Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies' trip to South America last week for the UCI 2.2 Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay paid off with four stage wins and three days in yellow for sprinter Ken Hanson, while time trial specialist Tom Zirbel finished second overall.
The six-rider Optum squad overcame illness and some missing bikes to be a major player in the 10-day race, which took place March 30 though April 8, eventually coming within 18 seconds of duplicating Scott Zwizanski's 2009 overall win. Reid Mumford, Tom Soloday and Chad Haga joined Hanson, Zwizanski and Zirbel in the race, which featured nine long, relatively flat road stages and one 36km time trial.
"It's not like it's a Colombian or Costa Rican race, where it's just going straight uphill for 10 days," said team director Eric Wohlberg. "So it was good for our time trialists and sprinters to get a good race underneath their legs with some opportunities for great results."
But competing so far from home presented challenges for the team. The first came when the local airlines lost track of the time trial bikes for Zwizanski and Zirbel, then an intestinal virus bit the team – and much of the peloton – late in the week.
"It wasn't just us that got sick, but we got the short end of the bikes, for sure," Wohlberg said. "But the boys really sucked it up. We were also down to one spare set of wheels, so that was actually the biggest drama. But we quickly established a good rapport with our competitors down there. And we got a lot of great support."
Hanson started things off for Optum during the sprint finish of the 180km opening stage from Montevideo to Trinidad, scoring the win and enough bonus time to don the race leader's jersey for the next day's road race. He gave up the jersey after finishing sixth on stage two, but rebounded on stage five with another win that moved him into second overall.
"The stage one win was a sign that I had good race legs," said Hanson, who had only tested is fitness at a couple of local criteriums previous to Uruguay. "So from then on I kind of knew that I'd be able to win a couple more stages. There were four or five really good sprinters, all from different teams, and we traded spots on the podium for most of the race. So it was really competitive."
Hanson scored his third stage win the next day on stage six and also retook the leader's jersey, which he wore until the stage eight individual time trial. Then it was time for Zirbel and Zwizanski to step up with hopes of time trialing to the top of the GC. And they almost made it. Despite riding on quickly set-up replacement bikes scavenged from teammates, the two team leaders delivered top-five performances, with Zirbel claiming third on the stage and climbing to second overall, and Zwizanski finishing fourth and moving into third on GC.
"I'm pretty sure that if Tom would have had his own bike and the fast wheels that were lost, he might have been able to pull off that TT," said Wohlberg, commenting on Zirbel's 18-second loss to eventual overall winner Magno Nazaret on a shortened course. "But at the end of the day, it might have been good for us because we never really had to defend yellow the last two days. And I think that would have been a pretty big task with the way guys were feeling."
Instead of being well-positioned to challenge for the overall with just two stages remaining, the stomach bug that was taking hold in the peloton – and affecting Zirbel especially hard – turned the race into a struggle to just hang on. Hanson, who roomed with Zirbel throughout the South American adventure, said at one point he didn't think his roommate would be able to start the penultimate stage, much less hang onto second overall all the way to the end on Sunday.
"He didn't sleep at all," Hanson said of the night after the time trial. "He was just going back and forth to the toilet all night. We were talking to him before the start and he could barely get out of bed. So we said, 'Well, just pin your number on and we'll ride down to the start. It's like 5k away, and if you feel worse you can bag it and not worry about it. If you're feeling a little bit better maybe you can give it a go, and you can pull out any time you want.'"
Zirbel, guided by his remaining healthy teammates, found the strength to hang on through that day and to the end of the race. And Hanson eventually found an opportunity to grab his fourth win on the final stage, the 198km run from Trinidad back to Montevideo.
The squad from Uruguay will now split up, with Hanson and Soloday prepping for the UCI 2.2 Tour of Korea April 22-29, and the others tackling upcoming NRC events at Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Gila.
If he can get healthy in time, Zwizanski will join teammates Alex Candelario, Andrew Bajadali, Mike Friedman, Jesse Anthony and Marsh Cooper in New York for Sunday's Tour of the Battenkill one-day road race, the second event on USA Cycling's National Race Calendar.
Wohlberg said the team's first major goals for the season will be the late-spring block of races starting with the Amgen Tour of California May 13-20.
"Generally we've been kind of late bloomers and then come on real strong coming into Philly and into the summer," he said. "But the team has really been firing on all eight cylinders right out of the gate, and we're hoping to hold that form, especially through Tour of California, Nationals and Philly week, for sure."