The US-based Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies Continental team enjoyed a successful start to its early season European campaign at Portugal's Volta ao Alentejo, highlighted by a pair of stage wins plus a second place overall general classification finish at the UCI 2.2-rated stage race.
Chad Haga, in his first foray into Europe, finished runner-up on stages 2 and 5 en route to a second place in the general classification, 10 seconds behind overall winner Jasper Stuyven (Bontrager Cycling Team). The 24-year-old American, now in his second season as a professional, confirmed the promise he showed in his debut season, which unfortunately was hampered by sickness and injury.
"Chad was going really well, he's had a great winter and is coming out strong," Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies directeur sportif Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews. "It was pretty apparent from the first day, it was an uphill finish and he was attacking near the finish. He's got great form right now and the guys were excited to rally around him and help him try to win the overall."
The five-day stage race was the first UCI event of the season for the US Continental squad, and in addition to the final podium position the team won back-to-back stages courtesy of US criterium champion Ken Hanson on stage 3 followed by Tom Zirbel on stage 4, a day in which teammate Scott Zwizanski finished second for a 1-2 stage result.
"The Volta ao Alentejo is a flat race without a lot of climbing so it was challenging to break the race open, so we were also looking for stage wins," said Carney. "Tom Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski had a great day to win stage 4 and then of course Hanson is sprinting really well and had a great stage 3. The guys are just really confident, racing aggressively and taking some risks to win those stages."
After beginning their European stint in Portugal, the team has travelled to Spain where it will contest three one-day races and a three-day stage race over the next three weekends. While Haga and Zirbel have returned home to head the team's roster at the opening NRC event in the US, the Redlands Bicycle Classic, other riders such as Mike Friedman, Eric Young and Alex Candelario will rotate over to Europe to fill out the team's European squad.
First up in Spain for Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies is a pair of UCI 1.1-rated races this coming weekend, the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain on Saturday followed by the Vuelta Ciclista a La Rioja on Sunday. The team will contest the Klasika Primavera de Amorebieta on April 7 and conclude their European campaign at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, April 12-14.
"The races we're doing this weekend are really big races, both 1.1 UCI races and pretty big events. We'll be going up against some WorldTour teams," said Carney. "I think the guys are confident that we can be competitive, so we're going to go out and race super-hard and hope to have an impact on the race. This will be our first time doing these races so we're not exactly sure what to expect with the courses but I think we've got some good sprinters, some good climbers and some strong guys for the flats so we're a fairly well-rounded team.
"We're just really excited to be over here racing these races in Europe, we're super-grateful to the race organisers for extending us invitations. It's been a great experience - it's not often that a US Continental team gets to start races of this quality in Europe."