In just its second year on the US schedule, the National Criterium Calendar (NCC) has become a personal playground for the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team, whose vaunted Blue Train has steamed through nearly every stop of the USA Cycling National Criterium Calendar so far this year. In an unparalleled display of dominance, the UCI Pro Continental team has taken 15 of a possible 17 wins on its way to stacking four riders in the top five of the overall standings.
The team has swept the podium clean three times and taken two of the top-three spots nine times. In all, UnitedHealthcare has claimed 32 of a possible 51 NCC podium spots so far this year. In the team standings, UnitedHealthcare leads SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis by more than 1,000 points. Third-placed Jamis-Hagens Berman is nearly 2,500 point in arrears.
But for team general manager and director Mike Tamayo, the nearly complete NCC dominance is almost incidental to the team's very simple goal.
"I know it seems like we're just pursuing the series or trying to maximize our overall points, but the truth is we're just trying to win bike races," Tamayo told Cyclingnews while en route to this weekend's NCC events in Virginia.
As a second-division team, UnitedHealthcare is restricted to UCI races and national championship events. That means aside from the marquee stage races in California, Utah and Colorado, the team's US schedule is limited to US Pro, Tour of the Gila, Philly Cycling Classic and all of the NCC events.
"UnitedHealthcare is an American company, and they want to see us compete in the US as much as we can and be successful there," Tamayo said. "So obviously we try and perform for them by winning Tour of the Gila and Philly; being on the podium at California; and with our stage wins at Utah and Colorado last year. But those are far and few. There's only a handful of those races. That leaves us with 27 other events in the season, and those 27 events are criteriums."
Since graduating from the Continental ranks to the second division in 2011, UnitedHealthcare has built an experienced juggernaut for the US criterium circuit. With a budget that allows a 22-rider roster, the team can send one squad to a stage race in Europe and still maintain two separate outfits for the criteriums.
It's a big advantage over Continental teams that have smaller budgets and smaller rosters. And now that criteriums have been removed from the National Race Calendar (NRC), many of the Continental teams choose to forgo them almost completely and focus on stage racing.
SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis tries to slay the dragon
The notable exception to that trend is SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis, which has enthusiastically taken on the underdog role in this evolving David-and-Goliath tale. The fourth-year Continental team is the only squad to crack the top five in the NCC individual rankings this year, with Shane Kline sneaking into third behind leader Carlos Alzate and runner-up Hilton Clarke. The SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis rider sits just ahead of UnitedHealthcare's Karl Menzies and Luke Keough.
Kline has consistently finished near the top of each race and won the Dana Point Grand Prix in UnitedHealthcare's absence. Kevin Mullervy is the only other non-UnitedHealthcare rider to hit the podium's top step this year. Mullervy (Champion System-Stan's No Tubes) used a tactically savvy effort to cruise to a solo victory at Athens, Georgia's Terrapin Twilight Criterium from a three-rider group that also included Alzate and SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis sprinter Frank Travieso. But the Blue Train has won every other race it's showed up for.
Adam Myerson, SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis' veteran rider and on-the-road director, said it's hard to ignore UnitedHealthcare's larger budget when trying to explain the team's dominance. SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis, which dropped to amateur status for 2011 before rejoining the Continental ranks last year, finished second to UnitedHealthcare in the 2012 NCC overall standings with Luke Keough leading the charge. Keough won the separate 2012 USA CRITS series for SmartStop, which took the overall team title for the fifth consecutive time. Then he joined his older brother Jake on UnitedHealthcare in the off-season.
"The budget allows them to hire the talent, and it's about the talent," Myerson said. "They've got a team full of guys who could be the lead sprinter on most other teams. And then they've got some of the best lead out guys like [Adrian] Hegyvary, Brad White and Karl Menzies – I mean to think of Menzies as a lead-out guy is an incredible thing."
One of the goals behind creating the NCC was to encourage teams to focus on criterium racing and build teams around it, Myerson said, and UnitedHealthcare has done a great job of building its criterium squad.
"It's not like we didn't tool-up also," said Myerson, whose squad grew from 11 riders in 2012 to 15 this year. The team added powerful veterans like Bobby Lea, Jackie Simes and Travieso as lead-out riders for Kline, and it also added fast-finishers Isaac Howe and Canadian crit champion Ben Chaddock.
"We looked at the team that [United Healthcare] had last year, and we knew what we needed to be competitive to win races," Myerson said. "We went to a 15-rider roster so that would always have six strong guys who were capable of winning. We knew we weren't as deep as them, but we knew that at six we could be competitive."
But UnitedHealthcare also tooled-up in the off-season, signing the younger Keough and adding Alzate after Team Exergy abruptly fell apart.
"It's been a little bit hard to take, you could say, because we are better than we were last year," Myerson said. "We really thought we put together the team we needed to be able win. But unfortunately, so did UHC. We both went up a little, but the gap is the same.
"Alzate falling into their lap was really bad for us and really good for them," Myerson added. "The addition of Alzate to their squad was huge. His performances are incredible. He's been incredible in the races. And then to lose Luke, to have our top guy move over to them and then have to race against him, is obviously a big challenge."
While admitting his deep roster and larger budget are huge assets, Tamayo said there's more to the team's success than raw talent. UnitedHealthcare also has longevity on its side. The team is the latest incarnation of the Momentum Sports outfits that have been around since the early 2000s. Menzies has been with the program for "six or seven years," Tamayo said, while Clarke is in his fifth season. Lead-out men White and Hegyvary have each been with the squad four years, and all the team's riders have had their racing teeth sharpened with a steady diet of European events.
"When you come back from living and racing in Europe for two years, and you come back to do criterium racing, you've got a new level of fitness under you, and you can do a lot more in a criterium now than you could have three or four years ago before you went to Europe," Tamayo said.
The team also puts a hyper-focus on teamwork and strategy, spending hours in post-race debriefing sessions even after a win.
"We race in a very tactical way where we use everybody's strengths and abilities, and everybody is willing to drop on the sword," Tamayo said. "Every single one of my riders will drop on the sword for one another."
An experienced roster of tactically minded foot soldiers ready to sacrifice for one another makes for a formidable foe, but Myerson said the SmartStop crew will not be intimidated or back away from the fight. Short of having more Continental teams show up for the races on a regular basis to change the dynamics, SmartStop will keep taking its best shots at what Myerson calls "slaying the dragon."
"We were coming by them at one point," Myerson said, recalling a race where SmartStop came over the top of the Blue Train in a finalè. "And Hilton kind of chopped me and was saying something – normal bike racing stuff, Hilton and I are on good terms – and I just shouted back, 'Do you think we're just going to roll over for you?'"
"For us at this point we have to at least go down swinging and race with some pride," Myerson said. "That's really all we can do at this point and hope we can turn that into some victories. But if we aren't going to win, we have to at least go down swinging."
Tamayo, who believes his team's presence in the criterium peloton has caused everyone involved to raise the level of their own games, said his team appreciates and respects the underdog opponent's tenacity.
"We're going to bump heads and throw a few elbows – during the race these guys are really trying to win and to beat each other," he said. "But it's at the end of the race when you see a handshake come across and you realize everybody gave their all, and that's what's important. The camaraderie is still there."
All of the NCC competitors will have five more chances to slay the dragon this weekend, starting Friday evening with the St. Francis Tulsa Tough in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The three-day criterium festival in the heart of Tulsa culminates with the notoriously rowdy River Parks Criterium and its multiple ascents of "Cry Baby Hill." For those not in Tulsa, the Air Force Cycling Classic in Arlington, Virginia, offers two days of fast-paced racing. Saturday's Clarendon Cup serves up a technical five-corner circuit. The Crystal Cup takes place on a seven-corner course the next day.
UnitedHealthcare will split its criterium roster into two squads this weekend, sending Alzate, Hilton Clarke, Hegyvary, Luke Keough, Menzies and White to Tulsa, while Jonny Clarke, Robert Förster, Davide Frattini, Aldo Ilesic, Danny Summerhill and Jake Keough head to Virginia.