Team Slipstream/Chipotle's budget tripled this year to $11 million without major corporate sponsorship.
A big reason is Doug Ellis, the team owner and New York-based private investor who also shares team director Jonathan Vaughers' passion for cycling.
"For the most part, it's me who's losing the money," says Ellis.
He talks more about what lies ahead for Slipstream.
Question from Bonnie D. Ford: Is it still cool to be clean if you don't win?
Answer from Doug Ellis: It is the way I feel. I think it's a tough sell to sponsors in the long run. I'm not saying sponsors are win, win, win at all costs, but nobody wants to be associated with a middling success. We have to be successful. It doesn't mean we have to win the Tour de France but it means we have to be successful in innovative ways. It might mean clever [race] tactics, so you're getting good press responses. In the event that the sport really cleans up, I think the problem diminishes a little bit. If it doesn't, then it's a tough one ... I think we'll be successful. We're not going to be what Discovery was last year and win every single race, but we want to go and win races.
Q: Is the team's anti-doping philosophy helping you market yourselves to sponsors?
A: We are involved in anti-doping for two different reasons. One is purely ethical. We feel so strongly that this is the only right way to do things and communicate that to the younger athletes. I totally buy into that. But there is a more business side of it that I don't think has to be discussed in a cynical way, which is that we can give potential sponsors some degree of assurance that "This isn't going to blow up for you."
Q: Do you think you can attract a title sponsor as the season goes on?
A: What we're hoping this year is to get on some sponsors and close the gap a little bit. I don't think anyone's really making money in cycling, but we should be able to run a self-respecting business that breaks even, employs people and does a great job. That would really be tremendously satisfying to me. If two years from now, we've been successful on the road and I can't find a sponsor for the team, I've failed.
Q: Jonathan won you over quickly, and he seems to have gained the confidence of a lot of people in cycling and in anti-doping organizations, which isn't always easy.
A: He's in it for the right reasons. He loves the sport and he knows about some difficulties from the past and he has a lot of desire to correct it, or at least to run an organization that doesn't have those pressures inside of it. He's very smart, very intuitive. It's a very politically hot world and I think he does a really good job of navigating that. As a U.S. rider who had a good career in Europe and has the love of a lot of people in Europe, he's uniquely positioned to help me build a team. You can't do it without being a little bit of an insider.
Q: Does it help your guys to see Bob Stapleton's Team High Road (formerly T-Mobile) also signing on for the ACE testing program?
A: Sometimes guys on our team might look at another team that has a different anti-doping program in place. They might think that one's bulls---, ours is real and that one's bulls---. But then to look over at the [High Road] guys and say, that guy's clean, I know that he can't cheat because I can't cheat, that's really great to build confidence across the teams that way. It's a nice step forward.
Q: The ACE testing was 10 percent of your budget last year.
A: But it paid off. It got us a lot of credibility. From the point of view of a race organizer, you're putting on a show, you need content. And a U.S. team is content. A clean team, it's a story. It wasn't a reason to do it, but it ends up being something that really separates us and maybe is the thing that accelerated our schedule by a couple of years.
Q: Do you think it's possible to create anti-doping peer pressure?
A: If that happens, that's fine, but I don't really see us being in a position to peer-pressure anybody. I think you set yourself up for a fall a little bit that way. I have mixed feelings. I don't want to be the anti-doping team. I want to be a successful team. Yes, we can talk about this anti-doping stuff we're doing, but the idea that you always lead with it, I feel like you're sort of putting a chip on your shoulder and asking someone to take you down.
Q: What else is important about the way the team is doing business?
A: There are a lot of experimental factors, like our plans in Girona [Spain], to try to create a team that is together for a lot of the season. There are some extra costs to doing that, but we can build morale and have better control over training. It's another area to try to squeeze an edge where one hadn't existed before. ... We're not dictating [schedules] 24 hours a day, but people can't sort of drift off and become head cases because we haven't seen them in six weeks. I think it will be good to create a positive peer pressure where guys are looking after each other. We're hoping to tap into that camaraderie.
Q: What are the implications of your big expansion this season?
A: We're a homegrown organization and we're very concerned about the culture of the team. If you grow exponentially you don't necessarily know who all the doctors are, or who all the soigneurs are, and that wasn't acceptable. I feel comfortable now we can grow into the team we need to be in '08 and again in '09. I think people want to see a team that looks right, that acts right, that isn't shooting from the hip. I think we really can get invitations to the Giro [Tour of Italy] and the Tour [de France], and that would be a dream come true for me and a little rags-to-riches story for the team.
Bonnie D. Ford is a writer for ESPN.com. She will cover Slipstream's progress during the 2008 season. Next month, Ford will follow the team in its first major competitive test at the Tour of California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.