Optum will start season at Volta ao Algarve

The Optum Pro Cycling men's and women's teams will start their 2015 seasons overseas in February, with the UCI women's team heading to the Tour of Qatar and the men's Continental team racing at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal.

The Algarve invitation is a first for Optum, beginning a six-week season-opening European trip for the men.

“We feel [the start in Europe] is very important for our preparation for races like Tour of California,” Optum Performance Director Jonas Carney told Cyclingnews. “There's some racing to do in the United States, but ultimately we just cannot race at that kind of level like we can with six weeks of racing in Portugal.

“For us it's going to be a really awesome block of racing for all the guys. And then to be able to come back to the States, maybe a little bit tired in April, but hopefully, if all goes to plan, it will really help the guys be on top form for California, US pro and stuff like that.”

The invitation to Algarve, a five-day UCI 2.1 race that will have at least seven WorldTour teams, is especially good news for Carney's team.

“We've raced in Portugal I think three times before, but this is the first time that we've been invited to Algarve,” Carney said. “It's a pretty big race in the early season. A lot of teams want to do that race to get a good hard stage race in February in decent weather, so there should be some really tough competition.”

The race has already announced that Lotto Soudal, Etixx-Quickstep, Sky, Cannondale-Garmin, Katusha, Lotto NL-Jumbo and Astana will be at the start, with Astana confirming Michele Scarponi and Luis León Sánchez for its eight-rider squad.

Optum's preliminary start list for the race includes Ryan Anderson, Jesse Anthony, Phil Gaimon, Brad Huff, Will Routley, Eric Young, Tom Zirbel and Scott Zwizanski. But Carney said Optum will rotate in a new group of riders about halfway through the European trip.

“We'll probably have a group of guys do the first half, come home and rest and then hit up Redlands, then the US pro crit and team time trial the following week,” Carney said. “Then we'll have the second group that kind of finishes the trip off for us. It will be a bit of a mixed bag.”

After Algarve, the team will compete in Portugal-Classica de Loulé (1.2) on March 1, Grande Premio do Guadiana March 7-8 (2.2), Volta a Costa Vicentina March 21-22 (2.2) and the Volta ao Alentejo (2.2) March 25-29.

After the European trip, the team will race a schedule similar to what it has done in the past, with an emphasis on the big US domestic races and the handful of North American UCI events.

“The schedule is pretty similar to years past,” Carney said. “We're just going to spend a bunch more time in Europe early on. Outside of that, the US schedule is pretty packed.”

The end-of-season target will be the team time trial world championship next fall in Richmond, Virginia. Optum has qualified for the event the past three years, but the men's team did not participate this year in Spain. Carney hopes to return in 2015.

“It's a great experience for the guys, and it's fun to put our team up against the big teams and see how the guys fair,” Carney said. “Just being in the States, it should be a great opportunity. It will be a big, big event, and we definitely want to participate in it. But we have to qualify first. Everyone has to qualify by August 15, so it's definitely not a slam dunk.”

The top five teams in the UCI America Tour as of August 15 next year will qualify for the team time trial, and Carney said Optum will need to perform at the North American UCI races throughout the season.

“It hasn't been a problem the past few years, but it definitely requires that the team performs,” he said. “It's so hard to score points at California, Colorado or Utah. It's easier to go to a 2.2 race and rack up points than at a race like California. You have to be successful at those .2 races.”

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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.