While much of the professional peloton seems to be playing musical chairs in terms of bike sponsorship for the coming season, Michael Ball's Rock Racing team has toyed with more bike brands this season on its own then many retail shops carry on their shelves.
Rock Racing spent the '07 season on Scott bicycles and then made a very brief switch to Look before ultimately settling with DeRosa for '08. However, according to Rock Racing team manager Haldene Morris, the agreement isn't with DeRosa directly but rather with US importer Trialtir and only covers a specific number of bikes. As such, the team doesn't have as many DeRosas as it'd like and team riders have been spotted on a variety of non-DeRosa machines this year including Scott, Look and even Cannondale (former rider Mario Cipollini supplied his own custom frames made by a favored builder in Italy). Most notably, Rock Racing's Tyler Hamilton even won this year's USA Pro national road title not with the team-issue DeRosa, but on a Fuji SL-1 instead.
Meanwhile, Rock Racing's Tour of Missouri squad was spotted aboard a brand-new Fuji time trial machine. We're sure to get more information on this decidedly swoopy model at Interbike but suffice to say there are a number of intriguing features including a reverse-mounted front brake and fully-shrouded rear plus an integrated seatmast mechanism similar to that of Trek's new Madone.
According to Fuji Bikes marketing and communications manager Karen Bliss, the unofficial pairing of Fuji and Rock Racing dates as far back as the Commerce Bank Triple Crown (better known as 'Philly Week'). Freddy Rodriguez had apparently crashed and broken his DeRosa the day before the men's pro road race and the team didn't have a proper spare.
Coincidentally though, Fuji happened to be located in Philadelphia and Bliss already had a connection with the team. "I knew his mechanic from the old days and he knew that I was working with Fuji", she said. After a couple of quick phone calls, Rodriguez had a Fuji SL-1 at the ready. As it turns out, Rodriguez ended up using team-mate Oscar Sevilla's spare for the race but the wheels were already in motion, so to speak.
"So we got them a bike and it turned out that Freddy didn't use it in the race", said Bliss. "They used Oscar Sevilla's spare apparently but they kept the bike just to sort of test it out and do whatever. Tyler took that bike and loved it apparently and they let him ride it the rest of the year and that's what he rode at Nationals."
Not only has Hamilton been using the SL-1 but now the entire Rock Racing team is currently racing on them at the Tour of Britain and the Fuji logo is clearly visible on the team's jerseys. Moreover, all of the team's bikes bear distinctive Rock Racing graphics and Bliss confirmed that Fuji is "working on a special project with Rock Racing right now" that will sell at Harrods for… US$18,000.
Though some unnamed team insiders have already confirmed that Fuji will be the official team sponsor next season, Bliss' response to questioning was expectedly politically correct. "There is no controversy per se but I really can't say anything officially. We'll know more in the next few weeks."
Rock Racing team owner Michael Ball was similarly non-committal and offered up this statement: "Rock Racing is in talks with Fuji as well as with other bicycle manufacturers. During this selection process, we are testing the products in race situations to determine the best partner for us."