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Steady growth could yield Vuelta start
The UnitedHealthcare team has been dubbed "the blue train" by race announcers for its well-drilled lead-outs, but the locomotive analogy holds true in a number of other ways, as Cyclingnews found out at the squad's 2012 "sponsor summit" and team camp in Palm Springs, California last week.
While the riders lined up in front of sprinters like Jake Keough and Robert Förster on the last lap of a criterium may be likened to high speed rail, the team's business model as described by general manager Mike Tamayo is more like a fully loaded freighter - slow, steady and careful.
"We're the steady team - we will be for the next three years," Tamayo told Cyclingnews. "We're the team that's going to continue to grow year after year, and we like to do things methodically. We'll take our time and conquer our current level, and then tackle the next."
While other Professional Continental squads battle for invitations to the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, Tamayo is more cautions in his approach to attaining Grand Tour status, aiming at the Vuelta a España for UnitedHealthcare's first experience at that level.
"I think the Vuelta is a race that suits us well. Individually we've had riders who have had success there - who have been top 10 and won stages, we have riders who can sprint and climb at that level and race at the GC level. Now it's a matter of giving them the support and tools to do it again."
With newcomers Jason McCartney and Philip Deignan in addition to Förster, the squad now has three riders who have won stages at the Vuelta, and Deignan placed ninth overall there in 2009 when racing for the Cervélo TestTeam. UHC has also added WorldTour experience in the form of Jeff Louder (BMC), Marc De Maar (QuickStep) and Kai Reus (formerly of Rabobank) and beefed up its climbing team with Australian Ben Day and South African Jay Thomson.
However, the leap from one-week long 2.HC races like the Amgen Tour of California to a Grand Tour is a big one, and even if a Vuelta nod doesn't happen this year, Tamayo will use this season's stage races to prepare both the riders and the organisation for a three-week tour by pushing for perfection in the shorter races.
"You want the mechanics to make absolutely no mistakes, you want the massage therapists to be dialled in. You want your infrastructure to be solid, and you want your athletes to get through a one week race unscathed and realize they will be able to hold that standard for another two weeks."
The slow, steady growth model touted by Tamayo is by no means easy: the team's camp included hours of intensive meetings between riders and sponsors, between team management and sponsors as well as business wheeling and dealing between the companies which support the squad. It's all part of making sure the sponsors get something more out of supporting the team than the satisfaction of seeing them win bike races.
"The business of running a cycling team is truly becoming a business more and more every year. It used to be you'd have a cycling fanatic who was working in a company or ran a company and put money into a cycling program, but now with the economic climate, you have to validate all your expenditures. So you're seeing a lot of companies looking at what value a team brings.
"We've always done a good job of giving a return on investment, so it's made it easier for us because we were already operating under that standard. We show our sponsors our value - we do the hospital visits, the YMCA visits, the extra VIP events, and we help broker sponsor-to-sponsor business transactions.
"It goes to the team spirit - not just with the riders but the sponsors. A huge percentage of our other sponsors have their employees' health insurance through Unitedhealthcare now. That's a business transaction that helps all of us. It is about more than just running a cycling team."
That business sense translates to the team's racing schedule, which includes an all-out sprint to show itself in the first few months of the season in order to ensure the team's reputation for the later-season invitations.
"It's important to be competitive at the Tours of California, Utah and Colorado. We've built a schedule that prepares our riders with that in mind. The next level is doing races where the team can continue to grow in stature and recognition. That's where Tours de San Luis and Algarve come into play. Being able to do those early season races where we can be seen as being competitive amongst the best in the world, that is going to earn us a little more respect from other race organisers and other teams, and in turn, more potential invitations."
Growing the team from within
With the mergers of RadioShack and Leopard Trek and the loss of HTC-Highroad, recruiting for 2012 gave Tamayo ample opportunity to hire some amazing riders, but it was important to him and the riders to maintain the same cooperative environment he's fostered over the past few years and keep some of the focus on developing existing talent rather than revamping the team.
"It was easy to look and see all those good guys out there, and think you can reinvent the team, but then you lose the team spirit and that family atmosphere that we've developed over the years. I'm big into putting effort into giving athletes and opportunity to realize their potential.
"Whether it's Johnny Clarke or Adrian Hegyvary - who nobody's ever heard of winning a bike race because they're always slaying themselves for their teammates - those guys will continue to develop in a program like ours, and we'll continue to give them a position to do so.
"The talent we brought in above them like Jason McCartney and Jeff Louder, they've been part of the team before. That was easy because they know how we work - and they bring back what they've learned from BMC or RadioShack, and that helps all of us. Their experience is something they can apply to everyone else on the team, and that's important."
By all indications, the chemistry on the team is as strong as it has ever been, and the UnitedHealthcare train is ready to leave the station. The first race of the year will be the Tour de San Luis, the team for the Argentinean race will be Jonny Clarke, Ben Day, Robert Förster, Adrian Hegyvary, Jake Keough, Jeff Louder, Jason McCartney and Jay Thomson.