Orange crusaders: How Canada’s Silber Pro Cycling is becoming one of the best teams in America
Gord Fraser sat in a San Dimas hospital, wondering about the status of his riders after a crash in the first race of the 2016 season brought down four of his riders, sending two to the hospital for X-rays.
A week later, he was sipping champagne at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, celebrating the overall victory with Matteo Dal-Cin.
This is Silber Pro Cycling, a hard-scrabble Continental team with an 11-man roster of up-and-coming Canadians that are, collectively, becoming one the best teams on the U.S. domestic circuit.
“It seems every race we do, one of my riders has an exceptional race and that really helps galvanize our tactics and our mission statement for the race, whether it was Matteo [Dal-Cin] at Redlands, or Nigel [Ellsayl at Joe Martin, Alex [Cataford] at Gila, and then Ryan [Roth] finally coming back from his injury,” Fraser said after Roth won the road race at the May 30 Winston-Salem Cycling Classic
Roth, 33, is the elder statesman of the team, a former Canadian national champion and veteran of teams such as Kelly Benefit Strategies and SpiderTech-C10. Some on the team refer to him as “Iceman,” citing his ability to remain cool and confident under pressure.
When Roth tore his calf muscle, forcing him to sit out much of the spring schedule, it opened the door for the young talent of the team to show their respective abilities.
Dal-Cin won the Redlands Classic, Ellsay finished second at the Joe Martin Stage Race, and Cataford finished second at the Tour of Gila. Roth returned from injury to win at Winston-Salem, then take the overall victory at the 2.2 GP Cycliste de Saguenay on June 12, making it four GC podiums for four different riders between March and June.
“When our best rider and leader is out the team, [it] can go either way of two directions,” Fraser said. “It could go poorly, or guys could step up and seize an opportunity and I think that’s exactly what happened with Silber this spring.”
Silber bookended the four-day GP Cycliste de Saguenay with stage wins by Ben Perry and Roth. Perry held the leader’s jersey for three days, before Roth took the GC by finishing second on the final stage. Silber finished first and second on GC, with five riders in all in the top 10, and went home with the points and youth jerseys.
Fraser brings a vast amount of experience to the Silber program, having spent years as the top sprinter on the U.S. domestic circuit before serving as the elite men’s national team coach for Cycling Canada. In his prime, the former Canadian national champion won stages of the Tour of Gila, Joe Martin Stage Race, and the Tour de Georgia. During the first half of the 2000 decade, if there was a bunch sprint on North American soil, Fraser seemed to win more often than he didn’t, riding for teams such as Mercury and Health Net-Maxxis.
Fraser, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, balanced his Cycling Canada role and Silber directing duties in 2014, during Silber’s first year as a UCI Continental team, but gave up his role with the national federation at the end of the year and has been directing Silber full-time ever since. His dedication to the team has seen the program flourish and gather astonishing results considering the team’s average age is under 23-years-old, even with the veteran Roth.
“Luckily we’re seeing these guys develop, maybe at a faster rate than maybe the norm, but that’s all it is, giving these guys a chance, taking them to the races,” said Fraser. “They get a fairly robust schedule with us because we only run 11 riders, 10 riders last year, so they get chances to race and get that experience and develop into world-class racers.
Born to Ride: Matteo Dal-Cin
The team’s first big win of the season came when Dal-Cin shocked pre-race favorites Janier Acevedo (Jamis) and Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) to win the Redlands Classic on the final stage. Though not UCI rated, the race’s slogan reads, “Where Legends are Born,” and it seemed to be a step in that direction for the 25-year-old from Ottawa.
“This year it’s been a different feel since we’ve been at the races with all younger guys,” Dal-Cin said. “People have had to step up and show really great form, and the guys have done well rallying around whoever it may be and being able to still pull off results, even if it may be coming from a rider who it wasn’t expected from at the beginning of the race.”
Dal-Cin comes from a cycling family; his father, who introduced him to cycling, raced for the Canadian national team.
During the offseason Dal-Cin spent time in Arizona training with fellow Ottawa resident Mike Woods, who made the jump to the WorldTour with Cannondale. “It was November into December, as [Woods] prepared for Tour Down Under, so for me it was a bit early because our first race of the year was San Dimas,” Dal-Cin said.
“It was a great opportunity to get some early season miles in and be around a super professional athlete going about their training. I wasn’t trying to tune-up in the same way he was, to be on peak form in January, but there were a lot of things to learn by going down there and training with him.”
At 25, Dal-Cin is one of the elder riders on the team, though quite a bit younger than Roth. Dal-Cin is looking to take his career to the next level, and with Fraser as a director, anything seems possible.
“I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better director for the American circuit, because [Fraser] has so much experience here,” said Dal-Cin. “It seems every race we go to, he could give you the script of the race before it happens.”
Though he’s got an Italian name, Dal-Cin is a Canadian through and through. During the offseason he likes to mix in a little hockey, “just for fun.”
Fraser believes Dal-Cin is a super talent, capable of climbing, time trailing, and racing aggressively, and is worthy of consideration for an Olympic selection this summer. The Canadian men have earned three spots in the 256km road race, and one in the time trial; among those competing for the spot are Woods, Roth, Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEdge), Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEdge), Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), Antoine Duchesne (Direct Energie), and Ryan Anderson (Direct Energie). Three-time Olympian Ryder Hesjedal has withdrawn his name from consideration.
“It is not out of the realm of possibility,” Fraser said. “There is plenty of WorldTour talent in Canada now. We have six or seven riders full-time in Europe, so obviously the perception is that those guys would be better suited for a race like Rio, but obviously with Matteo [Dal-Cin] and Alex [Cataford] and Ben Perry and Nigel [Ellsay] performing the way they are, it is going to be hard to differentiate the level of guy who is full-time in Europe and working for his team, like a guy like Christian Meier. It’s hard to get results when you are slaving for other guys, but you get domestic guys who are getting results, but at a lower level. How do you weigh those two types of dynamics and results?”
Comeback Kid: Alex Cataford
Three surgeries over the span of eight months and Alex Cataford’s jaw was finally close to being back to normal after he shattered it in a crash with a car prior to the 2014 season while training in Arizona.
“When I was finally cleared to ride a bike again, let alone train, it was mid-August of that year, so the  season was just a write-off,” Cataford said. “Me and my coach started back up in September or October of that year, but we really started from scratch in September.
“After not racing for a year, and basically not riding for eight months, it definitely took a while to get back. I had some glimpses of form last year, but I think overall my consistency was what was lacking from just not having the miles in my legs. But having that full year racing and being able to train this winter with a base to start from, I feel like I’m hitting my stride again and getting back the same progression I was on in 2013.”
Cataford has indeed hit his stride, finishing second overall at Gila coming off of a stellar second-place ride in the individual time trial and a strong climbing performance at high altitude.
“It was a really good feeling,” Cataford said of standing on the final podium at Gila after a long, difficult journey. “It was almost two years to get finally get back to where I was, and it was really nice to see it pay off. To have my coach and my family and everyone supporting me and seeing how hard I worked, and to finally get back to the level of the rider I feel like I am, it was really rewarding.”
Cataford began his riding career on the track, becoming 2011 Pan American champion in the individual pursuit, though he ultimately switched to the road full-time in order to pursue “a career out of cycling.”
The Ottawa native is taking courses at Queens University, pursuing a degree in Physics. Among the professional ranks it is rare to see a rider balancing school and racing, but for Cataford it is about setting himself up for life after cycling. He is on track to graduate with his degree next fall, and while it may have taken him over five years to earn his degree, he will have been able to do so while also pursuing his cycling career.
“It’s all about measuring your time well and learning all these skills that will help you no matter what you do in life later on,” Cataford said.
From Europe to Home: Nigel Ellsay
Nigel Ellsay joined Silber in 2015 after a three-year stint in Europe, which covered his final year as a junior and first and second years in the senior ranks. Yes, he is only 22-years-old.
“That’s definitely a pretty big change, going from living in France and driving up to the races with the boys to racing in North America where you can live at home and fly in and out to races,” Ellsay said. “It’s a lot easier lifestyle I would say than living in a foreign country and racing races where you don’t understand the language fully. I speak French, but it’s still definitely a bit of a stretch.
“I find it a bit more motivating with an English-speaking team and a bunch of guys I have known for quite awhile and racing races I have known more about since I was young.”
The British Columbia resident fell in love with cycling going on club rides with his father before he entered the racing scene. Now, with his sister Gillian also pursuing a career in cycling, the sport breathes strongly in the family.
“For sure, oh for sure,” Ellsay said laughing, when asked if a sibling rivalry exists between he and his sister. “I think she has been on one more national podium than me, maybe, and she definitely holds no prisoners in letting me know that and I am three years older — so I guess I have to step it up.”
Ellsay finished third in the Redlands time trial, and then took the opportunity to make his mark at the Joe Martin Stage Race, a race he had “earmarked” a few months prior. A strong opening uphill time trial set him up for the remaining stages, and led to a fight for the overall on the final day’s criterium. He would finish second overall, beaten only by Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman), winner of the Best Young Rider classification at the Amgen Tour of California.
Like Cataford, Ellsay is balancing school and cycling — he’s a student at North Island College, on Vancouver Island. Despite the tough balancing act during the season, he cherishes going back to school in the fall.
“I enjoy it and especially during the fall semester from September to December, because you’re not too stressed after a full season of racing to go back to school and switch your mind off from eating, sleeping, and riding your bike all the time. You go back and live a bit of a normal life again,” Ellsay said.
The Silber Pro Cycling team has found itself in the unique position of having a young group of riders, which are maturing, growing, and developing together to become the best racers they can be and have become close among each other as well. The unselfishness and respect among the team is evident.
“In the winter, since we are all Canadian, we will go down south to train in the January and February months,” Cataford said. “I stayed in a house with Ben and Matteo, and then Nigel was just two streets away from us. We have all built a strong relationship between us and we all know each other quite well.”
The team’s growth and stellar results have made an impact — Silber earned an invitation to the Tour of Alberta last year and will be back at the race again in September. The Canadian squad will also be racing the 2.HC Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in August, giving the team the chance to show the caliber of riders they have against the best in world.
“It’s confirmation that the team is a major player in North America and deserves a chance to race against the top teams in the world that come over,” Fraser said. “It shows our sponsors we are expanding our race schedule, and it’s good for recruitment. We can show new young riders that our race schedule includes big races like Utah, and we can keep this momentum going. It can help in our recruitment and also retaining the talent we have.”
The team hopes to keep the momentum going by moving up to the Pro Continental level in the near future. Team president Scott McFarlane addressed this in a LinkedIn post: “Since many people are asking, yes, we are positioning ourselves to become a Pro Continental team, but we are carefully building our infrastructure first.”
Silber’s infrastructure is Canadian to the core, as demonstrated by its sponsors and owners. The team is operated and owned by À bloc Sports Management, a company run by McFarlane, Arthur Silber, and Michael Wolfe. McFarlane owns a Montreal-based coaching service, Toguri Training Systems, while Arthur Silber Investments has been the team’s title sponsor since its inception in 2014. Furthermore, the Canadian roots run deep with the riders having Argon 18 bikes, a Montreal-based company, under them in the races.
Fraser realizes the growth and support system around Silber directly correlates to ensuring the core group of riders stay around.
“The challenge for us is obviously continuing this grow and with that we have to find more sponsorship and new companies to come on board to help fund this team,” said Fraser. “We know what is going to happen is our riders are going to be attracted to bigger teams with bigger budgets, and to keep the core together we’re going to have to find more dollars and more sponsors who want to hitch aboard this fast-moving Silber team.”
Fraser echoed McFarlane’s thoughts and stressed the team was not going to graduate to Pro Continental status unless it had the proper support.
“The question is, it is not up to us,” Fraser said. “You can’t count the egg before the chicken right? You got to have to have a partner and a sponsor that shares the same vision. We can talk all we want about where we want to go, but until we have serious discussions with companies and people that want to take and walk that pathway, it’s just talk.
“We are not going to say we’re going to do this and do that without having the means first. Every team in the domestic peloton I’m sure has the same ambition, but it’s only realistic if you have talks with potential sponsors that can take you.”
Next up for Silber — the opportunity to prove themselves at Utah, and Alberta. At some point, a likely move to Pro Continental status is in the cards. Beyond that? The sky’s the limit. And that’s all part of the ride for the men from up north.