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He is a three-time U.S. champion, a five-time Olympian and a 14-time Tour de France veteran.

But after George Hincapie agreed to leave more-established Team Columbia-HTC for the BMC Racing Team last year, some friends and acquaintances wondered if the legend was also making a huge one-time mistake.

Leaving Columbia for BMC, largely anonymous riders in a a relatively new outfit that wasn't guaranteed a spot in the 2010 Tour de France or most of cycling's other major races? The move, on the surface, seemed like cycling's equivalent of ditching the Dodgers to hang in Dubuque.

"Yeah," Hincapie said with a laugh. "A lot of people were asking why are you leaving Columbia and are you sure you are going to be OK not going to the Tour de France? But I was confident I'd made the right decision."

Sure enough. It appears Hincapie might have chosen wisely by signing last year with BMC, a five-year-old, Santa Rosa-based team that looks hellbent on reaching the top of the cycling world in record time.

That process has been sped up by the entrance of Hincapie, the reigning U.S. champion whose signing helped lure luminaries such as reigning world champion Cadel Evans and 2008 world champ Alessandro Ballan. Is there any wonder BMC was granted entry into the 2010 Tour de France in March?

Assistant sports director Mike Sayers, a former rider on the team, said welcoming some of the sport's biggest names pushed BMC into a stratosphere that it otherwise couldn't have reached.

"You have to have those guys," Sayers said. "People have always talked about the importance of having a great organization, and having a great organization is really important. But you have to have the riders, also. You can't just plug riders in. You can have the best organization in the world, but if you don't have the riders, what's the point?"

In its first four years, BMC, which holds its training camps in Santa Rosa, had earned respect in the cycling community for its professionalism and its people at the top. Owner and Swiss businessman Andy Rihs was making a serious financial commitment and president Jim Ochowicz, the founder and coach of the first U.S. cycling team to compete at the Tour de France, was a legendary figure in the sport.

But while the team was upwardly mobile, its riders were largely faceless.

Fortunately for BMC, Ochowicz had the pull to change that. A former two-time Olympic coach, Ochowicz founded the 7-Eleven team and Motorola, the latter having given Lance Armstrong and Hincapie their starts.

Ochowicz, who recruits riders for BMC, realized the team had the infrastructure and financial backing to finally go after big names after four years of slow growth.

"I wouldn't call it a sales pitch, but we had a definition of who we were and where we wanted to go," Ochowicz said. "We wanted to determine what players in the marketplace would take an interest in it."

An obvious player was Hincapie, 36, one of the world's most respected riders, who is one of two cyclists to be a part of eight Tour de France victories. Based largely on his nearly two-decade relationship with Ochowicz, Hincapie hopped aboard.

"I've known Jim for a long time and have a lot of respect for what he's done for U.S. cycling," Hincapie said. "... This was a team that really needed my experience and the recognition I could bring to help be a part of the races that I had competed in during my career. At this stage of my career, that really appealed to me. But I had no idea it would become so big so fast. We were talking about a two- or three-year plan."

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Throughout its brief history, BMC has made a habit of moving quickly. In 2006, the team had no full-time support staff (riders washed their own bikes), traveled in a Ford van that towed a trailer and never ventured beyond the United States.

One of the driving forces in the first few years was Santa Rosa's Gavin Chilcott, a Santa Rosa High graduate and former professional cyclist who was the team director.

Chilcott, currently BMC's general manager, was something of a one-man crew who helped lay the team's foundation.

Jackson Stewart, 29, who was recruited by Chilcott, has been with the team since 2007. He says Chilcott's intelligence — he is a Cal graduate who has a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington — and attention to detail have been instrumental to the team's success.

"With a lot of teams there's a lot of talking about we're going to do this and we're going to do that," Jackson said. "With Gavin, it wasn't talk. It was like we are going here and this is how were going to get there, in every little detail all the way down to the tire pressure on our bikes."

It is a reflection of BMC's growth that Chilcott is no longer the jack-of-all trades. In fact, he is in some ways invisible. Chilcott declined several interview requests for this story, per team policy. According to BMC media relations officer Sean Weide, the team agreed to have only certain members of its staff speak with the media this season.

One of those members is Sayers, who presumably speaks for his colleagues when discussing BMC's future.

"We want to compete in the Tour first and after that it's winning the Tour," Sayers said. "I don't foresee us not making it."

You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at 521-5268 or eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com.

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