An interview with Andrew Bajadali, April 5, 2008
Defending Redlands Classic champion Andrew Bajadali and his new team, Kelly Benefit Strategies-Medifast, are hoping for some revenge this week after being devastated by a virus during the Tour of California. The ever optimistic 34-year-old spoke with Kathie Reid about the race, his team, and his background.
You have got to wonder if Andy Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies – Medifast) is experiencing a little déjà vu right about now. For the second year in a row, he is starting the Redlands Classic with a team that found out just weeks before that they were not invited to the Tour de Georgia. Last year, it was "kind of a shock" for his Jelly Belly squad, he told Cyclingnews at the Kelly Benefits team training camp in San Bernardino days before Redlands. He admitted that this year, with his new team, "We were a little devastated again" at the lack of an invite.
Anyone who knows 'The Baj' recognizes that throughout his career, when faced with professional challenges beyond his control, he has shown an uncanny knack for remaining calm, optimistic, and focused – perhaps especially when situations have demanded a shift in objectives. And he has consistently been insightful and savvy enough to surround himself with people who do the same.
Last year, Bajadali arrived at Redlands feeling like he "had a point to prove," given the Georgia snub. And prove his point he did. This year he is returning to Redlands to defend his 2007 overall title. This time around he is with a different team, but his good friend and former Jelly Belly team-mate Alex Candelario, will arrive in Kelly green with him.
" It's kinda intoxicating, and something you want to be a part of... being part of a team like that is really cool." - Bajadali talks about the Kelly Benefits Strategies aggressive racing style.
Their new team has already been faced with some early season health setbacks, but he is again arriving with a steely confidence and determination to show that his team has what it takes to be contenders – for stage wins, definitely. Overall GC? There's even some room in his thinking for that.
Refocus, refocus, refocus
Raised in Sacramento, California, 34-year-old Bajadali took up mountain biking there in 1994. "I did a little bit of racing, just dabbled [in it] in Tahoe," he said. He then moved to Boulder, Colorado, in September of that year. He took to the sport competitively, racing with a local professional team, and then found his way into road cycling through training for mountain biking. "I found out I was a little stronger on the road," he said. "I really wanted to follow the mountain bike, try to make it a career. But the bottom kinda fell out of the whole scene. It seemed like after the '96 Olympics, a lot of sponsors pulled out."
In 2000, Bajadali went to Belgium with two friends – Candelario being one of them – to race with a Belgian road team. They stayed in separate places, but all raced for the same Ghent-based team. "That was my first real introduction to road racing," he said. "I kinda got my feet wet... and refocused [from mountain biking]... and then that's when it all kinda took off."
He returned to the States, signed with Ofoto, a New Jersey-based professional team, and "it was a great experience." Again, though, he was faced with some challenges. "I had a little bit of bad luck at the end of '03... I broke my hip, a really bad fracture," and, though rehired, he struggled the next season with results.
When he could not find a team at the end of the 2004 season, he went to Vitamin Cottage, an amateur team in Boulder. "They really helped me out," he said. "They had a decent budget, [and] it enabled me to travel around and do all the national series. It worked out really well because it was one of my best years." He asserted his strengths not only as an all-arounder, but as a major force in high-altitude stage races by winning a stage and the overall at the Tour of Utah, among other big wins. When 2006 came along, he was picked up by Jelly Belly and raced with them for two seasons.
Making a move
While Bajadali and Candelario only made the move to Kelly Benefits this season, they have been on the sophomore squad's 'wish list' from its inception. "I was talking to Charles Aaron [the team's Managing Director] a couple years ago when he was really trying to get the team rolling in the initial stages," Bajadali said. "I was looking for a team after Vitamin Cottage, exploring my options and whatnot."
Aaron, a former road racer himself who has managed a number of mountain bike and other action sport teams, had spoken to Candelario about his desire to start a team, and Candelario had suggested he talk to retired racer, Jonas Carney. Carney took the helm as Performance Director, and though he was not able to sign Bajadali and Candelario the first year, he built a team that won the 2007 US Pro Criterium Championships, the only first-year team to ever do so.
Bajadali had been interested in being on Carney's team from the get-go, but "all the ducks weren't in a row" that first season. "Ever since then," he said, "I've seen Jonas around at races, and we talked and were always friends. He's been trying to get me to come aboard ever since. Last year, we started talking pretty early." By the end of the 2007 season when his previous contract would be up, he really liked what he saw in the young upstart team.
"I saw some really good leadership and motivation in the riders and the staff... especially in the end at the Pro Crit," he said. "It was really impressive. It turned everyone's head... every race, these guys were at the front taking the lead. It's kinda intoxicating, and something you want to be a part of... being part of a team like that is really cool."
In addition to being a part of the energy already generated by riders like Canadians Martin Gilbert (2007 US Pro Criterium winner) and Kevin Lacombe, and Americans Reid Mumford, Jonny Sundt, and Justin Spinelli, Bajadali was also drawn to the team because of director Carney's dedication to developing young riders. "I've kinda done it the hard way, you know? Figured things out my own way," Bajadali said.
"Most people do, and it's a really tough path." The team boasts three under-25 riders who more experienced riders like Bajadali will mentor: Ben King, 2007 Junior National Time Trial and Road Race Champion; two-time Canadian National Champion, Mark Hinnen; and David Veilleux, a three-time Canadian U-23 champion. King and Veilleux are new to the squad this year.
"These guys have so much potential," Bajadali said, "and they're just thrown into the mix. I'm surprised at their maturity level – off the bike, on the bike – but they also need guidance... I hope the senior guys can pass that onto the younger guys... If they can keep growing? There's no doubt those three guys can race in Europe full-time if they keep the drive."
So Bajadali is "really psyched" about the move to Kelly Benefits. "It's a really fun team. From day one at camp [prior to Tour of California], I think everyone kinda just clicked... Everyone's really willing to sacrifice for everyone, and everyone will have their day... I think everyone's ability is there. There's a lot of hidden talent on the team, I'll say that, a lot of guys that haven't really shown what they're capable of. But they're definitely gonna have the opportunity this year."
Back to Redlands
The team had some particularly bad luck at Tour of California, and are now motivated to showcase its talents in Redlands. Back in February, Bajadali was sick one week prior to the prologue, and started the race at what he described as "70%" of his all. The he, along with six of his team-mates, caught the virus that swept the peloton, making for a difficult race which only two of the team finished.
In Redlands, the defense of Bajadali's 2007 overall win is still a possibility for the 34-year-old. "I think the team is more focused," Bajadali said. "We're looking for a stage win, which would be great, [and] podium placings in any of the stages... This is the first big stage race of the year... there was San Dimas, but in that, everyone's warming up for Redlands... A stage win or one of the jerseys would be great, you know? A repeat of last year on the GC side might be a little optimistic just because overall we're coming back from illness, [but] I wouldn't rule it out."
While Bajadali conceded that the field is stronger this year, he still thinks the stages, jersey, and overall could go to a variety of contenders. "I think all the usual suspects are there. Same guys as last year plus, of course, the Rock Racing guys, among others," he said. "The odd thing about Redlands this year is that there's no defining climbing stage that's going to separate the contenders," he said. "Last year, you had a group of 10, a group of five [contenders], really, and that was it. The rest of the GC was a minute back... And this year, there isn't an Oak Glen climbing stage [to break things up], so what I predict happening is that you're gonna have 40 or 50 guys within 30 seconds, 45 seconds, the last day, so it's gonna be a free-for-all. It's gonna be nuts."
And like Bajadali, Carney is confident his men will be in the mix. "We have some guys that are riding really well right now, especially our sprinters... I think that Cando, Baj, [Dan] Bowman, and Spinelli actually still have a good shot at GC. It's gonna be one of the hardest races we'll do all year because of the competition. [But] Baj won this last year, Bowman was 7th last year, Cando's won stages here before. I think we have three really powerful sprinters, and we have a great core of guys that can support them, but also contest the Sunset Loop, so I'm pretty confident that we're gonna do something."
No matter what, The Baj, Carney, and the entire Kelly Benefit Strategies-Medifast team believe they are headed into an exceptional season. "I am where I wanna be [after the illness]," Bajadali said before heading into a sponsor talk at the end of team camp. "I have plenty of time to rebuild for the rest of the season, and the rest of the guys on the team do, too... The real objectives for the team the rest of the year are Philly Week, Crit Nationals, Road Nationals, the Colorado Stage Race, the Tour of Missouri, Univest – all these really good races at the middle to the end of the year – and Nature Valley Grand Prix, a real big deal for us because it's our home team race. It's something we can look forward to. It's not over."