Optum Pro Cycling-Kelly Benefit Strategies will start the Amgen Tour of California Sunday without Jesse Anthony, who figured in last year's battle for the KOM jersey, but the team is still starting the race with its strongest line-up yet.
Team director Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews Friday that Anthony got sick after the team's trip to the Tour of Korea and has not recovered quickly enough to race in California, choosing instead to focus on the upcoming USPro road race.
"The Tour of California is so difficult this year that coming off a really tough stomach bug is probably not the greatest idea for someone we really want to have a good ride at the USPro road race," Carney said. "It was a really, really difficult call. Normally Jesse would always be on out Tour of California roster, but we had to make a tough call on that one."
The Optum roster for 2012 will include Mike Friedman, Alex Candelario, Andrew Bajadali, Mike Creed, Ken Hanson, Tom Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski and Sebastian Salas.
Carney said he was believes this year's roster is the deepest Optum has ever brought to California.
"I used to worry about whether the seventh and eighth guys would be able to handle the race," he said. "But now I've got 10-11 guys to choose from that I know can do it."
Optum's Marsh Cooper wasn't well at Tour of the Gila, Carney said, and was left off the California roster. Meanwhile, Salas and Bajadali road well during the final climbing stage at the Tour of the Gila and were a natural choice.
"The roster was never set in stone until very late," Carney said. "If everyone had stayed healthy from our international racing, I don't know what I would have done."
Carney said he believes the team can do well in field sprints, pointing to stage one and stage eight as the most likely days for a bunch finish.
"I think we have a great chance with Ken Hanson this year," Carney said. "He's riding great. He's already won six UCI races this year. Mike Friedman and Alex Candelario are riding really well right now, too, so if there's a selective sprint, like midweek, those two guys will have a go at it. Alex (Candelario) has been top five on numerous stages here before, so he's a good one if there's a select group, maybe 40-50 guys. He's proven that he can do that."
But the main goal for Optum will be to race aggressively and make the breakaways, seeking jersey points and possible stage-win glory.
"That's the ultimate goal, just be super aggressive and look for jerseys and stage wins," Carney said. "I think this year is going to be tough for any long breakaways to stay away to the line, but you never know, so you always have to be in them. You never know when one of those breaks is going to stick one day."
The team has twice run second in the KOM jersey competition, with Ryan Anderson in 2010 and Anthony in 2011, and Carney said the climber's jersey will once again be a goal.
"We've been close to the KOM jersey twice now," he said. "And I think that, again, we're going to be super aggressive and hopefully go after that KOM jersey again if we get the right guys in the right breaks."
Aside from the obvious media attention for the team and publicity for the sponsors that will come during the race, Carney said, the Tour of California can also provide a boost to the fitness of riders heading into the June races.
"This is a big block for the guys," he said. "For the guys who are starting to come into form right now, this can really take them up to the next level."