Meet U.S. pro cycling’s new savior

Leah Sturgis, a filmmaker and conservation activist, is backing the new Wildlife Generation team, as well as

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The video clip shows Danny Van Haute driving through a suburban neighborhood and into a driveway alongside the cycling trailer emblazoned with the familiar Jelly Belly logo. Offscreen, a female voice from the car’s passenger seat lists the day’s itinerary.

“We’re going to get fancy when we shoot the guy on the bike,” she says. “We’re going to bust out a drone. I have a really nice camera. It’s brand new. I haven’t entirely used it on my own yet. But I’ll figure it out.”

The video was shot in January at Van Haute’s team training camp in San Diego, and the voice is that of Leah Sturgis, the newest entrepreneur to join the U.S. professional cycling scene. In December, Sturgis took ownership of Van Haute’s cycling team, a move that ended a months-long search to find a replacement for Jelly Belly, his sponsor of 19 years. Sturgis renamed the team after her privately-funded charity that focuses on animal conservation, called Wildlife Generation. For her first project with the team, Sturgis gathered a crew of videographers to film the riders training in the hills outside San Diego.

“I want to show these guys in their hometowns and show their backgrounds and where they come from,” Sturgis says. “I want to bring out their personalities and really show what it’s like to be on this team.”

Video clips from the camp circulated on social media; fans saw riders, clad in black kits, being followed by cameramen wielding expensive steadicams and boom microphones. It was a curious scene that raised questions from journalists and other team directors alike. What was the nature of this new team and its backer?

Sturgis was not done with her cycling projects. In early March she launched, a website and production company that will broadcast races and cycling programs online. In early March the group produced a two-day live broadcast at the Redlands Bicycle Classic; Sturgis’s team used ultra high-definition cameras, innovative broadband transmitters, and even flying drones to televise the race. The final two stages of the race were beamed across the Internet, live, for free.

Again, the project was financed by Sturgis.

“I started thinking that there was this need for cycling fans for something like this,” Sturgis says. “Cycling fans are this underserved group — they want more good content about domestic cycling and there aren’t many places for it.”

Some back-of-the-napkin math pegs Sturgis’s current personal investment in U.S. pro cycling in the low- to mid-six-figure range. Her spend comes at a critical moment for U.S. racing — last season four pro teams nearly dissolved.

Sturgis says her investment, while sizable, is part of a wider strategic move. She has a background in film and television production and wants to create a reliable media platform to showcase pro cycling. She wants to use her deep Rolodex to bring more outside investors into the sport. She believes her media platform will, in turn, further the reach of her Wildlife Generation group, and spread the message of animal conservation.

It’s a lofty goal, and Sturgis says she is cognizant of the challenges.

“I think I can do it even though I know it will be hard,” Sturgis says. “I love to do this kind of stuff. I like to take subject matter that isn’t something most people know about and see if I can bring it to the forefront. This is fun for me.”

Buried within this plan is an underlying question: Is Leah Sturgis the new savior of U.S. pro cycling?

A new type of entrepreneur

Sturgis lives in Malibu and her family has roots in the Nevada ranching industry, according to press clippings. Her professional background is in film and television production; she says she has worked on a wide range of projects, from music and corporate marketing videos, to travel television programs and feature films. In 2010 she shot and directed the comedy “Hard Breakers,” which stars Cameron Richardson and Chris Kattan, among other actors.

Sturgis also has a background in conservation. She is a board member of the Nevada-based group Project Coyote, and recently finished a film called “Deep Entanglement,” which shows the dangers that fishing nets pose to whales and sea turtles off the California coast.

“I love to tell stories with film,” Sturgis says. “And with the Internet and streaming, it’s become so easy to bring these stories to people.”

A chance meeting between Sturgis and Team Jelly Belly’s longtime bus driver Tommy Zsak at the Peter Sagan Gran Fondo placed the team on her radar, and in December she acquired the team for an undisclosed sum. Sturgis says she saw a connection between cycling and conservation. Many of the rural roads that cyclists use intersect wildlife corridors — pathways that animals use to move between larger open spaces. Sturgis believed the cycling team could bring attention to lobbying efforts to protect these areas from development.

“There’s a lot of activism on the local level that goes into spreading awareness of these areas to promote conservation, as opposed to development,” Sturgis says. “I think there are a lot of ways we can tell the stories of that through the team.”

In Sturgis’s initial vision, her pro cycling team would be the focal point for a 10-part video documentary series about riders and racing. The series would chronicle the lives of young American pro racers as they navigate the annual season. In turn, the video project would promote the Wildlife Generation brand and conservation mission.

But as Sturgis surveyed the media scene for U.S. pro racing, she saw a dearth of videos and live race coverage. So, in February 2019, Sturgis launched her next project, If U.S. pro cycling lacked a reliable video platform, then she would build it herself. Live racing, plus her documentary series, would function as the platform’s early programming.

“I was thinking there should be a platform to host all of this video content we produce,” Sturgis says. “I began to see that I wanted to be involved in creating more content than just the show about the team.”

Sturgis and Van Haute at the team’s January launch. Photo: Wildlife Generation

A new direction for the team

Longtime fans of U.S. cycling are undoubtedly familiar with the sport’s financial ebb and flow. New investors occasionally enter the sport, checkbook in hand, and make an immediate impact by funding a new team, pro race, or other venture. Some of these projects grow into long-running institutions: Jelly Belly Pro Cycling, the Redlands Bicycle Classic, or Team Novo Nordisk, among others.

Other projects fade over time, while others crash in spectacular fashion. The Toyota-United team dissolved in 2008 after spending heavily on talented riders for two seasons. In 2007, entrepreneur Michael Ball launched the Rock Racing team, only to see the squad dissolve in 2009 after Ball ran low on cash.

“You see a new investor come in with a pretty safe and cautious investment, and I think they’re always pretty surprised by the big result they can get for that small investment,” says Mike Creed, general manager of the Aevolo cycling team and a Rock Racing alum. “The death knell is when they think that doubling the investment will increase the results. That never happens.”

Funding a U.S. domestic Continental team can cost anywhere from just below $100,000 to more than half a million annually, with a few big spenders approaching a million. Creed hopes that entrepreneurs in pro cycling learn from the mistakes of past projects that went awry.

“I hope cycling is learning that when new people come in, you can’t let them get carried away,” he says. “It’s like, maybe we just keep the budget the same.”

Unlike those other investors, Sturgis’s financial backing has not dramatically changed her team. Van Haute says the team’s budget for 2019 is the same size as it was in 2018 — historically, Jelly Belly had one of the smaller payrolls across the domestic peloton.

Instead, Sturgis has asked Van Haute to change the team’s ethos. In years past, Jelly Belly often hired veteran and star riders in need of a job — Fred Rodriguez, Lachlan Morton, and even Jason McCartney rode for the team.

For 2019, Wildlife Generation is a development team, and its roster is comprised entirely of American riders under the age of 25. Rather than target hard stage races, like the Tour de Beauce, the team will race a mixture of American stage races and criteriums, such as the Tulsa Tough and Nature Valley Stage Race.

The team’s goal is to teach the basics of racing to a new crop of American riders.

“We have a different agenda. It feels like starting a new business,” Van Haute told VeloNews. “We’ll be more like teachers this year. We’ll be sitting down in front of the chalkboard a lot more this year, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Like her team, Sturgis’s project roped in veterans from the U.S. scene. She hired longtime race announcers Dave Towle and Brad Sohner, among others, to create a media platform to broadcast racing. During the Redlands broadcast, Towle hosted a studio show while Sohner called the action, across more than a dozen hours of continuous coverage. The footage is still available on the company’s website.

Sohner said he was initially surprised when Sturgis contacted him and explained her vision. The project sounded expensive and complex. As things went along, he was impressed by Sturgis’s commitment to seeing it through.

“There were few things, if any, that were turned down when it was budget time,” Sohner said. “I think that speaks pretty strongly of her commitment to creating quality content, which is what we desperately need.”

Sturgis’s new projects beg a collective question for cycling fans: Is her investment in cycling a long-term play, or is this simply a passing obsession? Van Haute believes Sturgis is committed for the long-term and cites Sturgis’s three-year contract to back the team as proof.

“I think Leah wants to change U.S. cycling,” Van Haute says. “What she wants to do right now is good for everybody.”

Calls to former colleagues of Sturgis produced glowing referrals. One source said Sturgis had traveled across various states to preach the message of conservation, and even gave impassioned speeches to local lawmakers. She was committed to the group’s efforts and saw her project through to its conclusion.

Sturgis says her commitment to the cycling projects stems from the connection she sees between her disparate passions for media, sports, and conservation. If she can blend all three into a singular project across pro cycling teams and media, then she sees that as a success.

“This isn’t Leah Sturgis’s venture. I’m empowering people who have a passion for cycling,” Sturgis says. “I see myself doing this for a long time, because I have Wildlife Generation, and that’s the legacy I want to leave behind.”

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