Entering its second year of fielding both men's and women's pro teams, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies focused on keeping the momentum rolling during its recent training camp along the Pacific Coast Highway and in the nearby coastal canyons of Southern California.
The training camps culminated Friday night when former pro rider and TV commentator Todd Gogulski presented the 2013 team at the American Honda Museum south of Los Angeles.
The seven-year-old men's program, run by Minnesota-based Global Circuit Sports Management, added a women's team last year and bumped that program up to UCI status this year after a successful inaugural run in which the women won both the individual and team rankings of USA Cycling's National Race Calendar.
In its first season riding under the title Sponsorship of Optum after a five-year run as Kelly Benefit Strategies, the men's team earned berths in the Amgen Tour of California, where rider Sebastian Salas took home the KOM jersey, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and the UCI Team Time Trial World Championships. The Optum men also finished second in the NRC team rankings and took home the US Criterium National Championship with Ken Hanson.
Both teams enter the 2013 season with key core groups intact and several promising additions.
Men will head overseas for early season racing
Although the focus for the men's UCI Continental team will remain the North American domestic calendar, the team will send a squad to Portugal and Spain to compete from mid March through the beginning of April. Optum is also hoping for invitations to several other early season international stage races like the Vuelta Mexico.
Performance director Jonas Carney said the reasoning behind the international trips is twofold: providing valuable experience for developing riders and helping prepare the team for its eventual goal of stepping up to the Pro Continental level and racing in Europe.
“We always want to dabble a little bit in Europe so that if we end up having the ability to make that step and race there at some point that we're ready to do that,” Carney said. “I think it's hard to just be a domestic team and then say, 'OK, now we're gong to Europe.' We've done enough European trips now that we kind of have a network over there and know what we're doing. If we're going to make that step, we're ready. So we always kind of want to make one or two trips.”
International competition is also the best way to prepare the team for the Amgen Tour of California, which Carney says remains the team's first big goal.
“We're hoping to win some races in March and April,” he said. “But we're really hoping to put on a good show in the Tour of California.”
The 17-rider roster Carney and assistant director Eric Wohlberg will guide this year is two riders smaller than last year. Veteran's Andrew Bajadali and Reid Mumford retired this season, but 2013 additions Eric Young and Bjorn Selander should help pick up the slack. Selander spent two years on the ProTour level with RadioShack and came on the market when Spidertech abruptly folded after the 2012 season. Young, coming to the team from Bissell, is the 2011 US criterium champion.
“They're both incredibly talented guys who at the end of last year were looking for a team,” Carney said. “I didn't personally expect to be able to recruit guys like those two, but it just happened that some teams folded and there were a lot of good riders on the market. They were my first two picks as far as who was available. I wasn't expecting it, but it just happened and I'm really, really happy about it.”
Young will join 2012 US criterium champion Ken Hanson in providing ample weapons for the team when the races finish in a bunch sprint, a development that gives Carney, a former bunch-sprint specialist himself, plenty to work with.
“It's always good to have more sprinters,” Carney said. “Ken was great for the whole season last year, but it's hard to count on one guy to be good all the time. People get hurt, people get sick. So it's always good to have two sprinters. It'll enable us to have a go-to pure sprinter at each race if we have to split the squads, and then when we go to something like the US criterium championships we've got a dual threat and we can lead both guys out. It just makes the team much more dangerous.”
Optum also added a cyclo-cross program for the first time last season and brought on board 'cross specialists Jeremy Durrin and Mitchell Hoke for 2013.
“Jeremy Durrin will do some road with us to prepare for 'cross,” Carney said. “And Mitch Hoke will do some 'cross with us as well, but he's a professional mountain biker, so he'll probably spend most of this summer racing his mountain bike for Kenda and then he'll make the transition to 'cross in the fall.”
Back from the 2012 squad are Hanson, Salas, Jesse Anthony, Alex Candelario, Mike Creed, Mike Friedman, Ian Moir, Mike Sherer, Tom Soladay, Tom Zirbel, Scott Zwizanski and Chad Haga.
Carney said he would look to older riders like Creed, Candelario and Mike Friedman to help provide leadership on the team, and he tabbed Haga and Selander as the team's most-likely GC threats. Selander's pedigree is well-known, while Haga, who won the Cascade Cycling Classic prologue time trial but crashed out of the race the next day, has flown mostly under the radar after suffering string of bad luck during his first full pro season last year.
“Chad spent most of last year injured and sick,” Carney said. “He's a huge talent that a lot of people aren't familiar with. From what I've seen it's just a matter of him staying healthy and injury free. If he can stay off the ground this year, I see him as being a major GC threat for us, especially in anything with a time trial.”
Aside from the Tour of California, the NRC schedule and a handful of international events, the team will target the big late-season stage races in Utah and Colorado, and it hopes to get invited of the new September UCI race in Alberta, Canada.
Women aiming for NRC success, Worlds TTT berth
Rachel Heal, the women's performance director, is returning with an 11-rider roster of proven talent and hopeful newcomers. The team lost 2012 National Race Calendar winner Carmen Small, who signed with Specialized-lululemon for 2013, but returns 2011 NRC winner Janelle Holcomb and 2012 revelation Jade Wilcoxson, who was third overall in last year's NRC standings.
Lauren Hall, who previously rode for Heal on the Colavita team, moves to Optum after a season with TIBCO-To the Top and will help provide leadership in Small's absence. She won two US national championships on the track last season and was second in both the criterium and road race national championships.
“I think this year I've got kind of my team captains on the road,” Heal said. “And they bring a real mix of experience and different kind of personalities, with Janelle, Jade and Lauren. Janelle and Lauren have a lot of experience between them, and Jade has not quite so much, but she's learning really fast. She has a good race brain, and I think she brings a lot to the table, too.”
Other riders returning from the inaugural team include reining Canadian road race champion Denise Ramsden, two-time Canadian criterium champion Leah Kirchmann, newly crowned New Zealand road champion Courteney Lowe, Annie Ewart, and Joelle Numainville.
The team added three neo pros in Amber Gaffney, Brianna Walle and 19-year-old Grace Alexander, a multi-time Junior national champion in both road and mountain bike events. The jump from Junior racing directly to a UCI pro team can be a long one, and Alexander is also working toward an Engineering degree at UC Berkeley, but Heal obviously believes the young rider can make the leap.
“There aren't that many who do it,” Heal said. “But we noticed her last year at nationals and then Janelle actually raced with her in Europe and had good things to say about her. So we'll give her a go.”
Both Gaffney, 31, and Walle, 30, are relatively new to cycling but have risen quickly through the amateur ranks over the past two years. Walle, who set the best time during the team's inter-squad time trial test at camp, followed fellow Oregonian Wilcoxson's path to Optum, earning a spot on the Nature Valley Pro Chase composite team and then winning the best amateur jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix.
“It worked out pretty well the first time around,” Heal said of signing the former Pro Chase rider. “I've been told by a few people that Brie is the next Jade, so she's got a lot to live up to.”
Heal said she believes she's assembled a good all-around team that can compete in every race Optum enters. Holcomb and Wilcoxson are proven stage race threats, while a three-pronged sprint threat from Hall, Kirchmann and Numainville will be formidable. The team will also target the 2013 Team Time Trial World Championships in its inaugural run as a UCI squad.
Holcomb and Wilcoxson will head almost immediately after the team's training camp to compete with the US national team in Belgium, but the rest of the squad will officially start racing at the Merco Cycling Classic next month.
The team will head south to Tucson for the Old Pueblo Criterium, an Optum-sponsored event, before regrouping for the start of the 2013 NRC at the Redlands Bicycle Classic April 4-7. The team will focus on repeating last year's NRC success, when it won both the individual series with Small and topped the team standings as well.
“I kind of feel like as a director I've got a trend to keep going,” said Heal, who directed the Colavita squad for two years before moving to Optum last season. “Each year I've directed we've won the individual and team NRC.”