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Tales from the Peloton
The Cycling Center: A Belgian based US development team
By Jeff Jones
Development teams in cycling are becoming increasingly more important to guide aspiring young riders into the professional ranks. The goal of a development team/program is not primarily to get results, but to teach riders all the necessary skills they need to race with the 'big boys'. As such they are not particularly well supported by sponsors, who would rather see someone crossing the line with their arms raised and zipped up jersey bearing a nice big sponsor's logo.
Most national federations have well established U23 programs that take the best up and coming cyclists in the country, and race them throughout the season against other countries' U23 teams and small trade teams. The effectiveness of these is more apparent in non-European countries, with the U23 programs from Australia and the USA producing a number of professional cyclists in recent years. However to get into these programs requires a rider to already be competitive in the junior ranks, which is not always easy. Many good riders start to develop and mature much later. It's well known that a top junior does not always make a top pro.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the "Cycling Center", run by Bernard and Ann Moerman in the Belgian coastal town of Oostende. This is a good example of a privately run development program, although the Center is also working more and more in cooperation with the USA U23 national team, which is based in Izegem, not too far from Oostende.
Bernard Moerman is a former professional football player and first started taking in riders 12 years ago. "I got into cycling by coincidence," he says. "Paul Naessens (European team organizer for the Superweek series in the USA) called me to see if we could house a rider for 6 weeks."
Over the past 10 years or so, cycling has gradually become the focus of his and his wife's careers, and the couple now run a modest business with the main reward at the moment being that they can foster their love of cycling, and help young riders realise their potential.
In its current form, the Cycling Center hosts a dozen or so cyclists for most of the cycling season in Belgium (March - early October). Bernard explains that "We have several programs, the full season and then the classics program and the collegiate program (the last two are three month programs). We are now looking into making an eight week program too. All programs are based on medical knowledge, experience and professional advice on different terrains."
The way that the program has evolved over the years means that nearly all the riders are Americans. That's not to exclude riders from other countries, but it is the most practical way to do things at the moment given the fact that they have to live with each other all year.
The program is popular too, as Bernard explains. "Right now, over 100 riders are applying, the number that will be accepted will depend on whether we can move to a bigger place or not. Important selection criteria are honesty, social skills, determination, realistic goals, coachability, and desire."
The main goal of the Cycling Center is quite simply "Development". "The CC is a stepping stone for all the riders. After being at the CC you will definitely know more about yourself and racing."
The Cycling Center base
The Cycling Center in Oostende is a large two storey house with the entire lower floor and part of the upper floor dedicated to the cyclists. It's well furnished, with several bedrooms, a large lounge/eating area, kitchen, washing machines, a garage which is fully equipped with bike maintenance tools, a TV/Video, and even an internet connection in every room. The reason for the latter is that Bernard wants all his riders to be able to keep in touch easily and inexpensively with the folks back home - they also write their own diaries about their racing experiences. Bernard has a high speed connection and a hub with enough ports to handle everything. If the riders don't have their own laptops, then there is a spare computer available.
Any hardened professional from Belgium will immediately tell you this is living in the lap of luxury. One could argue that living on a budget of $20 a week in the back of a campervan is all part of the learning process, and such treatment engenders the true 'hard-man' character necessary to survive the rigours of pro cycling.
Perhaps, but there's also nothing wrong with the idea of having everything taken care of so that you can really concentrate on the racing. It's clear that Bernard and Ann are aiming at the latter!
Funding and sponsorship
Running an operation such as this is not cheap, as any team director will tell you. The ABC-Aitos team (the Cycling Center's amateur squad) and the Cycling Center itself are only partially funded by sponsorship, which means that the riders have to pay their own way.
"I think it is normal that riders need to pay for themselves as long as they haven't proved that they are good enough to be paid," says Bernard. "Why should I try to find sponsors to invest in an unknown rider who is not even ready to invest in himself? The CC is a stepping stone for amateurs. In our program riders get exposure because of the high quality of races we do. Then they can catch the eye of the pro teams and take the next step."
Pertaining to this, over the years, Bernard estimates that "about 75 guys have passed through since the beginning and about five of them turned pro." The best known of these is probably Jeff Louder, who started in 1998 and turned pro in 2000 with Tönnisteiner-Landbouwkrediet (now Landbouwkrediet-Colnago). Louder rode as part of the US World's team in Zolder this year, and finished the road race.
Others include Brian Sheedy (Chicago), who was at the Cycling Center in 2001 and turned pro with the Navigators in 2002. Also Benjamin Sharp, who was US Elite Criterium Champion in 2001, rode at the Cycling Center in 2000.
The ABC-Aitos Team
The riders at the Center race as part of the ABC-Aitos team, a fully kitted out amateur squad that races elite level races (including UCI 1.6 and 2.6) in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the USA. The team has its own coach, doctor, mechanic and even a bike fitter, Frans Vanmarcke, to whom all team members pay a visit at the beginning of the season. Vanmarcke has fitted riders like Eddy and Axel Merckx, Tom Steels, Nico Mattan, and Chris Peers over the years. He spends at least half a day measuring up each cyclist and determining their correct position. Attention to detail is important in these cases.
Of course there are varying levels of fitness amongst all the team members, some of whom have experience racing in Belgium but most of whom don't. However there is plenty of time to train and Bernard has a fairly strict policy about racing. At the start of the season it's once per week, maximum. If a rider can't finish a race due to poor condition, then he has to wait until next week and spend the time in between training and resting properly.
This is also a different approach to that of a typical young foreigner in Belgium. Because there are so many races on during the season, it's quite possible to race every day within a 50 km radius or so. Bernard describes this as similar to a "kid in a candy store" - it's easy to have too much of a good thing. Racing is not only physically demanding, it's a mentally challenging task too, and a rider's concentration must be pretty close to 100 percent for a road race or kermesse or they'll get dropped. Too much racing without sufficient preparation can burn out a rider mentally rather than physically, and that is definitely not a good thing.
The ABC-Aitos team has a built up a solid racing program, starting with the Challenge de Hesbaye (1.6) in Belgium in March, and taking in one or two races per week right through the season. The team raced in the ZLM Tour in Holland (1.5), Flèche du Sud in Luxembourg (2.6), Triptyque Ardennais in Belgium (2.7.1), GP Soissons in France (1.5), and the Univest GP in the USA (1.6) this year, giving the riders excellent exposure to all types of racing.
Several of these races were done in conjunction with the USA National U23 Team, and certain ABC-Aitos team members were selected to race as part of the USA team on the basis of their progress and performance. Bernard explains how his program is becoming more connected with the USA National Team's:
"I arrange my race schedule in co-operation with Noel Dejonckheere [US coach]. That way we can plan where we are going to race and with whom. We make sure we have different races with different levels so that we can bring the right riders to the right races, thus the riders can develop to their maximum. We debrief each other after every race. He even takes part in the selection of riders, riders who were (for any kind of reason) not selected for the National Team program right away can now come to the Cycling Center and still prove their qualities."
The future of the Cycling Center
Bernard is confident that his program can go from strength to strength, after having a very positive season this year. "Overall I can say that the 2002 season was the most satisfying because of the enormous improvement of several riders. It is the proof that with knowledge, honesty and patience a lot of riders can get much better."
"Development is the keyword in the whole organisation," he adds. "Over the last few years we have been getting known more and more as a talent pool and development school. This is - and will be - the main point for the future."
The sponsorship issue is not a determinant for the program's continuation, although it will affect how things develop. "The more sponsorship we can get, the better the programs will be, and the more support we can give to the determined young riders," says Bernard. "The program is not based on sponsors, but with sponsors it gets better, smoother and more professional. In the first 10 years we didn't have any sponsors at all. I think this approach made it possible to build out something sustainable. We grew step by step."
"Since we have been doing the UCI races, we've raced against the big dogs in Europe. There is a lot of exposure, so I needed to make sure we not only do well but also look professional."
They certainly do at the moment, and one can only envisage that the ABC-Aitos team and the Cycling Center will keep growing and improving over the years, while maintaining its core status as a development team.
For more about the Cycling Center, visit its website at www.cyclingcenter.com.