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Best Buddies Racing aim to unseat L39ION as dominant criterium team

Overall men's teams for USA CRITS to close out 2021 pose on the podium with the top team Best Buddies Racing in lime green
Overall men's teams for USA CRITS to close out 2021 pose on the podium with the top team Best Buddies Racing in lime green (Image credit: Connor Ryan/USA CRITS)

In just its second year as a Domestic Elite squad, Best Buddies Racing have emerged as consistent contenders on the road racing scene in the United States. Thomas Craven has been recently added as the team’s directeur sportif to create “a little bit more drama out there” as his riders in lime green kits look to clash with the country's criterium royalty, namely L39ION of Los Angeles. 

Last weekend at the Birmingham Hammerfest in Alabama, marking the start of the criterium racing season in the US, Best Buddies Racing put Alfredo Rodriguez on the podium one step below highly-recognized winner Justin Williams of L39ION of Los Angeles, while Michael Hernandez finished fourth. Then the pair jumped in a car with Bryan Gomez for a 10-hour car drive to Florida for the Chain of Lakes Cycling Classic and promptly swept the podium.

“What I'm going for is that we're the good guys fighting the Legion of doom,” Craven told Cyclingnews with a laugh. “I know all the guys on their team and say hello to Justin, so I just have a good time with it. L39ION has put together a great program. 

“I enjoy racing in competition, and the drama and I'm all for getting beat, you know, because you can't win every race. I like a good bike race. It makes it way more fun for people to watch, and it's more fun to participate in, too.”

Craven spent more than eight years as a manager with the various iterations of the Hincapie Racing Team until it folded two years ago. Now after a long stretch away from an official capacity with a road team, Craven will handle the reins of Miami-based Best Buddies Racing. 

A former pro himself with the Schwinn and 7-Eleven teams in the 1990s, Craven said “you're never able to shake totally the virus of cycling” and consented to help Best Buddies Racing for 2022.

“Last year I followed the racing through the live stream and attended a couple of events. Personally, there were quite a few guys on the Best Buddies team that used to ride for me [at Hincapie Racing],” he said, referring to Ben Wolfe, Rubén Companioi and Bryan Gomez.

“So during the season, I was watching the races and asking them what the hell happened, how come they didn't win, and this and that. I just started following up with them, and they were following up with me. And towards the end of the year, Mike Hernandez reached out to me a couple of times and said wouldn’t it be cool if I could get back involved with them for 2022.”

Hernandez, who raced three years with Aevolo including the U23 US criterium national championship in 2019, earned 20 podiums last year. The 25-year-old explained that after moving to Miami in 2020 he got to know Anthony Shriver, the founder of Best Buddies International who happens to be the son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the elite team was created.

“Anthony is a big-time cyclist himself. At the end of the day, he provided an opportunity to use the team, and winning, to raise money and spread awareness for the mission of Best Buddies,” explained Hernandez, who managed much of the team in its freshman year in addition to racing.

“The time consumption every day for me being a bike racer and a manager was a lot last year. Thomas has the knowledge. His organisation with logistics and his experience of being able to deal with guys of different ages, different backgrounds, and how races unfold, how they play out, it’s good for this team. His personality is very laid back, but at the same time very firm. 

“I’ve always been a fan of the game of bike racing, the chess game that is going on, and he’s a very good player. He brings a lot to the table, both on and off the bike. He likes his two cents in there pretty often, yeah, but we appreciate those two cents, he’s so experienced,” Hernandez added about his new boss.

Focus on American Criterium Cup

L39ION of Los Angeles in 2021 Tulsa Tough River Parks Criterium

Best Buddies follow the L39ION train in Tulsa Tough (Image credit: Connor Ryan/USA CRITS)

Craven wants all the riders to just focus on races and race strategy this season, no distractions with logistics or sponsorships. It also eliminates his disappointment of standing on one side of the fence and just looking in. The team ended 2021 as the top team in the USA CRITS series, while Danny Summerhill was the lap leader for men.

“Coming in to 2022 we can make things happen on the race course that can open up opportunities for us to win the race. So I watched it last year, it just drove me crazy to see one team dominate so much. I mean, it's great to have racing back, but to be so one-sided was disappointing,” he said, referring to L39ION amassing 75 victories last season, most of them in criteriums and the count including wins by men and women.

“But just going into Birmingham, and we have the upper hand and if we hadn't made a little bobble we could have won the race. So it'll come you know, and the guys are all great, our partners that we have are great. And it'll come.

“We sort of built the team around criteriums. I've got guys that I've worked with in the past, guys that I've raced against in the past, and a couple new guys that I don't know at all. I don't really see that many more additions, or subtractions, that I would do. It's a work in progress, for sure.”  

He said the 10-event American Criterium Cup title will be a focus for the team this year, as it offers a $100,000 total in support and prize purse, to be split equally between elite men and women. The series opens April 9 at the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Alabama. Hernandez was the runner-up there last year, and Best Buddies Racing added to its roster the reigning men’s champion, Tanner Ward.

He pointed out he has two main jobs with the team as a director since late January are: “Get to the race, and get home.” He recalled a big crash one year at the Tour of the Gila, when his Hincapie squad lost six bikes in one day and four the next. So he’s cautious with equipment at this point in the season, but not short on talent.

“With the struggle of putting everything together at such a late date, like equipment, it really limits our ability for wheel choices and our frames and all that. I don't think we have equipment to do many races outside of a criterium. Joe Martin [Stage Race] is really the only stage race in the United States,” Craven added.

March 30-April 3 the team plans to travel to Panama to compete in the Clásica Panama RPC, a four-day Omnium race where now-retired Best Buddies Racing’s Travis McCabe took two stage wins and the GC last season. Danny Estevez, who won the other two stages for Butcherbox Cycling, has been added to the Best Buddies roster for this year. 

Best Buddies Racing roster 2022

  • Rubén Companioni
  • Danny Estevez
  • Bryan Gomez
  • Michael Hernandez
  • Ama Nsek
  • Alfredo Rodriguez
  • Robert Sierra
  • Danny Summerhill
  • Tanner Ward
  • Curtis White
  • Ben Wolfe

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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).