Tour in books, but Mellow Mushroom cyclists keep on pedaling
Aug 01, 2011 | 2894 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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"For the most part, we’re about supporting local riders and getting more people involved," says Terry Phillis (pictured in the center), the driving force behind Mellow Mushroom Racing.
Casual fans pay little attention to cycling beyond the just-completed Tour de France, but local enthusiasts know there’s much more.

There’s the area’s annual cycling weekend, which combines the Sunny King Criterium, Foothills Classic Road Race, Cheaha Challenge and Noble Street Festival in one of the state’s top tourism events.

Then there’s the local team, which gives spokes folks something to watch almost year-round.

Anniston urologist Terry Phillis, who owns the Oxford Mellow Mushroom franchise, has built a Mellow Mushroom team over the past six years. That team is, well, mushrooming.

Nationally, cycling legend Laura Van Gilder and teammate Kristen Lasasso are having quite a year in Mellow Mushroom purple, black and gold. Their collaboration has led to several top finishes.

Locally, "Shroomer" Matt Johnson leads Alabama’s new mountain bike series standings. Several others on the 15-person team rank highly in various amateur divisions.

All tolled, Phillis’ Mellow Mushroom Racing venture has helped to extend the 46-year-old Van Gilder’s career while providing a home-based training and support team for competitive local cyclists.

"For the most part, we’re about supporting local riders and getting more people involved," Phillis said.

It doesn’t hurt the cause to have a legend taking the team colors national.

Van Gilder, one of the top female riders in the United States, won the USA Speed Weeks Series, a seven-race series of criteriums in the Southeast. She also won the 11-day Tour of American Dairyland, winning eight of the 11 events and teaming with Lasasso to win 10 of 11.

Van Gilder raced this weekend in The Presbyterian Hospital Criterium at Charlotte, N.C. She’s 11th in USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar points standings.

Outnumbered as part of two-woman team with Lasasso, Van Gilder reached as high as second in the NRC standings in early June.

"I’ve been really happy with my consistency and success, and always happy to have Kristen by my side," she said. "Mellow Mushroom has just been a fantastic sponsor. Their sponsorship has allowed me to go all over the U.S. and represent a great brand and do something that I love and promote a healthy sport in partnering with them.

"It’s been a winning combination on a lot of levels."

Van Gilder’s run with Mellow Mushroom started in 2009, when a former team suddenly lost sponsorship amid an economic downturn. She knew Phillis from having stayed with his family during previous runs in the Sunny King Crit.

She was prepared to finish 2009 out of pocket, but Phillis put her in Mellow Mushroom colors for the Sunny King. The sponsorship grew from there, and she carried it through the USA Crit series that year.

Phillis lobbied Mellow Mushroom’s corporate office, and they kicked in at a minimal level for the rest of 2009. They increased sponsorship in 2010 and then came on for the road and cyclocross seasons this year, covering about 85 races.

Van Gilder, whose stature in the sport means she tends to be photographed at most of her races, uses some of her sponsorship support to bring Lasasso along for about 80 percent of her races.

"Laura is still a strong enough rider that she doesn’t need much of a team,” Phillis said.

She’s all about the team, though, having made her Mellow Mushroom jersey her profile picture on Facebook. She considers the sponsorship a career extender.

"I don’t know that I would have walked away, but it certainly all happened at the right time," she said. "As this has morphed into a bigger sponsorship, I feel very driven, because I don’t have the worries about how I’m going to make it happen."

Locally, having the Mellow Mushroom team has helped competitive cyclists make it happen, as well.

Team members get uniforms and what Johnson called "significant discounts" on equipment through Wig’s Wheels, another of the team’s sponsors.

The main benefit comes from less commuting, since competitive cyclists don’t have to go to Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa to find a team.

Also, local riders have more familiar teammates. They come from a robust cycling community that produces a fair number of competitive and capable riders.

"Since we have a local team, I ride with these guys. I train with them and race together," Johnson said. "It definitely was very exciting and still is that Terry was generous enough to set the team up and support us."

Phillis said the local riders tend to be people with full-time jobs who want to be as serious about cycling as their free time allows. Also, they’re not just road racers. He has mountain bikers like Johnson, and Phillis is trying to expand into triathlons.

"It’s neat to have a team and kind of all be wearing the same colors and traveling together and training," Phillis said. "Probably the biggest thing is just training together, just keeping a little bit of a commitment.

"Being on a team helps guys kind of focus a little bet-ter and set some goals and maybe do some rides and races that they might find a reason not to go, and hav-ing a team motivates them to race."

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576, jmedley@annistonstar. com or follow on Twitter @ jmedley_star.

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