Despite failing to achieve the level of high-profile wins its accustomed to earning on the road, the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies cyclo-cross experiment has been a smashing success, team owner Charles Aaron told Cyclingnews last week at the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross finalè in Bend.
The UCI Continental road team fielded a seven-rider men's and women's squad for the first time during the North American 'cross season with the goal of giving the team's sponsors a few more months of exposure.
"It's just great," Aaron said. "Our media numbers are phenomenal, and for our clients, which are our sponsors, we're giving them 12 months of activity. When you look at all of the sponsors associated with our program, we're getting great coverage for them, and no one else is doing it."
Road pros Carmen Small (who has since moved on to Specialized-lulemon), Amanda Miller, Jade Wilcoxson, Jesse Anthony, Alex Candelario and Mike Sherer volunteered to continue their seasons and compete on the fledgling 'cross program. The team also brought specialist Tristan Schouten on board to join the men. Team director Eric Wohlberg said he's already seen the payoff.
"For a road team to come out and do a full 'cross program, I think we're one of the pioneers to do that with a fully supported program," Wohlberg said. "We didn't know how it was going to play out for us, but I think it's turned out pretty good. We've had great feedback from Optum, and we've had a great VIP presence at these events, and so it's been a very good situation for us."
Aside from providing more mileage for title sponsors like Optum and Kelly Benefits, the extended season also provides equipment sponsors with another platform to market products that the road team would normally not use. Aaron said sponsors like bike manufacturer Orbea and component maker SRAM were more than happy to step up with 'cross specific products to keep the team rolling through the season.
"They were really, very super supportive of this," he said. "The amount of equipment we take in is huge, and nobody said 'no' to us."
With equipment and a travel budget in place, the team required the services of some of its dedicated road riders. Again, Aaron and Wohlberg also had no trouble finding the help from riders like first-year pro Jade Wilcoxson.
"The team basically just asked for volunteers to race the 'cross season," said Wilcoxson, who earned her first UCI cyclo-cross podium this year and finished fourth behind seasoned 'cross specialists Katernina Nash, Georgia Gould and Caroline Mani at the final USGP race in Bend. "I was at a point where I was willing to do it. Up until my first race I was kind of iffy about it, wondering how my bike handling skills were going to work out, but now I'm happy I'm doing it."
So far the team has found its way onto multiple UCI podiums this year, with Sherer bringing home the only UCI win, taking the top spot at Spooky Cross weekend in California. He also finished third there, his only other UCI podium result. Schouten has nine top-10 finishes this year at USA Cycling events, including seventh and eighth at the USGP Smart Wool Cup in Colorado. His best results came in the form of sixth place finishes at the Boulder Cup and Jingle Cross Rock.
Candelario has three top-10 finishes, including seventh at the Colorado Classic and fifth at the Boulder Cup. Anthony, probably one of the more experienced cyclo-cross riders on the team, has only started six 'cross races this year. He cracked the top-10 just once, during the first day in Gloucester.
"All the men have been doing very well considering how deep the top 10 are in all of these races," Wohlberg said. "Tristan is still working a full-time job, so it was very impressive to see him pull off some great results. Candelario and Sherer have been doing very good, too, on really a limited training program for the 'cross races."
The women have had better luck finding the podiums at the big races. Small finished in the top 10 six out of her seven starts. She placed second at the Boulder cup and finished third and fourth at the Jingle Cross Rock. Miller has six top-10 finishes, including second and third at Jingle Cross Rock and two fifth-place results at the Bend USGP. Wilcoxson notched seven top-10 finishes at USA Cycling races this year, placing third and fifth at the Volkswagen Jingle Cross Rock before her fourth at the USGP. She also won seven local races this year in Oregon.
"Our women's team has been very, very successful," Wohlberg said. "It just shows their level of fitness. Amanda, Carmen and Jade have all been in the hunt virtually every race."
And just like providing year-round activity for the sponsors, the team's cyclo-cross adventure is keeping the riders active as well. Wohlberg said he believes the one or two hard efforts per week at 'cross races provide a good way for roadies to keep their fitness level sharp in the off season, as long as they don't let pride push them too hard.
"We told them coming into the start of this, that they have the pride to do respectable performances, but they're not training full time to be 'cross specialists," Wohlberg said. "This is going to help supplement their road training, but we didn't want them to train so hard to the point that it might jeopardize their road season and have them coming in too tired."
So would Optum-Kelley Benefit Strategies ever consider bringing more 'cross specialists into the mix to give the team's roadies a break and try and get more wins?
"Well, I think for 2013 we could go in that direction," Wohlberg said. "We'll have to assess the impact of what our 2012 season has been. It would take the pressure off our road riders. Then they could concentrate on the road, and if they wanted to do a couple of 'cross races for fun, then we'll have equipment left over from this year that they could go and do that. But maybe in 2013 we might try a bit harder push for the podium."
Aaron, who witnessed his first 'cross race as an owner while in Bend, was enthusiastic about his decision to enter the winter cycling discipline and appeared to be hooked.
"I'm impressed," he said from the race's crowded expo area. "This is really cool - the media and the excitement of the athletes. Everybody loves it, and we love reading about it on a Monday morning."