Colavita riders find reprieve in Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies

The ill-publicized end of the world championship and National Racing Calendar winning Colavita-Forno d'Asolo team may have broken up one of the sport's most successful women's programs, but its director Rachel Heal and some of their top North American riders will remain together in 2012 under the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies banner.

Along with the UCI continental men's squad, the elite women will have a commanding presence in the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar even if defending overall best rider Janel Holcomb will likely not be able to defend her title as she pursues her Olympic goals.

Cyclingnews spoke with Heal about the program, which includes riders previously on the domestic roster: Holcomb, Leah Kirchmann, team captain Kristin Sanders and Carmen Small, along with top Canadian riders Joelle Numainville (formerly of TIBCO), Denise Ramsden and Liberty Classic breakaway star Lex Albrecht (both Juvederm-Specialized) along with up and coming talents Emma Grant (UK), Annie Ewart (Canadian U19 champion), Jade Wilcoxson (USA), Courteney Lowe (New Zealand) and American Anna Barensfeld.

Heal said the team, which is not UCI-registered, will focus mainly on the bigger races in the USA along with the Canadian UCI races, but will allow its riders to go off with their national teams in search of points and performances toward Olympic qualification.

"Both the US and Canada are really fighting hard to get points, they both want to get the maximum number of riders in the Olympics, so I think they'll definitely be using some of our riders to get points," Heal told Cyclingnews.

That means that Holcomb, who was named to the USA's long team for London 2012, will be heading off with the national team to compete in early season events, and will likely be unable to defend her overall NRC title.

The team's US focus and leniency with its riders programs for their countries means it will be split not only between the NRC and the new national criterium calendar (NCC), as well as the minor USA Crits and Women's Prestige Series, but will be losing riders to the greater UCI calendar.

Rather than posing a problem, Heal thinks this situation will create opportunities for other riders to shine and for the competition level to rise.

"It will be quite different from the fields we're used to, we'll lose some of the stronger riders," she said. "The level of all racing is raised with it being an Olympic year because everyone is trying to get points and prove themselves to the selectors wherever they're racing. It will be fun to see. I think we have a good group, a good all-round mix, and some exciting new riders. I'm looking forward to it."

Despite Holcomb's possible absence from several NRC events which she won last year (Gila, Altoona, Cascade), Heal said the NRC is still a major goal for the team, as is the NCC. Holcomb, however, still features in the team's plans for US domination.

"She's obviously riding really well, so we'll be looking to her to get some good results," Heal said of Holcomb. "She won't have the advantage she had at the start of last year of not being known. I think she's going to be very well watched this year. But we have a few cards to play and Janel's definitely one of them."

The team has a number of young riders and new talents – three riders are under 21, and more than half of the team are under the age of 25, which in the world of women's cycling is rare. Yet the least experienced riders aren't necessarily the younger ones, as Kirchmann, Ramsden and Numainville are young but already world class riders, while newcomers Wilcoxson and Barensfeld are older but newer to the sport.

"It presents different challenges, but it gives us different opportunities, because a lot of the peloton won't know who they are. That gives us a few chance to sneak riders away that they aren't expecting. We've got a real mixture of youth and experience. It's going to be an interesting year."

Heal gave Cyclingnews some insight into how she locates these new talents who might not otherwise be discovered and have the chance, as Holcomb did, to find themselves in a situation where a professional team would back a brand new rider as their overall contender.

"Every year I get a lot of resumes, but I tend to ask other people about riders, and look out for riders who do something that stands out at races. Anna was at a break at Gila with one of our riders, I first noticed her there. Last year when I hired Leah, she had a really good ride in the crit at Cascade, and really stood out for us. She proved it was a good decision to hire her." Wilcoxson comes from a stint at the Nature Valley Pro Ride, where amateurs qualify to compete on a fully supported composite team for the elite stage race, where she made the winning break and took fifth on the final stage.

"That's such a hard stage, and she was up there - and for someone so new to be able to perform like that without much experience means she has a lot of raw talent. I'm excited to see what she can do now that she's cycling full time and on a team where she's going to be able to get direction. It will be fun to see how she develops."

Lowe similarly got Heal's attention in a breakaway at an early season race with a Colavita rider. "Often in the team car that's the only time you get to see riders you don't know, because they're in a break wtih your riders and you're sat in the team car following behind them, so you get to see how they ride.

"It's always a risk taking on riders you don't know, but I think in the past few years the risks have paid off. Fingers crossed they do again."

The team will begin the season at the Merco Cycling Classic in California, followed by the San Dimas and Redlands stage races, as well as the new Delray Beach Twilight in Florida.

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