Friday, February 17, 2012

2012 MABRA Race Scene Preview: XO racing presented by Cisco Systems

Next up in our 2012 preview of MABRA's elite squads: XO racing presented by Cisco Systems (formerly XO-Battley Harley). Eli Hengst, elite and Masters racer, owner of Sonoma and Blue Ridge restaurants and regular Hains noon gooner, was kind of enough to answer my questions about his team. Note, Eli is a MABRA board member and a sponsor of NCVC, which tells you something about his committment to local bike racing, not just the XO squad.

(1) Here we go with the pro question: tell me about your off season acquisitions/departures and the shape of your squad this year.

[Eli Hengst:] Every year our composition seems to determine what we focus on - and this year I think we have one of the strongest road racing teams we've ever put together.

We've added some great new talent, among them Adam Farabaugh (PA) and Gabe Lloyd (NJ) and we've also kept our core together, with Russ Langley, Dave Fuentes, Jared Nieters, Keck Baker, Jose Escobar, Monika Sattler, Lindsay Bayer and others all returning. We have some talented Cat2's in our pipeline as well - Garret Olsen, Alex Weiler, and we even have a junior rider!

Sadly, we lost Tim Brown because he wanted to move to a city (LA) that would better fit his lifestyle and clothing choices. Ditto with Chuck Hutcheson, now in Sacramento.

And Tim Rugg stayed local but transferred to a Domestic Elite NY team - ChampSys - though he was last seen at Hain's Point with some members of our team "going for a swim."

(2) Last year saw Harley develop four squads (Masters, womens, development, elite). What is your focus this year? If it's changed from last year, how and why?

Though we appear to have several squads, the reality is that XO Racing is first and foremost a USAC registered Domestic Elite Team (men's and women's) of 18 Category 1 racers. We also have a small group of Category 2 riders on our regional roster who we hope will progress like our last generation of Cat 2s and join the NRC ranks this year.

In 2011 our team won the Senior BAR, all three MABRA Championships (RR, TT, Crit) and both Stage Races, and more than half of all races we entered as a full squad. Keeping our Domestic Elite "local" after such a year wouldn't be right - they need to go get picked on by the pros.

Our goals for 2012 are simple: give our top Domestic Elite riders the chance to race on the national stage in at least 20 NRC/NCC/UCI and USACRITS Series and give our new Cat2 riders the room and experience to grow.

In practice that means MABRA will see a much-reduced XO squad compared to the last few years - our Domestic Elite riders will be doing only about 6-8 MABRA races in 2012.

Now, as far as this "women's" squad you ask about: we don't really view riders as being "men" or "women" and, frankly, it is really unimportant as we really don't care which gender our riders choose to race or dress as. We choose riders based on a proprietary formula. (Mammary glands or body/back hair per square/centimeter are not part of the equation).

In 2011, this formula led us to identify Monika Sattler and Lindsay Bayer - who rode aggressively (maybe TOO aggressively initially...) and bought into our culture. As importantly, they were as strange or stranger than anyone on the rest of our squad.

Personally, I think DC Velo is looking like the team to beat in MABRA Elite races this year. Everyone is going to have their hands full chasing Frick and trying to stop DJ. KBS and Bill Gros' new teams are looking strong, too.

(3) What do you see as the Harley ethos (aside from being a bunch of genetic freaks with swinging brass ones)?

Actually, the ethos has come from our riders - former pros and top caliber regional riders who brought their high expectations to the team. In distilled form, it seems to have boiled down to this:

You don't race for 2/3/4/5+++ places.
Ride selflessly for the team and everyone has a shot at winning.

That's really it, but it governs everything.

(4) Tell us about the money--new sponsors? Old ones that have stuck with you?
For 5 years Tom Buzas and I basically funded the team out of our own pockets as it grew, with a few great local co-sponsors like Teaism and Raw Talent Ranch helping us out. But we were getting to the point where without more funds and equipment sponsors, we were going to lose riders to bigger teams.

Thankfully, in 2011, Jared Nieters, co-owner of Haymarket Bicycles, connected the team with Bryan Burns of XO Communications who became a real advocate for the team at his company and eventually brought XO on board as our Title Sponsor.

In 2012, XO and Bryan outdid themselves (especially given the economy) by bringing Cisco Systems to our team as the co-Title Sponsor. There is absolutely no way we could run the expanded schedule we plan without their support.

Combined with the generous cash sponsorship from XO and Cisco, in 2012 we received incredible support from Hincapie Sporstwear and Blue Competition Cycles.

(5) Tell us about the history of your squad--how did it start and how did it come to be the dominant elite team in MABRA?
Wow, I really don't want to bore your readers with inside baseball, but I can tell you that our primary goal has been to avoid bringing jerks onto the team, no matter how strong, hence the "skyline rule:"

If you can't stand to sit in a car with someone for 2 hours, do a 5 hour ride with them, then get dinner or a beer, they shouldn't be on the team. Period.

There are no elaborate dating rituals, team rides, votes, applications, committees, etc. In that sense, we're very much not a club or even a democracy. Every new member coming on the team has to have a current member "vouch" for them and then talk with me and Tom personally.

Have we had some issues with some strange dudes and anger management issues? Sure. But we're family and we've always worked it out.

(6) What does the pre-season look like for Harley? Camps? Iron pumping?
Actually, probably much like it does for everyone else.

This year we're taking 12 of our riders back to Asheville, NC for two weekends of racing at the Hincapie Spring Series near Greenville, SC, and then in March we all head out to Jay Moglia's Raw Talent Ranch in West Virginia for 4-5 days of insanely steep roads.

We've been going to the Barn for 5+ years now and it's a great escape filled with the usual bike team BS: drinking beers, talking shit, goofing around. You can't really gel as a team without some kind of trip/camp....

(7) Last year Harley was dominant in both strength and numbers, and this prompted maybe some grumblings. Instead of whining, what should other teams be doing?

As far as the strength/dominance question goes, we've been lucky to attract certain riders who are attracted to our racing style and ultimately buy into our culture (see no. 3). They benefit from being around former pros and NRC riders and get better. And, after a few years, its becomes a virtuous circle and simply builds on itself.

But we lose plenty of races, too. That's the great thing about bike racing: anyone who did the training and keeps a clear head has a shot at winning the race.

What I can say from our experience is that - having watched our guys for years - nothing happens overnight. You have to train (alot) and as a team manager, you have to be patient. It takes years in both cases.

You just can't control it all - enjoy racing and hanging your teammates and have some beers. Your sponsors could be gone next year and your best riders and good friends might move across the country!

(8) We know about the long-standing Harley badasses like Russ and Dave, but who is Harley's unknown unknown rider that will come out of the woodwork this year?

Awww man, if I knew that! But that's the fun part - I have no idea!

[Uncle Paps says: I'm pulling for my favorite little grom Darion Fleming, who almost beats me at Words With Friends, but only because he cheats.]

(9) Doping--when riders do well, there are always mumblings. How does Harley try to foster an atmosphere of clean riding?
It's zero tolerance and all riders sign an agreement (see the doc I sent you) that makes them liable for damages caused to the team and it sponsors.

Tom and I have known our guys for so long that any performance "anomalies" would be clear pretty quickly - very few guys go from local crit to NRC podium in a short time frame.

Also, given the national profile of many of races that we do, my guess is that our riders collectively have probably been tested more than any team in the area. When was the last time you saw USADA at one of our local races?

(10) Russ Langley and Dave Fuentes vs. Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal in a leg busting contest--is anyone on earth left standing?

Man, our guys just look mean - they're alot more gentle than you think. Just give them half a beer - or have their wife around!

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