Ten years ago, a British team ventured forth from the safety of the provincial racing scene and tackled a Grand Tour. They even won a stage. By the start of the following season, the future looked bright. They were backed by a US-based multinational conglomerate. Jaguar were on board. Bradley Wiggins was about to parlay his track success into victory on the road. Sean Yates was directeur sportif. Neil Stephens was coming on board as assistant DS. Nothing could go wrong. Then the sky fell in.
Title: Team On The Run: The Inside Story Of The Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team
Author: John Deering
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
What it is: An insider's account of the highs and lows of life in Britain's last pro team to tackle a Grand Tour, before the arrival of Team Sky.
Strengths: Deering has got an easy-going, chatty, gossipy style about him and doesn't take himself, or the sport, too seriously, peppering his tale with anecdotes you'll want to read and repeat.
Weaknesses: Deering was as much in the dark about what really went on with the team's finances, so ultimately the book doesn't get to the heart of the mystery of how the team collapsed - or even how it survived as long as it did.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
Julian Clark was something of a serial entrepreneur. Starting off as a successful motocross rider, he ran his own Kawasaki works team and at one stage ran a gym at Brands Hatch. But success and failure always seemed to go hand and hand for him. Coming up to Christmas 1997 and while recovering from his latest business failure, Clark had an epiphany in the frozen foods aisle of his local supermarket: "I stood there with one hand on the trolley staring at this frozen lasagne. What a fantastic idea! What better advertisement could there be for this stuff than a sports team living the vegetarian lifestyle and eating this gear?" Thus was born the Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team.
Skip forward a couple of years. Having spent their first year picking up wins in British races, and their second year winning more at home and getting whipped every time they raced on the Continent, Clark decided that the new millennium was the perfect time to widen the team's horizons. After having been put through the shitter by l'affaire Festina, cycling had a new saviour in 1999 and it was the perfect time for an English-speaking team to cash in on the publicity tsunami about to swamp the sport.
Riding the Tour de France was always part of Clark's dream. But the Tour organisers, having been stung by their willingness to allow the hapless ANC-Halfords squad to ride in '87, were unlikely to be as quick to invite another such squad, not without proof that they could be competitive. An invite to the Giro d'Italia though was a real possibility. So the McCartneys opened a base in Toulouse, signed a few proper riders and started getting themselves noticed by the Giro organisers.
Having Sean Yates as their directeur sportif helped them get noticed. Yates had earned a lot of respect in the pro peloton. For those who don't know the name, Yates is one of those guys who defined the term super domestique. He wasn't just your average bottle carrier. Happy to ride for others, the guy oozed confidence and class. At one stage he was going to retire, but Lance Armstrong had taken such a shine to him at Motorola that he stuck around for another couple of years to help teach the Texan a few new tricks.
Having retired in 1996, Yates had been filling his post-cycling life with a career as a part-time gardener cum labourer. Clark thought he'd be right for the DS role with the McCartneys. Only Clark wasn't the only bidder for Yates' services in '99 - Armstrong wanted him too. Coming back from cancer, and bouncing back after being paid off by Cofidis, Armstrong was moulding the US Postal Services squad in his own image. He initially offered Steve Bauer - himself a former Motorola rider - a DS role but the Canadian wasn't interested. He suggested Yates call Armstrong. The two talked, but in the end Yates chose the veggies, partly because he was miffed at Armstrong not calling him before Bauer passed on the word. But he'd also been sold on Clark's impressive spiel: "Julian sold it to me as the dream deal. McCartney himself was going to personally back the team forever, there was an initial seven-year rolling contract, we were going to the tour. It would be a gravy train for everyone involved."
The 2000 season started with pre-season races in Australia, Malaysia and South Africa - the sort of races where little teams get to shine and big teams warm their legs up. The McCartneys made sure they shone. A good showing at Tirreno-Adriatico - they didn't win anything but they made sure they were seen at the pointy end of the race - helped secure the much coveted Giro invite. Suddenly, the McCartneys were the little team that could.
They were also the little team that wouldn't. Wouldn't dope, that is. Coming so soon after Festina, the McCartneys were determined to be seen to be not just British and vegetarian - two nice enough USPs - but a drug-free team to boot. To emphasise their drug-free status, Macca himself had created an anthem for the team, Clean Machine. "We were acutely aware that the worst thing that could happen to the team was a positive dope test ... we would probably be better off never winning a race that having that happen. As a result, newcomers to the team had to be carefully vetted for past misdemeanours and made aware of their responsibilities." So far so not unlike Dave Brailsford's public pronouncements on Team Sky's status as a Clean Team.
But as the McCartneys would soon prove, lip service is cheap. Their careful vetting of newcomers for past misdemeanours somehow didn't ring a warning bell when they hired Max Sciandri, the bronze medallist in Luigi Cecchini's Atlanta Olympics 1-2-3. Nor did it stop them hiring Pascal Richard, the Atlanta gold medallist. And it didn't stop them bringing Neil Stephens on board as an assistant DS mid-way through the 2000 season. Nor did it stop them trying to sign Kevin Livingston for the 2001 season.
Richard was the first to cause the team a problem. No sooner had the 2000 Giro started than the team doctor, Roger Palfreeman, discovered that Richard had been using a sports' supplement that contained banned substances. When Palfreeman quizzed him about it Richard claimed to have been using it for years. Worse, he'd recently started sharing it with the McCartneys' youngest rider, Ben Brooks.
A crisis meeting was called and a decision had to be made: take the risk of Richard or Brooks being tested and returning a positive, or get them off the race PDQ. They chose the latter. Deering put out a press release saying Richard and Brooks had taken ill after the prologue finished (no mention of bad fish). Remarkably, no journalist thought it odd enough to even merit a question.
The disappointment of losing two riders so quickly to such a stupid error was soon assuaged by a stage win. Dave McKenzie, an Aussie riding with the squad, took off for a long one and somehow managed to hold the sprinters off. Sciandri added a second place the next day. Everything really was gravy.
Reality again started intruding into the dream during the Tour, when some journalists took notice of news of Neil Stephens' arrival. Paul Sherwin told Deering he was "surprised" and that "the PR implications of putting somebody so tainted by the Festina thing into the ‘Clean Machine' don't bear thinking about." (Stephens had been a Festina rider in '98. Like Virenque, he insisted that he'd never knowingly taken drugs.) Even the Guardian's William Fotheringham - not known for going out of his way to ask questions about doping - contacted the team, asking about allegations in Fabrice l'Homme's newly published Les Proces Du Tour. According to l'Homme, Stephens had confessed to taking both EPO and HGH.
Faced with journalists actually asking questions even before Stephens had fully come on board, Clark briefly considered ditching his new DS but eventually decided that as an exhaustive Australian investigation (Australian investigators: "Neil, did you knowingly take drugs?" Stephens: "No, I did not knowingly take drugs.") had already cleared him then there was nothing to worry about. Presumably Dave Brailsford has had to ask himself the same questions Clark did after Stephens recently said he was looking for a job with Team Sky.
By the time the season wound down toward its end, it wasn't just the arrival of the Aussie DS that was causing the smiles to turn into frowns. Salaries started landing late in bank accounts. The more Deering quizzed Clark on what was going on, the more Clark told him that everything was kosher. The wine makers, Jacob's Creek, were coming on board as sponsors. And Jaguar too. Everyone just had to show a little forbearance. The future really was looking bright.
And then the bombshell dropped. Jaguar weren't on board as sponsors, despite their name appearing on the team's jersey. Worse, Jacob's Creek were on board, but only for the Tour Down Under, not for the whole season. Even worse still, when Sciandri and Yates quizzed Paul McCartney's finance people about what was going on they discovered that Clark had already drawn down the 2001 funds in order to cover 2000's costs. Even after that - and borrowing from quite a few others - the team was carrying hefty debts into 2001. For a brief moment it looked like Sciandri was about to pull off a rescue deal but the riders were quickly reaching for their phones and trying to find berths for the season ahead.
In this, some riders faired better than others. Bradley Wiggins had signed-up to the squad for the 2001 season, his road debut after having set the track alight, but never got to race in the team's strip. In his autobiography, he says he was fortunate in being able to return to the Team GB fold: "Instinctively, I ran for home, which in cycling terms meant Team GB, who were fantastic and secured me the Category A Lottery funding again. They could not have been more supportive and they helped ensure that a drama didn't become a crisis."
The UCI, on the other hand, did try to turn a drama into a crisis, initially trying to wash their hands of the problem. Though teams were required to lodge a bond worth three months' salary before being given a racing licence, it seems that the 2001 bond hadn't been submitted - even though the team had already been allowed to race at the Tour Down Under. Nor had the 2000 bond been lodged either. Clark had submitted a ‘specimen' bank draft (a draft draft if you will), which the UCI accepted as the real thing (you have to wonder what goes on in the UCI's headquarters sometimes - each time they get one of those Readers' Digest winner's cheques in the post they're probably legging it down to the bank to lodge it). The riders' union took up the cause and eventually the UCI coughed up some cash.
Were lessons learnt from the McCartney debacle? In 2003, Jan Ullrich's Team Coast collapsed not long after the season's start and Bianchi had to step in to give Ullrich one more shot at the Tour title. For a while during the 2009 season it was touch-and-go as to whether Astana was about to go bankrupt. God knows what's happening lower down the pro ladder. Maybe teams going broke is just part of the natural order of things, part of capitalism's survival of the fittest ethic. And maybe the world just wasn't ready for veggie bike riders.