New women's team, cyclo-cross program added to Continental squad
The historic Guthrie Theater in the heart of Minneapolis was the site of the presentation of the Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies teams on Monday evening.
The men's team was joined by a new women's organisation, led by directeur Rachel Heal and headed up by a strong contingent of riders from the fractured former Colavita-Forno d'Asolo team, including US National Racing Calendar overall champion Janel Holcomb, Kristin Sanders, Carmen Small and Canadian Leah Kirchman.
In the fall, the team has also committed to fielding a men's and women's cyclo-cross program that will take in the biggest UCI 'cross races, including the US Grand Prix of Cyclo-cross in the lead-up to the 'cross world championships in Louisville in 2013. Sprinter Alex Candelario and Mike Sherer and several of the women in the road team are likely to take part in the 'cross program.
The biggest signing for the pro men's Continental squad is Tom Zirbel, a powerful time trial specialist who spent 2011 with Jamis-Sutter Home after getting a surprise reduction of his two-year doping suspension.
While it might seem counter-intuitive to see Zirbel, who turned up positive for a steroid derivative at the US Pro time trial championship in 2009, on a team that has always been vocally anti-doping, team director Jonas Carney explained that he believes in Zirbel and that his inclusion is right for the squad.
"The team has always prided itself on being a clean team, and we have a strong anti-doping stance," Carney told Cyclingnews. "When the idea to hire Tom came up, it was a difficult decision."
After heading to visit with Zirbel in Boulder, Carney came away believing that his positive came as a result of a tainted supplement, although the rider had been unable to identify the exact product responsible. He cooperated with the anti-doping authorities and was eventually given a six month reduction in his ban.
"The reason we considered Tom was that [Mike Creed], [Andrew] Bajadali and [Scott] Zwizanski all went to bat for him, and they convinced me to consider him.
"I believed in his story, and I'll stand behind him. Just because a rider has failed a doping test doesn't necessarily mean he's a doper, and just because a rider has never tested positive doesn't mean he's clean.
"The topic can bring out very emotional reactions, but I had to take the emotion out of it and make the right decision for the team, and that decision was that Tom deserved a chance with us, and we're really happy to have him as part of the team."
Another reinforcement came in the form of Scott Zwizanski, who returns to the team after an injury-plagued 2011 with UnitedHealthcare. Carney was especially excited about the return of one of the team's main protagonists.
"We really missed him last year, not only for what he can do on the bike, but what he brings to the table as a person and a personality - his positive energy. I really feel like he belongs with our team. I was disappointed when he left, but we understood he had some opportunities to race in Europe that we couldn't provide, but we couldn't be happier to have him back. I think it's going to make a big difference to the team."
The team is looking to do two trips to Europe in April and September and the full USA Cycling National Racing Calendar, in addition to seeking out invitations to the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, as well as returning to the Tour of Utah, where Jesse Anthony scored his career's biggest victory.
However, the decision to remain a Continental squad brings with it an amount of uncertainty when it comes to being invited to the biggest US races. The team could have upgraded to Professional Continental status, but with that comes an exclusion from all of the National Racing Calendar events, including the Nature Valley Grand Prix, which was won by Anthony and is on the home turf of the new main sponsor, Optum.
Ultimately, the choice to remain Continental was made because it was what would benefit the sponsors and the team the most. "We decided that it was best to have a big presence in the US, and we chose to do this by adding the women's team and the cyclo-cross program rather than try to elevate the level of just the men's team to Pro Continental."
Exposure in the road off-season will come in a number of high-profile 'cross events, including the US Grand Prix of Cyclo-cross, but whether or not Anthony, as a prior 'cross champion, will return to the field is uncertain. He decided after last year's successful season on the road to call quits to his 'cross career, a call that Carney supported.
"Personally, I feel he should focus on the road. He has so much talent, I think he can go to Europe and race at a high level, and I hope he has a breakthrough season with us this year, and if we can't take him to Europe to do big stuff, then eventually he will get that opportunity to go - he's that good and I want to see him get a chance."
Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies for 2012: