I'M IN THE LEATHER passenger seat of a black Bentley that Michael Ball is driving up the Southern California coastline. Slick-haired, dark-featured, and kept trim by daily long-distance bike rides, he still looks like the model and aspiring pro track cyclist he once was. The controversial forty-something fashion mogul, who made a fortune with the premium Rock & Republic labelthink $370 jeans and gothic imageryis shuttling between a pair of mansions he's rented in the Malibu hills. "This pushes the cool factor even further," he says of the extravagance. "Am I spending money? Absolutely. But you have to spend money to build a brand." Ball's image-making isn't just about denim, though. The houses are HQ for the January training camp of his one-year-old cycling team, Rock Racing. At a time when professional bike racing is fighting back against years of scandal by instituting the strictest anti-doping measures in sports, Ball is enthusiastically courting some of the most drug-tainted riders in recent memory. Tyler Hamilton, San-tiago Botero, and Oscar Sevillaall of whom have been implicated in doping scandalsare among his recent signings. Floyd Landis can't participate just yethis two-year ban for using testosterone during the 2006 Tour de France isn't over until next yearbut Ball turns to him for advice and has listed him in media materials as a "friend of the team." It's all part of a strategy in which Ball plans to create a squad of bad-boy all-stars whose image extends beyond cycling, then cash in by selling merchandise linked to the brand. Think hip-hop kids wearing black Oakland Raiders jerseys. "Soft goods. That's where the money's at," says Ball. "Look at Ferrari. They don't make their money selling cars. They make it in Formula One, by winning a race on Sunday and then selling a million dollars' worth of T-shirts and hats on Monday." [Note: We called Ferrari. They assured us they make their money on cars.] Of course, Ferrari doesn't operate in a sport where it has to apply or be invited to compete in each event, as is the case with cycling. As a third-tier "continental" team, Rock Racing isn't eligible to compete in major European events. But even at home, the establishment has resisted Ball's seeming embrace of cycling's drug culture. Hamilton, Botero, and Sevilla were all banned from February's Tour of California. In March, Ball announced a new internal testing program, but his hiring practices suggest that he wouldn't mind a return to the bad old days of laissez-faire oversight.
"This sport is eating its young," he says. "It needs to be policed from within. Major League Baseball is a perfect example. You have to close ranks and take care of your own." Baseball? The sport whose attitude toward steroids led to an era of gorilla-shaped sluggers? Ball argues that the tactics of organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency are more harmful than the dopers. "What the athlete did kind of disappears when you have an organization dictating with Gestapo tactics," he says. "They're destroying lives."
Not surprisingly, that stance has many in the sport trying to distance themselves from Ball. At least two equipment sponsors have refused to work with the team, and in December, Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong's who was Rock Racing's team director, resigned in protest. "If you're ruining the reputation of the sport," says Andreu, "it kind of defeats the purpose."
No one familiar with Ball's story would be surprised by how he's rankled cycling's traditionalists. A reviewer for New York magazine said she had to "wash the skank off" after watching the undulating models featured in R&R's fall 2007 runway show. British tabloids reported that a partnership between Ball and Victoria Beckham ended with her threatening a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. Ball has also been sued for assault and sexual harassment. "I've received death threats in the fashion world," he says. "The stuff I'm facing in cycling is nothing.
"I've come to Malibu for Rock Racing's 2008 team launch. Cycling squads host these gatherings every year to introduce riders and offer up boilerplate about the coming season. But when we arrive at Ball's rented villa, the scene is more Hollywood bash than cycling event. He eases the Bentley up a steep driveway lined with European sports cars and Cadillac Escalades. The latter are easily the flashiest team support cars in cycling, all adorned with the skull-and-wings logo of Rock Racing.
Inside, waitresses serve drinks to dozens of thin, beautiful publicists, handlers, and various hangers-on, most wearing R&R clothes. A DJ spins in the living room, and flat-screen TVs show clips of the team riding in formation while Ball drives behind them in his black Lamborghini. The ridersincluding Kayle Leogrande, a tattoo artist whose arms and legs are fully inked, and David Clinger, a veteran racer who was fired from a former team for his Maori-style full-face tattoowear matching black warmup suits and silver street shoes. Landis arrives late, trailed by a film crew Ball has hired to record the event, and jokes about his showing up in Levi's.
But Ball's highest-profile signing has been Mario "the Lion King" Cipollini. The 41-year-old Italian, who is ending a three-year retirement to ride for Ball, has never been involved in a doping scandal, but for nearly two decades he was cycling's most flamboyant personalitya six-foot-three presence given to animal-print skin suits, coiffed hair, and deeply unbuttoned shirts. He once famously said that if he hadn't been a pro cyclist, he would have been a porn star. Ball calls him "the epitome of Rock Racing."
Noticeably absent in Malibu is VeloNews. The leading bike-racing publication in the U.S. was disinvited after publishing a number of critical stories about Ball. But some insiders suggest that the sport shouldn't be turning away people willing to invest in it, especially given that Ball hasn't broken any rules.
"How teams select riders is up to them," says USA Cycling president Jim Ochowicz. "There are rules that everyone has to follow. Beyond that, people can agree with them or criticize them. I certainly wouldn't want to see them leave the sport."
That's not likely. "In my business, I sit all my employees down and let them know 'This is how I expect you to work,' " says Ball when I ask about the backlash. "'Knock at the front door. If they don't answer, go to the back door. If they don't answer there, go to the side window. Break it. Get in.'"