"Don't blink or you'll miss it" is the phrase on cycling fans' lips around Santa Rosa this week.
Except they're not talking about the peloton. Instead, everyone's rubbing their eyes at the overnight transformation of the Santa Rosa&–based BMC Racing Team. Founded in part by Santa Rosa's Gavin Chilcott and Marin's Charlie Livermore in 2006, BMC has undergone a restructuring of management, an influx of capital and a rush of incredible signings. Suddenly, BMC has gone from being the little racing team that could to the formidable racing team that will.
U.S. National Road Race champion George Hincapie is on the team. Reigning UCI World Road Race champion Cadel Evans is on the team. And one week after receiving a coveted invitation to the Giro d'Italia, BMC earned the most desired invitation in cycling: an official berth to ride in the Tour de France.
How did this all happen? Having Jim Ochowicz as the new president of BMC can't hurt. Ochowicz is a Cycling Hall of Famer and a road-race legend who competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. He founded the 7-Eleven racing team in 1981, which became the first-ever U.S. team to be invited to the Tour de France, in 1986. He is, in a word, a godfather of American cycling.
Ochowicz, speaking last week by phone, says BMC's transformation is no accident. "Gavin and the smaller group, which started as a continental team and grew to be a pro continental team, expanded into what it is today through a concentrated effort about a year ago to move forward the timeline, potentially, on our ultimate objectives," he says, "which, at the start of the project, was to get to the Tour de France. Which is what everybody says, right? But saying you want to do it and making it happen are two different things."
As a pro continental team, BMC was a wild card for Italy and France. But with last year's roster-building, which along with Hincapie and Evans included contracts with former road race champion Allesandro Ballan, team Astana's Steve Morabito and Tour de France stage winners Marcus Burghart and Karsten Kroon, the deck was stacked in BMC's favor. "We've reached our goals at least in terms of invitations," Ochowicz says. "Now we have to show our colors in the race and continue to earn our spots."
Though Cadel Evans is currently riding the Giro d'Italia as a favorite to win, BMC still has a strong roster for the Tour of California. George Hincapie will return. At age 36, Hincapie remains competitive, with three stage wins in recent Tours of California. He also serves as a mentor to younger riders on the team. "He communicates with them, and not just at the dinner table, or breakfast table," Ochowicz says. "The mentorship there does a lot for their confidence and their performance."
In this year's Tour of California, those younger cyclists are also going to be riding alongside someone Ochowicz has a long history with: Lance Armstrong, who rode for Ochowicz on team Motorola. "Any time Lance is in a race—particularly in America—for the other riders, it's a great experience to be able to race against the best bike racer in the world," he explains. "If you were a professional basketball player and got to play against Michael Jordan, I mean, that's something you tell your grandkids, right?
"It's a once-in a-lifetime opportunity, particularly since Lance had alreadyretired and came back," adds Ochowicz. "I'm not sure how long he's going to race. I know he's racing this year. I don't know about next year, that's up to him, but you know, he's not going to be racing five years from now."
Still headquartered in Santa Rosa, and with Chilcott still on as team manager ("Gavin knows all the terrain, knows all the climbs, knows all the roads," Ochowicz praises), team BMC is entering a new era. And despite big moves in the cycling world, Sonoma County remains the team's heart—"a mecca for cycling," says Ochowicz—with the Tour of California a key event.
"I'd love to one day be coming back to the 25th anniversary of the Tour of California," he says, "and I think they're on their way to doing that."