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11/16/2007
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Saving Pro Cycling, One BlackBerry At a Time

Each member of Team Slipstream/Chipotle has been given a BlackBerry Pearl, which will be used to send team updates and to keep track of the riders.

Trying to rehabilitate the ruined image of pro cycling, which has been nearly destroyed by a never-ending succession of doping scandals, the young Slipstream/Chipotle racing team is attempting a radical experiment: to make it virtually impossible for its riders to cheat, and to prove conclusively to the rest of the world they're clean. And the team is using mobile technology to accomplish that feat.

Each of the Boulder, Colo.-based Team Slipstream/Chipotle riders was outfitted with a BlackBerry Pearl last week, which they'll carry with them at all times. The BlackBerry devices will be used to broadcast team updates, to notify riders of scheduling changes, to update the team's racing calendar -- and to keep the riders within contact of team managers at all times so that drug tests can be scheduled with a few hours' notice.

This level of scrutiny is unheard-of in the often-shady world of pro cycling. But it's at the heart of the team's philosophy.

"This sends a simple message to our athletes," said Slipstream Sports chairman and founder Doug Ellis, a New York financier. "Do not dope or you will not compete."

Ellis, who has no cycling background himself, said he became captivated by the sport during Lance Armstrong's dramatic comeback victory in the 2003 Tour de France (which included a now-famous cross-country detour to avoid a crash during a hairpin descent in the Alps). "I realized I had to become involved somehow," he said.

Ellis took over what was then the TIAA-Cref team at a time when sponsors were beginning to flee the sport because it was increasingly obvious that virtually all the top riders were using drugs. Along with team director Jonathan Vaughters, a former top racer himself, Ellis decided to create a different kind of team -- one willing to give up the maillot jaune and stage victories in order to race purely and help clean up the sport.

Surprisingly, the team's leader for 2008 will be David Millar, the former world time-trial champion who was stripped of his title and served a two-year suspension for doping. Millar, still only 30, has said he wants to redeem himself and race again under the banner of an entirely drug-free squad.

Part of the plan is an innovative testing program devised in conjunction with the independent Agency for Cycling Ethics that will take place alongside, not instead of, routine drug-testing by national cycling federations and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Slipstream riders will not be tested only for the direct evidence of illegal drugs: Their baseline personal and biological profiles will be tracked through a combination of metabolic states, lactic acid threshold, hematocrit levels, and medical histories. Any abnormalities will set off alarms, whether EPO or other enhancers are found in their bloodstream or not.

To put this scheme into place, Vaughters and acting Slipstream CFO Beth Seliga decided this year to equip their rides with the Pearl smartphones.

"This way we always know where they are," said operations manager Eric Fostvedt. "So if we need to tell a rider, 'You need to be at this clinic within 12 hours for a blood test,' we can always reach them."

Because the team travels constantly to competitions across Western Europe and North America (in addition to its Boulder headquarters, Slipstream/Chipotle maintains a training base in Girona, Spain), the Pearls have international data-plans from T-Mobile. With the service provider rebate the devices were effectively free; Fostvedt declines to say how much the service, which encompasses several BlackBerry 8700 models carried by team managers, in addition to the riders' Pearls, costs annually.

"It's very cost-effective," he said. Some of the riders are still getting comfortable with the level of constant contact demanded of the Slipstream team members. But, as Fostvedt said: "Jonathan [Vaughters] was very clear about what they were getting into."

"It's the bane of my life," joked Millar, who hopes to become one of the world's top riders again. "I promised my girlfriend I'd never get one because I'm not that important. Now I guess Slipstream says I am."

Millar believes that Team Slipstream/Chipotle will qualify to ride in next summer's Tour de France. If that happens, it will almost certainly be the only American team in the field, with the collapse of Armstrong's Discovery Channel team last month. And the BlackBerrys will be along for the ride.

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