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Thanks to its endless miles of scenic and challenging backroads, Santa Rosa has enjoyed a longtime connection with professional cycling.

In the '80s, the 7-Eleven team, the first American team to ride in the Tour de France, based its training camps at the Fountaingrove Hotel. In past decades, cycling royalty - from Greg LeMond to Lance Armstrong - have prepared for upcoming seasons by pedaling around Sonoma County.

For all its history, however, Santa Rosa has never served as the home base of a pro cycling team.

Until now.

BMC, a second-year team led by Santa Rosa native and former pro cyclist Gavin Chilcott, will make its debut as a professional team at next week's Tour of California, the biggest race in the team's brief history.

In its first year, BMC - then an underfunded, understaffed, amateur team with eight young no-name riders - didn't win much of anything.

It did, however, win the confidence of its bicycle-making title sponsor.

And, thanks to a subsequent infusion of cash, BMC is setting its sights considerably higher in its second year.

With a seven-figure operating budget - about five times bigger than last year's - BMC is taking a step up in competition in 2007 while boasting a 14-man roster featuring a blend of up-and-comers and decorated veterans.

Among those who signed with BMC in the offseason are Scott Moninger, 40, whose 263 career victories are the most of any active North American rider, and Alexander Moos, 34, a Tour de France veteran who finished 18th in last year's Tour of California.

"In 2006, our budget forced us to think as a developmental team," said Charlie Livermore, the team's performance director. "We didn't think we'd grow fast enough to keep really good riders. But instead of being a farm team, now we have aspirations of being at the top level of the game one day."

That lofty goal was laughable last year when BMC, living a Motel-6 existence, had no support staff.

This year, its staff of six includes a mechanic, two jack-of-all-trades assistants (soigneurs) and an employee to handle public relations.

Last year, the team traveled in a Ford van that towed a trailer. Now it travels in a 40-foot truck.

Last year, it never ventured outside the United States. This year, it will spend a month competing in France and Italy while also riding in the biggest U.S. stage races - the Tour of California and the Tour de Georgia - for the first time.

Moninger and Michael Sayers, 37, former teammates on the more-established Health Net team, signed with BMC in the offseason, lured by the team's upward mobility.

"It's fun to get in on the ground floor of a program," said Moninger, a 16-year pro. "And this program is obviously going places fast."

Said Sayers, a 13-year veteran, "I was willing to take a risk. On paper, I've moved to a smaller team ... But I felt this team had an unlimited amount of growth potential."

The engine driving the growth is Chilcott, 44, who has a unique blend of smarts and cycling expertise.

In 1982, he became one of the first American riders to compete in Europe when he began his six-year pro career in Italy. A graduate of Cal, he also has a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington.

His reputation in cycling circles not only helped bring aboard riders such as Moninger, but also some of the most-respected medical names in cycling, Dr. Eric Heiden and Dr. Max Testa, who work with the team on a part-time basis and have developed the UC Davis Sports Performance Program in Sacramento.

Prior to his medical career, Heiden, who won five gold medals in speed skating at the 1980 Olympics, became a professional cyclist. Testa, Levi Leipheimer's personal coach, has worked as a team doctor at more than 15 Tour de France events.

Such resources are quite a departure from last year, when team members washed their own bikes.

"The wealth of skill and knowledge we have now is amazing," said Nathan Miller, 21, a Santa Rosa native who is the youngest member of the team. "You realize how easy it is now to focus 100 percent on what you need to do. You can be focused on doing your job because now everything else is taken care of."

In leading a wet-behind-the-ears group of riders last year, Chilcott preached professionalism. Wear the right sponsor clothing. Don't arrive at races with a dirty bike. His attention to detail ensured his riders knew about a crosswind coming up a mile down the road. And that they stayed at a hotel closest to the race site.

His organization rubbed off. The result, said Scott Nydam, a part-time rider last year, was an inexperienced team that acted like they'd been there before.

"Last year, we were an amateur team," Nydam said. "But we made some of the smaller pro teams look like kind of a joke."

BMC owner Andy Rihs, the Swiss business giant who was also the team owner of Floyd Landis' disbanded Phonak team, noticed.

The result was a steep step up in sponsorship money in 2007.

"The level of professionalism they reached with a developmental team on a really tight budget, and the results they got last year, allowed us to enact our most aggressive action plan and kick things into high gear," said BMC brand manager Ken Hanson.

Optimism is high as BMC prepares for its second season with a training camp this week in Santa Rosa. There is talk of one day, perhaps soon, riding in the Tour de France and battling the world's best teams for cycling supremacy.

For his part, Testa, a team doctor on the historic 7-Eleven teams that featured American stars Davis Phinney and Andy Hampsten, says BMC's spirit reminds him of those teams.

"They have a lot of people with great potential and great enthusiasm," Testa said. "They are just starting out, and a lot of people are going the extra mile. That enthusiasm is very contagious."