The Optum Pro Cycling men's and women's teams will return for 2014 with their core squads intact plus a few new additions. After losing two of 2013's top US domestic riders and the women's director during the annual off-season shuffle, Optum performance director Jonas Carney didn't waste any time reloading for next year.
Former Spidertech and Accent Jobs rider Will Routley, 2013 Tour of California mountains classification winner Carter Jones of Bissell and veteran Jelly Belly speedster Brad Huff will complete a men's roster that also includes 10 returning riders from 2013.
There will be a big change at the top for the women's team, as former Symmetrics, Spidertech and Bontrager director Kevin Field takes over the director duties from Rachel Heal, who moved to the new UnitedHealthcare women's team in the off-season. Experienced European racer Amber Pierce, who rode for the Italian Diadora-Pasta Zara team for the past three seasons, will join former Now & Novartis rider Maura Kinsella along with nine returning riders from last year's women's squad.
Shake-ups for men's roster
The men's 2014 road roster, which will see seven riders not returning from 2013, experienced more shake-up than the women's. With the addition of just three riders to plug the vacant spots, the 2014 Optum men's road roster will shrink from 17 in 2013 to just 13 next season.
"We are downsizing our men's program slightly for 2014," Carney said. "It's not a big drop in roster size, but it is going to take some pressure off of our staff and help us to focus more effectively on our most important objectives."
Joe Martin Stage Race overall winner and National Race Calendar podium rider Chad Hagasigned with Argos-Shimano and will leave for the WorldTour next season, while sprint specialist Ken Hanson graduated to the Pro Continental ranks with UnitedHealthcare. Michael Creed, Mike Sherer and Marsh Cooper retired while Sebastian Salas and Ian Moir were not re-signed.
Returning from 2013 are Alex Candelario, Mike Friedman, Jesse Anthony, Tom Soladay, Scott Zwizanski, Tom Zirbel, Eric Young, Ryan Anderson, Bjorn Selander and Jeremy Durrin. Routley, Jones and Huff will top off the men's road roster.
Carney said the three new riders were at the top of his wish list when he started recruiting this fall.
"Each of them has a very specific skill set that we were looking for," Carney said. "However, the most important thing is that they are the right people for our team. Our first priority is to recruit clean North American athletes who are dedicated team players. We are very confident that these guys will fit right into our group and be willing to sacrifice for the team whenever they are asked."
Routley is a rider Carney has always wanted to work with, the director said.
"It just took until this year for the timing to be right," Carney said. "Having spent the last few years in Europe, Will may have gone under the radar for some people, but we are well aware of his abilities. He will be a big weapon for our team."
The 2010 Canadian national road race champion is coming to Optum after three years of Pro Continental racing with Spidertech in 2011 and 2012 and then with Accent.jobs-Wanty last season. The 30-year-old has WorldTour experience at the Tour de Suisse, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He's also quite familiar with the North American domestic circuit, having turned pro with Symmetrics in 2005 before spending two years at Jelly Belly and then moving on to the Pro Continental teams.
Jones, 24, is a young-but-experienced stage racer who won the mountains jersey this year in California and finished 8th and 11th in Utah and Colorado, respectively, while riding for Bissell.
"Carter is a talented young climber who has shown that he can go uphill with the best," Carney said. "Historically, our focus has been sprinting and time trialing, but it's important to be well balanced. We are hoping to help Carter continue improving after an impressive 2013 season and that he can help us make our mark at races like Gila, California, Utah and Colorado."
Huff, 34, is a seasoned sprinter who has nearly two-dozen wins to his credit, mostly in criteriums. Huff rode for Jelly Belly the past six years. Carney characterized Huff as a longtime friend of the team.
"He's an incredible sprinter and the perfect person to add to our lead-out," Carney said. "He's a selfless rider with tons of experience. He's fast enough to be our designated sprinter, but he's also the ideal guy to deliver Eric Young."
Carney said the team will race a similar program to 2013, focusing primarily on the major North American UCI races at the Amgen Tour of California, the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, the Tour of Alberta, the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic and all of the US professional championships. Carney said the team performed well in those events in 2013, including podium finishes during field sprints in California, Colorado and Alberta. The team also placed riders in the top 10 overall at both California and Alberta.
"The goal in 2014 will be to turn some of those podiums into victories," Carney said. "We'll race in Europe to prepare for those events and to give our guys more experience. We will also race most or all of the NRC events, but our priority will be the big UCI stuff."
Aside from Haga's win at Joe Martin, Friedman took yellow at the Nature Valley Grand Prix on the way to the men's overall win in the NRC team competition. Optum also found success overseas at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal and a handful of races in Spain, including the Grand Prix Miguel Indurain and the Vuelta a Castillo y Leon. The team sent a squad to Asia for the Tour of Korea later in the season and another to Italy for the UCI Word Team Time Trial Championship, where Optum finished 23rd.
Haga, Zirbel, Young and Hanson all notched wins in UCI races in 2013. The 2014 team will also boast two US professional champions in Zirbel [time trial] and Young [criterium].
Pierce brings Euro experience to women's team
The two new additions will join the majority of the 2013 women' team that placed second overall in the NRC team competition and won the US professional road race championship with returning rider Jade Wilcoxson.
Returning from 2013 along with Wilcoxson are Joelle Numainville, Leah Kirchmann, Brianna Walle, Lauren Hall, Janel Holcomb, Denise Ramsden, Annie Ewart and Courteney Lowe. Only Amber Gaffney and Grace Alexander are not returning next season.
Kinsella, 22, finished second in the US U23 time trial championship in 2013. She rode with Vanderkitten before moving to NOW last year. Pierce, 32, started racing in 2006 with Webcor before moving to TIBCO and then heading overseas with Kuota Speed Kueens in 2010 and then Diadora-Pasta Zara. A good climber with an even better kick, Pierce will be one more weapon in the Optum women's already proven arsenal.
"Amber isn't just an incredibly strong athlete, she also has extensive European experience as well as great leadership qualities," Carney said. "Without race radios it's essential that we have riders who are capable of calling the shots on the road as the race develops. Amber is very capable of getting her own results, but we're certain that she can also help some of our less-experienced athletes reach the next level."
The biggest change for the women will obviously be the loss of Heal, who has been director since the team started in 2011. But new director Field will have a talented roster to work with in his first season. Carney said Field is a longtime friend of the team who has worked previously with current Optum riders Anderson and Routley as well as key team staff members Eric Wohlberg and Jacob Erker.
"It was a natural choice for us," Carney said.
The women's team boasts four national road champions, with Wilcoxson wearing the stars-and-stripes jersey as the US road race champion, Numainville with the Canadian road race and time trial titles, and Kirchmann with the Canadian criterium title. Lowe is the current New Zealand road race champion.
The Optum women closed out the 2013 season with a European run that included the Tour de l'Ardeche, the Giro Toscana and the UCI Word Team Time Trial Championship, where the team finished eighth.
Both the men and the women will travel to Europe twice next year, Carney said.
"The men will start with an early season trip to Spain and Portugal, similar to last year, and finish by returning to Europe in September," Carney said. "The women's team will make one trip to Europe in the summer and then return to Europe in the fall with a focus on the Team Time Trial World Championship."
Optum Pro Cycling is also currently fielding a four-rider domestic cyclo-cross squad that includes Durrin, Tristan Schouten, Mitchell Hoke and Crystal Anthony.
Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies 2014 road rosters
Returning: Ryan Anderson, Jesse Anthony, Alex Candelario, Jeremy Durrin, Mike Friedman, Bjorn Selander, Tom Soladay, Tom Zirbel, Scott Zwizanski, Eric Young
Additions: Brad Huff (from Jelly Belly-Kenda), Carter Jones (from Bissell Pro Cycling), Will Routley (from Accent Jobs-Wanty)
Not Returning: Chad Haga (to Argos-Shimnao), Ken Hanson (to UnitedHealthcare) Marsh Cooper, Michael Creed, Mike Sherer (retirement) Ian Moir, Sebastian Salas
Returning: Annie Ewart, Leah Kirchmann, Courteney Lowe, Lauren Hall, Janel Holcomb, Joelle Numainville, Denise Ramsden, Brianna Walle, Jade Wilcoxson
Additions: Maura Kinsella (from Now & Novartis), Amber Pierce (from Diadora-Pasta Zara)
Not Returning: Grace Alexander, Amber Gaffney