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Monday, April 21, 2008
Rock Racing bringing new - and different - look to cycling

Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Rock Racing is a cycling team unlike any other, which is by design.

The racers wear flashy lime-and-black outfits, called "kits" in the cycling world. Their roster boasts an Olympic gold medalist and a former world champion, a tattoo aficionado and riders with checkered pasts. They ooze attitude, and even have a fleet of Cadillacs adorned with the team logo to carry their gear.

Those involved with cycling either love 'em or hate 'em.

"I really think that what we're doing is great for the sport," Rock racer Tyler Hamilton said. "People will have to see that."

If Rock Racing posted a classified ad looking for riders, it might read something like this: "Talent a must. Past doping issues OK. Call Michael Ball to apply."

Ball is the outspoken founder, one of cycling's most polarizing figures. His team is filled with riders scorned by other teams in the cycling establishment, especially now, when the sport tries to escape its darkest chapter, the doping era.

Hamilton won Olympic gold for the United States in 2004, just before he was suspended for blood doping, which he still denies. Santiago Botero was world time trial champion in 2002 and a stage winner of the Tour de France, but was linked to the massive "Operation Puerto" doping scandal before being cleared by Colombian officials.

Spanish rider Oscar Sevilla also was linked to "Operation Puerto," keeping him from the 2006 Tour de France. And Kayle Leogrande, the American racer known for his numerous tattoos, is involved in a legal dispute with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Even Floyd Landis, stripped of his Tour de France victory in 2006 after testing positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone, has been an adviser of sorts to Ball.

But when asked about the consistent trend among some of his riders, Ball -- who says his team is committed to anti-doping -- cringes.

"I don't want to get into the whole thing about the guys that have questionable pasts, because there's a lot of guys in the peloton that have questionable pasts," Ball said. "But I think it's a new day and I think the sport is cleaner today than it ever has been. The guys get it. The team owners get it. The promoters get it. We have to clean it up. It's cleaner. It'll continue to be cleaner."

He was a highly successful bike racer once, and is still an avid cyclist. His fashion company, Rock and Republic, appeals to the high-end shopper. He was once considered too brash for fashion.

Many in cycling think the same thing.

"Maybe they don't go about everything the right way or the way people like," said George Hincapie, the veteran American star who now rides for Team High Road. "But I think it's a good thing to have them around."

Some companies that were aligned with Rock Racing have broken deals because of Ball's involvement with Hamilton and others.

He offers no apologies.

"You bring in new eyeballs, which ultimately means more dollars, new dollars, that will help grow this sport. And that's what is needed," Ball said. "Saying should I have signed this person or not signed this person, I don't think that's really what the focus should be on. We all get it. ... Let's start focusing on how do we make this sport bigger."

Easier said than done, especially considering that not everyone is lining up for business with Rock Racing.

In February at the Tour of California, Hamilton, Botero and Sevilla were barred because of their alleged doping histories. And Rock's spot at the invitation-only Tour de Georgia wasn't settled until an out-of-court settlement was struck last week.

"You want to get the best racers competing against each other," said Olympic silver medalist and former women's world champion Mari Holden. "I like to see new ideas coming into cycling. But I also understand that there's rules and you have to follow them."

Rock Racing reportedly paid a $500,000 sponsorship fee to the Tour of California, and is listed this week as a "founding partner" of the Tour de Georgia.

Ball insists his financial involvement has nothing to do with his team getting into either race.

"The passion of the team and of Michael Ball certainly is applauded," Tour de Georgia event director Chris Aronhalt said.

Ball acknowledges that some riders and owners haven't hid their disdain for his approach, hiring practices, or marketing methods that include bringing "podium models" to races.

"Some people," he said, "just don't get it."

Others are catching on.

Hincapie is a 12-time Tour de France veteran, is on track to be on the U.S. Olympic team for the fifth time and has a sportswear company bearing his name. Best known for once being Lance Armstrong's top lieutenant, Hincapie isn't an overly outspoken sort of guy.

But not only is he noticing Rock's distinctly different approach, he sounds like he approves.

"I've got to tell you, I like them," Hincapie said. "They bring controversy, but I think they've got a guy that really loves cycling. ... It just brings a whole new fan base into the sport."

Ball is either crazy or a genius, probably a little of both, and his wild approach applies to both cycling and fashion.

Who else, unhappy with the way his girlfriend looked in jeans, would design his own pair to better display her figure and then work out how to sell the denim creation for upward of $300 a pair? He's a guy whose company will sell women something called a "metallic leather corset short" for $427, then complete their ensemble with $260 sunglasses and a $760 handbag.

His team appeared at the Tour de Georgia kickoff gala decked in Rock-designed stylish black blazers, shirts and jeans. As Botero left the stage, the wife of a race sponsor tried unsuccessfully to get his attention.

"I was going to offer him $500," she squealed, "for his belt buckle!"

Say this for Rock Racing: Everywhere they go, they leave an impression.

"The team is different. Their approach is different. Their guy is new in cycling and he has a lot to learn," said Tom Danielson, the 2005 winner of the Tour de Georgia who's riding now with Slipstream Chipotle -- a team that prides itself on racing clean and has its riders tested every 14 days. "But at the same time, he's bringing great riders and great ideas to the sport. I'm excited they're here."

Ball vows he isn't going anywhere, either. His team wears T-shirts with HERE TO STAY emblazoned on the back.

"Anybody who questions Michael Ball or questions Rock Racing has to know it's bringing a whole new fan base to the sport," Hamilton said. "Cycling needs more fans. This is a breath of fresh air, and maybe everyone doesn't realize it yet, but cycling needs Michael Ball."