This is the fourth installment of a story about my final weeks with Mercury-Viatel, an American professional cycling team attempting to find success in the top ranks of the European peloton in 2001. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3
The Circuit Franco-Belge, a 4-day stage race along the northwestern border of Belgium and France, began the following Thursday. We arrived Wednesday night at the hotel that would be our home for the next several nights. And while I didn’t know it at the time, this would indeed be our last race. There were rumors of last minute invites to Paris-Tours and some of our riders would be racing Worlds in Lisbon, but for most of us, this was the end.
As for me, I was holding-on to one last thread of hope that someone would hire me for the following season. Gerolsteiner was my best hope, but the sponsor refused to employ any non-German directors. Henrik Redant at Domo seemed to like me; he was aware of my situation and said he would see what he could do; but I knew a spot with the team was unlikely—especially for a 25-year old American with no racing pedigree whatsoever. In the end I would likely be flying home a few weeks after this race, taking some time to visit friends and settle my affairs before departing.
And I wasn’t alone. Several of us—riders and staff—were still waiting on offers for the following season. Worse still, the riders remained unpaid. Franco-Belge was everyone’s last chance for some kind of redemption.
As preparation for Paris-Tours, the race itself was largely designed for sprinters; most of the stages seemed certain to end in a bunch gallop. However, if there were to be a selection, it would happen in Stage 1, a day ending with several finishing circuits up and down the Kluisberg—a climb made famous every April when the Ronde van Vlaanderen passes through.
Sure enough, a group escaped midway through the 174km trip from Moeskron to Kluisberg, containing none other than our stagiaire, Matt Wilson, eager to seize to yet another opportunity to prove his value. It was a nice day, one in which my mechanic and I were more than happy to enjoy the scenery and a relatively trouble-free trip. Matt lost contact when the attacks came on the local circuits, ultimately finishing the day a little more than 6 minutes back. The rest of the peloton rolled-in almost 30 minutes down on the day’s winner, Cofidis’ Chris Peers.
That night I made my way from room to room, checking on the riders and prepping for the next day’s stage. I went to see Wilson first.
“Any word from Wordin?” After the usual pleasantries, our conversations always turned to John Wordin, the team’s General Manager. I wondered if John had heard about Matt’s good result today.
“Yeah, I spoke to him.” Matt was starting to sound like he had known Wordin for years.
“What about Baden?” Baden Cooke, by far our most talented rider following Van Petegem’s departure and Tonkov’s exile, was being courted by several teams. He and Matt were good friends, and I suspected that Cooke might try and take Wilson with him wherever he went.
“Well, Madiot just came by to see me. He says Cooke’s signing with him.”
“And?” I was excited for Matt. He was an honest, hard-working guy and deserved a chance to ride with a Division 1 team.
“He’s offered me a place too. He just left actually.”
To be completely honest, despite my happiness for Matt’s good fortune, I was completely jealous. Thoughts clouded my head: was there a place for another director? Did Madiot ask about me? Why didn’t I make more of an effort to get to know Baden?
“That’s great, Matt! Congratulations!”
“Yeah, well…” his voice trailed-off. He clearly wasn’t as happy about this as I felt he should have been.
“I don’t know what to do about Wordin. He keeps saying he’s got something going for next year. He wants me to wait.”
“Matt, Marc Madiot doesn’t come to your room and offer you a contract very often, you know.”
“I know, but John gave me the opportunity to get here.”
“Yes, he did, and he deserves your gratitude. But at the same time, you gotta do what’s right for you. Does it really look like John’s going to be able to offer the same program that Madiot can? You’ve heard the conversations, right? You’re no dummy.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What does Baden say?”
“He wants me to go.” He still seemed uncertain.
“Of course, he does. Look, Matt, I can’t tell you what you should do. All I can say is that you have to look-out for your interests. You don’t need to be a jerk about it, but business is business, and everyone here realizes that.”
“Did Madiot give you a deadline?”
“He wants to come back tomorrow night to sign the contract.”
“Look, take my phone and call Wordin. Tell him what’s happened, and see what he says. He’s halfway across the globe, and you’re not even being paid. The worse he can do is yell at you. But you’re still here and you’re still going to race tomorrow. He can’t change that.”
I left the room for a few minutes, leaving Matt to talk with John. When I returned, he was all smiles.
“Wordin said if he can’t get an offer for me by tomorrow that I should sign with Madiot.”
I was surprised actually. I had felt certain when I left that John would have talked him into putting-off Madiot for a few more days. Things must really be bad.
“Thanks, Whit. You’re a good bloke. One of the best directors I’ve ever had.” That was a funny compliment coming from a 22-year old kid with no professional experience whatsoever.
“It’s nothing, Matt. Just remember me when you and Baden negotiate your next contracts.”