the competitive fashion world with his company Rock & Republic, known for its designer jeans.

"I thought fashion was mean and political," Ball says, "But pro cycling is even tougher."

Unlike most teams, which depend on sponsor money to fund their programs, Rock Racing sells team gear at races and online. In the team's second year of competition, Ball expects to bring in $1 million from sales at the Tour of California. Rock Racing, a UCI continental team, isn't expected to contend with the top Pro Tour teams. Rock Racing has five riders in the field, three fewer than the standard team roster.

Ball supports a strong riders' union and has embraced riders he believes have been treated unfairly by anti-doping agencies, such as Americans Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis.

Hamilton, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in road racing, recently completed a two-year suspension for doping. Hamilton, Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla were not allowed to start because the race's new rules say any rider with an "open file" for doping will be barred from competing.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity," says Hamilton, who was out signing autographs at Sunday's prologue. "We really want to win for him."

Ball says, "We have a moment right now to change this sport. If it means giving these guys amnesty, do it. Stop digging up graves. This sport is going to wither on the vine and die if this continues."

Bob Stapleton, owner of Team High Road, says Ball makes good points. "I just think he could go about it in a better manner."

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