Team 7Up-Colorado Cyclist

By John Alsedek

It's not unusual for professional cyclists to move into team management once they've hung up their wheels. However, the 7Up-Colorado Cyclist team came into existence largely because of exactly the opposite happening: a rider forming and managing his own team in order to allow him to compete professionally.

Jeff Corbett began racing in his native South Carolina back in 1990. After two years of competing with some success, but little in the way of financial reward, he decided to take the adage "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" to heart, and helped form his own squad: the Cycle Center/Children's Hospital team (which, incidentally, is still alive and well in Columbia, SC).

However, Corbett only got to reap the fruits of his labor for one season - after graduating from the University of South Carolina (he was a Communications major), he moved to California and spent the next few years racing as a Category I, again largely unsupported. As a result, he again found himself working at the business end of the sport, getting involved in formation of the RBC racing team, which was sponsored in its first season by Snapple Iced Tea. By 1996, he was getting some good results in races in the U.S., Europe, and South America - including three top-five stage finishes in the Tour of Guatemala, and was hoping for a good offer to turn professional. However, the offer didn't come, so Corbett decided to take matters into his own hands: "I decided the only way I was going to get on a good pro team was to start my own."

Using his previous experiences with Cycle Center/Children's Hospital and RBC, Corbett formed the Diet Rite Cola team with Scott McAfee in 1997. A low-budget operation with just four riders, Corbett, Frank Banfield, Adam Livingston, and John Wike, the Diet Rite team was fairly successful locally and at least competitive regionally. Wike was fourth in a stage of the Redlands Classic, while Livingston ran off a string of second places at the Tucson Bicycle Classic, but still times were tight.

In May, the quartet headed east to compete in the top US professional events: Atlanta's First Union Grand Prix, and the CoreStates Cycling Series. Despite cold and rainy conditions, Corbett, Livingston, and Wike all finished the Atlanta race - Corbett had been with the lead group before crashing near the finish. However, with, with limited financial and technical support, plus having raced mostly criteriums and short road races all season, they found themselves overwhelmed at the 156-mile US Professional Road Championship in Philadelphia, and none of them managed to finish. Still, Diet Rite Cola was satisfied with the team and had planned to continue sponsorship in 1998, until budget cuts killed their cycling program. However, it ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise. Scott McAfee's contact at Diet Rite called a friend at 7Up on the team's behalf and set up a meeting with 7Up's Southern California bottler. The meeting went well, and they agreed to sponsor Corbett and McAfee's team for the 1998 season.

That winter saw some restructuring take place: out went Banfield and Wike, while Corbett added Californians Scott Cochran, Shawn Cronkhite, Wayne Roth, and, briefly, Greg Walker. The 7Up team was looking forward to a full pro schedule in '98, centered around competing in the CoreStates series (now sponsored by First Union Bank) on the East Coast. However, new UCI regulations proved to be a huge stumbling block. In the wake of the Le Groupement and Force Sud disasters, where team sponsors pulled out at mid-season and left riders without support or pay, the UCI had instituted new team divisions and new regulations. To apply for a UCI license, a team had to pay an exhorbitant license fee, plus place a large sum of cash in escrow to ensure that riders would be paid even if the team folded.

For a small team like 7Up, the UCI license was just too much: like several other U.S.based teams, they went without. This meant that the only way they could compete in events like the US Professional Championships was as a 'composite team', meaning that if there were open spots in the start list, they were allowed to compete wearing their team uniforms, but listed as 'composite riders'. Still, the 7Up team had a decent season: Livingston repeated Wike's fourth place finish in a stage of the Redlands Classic, Cronkhite finished tenth in the Sea Otter Classic, and in the team's biggest success of the year, newcomer Wayne Roth won a stage and the overall in the Chums Classic Stage Race.

Meanwhile Corbett was putting his accumulated knowledge to work secure sponsorship for 1999: "We had a lot of good results on regional basis but not nationally - find other ways keep our sponsors happy." The teams off-bike activities paid off in spades, as 7Up corporate headquarters decided to take over sponsorship and give significant budget increase boot. increased financial support allowed him upgrade talent by bringing two riders who proved be invaluable squad: Clark Sheehan Anton Villatoro.

The addition of these two riders proved to be a godsend to the now Colorado-based 7Up team in a number of ways. Sheehan was a former stage winner in the Tour DuPont and top-three finisher in the US Professional Championship, while Villatoro had ridden the 1996 Olympics and was just coming off of three seasons of European racing with the US Postal Service team. They brought with them an extensive amount of high-level racing experience that the team had previously lacked: "Having both been on major teams, they were able to bring a lot to the table - not just results, but a more professional way of doing things on the bike and off." They also both brought other qualities: the ability to positively motivate their teammates; and a tremendous desire to succeed. Villatoro, after working as a domestique for the likes of Lance Armstrong and Viatcheslav Ekimov, saw an opportunity to ride as a leader on a team "When Team 7Up came together, I actually asked to get out of my '99 contract (with US Postal) to ride with 7Up." Along with long-time US racing stalwart Steve Speaks, winner of six stages in the Ruta Mexico and a former Euro-pro himself with the Belgian Histor team, the reconstituted 7Up team began getting the national-level results that had eluded them previously.

Both Sheehan and Villatoro won stages of Oregon's Tour of Willamette; Sheehan was fourth overall in the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic and led for two days, while Villatoro finished a strong eighth in the Pan-American Road Race. However, the team's finest moment was in a race that had proven beyond their capabilities in years before: the US Pro Championship in Philadelphia. Both Sheehan and Villatoro acquitted themselves well - Sheehan won the prestigious King of the Wall competition, while Villatoro outsprinted a group of twelve that included three previous race winners (Bart Bowen, Eddy Gragus, and George Hincapie) and a stage winner in the 1999 Tour de France (Salvatore Commesso) to finish as the third American and seventh overall.

7Up was pleased enough with the team to both renew their contract for 2000 and to increase their operating budget yet again. The financial situation was further improved in October when, following two months of negotiations prompted by Clark Sheehan, the Colorado Cyclist mail order company signed on as the team's co-sponsor. Colorado Cyclist had previously co-sponsored the Nutra-Fig and Comptel teams of John Wordin, and had fielded its own squads in '98 and '99 (Sheehan had ridden for Colorado Cyclist in 1998). The resulting 7Up-Colorado Cyclist team took on a distinctly Colorado flavor, as he released three riders and replaced them with a group of hot prospects from the '99 Colorado Cyclist team: "I wanted a strong Colorado-based team with Colorado riders. I want to try to bring back the 7-Eleven/Coors Light days, when Coloradoans dominated the US scene and give Colorado a home team again."

The riders that Corbett has added to the core group of himself, Sheehan, Speaks, and Villatoro include '99 National Amateur Road Champion Danny Pate, Michael Creed, winner of a record 17 national titles as a junior, and Kevin Monahan, a New Yorker who has finished on the podium the past three years in the Criterium Nationals. In addition, there is espoir David Zabriske, who has won two national time trial championships, as well as the time trial stage in this year's Giro d'Primavera (Italy).

It's a promising squad that looks like a real up-and-comer for 2000. This is not just because of their talent, but also because of their cameraderie: "I know most teams have an employee/employer relationship with their riders, but I prefer a more musketeer spirit - do what you can for the team, and we'll do what we can for you. I like the riders to give input on all issues, I don't always take it, but I appreciate it. The pay in this sport is too low to be unhappy. You need to like your job and the people you work with. We have that here and we like and respect one another," says Corbett.

Co-leader Sheehan adds: "I'm really excited about the season and the great group of guys we have....I don't know if I've ever been so motivated for racing."

So where does 7Up-Colorado Cyclist want to go in 2000 and beyond? "I'd like to keep growing at an even pace. Huge budget jumps mean huge growing pains." They do not have plans to do any extensive racing in Europe; it's not a priority to either 7Up or Colorado Cyclist, and the team prefers to focus on, and help develop the American racing scene. The team's ultimate goal is to become the top domestic-based team, much as Coors Light was in its heyday.

That's a pretty lofty goal for a guy who ended up as a team boss almost by default: "I never set out to be the manager of a pro team, I just wanted to race my bike." But, given the talent Jeff Corbett has to work with, it's not an unreasonable one, and it just might happen sooner than even he thinks.

Team Roster:

Jeff Corbett
Paul Collins
Michael Creed
Ryan Guay
Reese Houghton
Mike Ley
Kevin Monahan
Danny Pate
Clark Sheehan
Steve Speaks
Anton Villatoro
David Zabriskie
Doug Ziewacz

Additional Sponsors:

Rudy Project
Off The Front
Power Bar
Bike Sponsor- TBA

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