Rock starts catastrophic injury fund for cyclists

Rock Racing owner Michael Ball is creating a professional cycling catastrophic injury fund, and the edgy, often-controversial fashion magnate and former bike racer is challenging other teams to join him in his latest pursuit.

Ball will not reveal his personal contribution, only saying it's "in the hundreds of thousands," and that he'd like to see the fund collect $20 million over the next two years.

"I truly believe that these athletes are the greatest athletes in the world," Ball said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They deserve to be treated in such a way that, at the very least, they have some basic insurance, for God's sake."

Ball revealed his plans for the fund to some elite professional riders earlier this month, saying the notion was well-received by all of them, and formally released the idea publicly early Monday. Ball said he developed the idea after seeing Mexico's Fausto Munoz Esparza crash during a downhill portion of the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico earlier this year and be left paralyzed from his waist down.

Esparza is the father of three children.

"Who's looking out for them? As a sport, it's time we step up and do something," said Ball, the CEO of Rock & Republic, a high-end fashion company and jeans maker.

Rock Racing has been a lightning rod in the cycling community since Ball built the team -- and signed several riders with checkered pasts, including 2004 Olympic time trial gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, who was suspended for two years shortly after the Athens Games for blood doping, which he still denies.

Other Rock signees include riders Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla, who were both linked to the massive "Operation Puerto" doping scandal, and American racer Kayle Leogrande, who sued the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency because he believes it illegally outed him as a doping suspect.

Ball acknowledges he's tried to make a splash by signing those riders, along with having them show up for races in flashy Cadillac Escalades and wearing black-and-lime racing outfits that are unlike any other in the sport.

But this, he insists, is different.

"I'm very serious about this and I'm very passionate about this sport and these riders' rights," Ball said. "I have been from the beginning. A lot of people misunderstood what I was about and where I was coming from because I am brash, I am flashy, I know how to market and I know how to get attention. That's what this was about. Now it's about really serious (stuff)."

The Professional and Amateur Cyclist Injury Fund will be managed, Ball said, by "a panel of experts and other persons committed to the sport of cycling." His fashion company will also design items for the fund, and Ball is committing 100 percent of the proceeds from that clothing to the fund's coffers.

The fund will be devoted to providing financial assistance for medical and rehabilitative care and will aim to increase safety awareness.

"The thrill of cycling comes with the reality that one hard fall can end it all," Rock Racing rider Fred Rodriguez said in a statement released by the team. "Until now, there has been no formal support system for cyclists who crash. This fund is an important step in the right direction for the sport as a whole."