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Cyclists find strength in numbers as Owens headlines sponsor list
By Thom Gabrukiewicz, Record Searchlight
November 13, 2005

Courtesy of Dan Richelieu, New Image Studio

PELOTON PAL: Owens Healthcare president and CEO John Friesen, center, trains with the rest of the nine-member Owens Healthcare Cycling Team. The 2-year-old team begins its third season of racing next spring.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: By banding together, the team has managed to pick up a variety of cycling sponsors.

ALL FOR ONE: The Owens Healthcare Team includes from left, Todd Dodds, Bill Reuss, Thomas Bey, John Friesen, Mike Simpson, Mark Blaser, Terry Tupper and Paul Lennon. Not pictured is Jonz Norine, who recently joined the team.

"It's fun, going to races by yourself the first couple of times. But after that, it gets kind of old. Having a team versus sleeping in the back of your truck for a race the next day? No question -- having the team makes everything a lot more enjoyable."

John Friesen sits at a round conference table in his second-story office that has a view. He's dressed in nice slacks, polished leather shoes, a pressed shirt, smartly knotted silk tie. He leans back when he talks, but moves forward to make a point.

Friesen is the 38-year-old president and chief operating officer of Owens Healthcare in Redding. He oversees a wide-ranging, pharmacist-owned company. Buttoned-down corporate guy.

What lurks behind the suit, the silk tie? A Lycra cycling jersey and shaved legs, perhaps?

Yep. Two years ago, after watching part of the Tour de France while in Europe, Friesen put together a little cycling team. The Owens Healthcare Cycling Team; nine north state riders -- all regular Joes -- with a love of skinny tires and winding roads. Because there is strength in numbers.

"I'm a cyclist myself," he said. "And it was a way to give athletes here a chance to compete. That's the whole gist of it."

Quite fortuitous, in fact.

"It's really been great, since there's so many talented cyclists in our area," said team member Terry Tupper, who began his racing career at 15 and raced in Europe from 1989-1991 and 1994. "The level of organization is pro-team level. They take care of the athlete, the fees. It's a local team, but with pro qualities, that's what I've seen."

Right now, the team is lying low, recovering from the 2005 season that saw its riders compete all across the West (including several top 10 finishes). Come next spring, riders will gear up for a race season that will stretch from March through September.

But no more restless nights in the back of their rigs, among spare tubes and rims. The team approach not only allows north state riders to race, but to get better -- and to use strategy in a sport that many consider to be individualistic.

"We're not paid athletes, we've all got jobs to do, we just like to race," Friesen said. "But you're out there, working with people to do your best, that's what drove me to the road, the team aspect of it.

"It just started as one of those things where we said, 'Wouldn't this be kinda fun?' and we put the team together to see where it would go. We got a few sponsors, got jerseys and now, we're off to the races."

The 2006 team includes:

Friesen, master's 35-plus category 3 rider; president and CEO, Owens Healthcare. Friesen has been racing since 2004.

Thomas Bey, master's 35-plus category 4 rider; interventional radiologist. Bey has been racing since 2004.

Mark Blaser, master's 35-plus category 3 rider; chemistry teacher at Shasta College. Blaser has been racing since 1974.

Todd Dodds, master's 35-plus category 4 rider; director of specialty pharmacy for Owens. Dodds has been racing since 1986.

Paul Lennon, master's 35-plus category 5 rider; custom home builder. Lennon has been racing since 1984.

Jonz Norine, master's 35-plus category 3 rider; attorney. Norine, the newest team member, has been racing since 1979.

Bill Reuss, senior 3 category rider; dentist. Reuss has been racing since 2003.

Mike Simpson, master's 40-plus category 3 rider; nurse. Simpson has been racing 1984.

Tupper, category 1 rider; cycling event director, cycling coach and massage therapist. Tupper has been racing since 1983.

The team's sponsor list now includes healthcare companies like MD Imaging and Fit Physical Therapy, cycling companies like The Chain Gang, Giant, Richey and Reynolds Cycling Technology and miscellaneous companies like North Valley Bank, Lassen Peak Winery, Etna Brewing Co. and Maxim Sports Nutrition.

"This area is just a great place to ride, and we've got good community support, which is nice," Friesen said. "In Redding, everybody in the cycling community is supportive of each other."

It showed in 2004 and again this summer, when Levi Leipheimer -- the Gerolsteiner rider who has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France three times -- took part in the "Wednesday Night Worlds" in Redding. The ride is the culmination of the regular Wednesday road ride that departs from Joe Gazzigli's law office off Gold Street. Leipheimer's initial trip to Redding came after he met some of the Owens Healthcare riders at a sports testing facility at the University of California at Davis. Friesen offered to fly Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa, to Redding on the company aircraft.

"It was great competition for the team, and, well it was just pretty cool," Friesen said of Leipheimer's two visits. "Here's a guy who has ridden in the Tour de France spending time with us. And I think he'll be back again."

"It sounded fun at the time, but in the end it was even better than we expected," Leipheimer wrote of Redding in his online journal. "It was great to meet a new community of cycling enthusiasts and hang at their after-ride party."

For 2006, the team goals are simple: Ride smart, place in races -- and have fun.

"It's just been great for the riders around here," Tupper said.

"I'd certainly like to see it keep going," Friesen said of Owens' commitment to the team. "And part of Owens Healthcare is to be part of the community -- and give back."

Reporter Thom Gabrukiewicz can be reached at 225-8230 or at tgabrukiewicz@redding.com.