After a week and a half of training in Southern California, Optum Pro Cycling director Jonas Carney said he is happy with the team he assembled for the 2015 season and thinks this may be one of the most well-balanced rosters he's put together.
“I've been super impressed with the guys,” Carney told Cyclingnews as he followed a team ride in the Malibu hills of California. “They showed up well prepared to camp, all of them. And I'm very happy with the new additions and how they're fitting in with the group. I'm pretty excited about the well-balanced team that we have. We have a lot of depth, and we're pretty well covered in all areas, climbing, sprinting and time trialing.”
The team lost general classification rider Carter Jones to Giant-Alpecin in the off season, but Carney added former Garmin-Sharp rider Phil Gaimon and Canadian climber Michael Woods to help fill that gap.
“Maybe we have a little bit more depth on the climbing side with those two guys,” Carney said. “Losing Chad [Haga after the 2013 season] and Carter, we needed someone like Phil to bring over to the team.”
Gaimon, 29, has considerable experience in the US domestic peloton, while Woods comes from a distance running background and is a relative newcomer to cycling. Carney said he has had his eye on Woods for several seasons and believes the 28-year-old is ready to make the jump to Optum.
“I received an email from Svein Tuft about Mike about three years ago,” Carney said. “They raced together on the [Canadian] national team at the Tour de Beauce, and Svein reached out to me to let me know, and so I've been kind of keeping an eye on him the last couple of years.
“He's really green coming out of running, but last year he really seemed to take a big step performance-wise, but also race strategy and stuff as well. So I just felt like he was ready to jump over to the team, and he's a really big talent.”
Woods raced with Garneau-Quebecor in 2013 and signed with Amore & Vita last year. He transferred from that Italian-based Continental squad to 5-hour Energy in June after the Tour de Beauce, where he finished second on the difficult stage that finished atop Mont Megantic. Carney became a believer when Woods put nearly a minute into Optum's Jones and Team SmartStop's Rob Britton on the final climb.
“He's had limited opportunities because he hasn't been able to get on a team that will take him to races that suit him well,” Carney said. “He hasn't had a lot of opportunities outside the Tour of Beauce on the Megantic stage. There's not a lot of races he's been able to do that are pro races with a mountain top finish, you know, that style of racing. So he did fly a little bit under the radar. But what we saw last year with him racing at the [WorldTour races] in Quebec, he's clearly ready to race at a very high level right now.”
Woods ended his season racing with the Canadian national team at the two Canadian WorldTour races in September, finishing 75th in Quebec and 25th in Montreal.
Although the team has always been strong in the fast finishes, Carney is hoping the addition of former Cannondale rider Guillaume Boivin, 25, and fellow Canadian Pierrick Naud, 24, will give the team even more firepower in the sprints. Boivin rode for Cannondale the past two season, while Naud comes to the team from Garneau-Quebecor. The two riders will provide Optum with a host of options in race finales, although Eric Young will continue to be the team's go-to man for the field sprints.
“Guys like Guillaume, [Ryan] Anderson, Pierrick Naud and those guys are more suited toward a more difficult course, which we actually have quite a few of,” Carney said. “It's always great to have a lot of depth in the sprinting area. Definitely there could be some times when we're not sure who we would be racing for on any given day, but I have confidence that these guys are going to do the right thing and sacrifice for each other. What comes around always goes around in that area.”
Optum is also returning a group of riders that have formed the core of the squad over the past several years. Familiar names like Tom Zirbel, Jesse Anthony, Bjorn Selander, Tom Soloday and Scott Zwizanski are back on the roster, but longtime Optum road captains Mike Freidman and Alex Candelario retired in the off season. Carney said he's looking to Zwizanski and Brad Huff to fill those roles this year.
“We do have other guys on the team who have an incredible amount of experience, guys like Phil Gaimon and Will Routley, etc.,” Carney said. “So I think we have a lot of experience and a lot of guys who can help guide the team, but from my experience so far, just working with Brad and working with Scott Zwizanski, those two guys have already kind of taken on that role. I feel confident those guys can handle it.”
The Optum men will open up their season later this month at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal. With eight WorldTour teams on the start list, the UCI 2.1 race will provide plenty of competition. Team Sky's Richie Porte is on the start list, along with World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski and Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) and Lotto-Belisol sprinter Andre Greipel.
Nevertheless, Carney said he has several riders who are “very fired up” for the race, and he's hoping the team can make an impact on the event.
“I don't know if it will be a stage or a field sprint, or chasing a jersey, or maybe even GC, but I think we're going to treat it similar to the way we treat the Tour of California,” he said. “We kind of have to swing for the fences to have an impact at the race. So our goal will be to come out of the race with something. But we're pretty well aware that some of the world's biggest teams, and some of the best individual cyclists in the world are going to be competing in that race. So we're going to have to be aggressive and be crafty.”
Carney said the flat time trial on stage 3 should favor a big rider like Tom Zirbel, and he sees opportunities for his sprinters on the Algarve roster, including Anderson, Boivin and Young.
“And the way Woods and Gaimon are riding, with the two difficult stages they should have a shot at doing something as well,” Carney said. “So we feel pretty confident that we should be able to do something over there.”
Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies for 2015:
Ryan Anderson (CAN), Jesse Anthony (USA), Guillaume Boivin (CAN), Phil Gaimon (USA), Brad Huff (USA), Pierrick Naud (CAN), Will Routley (CAN), Bjorn Selander (USA), Tom Soladay (USA), Curtis White (USA), Michael Woods (CAN), Eric Young (USA), Tom Zirbel (USA), Scott Zwizanski (USA)