Thursday, August 14, 2008

PEZ Interviews: The One And Only Michael Ball!

By: Edmond Hood

He has arguably the most recognizable team in the sport of cycling, he signed Tyler, he signed Santiago, he signed Sevilla, he coaxed Cipo out of retirement, and he just might sign Floyd… as controversial as he is colorful, it’s Michael Ball.

A man that can coax Mario Cipollini out of retirement and back into a bunch sprint has to be worth speaking too; and if the man is a millionaire and drives a Lamborghini, so much the better!

Like many fans, I was intrigued, so I emailed Michael Ball's excellent PR man, Sean Weide six months ago, just around Tour of California time. After much too-ing and fro-ing I just about had a telephone interview organized when I learned that our man Charles Manantan had been granted a face-to-face meeting.

But meeting a man of Michael Ball’s stature is no easy task, and that meeting was postponed at the last minute. Sean kept me on the mailing list though and
I got back on the case - for weeks, and months.

The big day was meant to happen last week, but again was postponed. Fast forward to Monday night and the emails started to fly from the Sunshine State to gloomy Edinburgh and back again.

It was supposed to be a conference call, but we couldn't make it work, so I 'held.' And wow! - there he was, Michael Ball in person; 'how are you, Ed?'

Warm, charming, articulate, colourful, passionate and knowledgeable about cycling, definitely getting my brain into gear with some of his responses; he gave me a lot of time and great answers.

Love him, hate him, but please don't dismiss him, the 'old order' got the sport into the mess it's currently in the process of slowly dragging itself out of (see one R. Ricco!). New blood and ideas can only be a good thing, and if they combine Cipo, Lambos and scantily clad young ladies - what's to complain about?"

PEZ: A fine ride by Santiago on Saturday (Botero was 7th in the Olympic road race), Mr. Ball.
Michael Ball: Without a doubt, but Santiago was frustrated, he knows he should have gone with Cancellara, his race strategy was to watch Leipheimer, and he realises now that he got it wrong, he had the legs to go with the Swiss, but he hesitated. I’m happy for him and very proud of him; he’ll do a great time trial out there on Wednesday.

PEZ: Is the USPRO Board of Trustees ready for you?
MB: I hope so, it needs a shake up! In the US we don’t have a tradition or culture in cycling, or in anything for that matter; it’s Coke, McDonalds and Monday night football.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is, we like fast, quick and we’ve got a short attention span. I don’t think there’s a lot of point in trying to replicate the long ‘Grand Tours,’ it’s an exciting sport and we need to tailor it to suit the US; use the NASCAR model, exciting, spectacular. With me on the Board I think I can help cycling become a mainstream sport which gets the TV time. I’m not going aboard to ruffle feathers or piss people off; I’m doing it for the fans and the sport.

PEZ: You raced as an amateur.
MB: Yeah, I rode the track; I really liked the points race and the ‘miss-and-out.’ But it was a lot less politically correct back then, there was a lot of physical contact, bumping and intimidating; it was a cross between chess and American Football, but at 40 mph! It’s a lot less physical now; they’ll disqualify you, if you pull those kinds of moves.

PEZ: Your fashion empire was born from your designing a pair of jeans for a girlfriend?
MB: Absolutely true! The girl I was going out with at the time wore these unflattering denims and I said to her; ‘those jeans don’t do your body justice!’ So, she challenged me to make her a better pair; I had experience of patterns from my mother and grand mother; I made her a pair and that lead to the formation of Rock & Republic – that was just six years ago! I don’t have the focus now to design, although I’m Creative Director, but there’s nothing that doesn’t go across my desk – I sign everything off.

PEZ: How did you build R & R so fast?
MB: It’s my personality, it comes from when I was acting and from always having been in business, I get bored breathing, I gotta move fast, I set high standards. I always say that if you work for me you’ll cry, crack or get stronger! I tell everyone; ‘if you can’t get in the front door, go to the back door and if you can’t get in the back door, go through the window!’ Rock music has always been a love of mine, an influence - I’ve always been a bit of a rebel, going against the grain, that’s the ‘Rock.’ And in the early days, when people used to admire my jeans, I used to say; ‘yeah, those jeans rock!’ ‘Republic’ that’s the people, taking the brand to them.

PEZ: Acting?
MB: It was mostly as an extra or in commercials; one casting director thought I was the other Michael Ball from ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ I couldn’t figure out why he was fawning over me! But he must have figured out I wasn’t THAT Michael Ball because I didn’t get the part!

PEZ: Your business philosophy?
MB: Go big, or go home!

PEZ: R & R’s marketing strategy?
MB: Make it the best, make it the coolest, make it exclusive – it has to be exclusive, or you just get lost among everyone else.

PEZ: Spin offs from cycling?
MB: Absolutely! We’re launching eyewear and bikes are something we’ve thought about. The philosophy is that we continue to grow, in racing, be that two wheels, or four – motor sport is cool too. I’m not crazy about ‘stick and ball’ stuff, but ‘racing,’ human beings getting from point A to point B, or point Z, on two wheels or four, with or without engines, as fast as they can, that’s the ultimate challenge.

PEZ: Why cycling?
MB: Two reasons: I’m passionate about it and it’s a great recreational activity. By starting the team I’ve inspired folks to get out on their bikes and they’re hooked now – they’ll keep going out on their bikes. Riding a bike is the great equaliser, when you’re out there, nothing else matters, work, money, relationships – none of it; you’re all the same.

PEZ: Why THOSE riders?
MB: I have to be honest, it wasn’t some big strategy; it just came about. At the end of last season, I’d signed Freddy Rodriquez and Chris Horner was supposed to be coming with us too. No dice with Horner...But he didn’t come, I don’t think he ever had any intention of coming with us; he just used us as leverage to get a better deal in Europe. I was thinking; “how am I gonna build the team, go to Europe and kick some ass without bigger riders?” This was late in the year, September time, so I was getting worried; then I heard that Victor Hugo Pena was available. That guy is one of my all time favourite riders, he has the yellow jersey in the Tour and he’s back at the car picking up bottles; what a man, no ego, he just keeps doing his job for the team and for Lance – I love that! I said; “we have to get that guy on the team!” Then at the Track Nationals in LA, I heard that Botero was available – you have to remember that originally I was just using the team as a vehicle to get back into shape – and I thought; “that’s crazy, the guy is a world champion – he needs a pay cheque!” These riders, who they made outcasts, sacrificial lambs - it’s cycling eating its young, there are a lot of big riders out there, right now, who were using the same doctors and on the same programmes as my guys were. But that era is gone now, it’s behind us; we have to move on, stop chasing ghosts, the guys have done their time – give them a job! Just before I signed him, Oscar Sevilla was talking to a Spanish magazine, he was ready to start outing everyone, open every door. He’s a bright, talented, likeable guy with big results still in him. At the Spanish Nationals this year, he was away, but he flatted and didn’t get good service - it’s a problem we’ve had all year, if we don’t have our own car there, we don’t get good neutral service – Valverde and Pereiro caught him and he was second, but without the puncture it would have been a different race. I heard from a friend in November that Tyler had retired, so I called him up and told him he had years of good racing in him and he had so much knowledge and experience to pass on to the kids in the team. I asked him to think about coming with us for a year or two – and there he his, back winning, at the Tour of the Qinghai Lake.

PEZ: Floyd?
MB: Floyd is a friend; I’ve made no decisions about our roster for 2009. He has a ‘history;’ but he’s still a Tour yellow jersey holder and as such has a market value which is a little too rich for my palate.

PEZ: A Riders Union is one of your ideas, isn’t that against your spirit as an entrepreneur?
MB: Yeah, I guess it goes against my business mantra! But my grand mother cleaned houses until she was 70 to buy her house and put her kids through school. If I hadn’t been exposed to that work ethic, I wouldn’t be here – so I have a lot of respect for the ‘little guy.’ If giving them that respect costs me a few dollars, then so be it. It’s the same with the riders, they need a collective voice. If you’re at the top its fine, but if you falter, then you’ve had it - I ask them why they put up with it; ‘oh, it’s just the way it’s always been!’ That goes right through to doping thing – they were expected to do it to get the results and keep their job.

PEZ: Pro cycling – Fashion, differences, similarities?
MB: There’s as many similarities are there are differences, but one thing I have to tell you is that fashion politics pale in comparison to pro cycling politics – I’ve never seen so many factions and backroom deals! The big thing they share is they are both about style and moving towards attention and newness. Cycling is spectacular, colourful –when I was young it was the era of Hinault, Kelly, Argentin, Moser; huge characters, I was lucky to meet Moser at the Worlds at Colorado Springs. But even then there was a fashion element; La Vie Claire with their Mondrian coloured jerseys and Carrera with their shorts which looked like jeans.

PEZ: Ultimate goal?
MB: The Tour de France, ultimately that’s where we want to go, and in doing so we want to bring new ideas, new eye balls, new dollars and new entrepreneurs to the sport. Let them see that this is a sport where money can be made.

PEZ: At the start of the season you fell out with a few equipment suppliers.
MB: We had deals and they reneged, it pissed me off. A deal is a deal in my book ,and it shouldn’t change, no matter which riders I’ve signed.

PEZ: Give the readers a business tip, please.
MB: You have to be creative but also have a business mind, you have to be able to look after yourself; your competitors will cut you, bite you and steal from you – so be ready!

PEZ: And a cycling tip?
MB: Base miles, long hours, get out there weekends and do seven hours a day, break it up, before and after lunch, but get those base miles down and they’ll stand you in good stead for the season.

PEZ: If you could sign just one rider?
MB: Wow, just one? It would have to be Contador.

PEZ: I’ve left it ‘til last – Cipo?
MB: I still consider Mario Cipollini a friend; we exchange text messages from time to time. But we both have huge egos, his is bigger than mine - but I write the cheques! He’s a man who’s used to getting his own way, but like I say, it’s me who writes the cheques.

PEZ: Any hints about surprises to come?
MB: I can tell you this, those organisers who try to pull ’fast ones’ with us in 2009 – they won’t get away with it. I won’t allow the things that happened to my riders at the start of this year, to happen again. I’m a scrapper, a fighter; I’ll fight for myself, my brand and my riders.

PEZ: Thank you for your time, Mr. Ball; I’ll have to buy you a beer, when we eventually meet.
MB: You have the beer, I’ll have something non alcoholic, I don’t drink – you can fall into some serious nonsense in the fashion world and that’s all behind me.

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