Michael Ball, seller of blue jeans, renter of two Malibu mansions and employer of a chef from Spago, is founder and owner of Rock Racing, a new-age cycling team filled with twitchy, tattooed rebel riders who are shaking their fists at the autocratic leadership of a sport Ball feels is destroying itself by a doping witch hunt.
Ball also says with exclamatory profanities that Rock Racing will be the savior of cycling.
As the third edition of the Amgen Tour of California race beings Sunday with a prologue in Palo Alto, Rock Racing is a new founding sponsor of the weeklong race that is owned and run by AEG. Rock Racing bought its founding designation with a check for $500,000 according to several cycling insiders, but the money couldn’t buy Rock Racing a full complement of eight racers.
Rock Racing signed drug-tainted athletes such as Olympic medalist Tyler Hamilton, who served a two-year doping suspension that ended in 2006, Colombian star Santiago Botero and Spain’s Oscar Sevilla, who have all been linked to the Spanish sports doping scandal, but when the list of riders approved by the International Cycling Union (UCI) was released Thursday, Rock Racing had a team of only five, and Hamilton, Botero and Sevilla were not on the list.
Team spokeswoman Martine Charles said Friday she could not comment on why Hamilton, Botero and Sevilla were excluded.
Three weeks ago Ball, who describes himself as the product of a broken home, raised by the “mean streets” of the San Fernando Valley, offered a glimpse into cycling the Rock Racing way.
The team held a media day, though one prominent member of the cycling press, Velo News, had its invitation rescinded after its reporter, Neal Rogers, named Kayle Leogrande, a Rock Racing rider, as the anonymous filer of a lawsuit against the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The suit charges that USADA planned to test one of the anonymous rider’s “B” urine samples even though his “A” sample had tested negative. The “B” sample is only supposed to be used to confirm a positive “A” sample test.
Two burly bouncers who were wearing all black greeted visitors to the media day party. The home was filled with skinny, tanned women wearing all black, and black-clad waiters pushing offerings of lamb and cheese and figs.
It was hard to tell who were cyclists because so many of them have tattoos. Leogrande, who is on the approved riders list, owns a tattoo parlor and has ink drawings covering his torso. Teammate David Clinger of Woodland Hills, who was arrested in a bar fight in Pennsylvania almost two years ago, has his face and neck covered in what he calls a “tribal” tattoo.
Ball gave a rambling series of answers about his life and of his attraction to sports. At Lake Balboa Birmingham High, Ball said he played football because he loved to hit people. After taking six weeks of college extension courses, Ball said, “That was it for me. I’m done with school.”
In 1986, Ball traveled to Colorado Springs to watch a cycling race. “What hooked me was that I witnessed a violent crash. A guy came around the turn, took it too wide and crashed into the crowd, hit a signpost, knocked himself out and convulsed,” he said. “Cycling had an intensity, a visceral medieval feeling that anything could happen at any time, that you could be finished by a violent act, the end of a crash.”
Ball said he spent several years as a minor league cyclist. In 2002 he founded his edgy clothing company Rock and Republic and about a year ago decided to create a cycling team. Ball says he is motivated by what he sees as a grave injustice done to riders who have been accused of doping by testing procedures that are not transparent. “Their civil liberties are being trampled on, their careers are being ruined. Give me some proof, man.”
Hamilton is gray-haired now and softer and rounder than the chiseled racer who won a stage at the 2003 Tour de France and won an Olympic gold medal in 2004.
“I’ve done my time, served my suspension, why shouldn’t I get a chance again?” Hamilton said.
But Hamilton won’t be riding. The Tour of California had announced earlier this year that any rider whose name was not approved by the UCI would not be included.
Ball says he understands there is doping in his sport and others.
“But let’s grow up here. The way it is being handled, sponsors are exiting, riders’ careers are destroyed. We’re eating our young, cannibalism is rampant. This is a sport I care about and that has been very good to me.”
Andrew Messick, president of AEG sports, says he sees no contradiction in taking Ball’s money.
“Ball has been a very good partner for us so far,” Messick said. “He has agreed to our rules, which are more stringent rules than the UCI has. Michael Ball is investing in pro cycling when there aren’t a lot of guys who will. Frankly, I think he is to be commended for putting his money where his mouth is.”