Ben Turner's Clif Bar Development Cyclo-Cross Team, formerly the TIAA-CREF/Clif Bar team, have possibly the most impressive alumni of any domestic team in the United States. Junior riders from the squad have gone on become the rising stars not just of 'cross but of the entire sport of cycling.
Among the racers Turner can claim to have supported and/or mentored are Tejay van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, Will Frischkorn, Troy Wells, Danny Summerhill, Alex Howes, Peter Stetina, Yannick Eckmann (fitth at day 1 of the USGP in Fort Collins, Colorado) and many others who've gone on to pursue successful professional careers on the road, in mountain biking or on the cyclo-cross course.
The mission of the team is simple: to give these young riders the tools and skills to be successful not only on the racecourse but in navigating the life of a professional cyclist. Many take their first steps to national and international caliber races with the team, and they also get to travel, often solo, for the first time in their lives, both nationally and internationally.
"This team started to take young guys and give them the experience of cyclo-cross – and cycling – and the ability to adapt to travelling to the races and the training they need to do," said Mitchell Hoke, a former Clif development team member, who now races for the elite Clif team and serves as the road manager for Turner's junior program. "What Ben did a really good job of when he started the team was making it a team. You travel to the races with the team, not with your parents; it was Ben, a mechanic and maybe one other guy. We're trying to get back to that this year."
He added: "The first time I tried to go to a mountain bike race without my parents, I didn't even know how to check into a flight. It seems simple enough but when you're 18 years old it's not that straightforward. One of the things that I thought was awesome about last year's [Euro] ’cross camp was that two of the kids got lost in London Heathrow airport for two days. The experience of doing the races over there is great, but being able to make it staying in London by yourself when you're 18, if you can pull that off, I think it speaks to your ability to survive as a [professional] cyclist. You have to be able to adapt like that. It's not just being able to race fast five minutes away from your house, it's the traveling and all of the other business."
Not so humble beginnings: TIAA-CREF/Clif Bar
Turner founded the TIAA-CREF/Clif Bar Development cyclo-cross team in 2004, while working as a director for Jonathan Vaughters' fledgling TIAA-CREF road program. A professional cyclo-crosser himself and member of the 2005 US world championship squad, Turner saw the opportunity to introduce the team's juniors to his preferred cycling discipline.
"It was my idea to do a development cyclo-cross team for guys in this area. I wasn't the first to make a ’cross team for young riders – Rad Racing have been around longer than us and others as well," he told BikeRadar. "It was my first season working for Jonathan and managing the TIAA-CREF road team. Four of the young guys on that team were very into ’cross, and I was still racing and wanted to be able to go to the Gran Prix [USGP series], so it seemed like the perfect time to take my job position, my own racing career and these kids who wanted to do ’cross and go out and have a meaningful goal, not just race locally."
Turner founded the Clif Bar development cyclo-cross team in 2004
During the affiliation with TIAA-CREF (2004-2006) the team provided future stars of cycling including van Garderen, Phinney, Frisckorn, Summerhill and Wells with an incredible level of support – better than that enjoyed by many professional cyclo-cross teams at the time. The riders had race bikes that traveled to the events separately on a team trailer and had all of their expenses covered.
These days Turner's program runs on a much tighter budget. Some 80 percent of the money is spent on getting the team's riders and equipment to races, while the remaining 20 percent is spent on equipment for those bits and components not covered by product sponsorship. He relies on help from his racers' parents to achieve their goals.
"The biggest challenge is putting together a productive schedule to meet everybody's goals and make it less of a financial burden on the parents," he said. "’Cross is equipment intensive; it's a lot of bikes and wheels on top of travel, and that's on top of what these kids are doing all season, so their parents can face a pretty big burden. Finding the financial support over the years to offset the travel expenses and the equipment expenses [has been hard] because we're a development team and we're not getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated or whatever; people aren't jumping up and down saying they're dying to give us all this free stuff. We do get great product support; some of it's supplied and some of it's 'pro deal'."
2007 Season: Clif Bar takes over
The team faced a philosophical shift in 2007 when Clif Bar took over as title sponsors. Turner had phased out of his own racing and taken up teaching sustainable farming techniques to high school students through the Growing Gardens of Boulder County non-profit organization in Colorado, where he continues to manage a two-acre farm and their youth programs.
With both Turner's own ideals and those of Clif Bar aligning on the subject of sustainability and social conscience, the development team took on a new aspect. The team were schooled on sustainability issues and began bringing a compost and recycling station to the races and events they attended.
"My philosophy with these guys is that they have to broaden their perspective beyond themselves and their own racing career and think a little bit more about how they're developing as people," said Turner. "I want them to use their role as high-level athletes to work with other people, influence them and be leaders in giving back to the community in cycling, but also in life in general."
The future for a team fielding future stars
"This is our eighth season," said Turner. "We've had some small teams and some years we've really pushed it and brought in a lot of new people. For the last couple seasons, with the economy and things like that, we've tried to just keep it steady so we've kept the same roster. Everyone was young enough that we weren't graduating a lot of people and needing to bring new people in." Turner hopes his team will continue indefinitely, as it is; he doesn't have grand plans to grow it into a professional program. His future goals remain aligned with the impetus for starting the team: to support and grow junior cycling.
The 2012 Clif Bar development cyclo-cross team
Part of the reason for the team's success has been the consistency of the support from their sponsors, as well as the continued involvement of Turner and other key personnel. "We've had a lot of the same sponsors for all eight years," he said. "[It's good] just knowing that's steady and knowing that we can count on product support or logistical support. We don't have any pressure from sponsors; the results come sort of cyclically depending on everyone's age and experience level."
What matters most to Turner is seeing the riders progress from year to year. "If we get them to that point where they're dedicated and having enough success where Geoff [Proctor, director of EuroCrossCamp] and Gully [Marc Gullikson, USA Cycling development program manager) are looking at them as candidates for the national team and the camp, then that's great," he said.
Now, some of the riders Turner helped nurture as juniors are helping to encourage a new generation of racers. "Now these older guys have paid their dues, done all of these events and been all over the place racing a ton, they're in a position where they're able to give back to the sponsors and the sport, doing kids' clinics and helping out in their community," he said.
And they are giving back. Hoke manages much of the day-to-day for the junior team and both he, Brady Kappius and Troy Wells can be found at junior development rides. All of them strive to be positive role models for their teammates and all junior ’crossers. "Troy, Brady and Mitchell were on the development team and they all saw how it should be done and how to help mentor younger riders as they got older," said Turner. "Now they're all professional cyclo-cross racers and have a pretty big role to play in their community."