The Jelly Belly presented by Kenda cycling team passes a significant milestone as it enters the 2012 season. This is the team's thirteenth year with the same title sponsor, and with a new two-year commitment, the team is set to have the longest running contiguous sponsorship in the US pro peloton. This year it ties the now-defunct Navigators Cycling Team, which ran 13 seasons from 1995 to 2007.
Yet this development team, with a service course guarded by a trio of hens and an elderly Labrador in the back yard of director Danny Van Haute's long-time San Marcos residence, routinely places riders in the breakaways of the biggest races it enters, right alongside riders from WorldTour teams. Focus, the team's bike sponsor, features an image in its catalog of a Jelly Belly rider setting tempo with the UCI World Road Champion and other marquee riders in a dramatic break from the 2011 Amgen Tour of California.
Van Haute credits a sensible sponsorship model and a consistent, if modest, team mission that keeps his development team punching above its weight at the biggest races in the US.
"My philosophy is (about) making these riders better," Van Haute says of his objective held since 2000. "That's what we are, a development team. We lose guys every two years. But losing guys to a Pro Continental or WorldTour team, that's a success for the Jelly Belly program. ... Losing a guy to another Continental team, I have a real problem with that." But it's a scenario which rarely occurs.
The team will have plenty of work ahead this season: it is running lean with eleven riders, as just four riders were brought in to replace six outgoing. Van Haute says he does not planning any additions for the rest of the season.
The new additions are Luis Davila from Mexico, power-house mountain bike racer Menso De Jong, Scott Stewart from team Type 1, and Ricardo Van der Velde, who brings solid European experience from his time with Garmin and the Belgian Donckers Koffie squad.
Depending on the race, leadership chores will fall to Van der Velde, or either of returning members Sean Mazich or sprinter Brad Huff. Davila is likely the best climber on the squad, but is a scrappy rider even in the midst of the tree trunk-legged SoCal pro 1-2 crit crowd, as he proved in a training race in Ontario recently, moving through the field at will. The 6'4" De Jong will serve well on the front setting tempo, churning 177.5mm crank arms, but is bound to be a factor on the long climbs as well.
Van Haute, a veteran of the inaugural 7-11 team and member of the 1984 Olympic team, knows exposure is as significant as a win for sponsors. "We had riders in the break in five stages at Tour of California, with [television commentator] Phil Liggett saying Jelly Belly on television all afternoon."
"We're a spectator-friendly team. We get to the stage an hour and a half before the race and hand out Jelly Belly Beans and autographs. And the fans love it."
Sometimes too much. Van Haute recalls an experience from one of the team's many trips to Asia, "I almost started a riot in China one year handing out Sport Beans, the crowd got bigger and bigger until the Chinese police came over, told me to stop, and pushed back the crowd."
Van Haute was the first US director to take his team to Asia, where tougher racing, solid prize lists and promoters willing to help with travel made for an easy choice when building the team's schedule. It helps with the mission of building a better rider and provides significant exposure for the global Jelly Belly brand. "If you get into races here in the US like the Amgen Tour of California you have to do bigger races. The RadioShacks of the world are doing 200k races every weekend and we'd be doing criteriums. I don't think you can prepare the team by doing criteriums six weeks prior to the Tour of California."
This year, the Bean Team is likely to have as many as five separate trips to Asia. "We'll be going to Tour of Taiwan, Tour of Korea, two or three races in China, one in Japan," Van Haute lists, adding "hopefully can turn that around and make a few stops in Europe too."
Speaking of racing in the US, Van Haute is clear on his priorities, describing the Tour of California as "the Super Bowl of cycling in the US," along with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado and the Tour of Utah. "We need to be there," he states clearly and directly. "We're happy when invited, and we're going up against the top teams in the world. Do I expect my guys to climb with Levi and the Schlecks and Horner? No. Not at all. But I expect them to race their you-know-whats off, get in breaks, and mix it up."
"Do we have a 35 mile-per-hour leadout for our sprinter? No, but we have guys who can get him in the right place where he can stick on wheels and try to win. And I'm proud of them when they do that."
With a new two-year commitment from Jelly Belly in hand, Van Haute is comfortably optimistic about the future of the team. "If we keep doing what we're doing, I think the Jelly Belly cycling team is going to be like Euskatel and Rabobank, just here for life," testifying to the longevity of the program.
Jelly Belly presented by Kenda Cycling Team for 2012: Luis Davila, Menso De Jong, Alex Hagman, Nic Hamilton, Sergio Hernandez, Brad Huff, Sean Mazich, Emerson Oronte, Jeremy Powers, Scott Stewart, Ricardo van der Velde. Ralf Medlaff is head mechanic, assisted by Dan Horndasch. Director is Danny Van Haute.