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Making history: Canada’s first Pro Continental cycling team

The first Professional Continental squad ever in this country now has the most talented group of riders ever assembled on a Canadian team

A tired Josée Larocque looked at her Blackberry at 3 a.m. and saw the email she was so desperately hoping for. The cycling team manager read over the message from the UCI’s accounting firm and realized at that moment in early December that Svein Tuft, one of the fastest and most experienced in Canada was cleared to ride for Team SpiderTech.

She let team founder and director sportif Steve Bauer know and the two logged onto the UCI’s website where, in an understated, but important turning point for their team, Tuft’s name was listed alongside 18 other cyclists signed to ride with the squad for 2011. It was official. The first Professional Continental squad ever in this country now had the most talented group of riders ever assembled on a Canadian team – at any level. Team SpiderTech had arrived – not at its final destination – but at an important stop along the route.

A month and a half later, the entire group of 19 professional riders were waiting in a back room of Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. One by one, the cyclists were called up onto a stage wearing the new white, blue and black kits for 2011. Tuft was the last one called into the room and he rode in on an Argon 18 time trial bike. As cameras flashed, Tuft’s smile was beaming. There was no question the 33-year-old Langley, B.C. native was the leader of this team. The elder statesman; The man with more experience than any other rider on that stage. And the proof that Bauer is serious in his quest to lead a Canadian team to the Tour de France.

Getting to the Tour with a predominantly Canadian team has long been Bauer’s goal. Team SpiderTech grew out of the Planet Energy squad from a few years ago and each season has brought with it giant steps forward. When Martin Gilbert outsprinted Thor Hushovd at the final stage of the Tour of Missouri in September, 2009, it was a major coup for the first-year UCI Continental team. Last year, Team SpiderTech finished the season ranked No. 1 for North American teams competing on the UCI America Tour having won 15 races and been on the podium 22 times.

But the next step was a big one. If the team had any shot at making it to WorldTour (formerly ProTour) status by 2013 with a potential shot at being invited to the Tour de France, it would need to race at the Division 2 level, or Pro Continental for 2011. Applying for that license with the UCI was a long and arduous task filled with piles of paperwork and miles of red tape. The biggest concern for Team SpiderTech was money, as it would mean a huge jump in budget. Riders at the Pro Continental must be paid a minimum salary of $40,000, but riders of Tuft’s calibre get significantly more (neither his salary nor the team’s budget has been made public).

“It’s just the challenging process of the way the UCI works and until you’ve done it once, you don’t really know,” said Bauer. At one point, he and Larocque had to fly to Switzerland to meet with the UCI bosses in person. “We went to Geneva for a 15-minute meeting. They were concerned about the financial plausibility of the whole budget, so we rectified that and guaranteed we would have the money.”

Bauer’s response to needing a significantly bigger budget was to focus on Canadian brands. SpiderTech upped its involvement to remain the title sponsor for the next two years and the team has co-sponsored by C10, a consortium of Made in Canada brands that currently includes Blackberry, NRS Brakes, Planet Energy, Saputo and Pinetree Capital. SpiderTech is also part of the C10 group and the aim is to add four more corporate partners. “If our business plan works, even if we lose one key player, it’s not going to kill the team. Longevity is what we’re trying to build into this,” said Bauer, pointing to the demise of some teams which was the result of relying heavily on one or two main sponsors.

With the financial backing in place, Bauer was able to handpick his roster for the first-year Pro Continental team. Most of the squad from 2010 returned, including Guillaume Boivin, who won a bronze medal at the U-23 World Championships last year, as well as Keven Lacombe and Gilbert, who combined for seven UCI wins during the season. Also back: Mark Batty, Lucas Euser, Charly Vives, Bruno Langlois, Simon Lambert-Lemay, François Parisien, Andrew Randell, David Boily, Flavio De Luna and Ryan Roth. But Bauer wanted to add some more firepower to the roster, so he signed Zach Bell, an Olympian and silver medalist at the World Track Cycling Championships, as well as Will Routley, the 2010 Canadian Road champion, Hugo Houle, the defending U-23 Canadian Time Trial champion, Ryan Anderson, who wore the KOM jersey for two days at the 2010 Tour of California and Pat McCarty, an American who has raced at the professional level with U.S. Postal/Discovery, Phonak and Team Slipstream. Then, of course, there’s Tuft, who won a silver medal in the time trial at the 2008 World Championships, finished seventh in the Olympics that year and is a nine-time Canadian time trial champion.

Tuft was supposed to be racing for the Australian-based Pegasus team this season, but when that squad failed to get a Pro Continental license because of financial difficulties, the former Garmin-Transitions rider was free to look elsewhere.
“Things work out for a reason sometimes. Really, at the end of the day, all I want to do is ride my bike and race and keep it as simple as I can. That whole side of things is difficult to deal with,” he said. “But to be part of a Canadian Pro Continental team has always been my dream, so I’m happy to be here.”

Other than the handful of Canadians currently signed to WorldTour teams (such as Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Barry, Christian Meier and Dominique Rollin) Bauer’s roster represents the top Canadian cyclists out there.

“We basically want all the best Canadians on the team, so we talked with all of them that were interested in joining the team and in the end, that’s the roster we built,” he said. “Right now we probably have the best of that balance – maximum Canadian talent on a growing team and providing them with an opportunity,” he said. In all, 16 of the 19 riders are Canadian with the only imports being McCarty, Euser and De Luna.

The average age of the riders on the roster is 26, which is young by design. Boivin, Boily and Houle are all 21-years-old or younger and, after Boivin’s remarkable finish U-23 Worlds, that event will be a focus again in 2011. “We’re going to try to win the World Championships, ” Bauer said. “Those kinds of hot buttons get us pretty excited.”

The Team SpiderTech influence in this country’s cycling community is so strong that Bauer was asked to be the director sportif for the national team assembled for the Quebec City and Montreal ProTour races last fall.

Add to that the fact that the team is recruiting its own riders through development programs in Ontario and Quebec and one could argue that Bauer is doing a better job of assembling a national cycling program than the Canadian Cycling Association itself.

But CCA president John Tolkamp, who has heard the oft-repeated complaints that the association isn’t doing enough to grow cycling in this country, said he knows his organization has its limits and must work with those who can do more.

“Right from the beginning the CCA has taken an approach that if done right, the SpiderTech team can add to the overall capacity of cycling in Canada. Let’s face it, the CCA has strengths and it has weaknesses and has a certain place,” said Tolkamp. “As much as we’d like to think the CCA should be all things cycling, the reality is one of limited resources and some components may see more success and be better served if given a level of autonomy.”

With the final goal for this team being an upgrade into Division 1, or WorldTour status by 2013, Bauer knows there will be some tough roster decisions to be made down the road. “Some of the guys on the roster will have challenges keeping up with that growth and we’ll have to recruit international players to fill the gaps and add power or strength or depth. But our goal is to put the maximum number of Canadians on the WorldTour. The team has to grow with the riders and the riders have to grow with the team.”

The attraction for cyclists like Routley is that their careers can burgeon along with the team’s growth.  “For me, ultimately I want to win a race in Europe this year. I’m impatient and I have goals, so I want to keep seeing this progression and get some results,” he said. “As a team, we have to see some results. If we want to get some bigger race invites, we can’t just be out there, we have to be animating these races.

“Before the end of my career I want to race the Tour de France and win a stage. I think that’s within my capabilities and don’t think it should take that many years for us to get a Canadian team into the WorldTour. Both of our goals can be accomplished.”

While getting to the top tier of professional cycling is the goal, Bauer knows there are great risks that go along with pressuring riders to win at all costs – risks he’s not willing to take. He said he would rather have a roster he can trust than to work with cyclists willing to cheat to get to the top.

“We get inundated with resumes from guys in Europe, but I’ll be honest, that would be a bigger risk because of the anti-doping now. The bottom line is, unless you’re doing a really expensive anti-doping program of your own, there has to be trust,” said Bauer, whose riders have already been tested numerous times by both the UCI and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport since receiving the Pro Continental license. “You hire riders that have the right belief system. It starts from there. The opportunity for our Canadian guys is enormous to compete on the world stage because of the anti-doping program. I would love to be back in the Tour de France these days knowing I’m not competing against guys that are fooling around with drugs. Sure, guys are still cheating – it’s obvious because guys are getting caught – but the testing process is pretty good. You have to be out of your mind to try it. They have to be so stupid.”

Tuft said he and his teammates can only worry about themselves staying clean. “That’s the way the sport is going and, for our team, that’s just the way it’s going to be. When you start with that precedent, no one knows any different.”

Whether that goal of reaching the Tour by 2013 or beyond can be achieved is yet to be determined, but just making it as far as they have is already having a profound effect on cycling in this country.

“It’s raising the profile of cycling across Canada,” said Tolkamp. “A higher profile has a cascading effect. It increases media coverage, opens funding doors, aspires youth, increases participation and membership. It also creates a pathway for Canadians – athletes, support, administration and coaching staff – to the highest level of the sport.”

Team SpiderTech powered by Canadian Hockey?

It was no coincidence the Team SpiderTech launch was held at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. As Steve Bauer continues to grow the team, he needs a steady flow of young riders coming up through the system. Unfortunately in Canada, the junior development program is lacking, so SpiderTech is creating its own.

“Hockey to cycling was my story. I wanted to play in the NHL and it was by luck that I ended up in cycling,” said Bauer, one of only two Canadians to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. “There are 5,000 minor or junior hockey players in Canada. That’s an unbelievable talent pool for cycling.”

Team SpiderTech plans to put together a fitness testing program for hockey players through the Montreal-based PowerWatts training centre. “You can put an athlete on a bike and within 20 minutes determine if they can win bike races. We can use that to our advantage and find these guys and recruit them into our program,” Bauer said.

SpiderTech rider Svein Tuft said he believes Canada is capable of producing a Tour de France-worthy roster. “We have the strength and physiology. We just don’t have a lot of people exposed to the sport at a young age.”

Once potential cycling talents have been identified, SpiderTech has development teams it’s working with in Ontario and Quebec. They’re run independently of the Pro Continental team, but they have the support and backing of the big squad.

The 2011 junior team rosters:

SpiderTech powered by Powerwatts (Quebec)
Alex Cataford
Frédéric Cossette
Alexandre Pinard
Lambert Gatineau
Émile Jean
Joakim Albert
Alexandre Bourgeois
Audrey Bernard
Justine Dallaire
Laurie Dumas
Alizée Brien
Claude Pinard (Manager)
Chris Rozdilsky (Director Sportif)

Planet Energy powered by SpiderTech (Ontario)
Brandon Etzl
Matthew Hopkins
Jason Massacotti
Eric Reinert
Travis Samuel
Justin Zottl
Bryan Sheldon (Manager)
Tim Lefebvre (Coach)