Did Rock Racing ever issue a Leppard-Trekesque style guide requiring all written references to the team include the phrase “bad boy”? Seemingly every piece of writing about Rock distills the defunct team down to that dumb phrase. Tattoos? Past doping suspensions? Escalades? Skulls? It’s a team of bad boys! Well, I think that’s writers being lazy, for one, and getting the gender wrong. To me, Rock Racing is the Lindsay Lohan of professional cycling: a roster with some glimmer of talent, recklessly mismanaged into stop-and-go seasons of diminishing returns, and now subject of a criminal investigation. Look, I’m declaring this as a Sheen-free zone: while Michael Ball may be a Sheeny fuck-up who’s too rich for his own good, in retrospect, Rock Racing gives off the vibe of a busted-up ex-starlet who misspent her heydays cultivating an off-screen persona, too naïve to know her career had a predetermined expiration date.
One thing Lohan excelled at was being an utter, incorrigible clotheshorse, and Rock left a similar legacy, if you can call it that: the team had whopping 17 different kit designs (not including color variations) in three active seasons, then for the non-existent 2010 season, Rock went as far as unveiling four kit designs while waiting for a Mexican Continental team license to come through. As surprised as I was with the number of Rock Racing kits, I was even more shocked to discover Dana at Boston College Cycling had taken the time to research and catalog the designs (thanks, Schmalz, for pointing this out!). Dana, I bestow upon you an honorary degree in taxonomy of cycling kits, a degree whose sole usefulness would be to usurp me.
The fundamentals of the Rock Racing design are black with bright patterns and accents, like a mucus-slick jungle amphibian whose coloring is evolution’s way of saying, “Hey dummy, if you lick me, you will fucking die.” Appropriately, most of these kits bear such don’t-tread-on-me names as “Lethal”, “Crucifixion”, “Revenge”, etc. and come in such colors as “Venom”, “Road Rash” and—wait for it—”Peach.” Okay, “Peach” was for Tour of Georgia so it’s not quite fair to mock. It even has peaches on it! And I’m wishing upon my lucky star that it’s scratch-n-sniff which smells like Readheaded Slut (that’s peach schnapps and Jaeger, my friends). I suppose calling a bloody scarlet color “Road Rash” invokes bring-on-the-pain cycling machismo, but the naming of Rock’s kit oeuvre is fraught with omens and self-fulfilling prophesies, as you’ll see.
Like a tween getting her ya-yas out with a Hot Topic shoplifting spree for fake tattoos and Manic Panic hair dye, Rock Racing acts out on the team kits, adorning them with skulls, tattoos, sharp objects, etc. They make me wonder if some of these designs came to Michael Ball’s skeevy mind as he lorded over some model’s tramp stamp, the preferred method of acting out by girls who outgrew shoplifting and sex bracelets. The Rock Racing/Rock & Republic aesthetic supplements vanilla lifestyles of its consumers—people who drop $200 on mass produced, status symbol “premium denim” that’s quite disappointingly ordinary—with rebellious, risque or punk rock airs. The Barbie math formula for this would be: skulls with more skulls and tattoos and barbed wire are so badass! An integral of the formula would be something like: being decorated with symbols of rebellion plus an interest in cycling equals being an outsider to the Mercedes-Manolos industrial complex. It’s a strange culture clash of faux fashion badass versus the true badass of bike racing. This would be a good time to digress that Rock & Republic actually dared to name a skinny jean style “Rollins,” making me want to chug black coffee and a six pack, be the crazy girl loose nut, and wage my war against wasted Black Flag references that fail to rise above depression-inducing...oh, whatever, I don’t care. Rollins is my least favorite Black Flag singer anyway. Bringing this back to cycling, Rock & Republic also has a relaxed bootcut style called “Floyd,” no shit(!!)! Though a RELAXed fit should really be called “Lance,” no?
Now that you’ve come this far with me on a group ride through Rock Racing memory lane, let me introduce you to Skully the Rock Racing skull mascot. The Rock Racing logo, officially designated as “Skully Shield,” is a crest of a winged skull with the Rock & Republic monogram. Booooring! Couldn’t they sneak a clever cycling reference in there? (Hey, didn’t someone we know design a nice T-shirt with a bike chain skull?) Or, like Motörhead, push it to the ridiculous extreme of badassness with fangs, tusks, spikes, chains, iron cross, and a skull. Or symbolize defiance and taste for pain like the Oakland Raiders logo, in which the eye-patched Raider clearly didn’t heed the warning he’d poke his eye out with his sword. For all of Michael Ball’s “I can do bad all by myself” posturing, a winged skull logo is as flaccid as coke dick. I think there’s a PSA that addresses this design problem: “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs, this is your logo designed by your coke dick.”
The quintessential Rock Racing ensemble is the green-on-black variation of the “Body Armor” kit, which looks a lot like the green poison arrow frog. On frogs, these markings send a clear “looky but no touchy!” message to predators. But animals are dumb, they like to snack on frogs; whereas, people aren’t quite as dumb and prefer Doritos. Therefore, I assume we humans don’t glean that same warning from the Rock kit. (I did do some soul-searching and concluded that if gummi frogs had the green/black pattern, I’d still eat them.) Funny thing about these poison arrow frogs is that if you’re not nervous handling them, they won’t secrete any venom, and because their jungle diet of toxic ants makes them venomous, domesticated frogs are completely harmless. Thanks to my rudimentary herpetology knowledge, now you know it’s safe to handle poison frogs and riders in Rock Racing kits. (Really important: herpetology is the study of frogs; I do not have herpes.) By the way, “Body Armor 2.0” from Rock’s non-existent 2010 season is more armor-like than frog-like, but it reminds me of the medieval “coffin torture” body cage, which seems like a painful self-fulfilling prophecy.
Speaking of slimy amphibians, what’s up with the drippy imagery in some Rock Racing kits? There are designs like “Lethal” with something oozing off the team logo. What is that? It’s too viscous to be sweat. Thick blood is bad cycling juju so...is it oozing pheromones? Chain lube? Hollandaise sauce? I’d love to continue this in a family game night of 20 Questions with Michael Ball. Somehow, I picture this family game night with us wearing Christmas sweaters--of a skull wearing a Santa hat, aww!--eating dainty tea sandwiches and drinking Darjeeling out of gilded tea cups with our pinkies up. There’s also a steady snowfall of blow outside. If someone actually invents the dream-manipulating technology of Inception, you betcha I’ll have this tea soiree game night with Michael Ball and get my answers. In case you’re wondering, my wake-up song to bring me back to reality will be John Cage’s 4’33”.
But really, what amount of skulls, literally oozing with desire to look untouchable and deadly, can make a skinny, zero-upper-body-strength cyclist look capable of grievous harm? True, there are riders who can land a punch or attack with a wheel, but please work with my sweeping generalizations. The cyclist kitty-cat swat fight is one of my favorite traditions of cycling! Rock Racing’s solution to compensate for the un-pugilist cyclist physique: distract the eye by covering the entire kit in faux tattoos, which might actually be more respectable than drawn-on abs. Oh, and get a guy with a full-on Maori face tat on the roster because those face swooshes make you look soooo fucking tough and aero, bro. The fictitious 2010 season for Rock features two tattoo-centric designs, “Yakuza” and “Predator.” “Yakuza” is, of course, a reference to the Japanese mob, but the kit crawls with Rococo filigrees that have nothing to do with Yakuza. Thanks for playing, Rock Racing, but you’re not helping me with the “criminal organizations and their associated body art” category at pub quiz night. I do, however, like the idea of dainty, powdered-wig wearing ruffians covered in swirling filigrees terrorizing the newly formed middle class, maybe even tangling with Robespierre’s thugs post-Revolution.
On the opposite end of the body art machismo spectrum, “Predator” is a take on tribal tattoos twice removed: twice removed because the source material certainly wasn’t actual tattoos of indigenous tribes. It was probably the juiced, shirtless douchebags Michael Ball saw at the gym or in porn. I don’t go to the gym or watch much porn, but I assume the douchebag tribe is indigenous to those places. I have a serious gripe with calling this kit “Predator” because, come on, Predator has active camouflage and you’re not supposed to see him! Actually, this design looks more Alien (who is vastly superior to Predator) than Predator, especially if paired with a TT helmet. Next time Michael Ball and I have an imaginary tea soiree, we’re so totally watching “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” to prevent such sci-fi trivia oversight from sullying Rock Racing’s good name. This makes me wonder: between Predator and Alien, who’d win in a bike race? Have your people call mine if you want to collaborate on a script for the third installment of the AVP franchise “Alien vs. Predator: Comeback 3.0 3D IMAX EPO.” I think the tagline should be, “In space, no one can hear you sneak out when doping control arrives at your door.”
Rock Racing’s kit collection doesn’t end with the exploration of exotic fauna of the jungle or the gym. The team has a series of location-inspired kits named “[insert city name] Rocks.” What a wonderful tribute to the arena rock tradition of roadies writing the name of the city and taping it to the monitor so the drug- and tour-addled band doesn’t thank Detroit while serenading (and, later, giving STDs to) Cleveland. In case “arena rock” is too ancient a reference for you, think of these kits as proto-FourSquare check-ins for Rock Racing in an effort to unlock the Sneaky Mexican Conti Team License badge. Of the entire Rock Racing oeuvre, though, I think these special edition race kits look the best. They tend to be uncluttered and focused, with the design sensibility of a rock show flyer rather than a sponsor-centric cycling kit. I actually quite dig the “Austin Rocks” design: a white kit with just a few Rock Racing logos against a red star with a blue sunburst background. It gets the Texas state flag color scheme wrong—trust me, I’ve drunk enough Lone Star beers to know this—but it’s bold without being busy, clean but not sparse. It’s the kind of design only a team with a sole title sponsor can afford, but not necessarily take advantage. The “Harlem Rocks” kit is a less successful design in a similar vein, with cyclists zooming out from a New York skyscraper backdrop. Even though this kit was made for a Rock Racing-sponsored event, the yellow cuffs on a black kit make the team look like the do-gooder Livestrong army—somewhat of a branding miss for a team who, despite being charitable with Rock the Cure, would rather be like a tumor than its cure.
Other special edition kits lack clarity in design of Austin or Harlem. The one for Tour of Qinghai Lake—a black ensemble with a line-drawn Chinese dragon encircling the torso and legs like an albino python on a Britney Spears—takes the concept of “skulls and more skulls!!!” but replaces the skulls with dragons. Sheesh, talk about how to train your dragon—get it to stay in one place on the kit, maybe? But I gotta say, this rush to straight-up Orientalism in the Qinghai kit is actually more refreshing than a twice-removed tribal tat reference. The Tour of Britain “London Rocks” kit, on the other hand, perhaps could have used one of the Qinghai dragons as a piece of flair. Despite being dedicated to a city once described as “swinging,” the Union Jack background with the logo, a sword, and a scroll with “London Rocks” in Ye Olde English lettering just doesn’t cut the Colman’s mustard. For some reason, there was pressing need for three color variations of this kit for the race: tricolor, black/red and green/ochre. Isn’t there a UCI rule against this kind of kit indecisiveness? In black or green, the Union Jack loses its, well, Union Jack-ness and sinks the whole British theme. Though, the muted green/ochre color combination is unusual and surprisingly tasteful that it’s making me think I can get used to this! If there are teams looking for a new color scheme (uh, Sky? Garmin? Leppard Trek?), then green and a light earth tone might be a way to go.
Of all the special edition race kits, the most important—if not design-wise then in significance—is “Crucifixion” created and manufactured overnight to protest Tour of California excluding Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla, and Santiago Botero. It’s a pretty stripped-down design whose main feature is a barbed wire wreath around the team logo. It’s a small matter of semantics, but a more accurate name for this kit would be “Crown of Thorns” because it doesn’t depict the ejected trio being crucified. After all, you don’t want teammates fighting over who gets to be Jesus and who has to settle for being the two thieves. The kit is missing the cocky defiance I’d expect from a team like Rock, but the fact they pulled off a protest kit at all is impressive, especially considering some meek rider protests of late. Remember when riders at the 2010 Giro di Lombardia protested CONI prosecutor Ettore Torri’s comments about most pros doping? No! Because this particular protest involved wearing P-Touch label maker stickers on their helmets. (In this case, the P in P-Touch is for “pussies” emitting a queef of protest.) Rock Racing may have sucked at procuring team licenses or running a team at all, but I guess they knew how capitalize on a protest at $200 a pop, the going price for a Rock replica jersey. And once martyrdom lost its glory and fun, we also got the “Revenge” kit. The design looks like Rock logos stuck to the torso and legs with criss-crossed black gaffer tape. Why this would be “Revenge,” I’m not sure. However, if I wore a wire to procure evidence that got Michael Ball served with a federal search warrant, I’d be weary of strangers approaching me with rolls of gaffer tape. That shit’s waterproof. You do not want to be wrapped up in it and tossed off the Santa Monica pier!
Of course, you guys know that I saved the best kit design for last, right? And by “best” I mean making me wonder, “They actually made grown men wear this kit?!” In its protracted death throes, Rock Racing vomed out the most grand, desperate kit ever. If you ever doubted the emotional range that a cycling kit can express, you have not seen the “Rocks Not Dead” kit. After a tumultuous season of demoting pros to amateur status, mid-season firings, and Tyler Hamilton’s DHEA positive, Rock Racing tried to convince the cycling world that everything’s peachy. But how can we interpret the “Rocks Not Dead” message other than Rock choking down a fistful of its own fuck-you attitude before putting a plastic bag over its head and laying down for a dirtnap? Now, cue the slo-mo montage of Pat McQuaid stamping a big fat DENIED!!! on Rock’s Mexican Conti license application and Jeff Novitzky’s agents busting into chez Ball, leaving a pile of slashed couch cushions, turned over furniture, and scattered papers. To what soundtrack shall we set this montage: Adagio for Strings? Syd Vicious’s rendition of “My Way”? Fear’s fuck-you anthem “I Don’t Care About You”?
I’m leaning toward classic punk because, let me tell you, the “Rocks Not Dead” kit is sooooo damn punk rock it makes me want to pogo my little heart out like it’s 1979. It’s got mock spray painted anarchy symbols! It has the Sex Pistols/Jamie Reid ransom note lettering! It says “F#@K OFF!” on the right butt cheek! Aww, punked out cycling kit, you look like my trapper keeper from junior high when I fell head over heels for old school punk, except I was never a self-censoring pussy who couldn’t say “fuck.” Fuck! The only misfire on this kit’s aim for punk cred is the vaguely posi slogan of “Never Give Up. Never Surrender.” If you recall the 1980s, “Never Surrender” is a Corey “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” Hart ballad. If you’re wondering who’s punk and what’s the score, it’s a big goose egg for Corey.
Wait, did I say “The only misfire on this kit”? Because what I really should have said is that this whole kit is a crazy McNutters misfire! Rock somehow got grown men professional athletes to have “Rocks Not Dead” emblazoned across the crotch. Over-the-junk placement of the statement really muddles the message. Is this a hazing ritual emphasizing the team’s will to soldier on? Does it advertise stud services touting virility and fertility to bolster the team bank account? As a female cycling fan, some clarification—So, is the team not folding? Do y’all rent by the hour?—would have been nice, but I’m afraid such pestering would make the riders turn around to show me the “F#@K OFF!” on their backsides. (An aside: is “F#@K OFF!” on the butt same as “no homo”?) Don’t worry about me, I can take this rejection. I’m only attracted to unavailable men whose bib shorts crotch rebuffs me with an uncensored “FUCK OFF!” rather than courts me with undead rocks contained within.
And yet, I can’t completely brush off the “Rocks Not Dead” kit despite its Hot Topic punk tropes. I suppose the kit’s almost naïvely rebellious nature has the charm of a child’s over-the-top, shrieking tantrum at the mall that makes you begrudgingly admit “Okay, kid, I am impressed by your nuclear meltdown hissy fit.” So much of Rock Racing’s branded posturing was mere shadow boxing against the cycling establishment (and a possible distraction from whatever FDA agents found at Michael Ball’s house), but it kept us entertained, it kept the jokes flowing. It’s too easy to dismiss Rock Racing as professional cycling’s oddball sideshow. If anything, Rock’s floundering and fleeting existence served as the sometimes meaty C plot that illuminated fucked up things in the grand narrative of pro cycling. Rock Racing clearly never got the protection and favored treatment some teams and riders received--and still receive--from the UCI. Rock Racing and Michael Ball served as unwitting stool pigeons that triggered Jeff Novitzky’s investigation of the Armstrong-Bruyneel juggernaut. While three seasons of Rock Racing is plenty enough, I’m kind of waiting for the next poseur punk kid to fuck shit up at the high school we call professional cycling. And if you won’t admit you miss rolling your eyes at Rock’s ridiculous posturing even just a little, then respectfully, I’m gonna tell you to F#@K OFF.
You know that old box of bike parts you've put in your closet?
Recorded inside the press room at Grenoble Velodrome, we bring you Episode #8 of the Insider from the 2011 Tour de France, our final podcast.
Recorded 1,850 metres above sea level atop the famed Alpe d'Huez, we bring you Episode #7 of the Insider podcast from the 2011 Tour de France.