Sayers Q&A: Designing a new American development program

Mike Sayers is changing the way the U.S. under-23 program does business, focusing on relationships and looking for new talent pools

Photo: Mark Johnson/Ironstring

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ALPINE, California (VN) — Mike Sayers is taking on a new project and is at the center of an effort to redesign the United States’ development program for young road racers.

After a decade-long pro career that saw him ride for Mercury, Health Net, and BMC Racing, Sayers spent four years as an assistant director at the latter, leading his team in races as diverse as the Tours of Beijing and Utah. That ended late last year when 43-year-old Sayers and BMC Racing parted ways. One door closed and another opened; Sayers, who had directed the U.S. elite men’s national team since 2010, accepted a position as manager of USA Cycling’s under-23 development program.

At the team’s first camp in January, Sayers spent a morning in the saddle with 16 of his riders in the mountains east of San Diego. Afterwards, VeloNews sat down with Sayers — an intense, passionate conversationalist — to discuss his transition from BMC Racing, his goals for America’s promising young riders, high school mountain bike leagues, and his sense of responsibility to athletes who, though innocent of the sins of the past by dint of their youth, must still distance themselves from the deep stain their elders left on the sport.

VeloNews: You are here for a week. What are your camp objectives?
Mike Sayers: The main goal is for me to get in touch with these guys on a personal level, on a non-phone, non-email level. I think that the biggest shortfall that we had before I took this position was that there was very little communication with these guys. My goal for December, even before I was getting paid by the federation, was to just get an interpersonal relationship built up with each and every guy, learn them as people, not really as bike riders, and then go from there.

This camp was the culmination of that; let them see me, let me see them, and spend some time with them on the bike. I know that’s a little unorthodox, but I actually can spend a lot of time just talking with them during the three hours I ride with them. It’s very individualistic and super relaxed. And for me that’s important to convey the message that I’m here for them. I don’t have any obligations to their sponsors. I don’t have any obligations to their teams. The only obligation I have is to them as individuals — to help them move to the next level.

VN: What is different about working with these riders compared to athletes like Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd at BMC Racing?
MS: These guys are younger, so they haven’t established their identities as individuals and as riders. It gives me a little bit more of an opportunity to figure out where they are going and to show them that these are my expectations. I guess the selfish thing is to say that things are done a little bit more my way because it’s my program, but there is a little bit less pressure overall.

The ProTour, there’s pressure all the time, there’s a lot of media coverage, there’s a lot of individual agendas going on. What I like here is that the agendas are dialed down a lot. For all intents and purposes, we are here for a common goal, none of which has to do with race results. It’s all about figuring out what these guys need to do to get to the next level, whether it’s ProTour, Pro Continental, learning the races, or going from a 19-year-old to a 22-year-old and becoming a leader. These are all agendas, but the agendas are dialed down a lot.

VN: The U23 athletes also ride for trade teams. How do you reconcile the national and trade team objectives?
MS: I tell the riders that I have to clear everything with their trade teams before I move forward with them as individuals. But what I tried to do was not only did I meet with the riders in December, but I also met with the teams. With Axel [Bontrager director Axel Merckx], with Gallino [Cal Giant-Specialized general manager Anthony Gallino]. And Craven [BMC-Hincapie director Thomas Craven] and I have a relationship from BMC. I made a point of spending my time telling the teams exactly what my plan was, exactly where I stood as an individual, and how I very much wanted this to be a partnership between USA Cycling, the national team itself, and the trade teams. My goal was to make sure we were all on the same page and that it’s always for the good of the riders. Working together, me telling them what I see, them telling me what they see.

VN: The guys you are in charge of were either in diapers or unborn when Armstrong was on the U.S. National team in 1991. And while he was mastering doping as a pro, they were playing tetherball on an elementary school playground, totally innocent of the institutionalized moral failings he came to represent. As they now launch into that pro cycling machine, do you feel a special responsibility to maintain their purity?
MS: Absolutely. I 100-percent believe that this program is starting from a fresh slate. I want to acknowledge that Tejay [van Garderen], Taylor [Phinney], [Ian] Boswell, and [Joe] Dombrowski set the bar very high for what can be accomplished. So these guys have that goal, they know they can get to that level. They know it’s possible, because those four guys did it before.

I have undying respect for those four guys for what they have done. They are super talented riders. And they are super talented individuals. And they will always, especially Tejay and Taylor, have special places in my heart because we came from the same team [BMC Racing]. They did a lot for me as an individual. I think that they actually helped shape me in certain ways for this position because I saw how they would like to have it done. I learned a lot from those two guys about the way it could be, about the way they would like to see it happen.

VN: The United States has handed you these rare talents along with instructions to bring them up a way that’s different from the past. Does that bring an obligation or pressure distinct from what you felt at BMC?
MS: I wouldn’t call it a pressure. And I wouldn’t even call it an obligation. I really look at as an opportunity to show these guys that they don’t have to do it that way. My generation made some tremendous mistakes. There were guys who were just not fed good information, not led down good paths by their leaders, and they were corrupted. I think I can show them, “listen, I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea.”

These guys know this: they are free to come and ask me any question, tell me anything that’s happening. I’m the first to say that I don’t have all the answers, but I will do my best to either find you the answer, help you find the answer, or together figure out a way that’s beneficial to all of us, but not harmful.

I can only use my personal experiences. I spent full time in Europe. I spent half time in Europe, you know, going back and forth. I think those experiences allow me to know at least what is harmful. And there are a lot of changes that have happened with this program as far as the infrastructure, which I can’t really go into — location changes and things like that. We’re going to be in a new location with new infrastructure. We have a new director, myself. We have new riders. We have all these new things so it’s all kind of set up to start from zero. And I think that sometimes you do have to just reset. The culture of the thing that we are creating right now is very fresh and very new.

VN: USA Cycling has been helping young riders gain European racing experience for some years now. How are you building on that program?
MS: I think I’m taking what was a really successful program and making it more American. What I don’t want people to say is, “Oh, he’s making it more American, that’s a bad thing.” What I believe is that we in this industry, at this level, we are forced to have our trade happen in a foreign land with foreign cultures and foreign languages. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But we cannot lose our American identity because of that. And we cannot accept being told that just because we are Americans we do it wrong.

I am a believer that if we learn from the traditional cultures — the Belgian guys, the Dutch guys, the Italian guys — we can spin it American and give these guys the American stability they need even though they are living and working and functioning in Europe. It’s hard for me when I see what is supposed to be American situations completely Europeanized, turned into this European thing. That’s not what these kids need. My goal is to keep it American, but absolutely respect the foreign cultures and foreign lands that we are in.

I think everybody who knows me knows that I am not afraid to take advice. I’m the first guy to step up and say, “you know what, I don’t know how to do that, or I don’t know about that, or I need to learn that and take in what people give me.” But, I am going to put an American spin on it because that’s what we are.

Listen, there are four major sports leagues in this world. There’s soccer, American football, American baseball, and American basketball. We have three of them. If there is one thing Americans know how to do, that is how to manage high-paid, highly powerful athletes in big organizations. We know how to do that. We know how to make the mistakes in the big sports franchises, learn from them, and make it better. I think we need to be more resolute in our Americanism to a certain degree, and that’s what I’ve told these guys.

One thing I’ve tried to bring to this program with Jim Miller [USA Cycling vice president of athletics] is trying to give an atmosphere of high school-slash-college football. We’ve developed some models where there’s a motto and then there’s like six rules that this team is going to live by that this team is going to be beholden to, including myself.

That’s kind of a college football tradition, but I like that tradition; something that can be passed down from generation to generation that the riders can identify with themselves. And it is a very American way of thinking about it, but you know what, I think it works. This group of guys, they bought into it immediately — and we talked about it a lot and did a lot of open discussions and they were into it. It’s being confident in who we are as individuals and being able to go over there to ply our trade as we see fit, while respecting the other cultures because it is their land and it is their traditions. But we are free to do it our way, too. I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying we want to do it our way.

VN: In light of Armstrong’s collapse, right now the American way is not exactly seen as a role model for sport.
MS: We do have some rebuilding of the sport to do in America, because at this point Americans have been implicated at the worst level. We need to rebuild some things here, and I think we can do it. Again, it all kind of circles back to: we are just starting fresh, and we are just starting over. I’m happy to be part of it.

VN: How do you describe your departure from BMC?
MS: One of the most difficult things for me was to tell BMC that I could not come back, or at least not work out with them an arrangement. And I was a little bit lost for a very short period of time. I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was really disappointed, I really was. I was disappointed that they wouldn’t work with my schedule. I felt like I had valid points about my personal life. And I know myself, if you ask anybody, I’m very, very in touch with how I operate as an individual. I know what my weaknesses are, and I know how I can succeed in a situation.

I knew I could have success, but I needed to go to a place where the people understood me. Jim Miller has given me that. And [USA Cycling CEO] Steve Johnson has allowed me to have the extra time at home for my son and my wife. They have given me all these tools, and for me, honest to god, I’m just cruising — I’m just feeling good about the whole thing.

VN: How hands-on are you in managing your riders? In other words, if you see them developing a riding, nutrition, or recovery habit that you don’t think is productive, do you explicitly tell them what to do and what not to do, or do you lead through example and illustration?
MS: They are starting to wear into their grooves of habit, and if it’s something I don’t really think is going to work, I just tell them like, “I really think you might want to try doing it this way. You don’t have to, but I can tell that you are going to run into a problem at some point if you are doing it that way.”

But the thing is, they have to be men. Some of the guys are 22 years old. They can drink, they can vote, they can go into the army, hold a gun, and go to war for us. Why can’t they make their own personal decisions? They can. And what I see is a lot of riders having decisions made for them on the ProTour, and I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think they need leadership, not oversight. They need leadership, not somebody standing over them telling them their every move.

Listen, there are some guys here who are going to university, who are very smart, with degrees in chemistry and engineering and everything else. They are a hell of a lot smarter than I am, on an intelligence level. My goal is just to point some things out: “Just look at it. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to do it that way — just take a look.” And most of these guys, they are more than willing to do that.

VN: Looking more broadly, what changes should USA Cycling make to ensure that we have a robust pipeline of future talent coming from this country?
MS: I think the only piece USA Cycling is missing right now is to develop a super, super cohesive relationship with the high school mountain bike leagues. I’m telling you, that is a resource that is going to be boundless for us. At every level: track, BMX, mountain bike, and road. I don’t understand the politics of it, but if we can somehow get a working relationship with that high school league, I’m telling you, we will get more athletes. That’s our farm system. And it’s completely unique. It’s unique to the United States; it started out in my neck of the woods [Northern California under the guidance of Matt Fritzinger], so I’ve seen it grow.

And I think part of the responsibility is on them to look at it and say, “Listen, we have this resource that no one else in the world has, and we need to cooperate to take it to the next level, and make their young athletes available so we can figure out where they are going to fit in the grand scheme.” And that’s not to pigeonhole a guy. That’s saying, “Listen, you raced mountain bikes in high school, it was a fun thing to do, it was pretty competitive, you built friendships — you had fun with your buddies. Now, if you want to go to the next level, you have these doors: you can go in the BMX door, you can go in the track door, the men’s road door, the women’s road door. We have these doors and you can choose. If you want to try one and you don’t like it, try another one!” They have the athletes established; it’s not taking their athletes, it’s just giving their athletes more opportunities.

I really believe that for American bike racing, that is where the next superstars are going to come out of. I mean, as a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old person, you just want to be hanging out with your friends, having a good time. Those are all the most important things. And with mountain biking you are out there, you are in the wilderness, you’re having fun. So we can keep that tradition and as they go through high school, or even maybe their senior year, then they can decide, “Maybe I do want to take this to the next level.” And then the coaches of those high school teams can say, “Hey listen, why don’t you go try this junior recognition road camp in your area that’s coming up in a couple weeks?”

I think that since we don’t really have a solidly developed junior road program, we can use the mountain bike leagues as our junior road program, so to speak. It will benefit everybody. I cannot stress that enough. I just think the opportunities are boundless.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.