The SmartStop-Mountain Khakis racing team ended its first year back in the UCI Continental ranks with a couple of exclamation points, continuing its domination of the USA CRITS series and adding a runner-up effort behind UnitedHeatlhcare in the final standings of the inaugural USA Cycling National Criterium Calendar (NCC).
Star sprinter Luke Keough capped his second consecutive USA CRITS individual overall title Sunday with a win at the Tour of Vail criterium, the final event of the season, while SmartStop-Mountain Khakis sealed the overall team win for the fifth consecutive year. Just one week earlier, Keough finished off his second-place overall effort in the National Criterium Calendar series with a win at the TD Mayor's Cup Criterium in Boston, the final race of that series.
Keough stole the win from UnitedHealthcare's Karl Menzies – who celebrated an assumed win a little too early. Keough's teammate Shane Kline was third, and Menzies' teammate Hilton Clarke, who had sewn up the overall series title before the Boston race, was fourth. SmartStop-Mountain Khakis finished second overall in the first-ever NCC behind Clarke's UnitedHealthcare squad, which is a UCI Pro Continental team.
It was a pretty good showing for a team that had to drop to the amateur level last year.
"To be second to UHC, both with a young guy like Luke Keough, and then to be second in the team competition with basically me and a bunch of young guys, is hugely satisfying when you look at the teams we beat," said SmartStop-Mountain Khakis' senior rider, 40-year-old Adam Myerson. "We beat them on Luke's talent for sure. But we also made the commitment to go into every race, to sending split squads of six riders to conflicting races on the same weekend on opposite coasts. A lot of other teams simply didn't do that."
The team, owned by Jamie Bennett and Pat Raines, turned professional at the Continental level in 2006 and eventually found its niche in criterium races, winning the USA CRITS' individual overall title four times, with Mark Hekman taking it in 2009, Isaac Howe in 2010 and Keough doubling up in 2011 and 2012. The squad has also won the overall team title five consecutive years. But SmartStop-Mountain Khakis ran into a bit of a hiccup at the end of the 2010 season when sponsor Jittery Joe's failed to meet it financial obligations, Myerson said.
"Things were low at the end of that Jittery Joe's year," Myerson said. "The economy had tanked, and so everybody was feeling it. But we just kind of hung on because we knew we had built something valuable, and we couldn't just walk away from it. So we focused on a rebuilding year. Now we're going into our seventh season."
The team dropped its UCI status and registered as a USA Cycling Domestic Elite program for 2011, but Myerson said the riders and management didn't change their approach to the season, eventually leading to another USA CRITS individual and team title.
"Even though we were amateur that year, we changed nothing," he said. "We hired the riders back that we wanted. We gave some guys raises. We went to all the same events, save the US Pro Championships, but we replaced those with the Elite amateur nationals."
The faith in the program paid off with increased sponsorship and a return to the UCI ranks this year, eventually leading to SmartStop stepping up to takeover as title sponsor from Mountain Khakis about halfway through the season. The increased investment allowed the team to amp up its output and results. Now SmartStop is on board for at least two more seasons, and Mountain Khakis is likely to continue with its characteristic one-year deals.
"The CEO of SmartStop started to attend some races and just got a handle around his sponsorship," Myerson said. "He was so excited by it and by how much potential the team had, it was basically a matter of him saying, 'What's it gonna take? What do we need to do to win more races?' And so that's when he said, 'Let's make a bigger investment. Can we start this right now?'"
The team will grow from 11 riders in 2012 to 14 next season, Myerson said. Notable additions include the return to the team of Isaac Howe, who rode from Mountain Khakis in 2009 and 2010 but spent the past two seasons with Kenda/5-Hour Energy. Jackie Simes will move from Jamis-Sutter Home to SmartStop-Mountain Khakis for 2013, along with Frank Travieso, a former Jamis rider who spent last season racing close to home at the amateur level following the birth of his first child. Track specialist Bobby Lea is also signed up with SmartStop-Mountain Khakis for the 2013 season.
"Having Isaac back, and with Shane Kline staying with the team – and he'll be stepping up as a primary sprinter – I think with those two guys we feel good about our sprinting for next year. But we're trying to reinforce the train, too," Myerson said. "We're looking for guys who can ride in breaks and who we can count on, but also guys who can reinforce our lead-out train."
In 2013, SmartStop-Mountain Khakis will say goodbye to Luke Keough, who is moving onto a Pro Continental team, but with Howe, Kline and the rest ready to step up – combined with the improved resources – Myerson expects another great year for the team. And he said he hopes the industry finally takes notice of what the team has accomplished.
"I think we really proved ourselves against a formidable opponent that certainly eclipses our budget," Myerson said. "That's why I hope people are willing to invest in us, because we've shown how thrifty we can be and how much we can make up in good organization and a lot of expertise within the organization. We can make that go, and with a little bit of money, the sky's the limit."