Team Nutra-Fig 2000

By John Alsedek

The third division US based Nutra Fig team has been a proving ground for young talent over several years. Although they have a high "turnover rate", they are still committed to developing younger cyclists in the years to come.

Team sponsorship can be a very tenuous thing. For every long-lived sponsor like Telekom or Lotto, there is a Novell or Roslotto who begins and ends sponsorship within a year or two - or even less, as was the case of the infamous Le Groupement squad, where the riders were abandoned by the 'sponsor' before mid-season. Even relatively stable sponsors may decide to end their association with cycling after a few years because of "the law of diminishing returns": they have gotten as much for their publicity dollar as they can expect, and decide to spend their money in other ways.

With that in mind, the Nutra-Fig team is an anomaly - not only is the title sponsor thoroughly committed to the sport, but is also committed to developing young talent, rather than the usual practice of signing established riders from other teams. Part of this is dictated by financial concerns, but only part.

To begin with, Nutra-Fig isn't the name of a company - it's a product of San Joaquin Figs, Inc. Founded in 1989 by Keith Jura. It began processing and packing California-grown figs under the Nutra-Fig label. In 1994, Jura was contacted by John Wordin, now the manager of the Mercury Cycling Team. Back then, Wordin was running a regional team that was low on cash, but had developed young talent such as Trent Klasna, John Peters, and a San Diego native named Chris Horner. When contacted by Wordin, Jura quickly realized that there was a natural connection between his nutrient-dense product and a health-conscious cycling community, and agreed to become Wordin's title sponsor. Thus was born the Nutra-Fig cycling team.

1995 was a year of transition for Nutra-Fig, from regional amateur team to a national professional squad. The roster was solidified, and the Colorado Cyclist mail-order company joined as a co-sponsor. For the '96 season, the Nutra-Fig/Colorado Cyclist team had eight riders, mostly Wordin stalwarts like Horner, Peters, and Kirk Willett (former Junior World Champion Jeff Evanshine was added in late-April). The team's road captain was Thurlow Rogers, a contemporary and former professional teammate of Greg LeMond. His fine achievements, such as ninth place in the '84 Olympic Road Race and fourth overall in the 1983 Peace Race, had unfortunately been overshadowed by the likes of LeMond, Andy Hampsten, and Alexi Grewal. With a title sponsor in place, Wordin was able to give his riders monthly salaries, which allowed most of them to concentrate on training, rather than making money, during the off-season - and it showed, particularly in the case of Chris Horner. He went on a tear, winning the 89'er Stage Race and the Athens Twilight Criterium, and finished third in Atlanta's First Union Grand Prix against an international field.

While the team was having success on the road, John Wordin was equally successful off of it. He secured two additional sponsors for Nutra-Fig: BMW of North America agreed to supply the team with vehicles, while Robert Seaman of the Millenium Foundation fronted additional funding for allow Nutra-Fig to compete in North America's top stage race, the Tour DuPont. His money was well spent. Against a field that included the likes of Lance Armstrong and Tony Rominger, Chris Horner won Stage 10 and finished a credible 22nd overall, while teammates Peters and Evanshine also had top-ten stage finishes. After DuPont, Horner continued his early season tear, winning the CoreStates Invitational and finishing fourth in the CoreStates Classic, both of which were lead-in events for the U.S. Professional Championships in Philadelphia. At that event, Horner and Evanshine made the key 11-man break, with Evanshine riding brilliantly in support of his team leader However, they were stymied by Postman Eddy Gragus, who launched a last-minute attack that no one reacted to quite quickly enough. Horner and Evanshine finished ninth and eleventh, respectively. After that, it was off to the Olympic Trials, where Horner won the opening event and finished fourth overall in points, but was not selected to the team. Disappointing, both for himself and for Nutra-Fig, but it had still been a marvelous season for the upstart young team. However, they were soon to be a victim of their own success.

1997 was a tough season for the Nutra-Fig team. Star rider Horner's spectacular '96 season earned him a European contract with La Francaise de Jeux. Team benefactor Robert Seaman, under the auspices of his Comptel Data Systems, offered to take on title sponsorship for Wordin, which gave him a substantially larger budget to work with than he'd had with Nutra-Fig. So Wordin moved on as well, along with cosponsor Colorado Cyclist and riders Peters, Rogers, Willett, and Chris Walker. It was an amicable parting - Keith Jura agreed to continue sponsoring Wordin's developmental program - but it was a parting nonetheless, and a tough one. The revamped Nutra-Fig team had problems, most of which revolved around the new team manager, who mistreated and alienated his charges in short order. In August, Nutra-Fig riders Eric Messenger and Michael Sayers approached a friend, Mike Cooley, and asked him to come on board as the team manager. So began the second life of the Nutra-Fig team.

Mike Cooley had the perfect credentials for running a team that was modestly budgeted - at least in comparison to other top US teams such as the US Postal Service and Saturn - but had a number of talented young riders in the wings. A racer himself since 1974, Idaho native Cooley had a degree in Marketing from Boise State and was the owner of the Idaho-based George's bike store chain, as well as the mail-order Sawtooth Cycle Supply. In 1998, Cooley had a new 12-man lineup in place, and the Nutra-Fig team picked up largely where they left off in '96. It took the new team time to gel, but they came through big in April, at Oregon's Tour of Willamette stage race. Competing against a strong national field that included powerhouses like the Postal Service, Saturn, and Mercury (Wordin's new sponsor), Nutra-Fig's Ron Schmeer finished fourth overall, while Donald Reeb won Stage 3, and Adham Sbeih placed in the top ten in three stages on his way to tenth overall.

The team had some modest success outside of the Northwest - Burke Swindlehurst won the Tour of the Gilad, Antonio Cruz was seventh in the US Pro Criterium Championship, and Adham Sbeih won a stage in the Tour of Ohio and finished eighth in the Time Trial Nationals - but perhaps their most impressive performance was in the other big event in the Pacific Northwest, the Cascade Classic. With the national-class field supplemented by none other than former World Champion (and future Tour winner) Lance Armstrong, the Nutra-Fig riders came through big. Swindlehurst won a stage and finished fifth overall; Sbeih took the Stage 3 time trial on his way to sixth on GC; and Cruz placed in the top five in three of the six stages. It was a confirmation that a team doesn't need to have a megabucks sponsor to be competitive, that a team can actually succeed by developing its own young talent. Unfortunately, it also proved to be a graduation, as the team's top two riders, Adham Sbeih and Burke Swindlehurst, were signed by the Saturn team for the '99 season.

Once again a victim of its own success, the 1999 Nutra-Fig team had only three holdovers from the previous season: Schmeer, Alex Gardner, and Jason Van Marle. They were joined by a new group of prospects, such as Aaron Olson, Dominique Perras, and David Zabriskie, and continued on. The team had some good results: the European-domiciled Van Marle won the season's first National Calendar Race, the Parker Dam Race; David Zabriskie won a stage in the Tour of Willamette; and Dominique Perras finished eleventh overall in the Tour Trans-Canada amongst a field loaded with European pros. Of course, at the end of the season, the usual happened, as Perras and Zabriskie have moved on to other teams. Not that it bothers either Mike Cooley or Keith Jura overmuch. They are still committed to developing young riders, and, in that spirit, have added several new names for the 2000 season, most notably reigning US National Champions Kenny Williams (Elite Criterium) and Ryan Miller (Espoirs Time Trial). Their main focus for the season is the Saturn US Pro Cycling Series... and, of course, to making the prospects of today into the stars of tomorrow.

2000 Nutra-Fig Cycling Team

Ryan Allison
John Foster
Alex Gardner
Jamul Hahn
Jesse Kiefer
Ryan Miller (amateur)
Aaron Olson
Donald Reeb
Ron Schmeer
Jason Van Marle
Zack Vestal (amateur)
Kenny Williams

Additional Sponsors:

Rudy Project
Endura Clothing
Speedplay pedals
Wound-up forks
Vision-Tech aero bars

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