Rally Cycling, the team formerly known as Optum and Kelly Benefit Strategies, is entering its 10th season in the US peloton this year. In terms of domestic cycling, a notoriously fragile eco-system where teams seem to rise and fall faster than presidential primary contenders, the team owned and operated by the Circuit Sport management company has been able to grow every year. This season is no exception, as the new multi-year deal with the California-based healthcare company will allow the team to expand its men's program to include a bigger presence domestically and an expanded overseas calendar.
Cyclingnews caught up with Rally Cycling Performance Director Jonas Carney last week at the men's team training camp along the Southern California coast in Oxnard, where we discussed new signings and where the men will head from here.
Cyclingnews: You've got to be excited about the team this year, with the new guys and the mix of young talent along with the returning veterans?
Carney: We've got six new guys and they're all really good bike racers and guys that I'm pretty familiar with. I'm really excited to work with Danny Pate. We've been friends since Prime Alliance back in 2001. It's going to be super cool working with him. We've been on the goal line of working with Rob Britton for four or five years now, it just never worked out until this year. So that will also be cool to finally get a chance to work with him. And we kept some of our best guys, too, and the new additions are kind of exciting.
CN: Britton really had a breakout year last year. He's always been up there, but last year was another notch up. Do you see him continuing with that progress?
Carney: It was definitely his best year ever. But the year before I think he didn't get as much credit for what he had done, so it was just slightly better than what he had done the year before. It wasn't a huge jump for him. The year before he actually had some huge results but they just went under the radar a little bit more. The guy was like one final time bonus away from winning Gila. He had a stage that he was on the podium at the USA Pro Challenge. There were some things that he did that were super impressive the previous year, and we tried to get Rob to come ride with us at the end of 2014 as well.
I think Rob is a really dedicated and disciplined guy, that's why he continues to improve. He's a little bit older, but he continues to improve every season because he's learning from his mistakes and improving his training and everything else.
CN: You signed another Canadian from British Columbia, Adam De Vos. When did he first come on your radar?
Carney: With Adam it was pretty much the beginning of last year right away when I noticed his results. I had seen his name before, but I think he had a little bit up and down health issues for a couple of years, so he was a bit under the radar. Last year he really showed from San Dimas all the way through Gila that he was one of the best climbers in North America. You can kind of see he's a really scrappy rider, fending for himself and climbing in the front group and not that far off in the time trials.
It's cool to see that he came out hot and was really good for the first couple months, but then you kind of expect a guy like that to fade. He ended up winning the KOM at Philly and the KOM at Cascade and then was ninth at U23 Worlds. Almost anybody can train like a maniac all winter and then have a good month or two, but to be able to hold that form and actually finish the season out was impressive.
CN: Where do you see him fitting in with this roster?
Carney: I think Adam has the capability to take a step up and improve his time trialing ability. With one more year under his built he should be able to take another step forward. He definitely has the capability to be a GC threat for us. He was really not that far off from contesting the win at like a Redlands, Joe Martin or a Gila last year. So we're hoping he's going to become one of our GC weapons.
I think the main thing with Adam is to get him into some of the bigger races so he can get some of those harder stage races under his belt. He's a young kid who hasn't had the opportunities to start races like California, Colorado and Utah, so we need to get him some tougher stage races so he can build form there.
CN: He can really benefit from being on a strong team like yours with good support and a strong line-up behind him.
Carney: I think just the support that the team offers and the stability that the team offers and the mentoring that guys like Danny Pate and Tom Zirbel will do, I think it's going to be a really great environment for him. And also just performance-wise, to get him a home time trial bike that's the same as his race time trial bike, something that he can train on, and then get him set up with our friends at HED will help work on his time trial position. We might do a little work in the wind tunnel. We can do some things to really help him step up his game.
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CN: It seems like you guys have done a really good job with that through the years with a lot of riders, like Haga, Jones and Woods. The list goes on.
Carney: That's kind of turned out to be one of our strong points is to be able to locate riders like a Mike Woods [currently on Cannondale Pro Cycling, ed.] or a Chad Haga [currently on Giant-Alpecin, ed.] and give them the tools they need to make that next step. It's hard losing those guys, but it's rewarding to locate these guys and help them make that jump.
CN: As far as Danny Pate, it can be hard for some guys to make that jump from WorldTour back to Continental domestic racing. He's going from a situation as a domestique. How do you see him fitting in at the Continental level?
Carney: I think it's going to be interesting. It's always interesting to see how guys come back from Europe and what their motivation is. It's not always a good idea, but the reason I feel comfortable with it is that I know Danny really well. We've been friends for 15 years. He was a great teammate then and I know Danny is a good person. So I feel really comfortable bringing him on board.
He's spent most of the last eight years getting water bottles for other people, and I think that he definitely has the talent to win pretty big bike races, and it's just a matter of how much he wants to do that. If he's motivated to win races, I think he's going to win bike races. We're going to give him every opportunity to transition from being a WorldTour domestique to being a leader on the team. So far he seems pretty motivated to not just train hard but motivated to take that step.
CN: What do you think will be the biggest surprises for him, like how much Redlands has changed since the mid-2000s.
Carney: I think it's just going to be really different. In races like California, Colorado and Utah, that's a level that he's used to doing all the time, so those races will just feel normal for him except he'll be trying to race for results instead of just setting tempo or covering the early break.
I think the tough part of the transition will be doing races like Redlands, Joe Martin and Gila, that are at a lower level and the style of racing is really different and the level of experience of the average rider and their bike handling skills and stuff, those races are just different. And for a guy to come from the WorldTour to racing domestic NRC races will be a big change. So there will be a handful of times in those races where it could be a struggle for him mentally. I think it could be tough if he spent the whole season doing all the non-UCI races in North America, but we're just going to sprinkle those in a little bit here and there.
Those races are the same bike races as they were when Danny and I were on Prime Alliance. They are the same bike races. But I think it will just be weird for Danny to come back after eight years on the WorldTour and be lined up at Cascade or something.
CN: And finishing a stage on a mountain top and having three spectators there.
Carney: Sure. But if there's one thing I know about Danny, he's a really down-to-earth guy and he just likes to have fun. He loves to ride his bike, and that's why I think he's going to fit in really well with the team and he's probably going to be pretty happy with this decision.
CN: Any big changes with Rally Health coming on board, or is it the same program just with a new title sponsor.
Carney: I think that we're going to try and do a little bit more in Europe this year. The performance goals will really probably be pretty similar, just gunning for California, Utah, Colorado, Alberta, US pro, Philly. Those are the kind of races that we need to focus on. We'll do all the domestic stuff, but for the most part we'll just try and focus on the big stuff.
And then ultimately it's all about giving our sponsor a return on investment. Rally is a different company than Optum was, so we'll make some adjustments that way. If there are certain races we need to target or certain races we need to do to give them a great return on their investment, then we'll do those things, but for the most part the North American schedule remains pretty much the same.
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.