Conventional wisdom says that lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, but Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies director Rachel Heal is trying to beat the odds this year by signing a relatively unknown rider, Brianna Walle, whom she hopes will prove to be another diamond in the rough.
Heal hit the jackpot last season by signing Nature Valley Pro Chase discovery Jade Wilcoxson after the relative newcomer earned the Nature Valley Grand Prix berth and took the top amateur prize there. Wilcoxson rewarded Heal's risk-taking by placing third overall this season in the National Race Calendar individual standings and then topping it off with a silver medal at the cyclo-cross national championships and a chance to compete at the world championships in Kentucky.
Like Wilcoxson, Walle, of Portland, came up through the independent Oregon Bicycle Racing Association and found her national opportunity through the Pro Chase program, which allows amateur riders a chance to qualify at select races around the country to compete with a composite team against the pros at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota.
"It worked out pretty well the first time around," Heal said. "I've been told by a few people that Brie is the next Jade, so she's got a lot to live up to. So far I'm really happy. She fits in really well with the team, she's strong on the road and she's got a good sprint and a good lead out on her, so I see good things coming from her."
Walle has already shown signs of that potential this season. She set the fastest mark during the team's time trial tests at team camp in February, and during last month's San Dimas Stage Race, Walle finished fourth in the opening day time trial before sneaking off the front near the finish of the following day's road race and holding off a hard-charging Amber Neben (Dare To be Project) for the win. She backed that up with a second-place finish in the final criterium to take third-place overall behind former national champions Mara Abbott (Exergy-Twenty16) and Neben. Walle also took home the green points jersey for her troubles.
It was an eye-opening ride for the 28-year-old Yakima Products international accounts service representative who earned her Pro Chase opportunity by winning the 2012 San Jose Omnium in California. Walle's is a story of a grassroots cyclist with a love for riding who steadily develops into an elite athlete with big dreams. But it's a dream that was originally born out of necessity.
"I lived in Germany in 2004, and the only transportation was the train or cycling," she said. "There was a big cycling community in the city I was living in, which was Reutlingen near Stuttgart, so I fell in love with cycling there."
Walle returned to the the states to finish school but immediately went out and bought a bicycle to continue her commuting and recreational riding. She competed in ski racing and cross country running while in college, but when she got into the business world her competitive nature needed an outlet. A coworker at Yakima pointed her in a new direction.
"I was really into running and marathoning," Walle said. "So I would do rides for cross training, and then one day my manager at Yakima said, ‘Brie, you've got to get out there and race, you'll love it, I know you will.' I think he could tell by my personality I had racing in my blood. He'd say, 'You should come out.' So he pushed me, definitely, for a little over a year."
Walle started racing in May of 2010 with some novice events in Portland. Within weeks she was winning Cat. 4 races and had hooked up with a local club. She shot like a rocket through the amateur events in Oregon and by 2012 was ready to test herself against national competition. Walle followed Wilcoxson's example from the year before, first earning the Pro Chase spot and then winning the best amateur jersey at Nature Valley Grand Prix. Wilcoxson offered some valuable advice to her fellow Oregon rider along the way.
"She basically said at Nature Valley don't be afraid to take risks just because we're amateur selected Chase members," Walle said. "It's an opportunity to take risks, so don't be afraid to take your chances, don't chill in the back of the pack. Just take those chances and go out there and do it. Don't think about labels, just do it."
Walle finished eighth in the opening-day time trial at Nature Valley and went on to finish 17th overall, the best amateur at the Minnesota race. With help from Mike Engleman, her Pro Chase director, a contract with Optum for 2013 was not far behind. She cut back to 32 hours per week at work and accepted a demotion from sales to customer service, but she said the bicycle carrier company has been very supportive, continuing to provide health insurance and working with her new, somewhat erratic schedule.
"Luckily they're cool about me getting away for races," Walle said. "I just let them know and they basically sign off."
Walle is on the roster for this week's Redlands Bicycle Classic and will be racing for the first time with a full Optum squad. It will also be her first National Race Calendar event with the UCI team.
"It's really more than what I expected," Walle said of her neo pro season so far. "And I mean that in a great way. I feel like I'm living my dream, like I'm doing what I want to be doing in life. It just feels right, you know?"