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Optum looks to ride wave of momentum into 2013

  • By Ari Baquet
  • Published Feb. 22, 2013
  • Updated Feb. 22, 2013 at 12:03 PM EST
Directors Rachel Heal and Jonas Carney are at the head of the Optum project as the team looks to carry momentum into 2013. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The Optum-Kelly Benefits Strategies squad, arguably the top UCI Continental team on the domestic circuit, last week wrapped up its fourth annual visit to Oxnard, California, for its preseason training camp in the hills of Ventura County and Malibu.

The final day saw the men’s and women’s teams ride approximately 65 miles south from the team’s beach house base to the location of the following day’s team presentation (Feb. 15) in Torrance, at the American Honda Museum — Honda’s luxury brand Acura supplies the team’s TSX sport wagon support vehicles.

Last February, the team, formerly called Kelly Benefit Strategies, announced its title partnership with Optum, along with the establishment of a women’s team — both squads were Velo magazine’s 2012 Domestic Teams of the Year.

One year later, after the sun had set over the Pacific coast and mechanics Bob Gregorio and Eric Jellum had wrapped up an afternoon mating new sets of Challenge tubulars with HED’s Jet 6 and 7 carbon wheels — a preseason activity for “whenever there’s down time,” according to Gregorio, who estimates that he and “Jelly” will glue in excess of 40 sets of wheels before the race season — team director Jonas Carney reflected on “probably the most relaxed environment I’ve ever been involved in in cycling.”

Since its 2007 inception, “the team has been able to grow each year, and we haven’t had any major setbacks as far as financially having to take a step back or anything,” Carney told VeloNews. “I feel like we’ve been able to grow somewhat slowly, but every year I think we’ve gotten bigger and stronger.”

In additional to strong financial backing from primary sponsors Optum and Kelly Benefit Strategies, Carney pointed to two philosophies, those of continual growth and the maintenance of a core group of staff and riders, as key to the team’s success.

“I think that, from my perspective, it’s just been very gradual growth, consistent growth,” Carney said. “And even if one year to the next it didn’t seem like the performance got better … I feel like it’s been just a steady progression, the big jump being last year, [with] Optum coming in.”

“Every year, it seems like it’s just small improvements that have added up to getting us where we are today,” added Carney, standing not far from a fleet of hanging wetsuits — a clue both to the rented house’s intended use and to veteran rider Mike Friedman’s kayaking excursion with a teammate after the day’s time trial training.

Also key to the team’s stability, he said, is the stability of its personnel.

“We’ve got a really solid core of people, whether that be Bob and Jelly, our mechanics, or Amanda [Shission], our soigneur, or Sammy [Sam Weibe] doing the creative design … ultimately the thing I would point to would be the core of people that make up the team,” Carney said. “Instead of starting from scratch each year … we find good staff and keep them on board. Or we find good riders, and we keep them on board, and that kind of ensured that the vibe of the team has stayed the same, by retaining those key individuals that create that culture within the team.”

“It really exceeded all expectations. It’s super friendly, everyone gets along so well; I mean it’s really very well organized,” said newly-signed Wisconsin native Björn Selander, who spent 2010 and 2011 racing on the WorldTour for RadioShack-Nissan. “Everyone’s above and beyond with their work. Mechanics, soigneurs, it was great. It was a really cool experience to just come in and I already feel like I’ve been with the guys two years now. It’s awesome.”

The addition last year of a women’s team, spearheaded by former Colavita director Rachel Heal, only further improved the “vibe” which Carney highlighted.

“There was a bit of uncertainty beforehand as to how the men were going to react, because they’d been the only child,” Heal told VeloNews between meetings with sponsors, which included a tutorial from the mechanics on proper bike packing and the value of beer as the universal currency of appreciation. “They all seem to have really embraced the idea, and the riders will hang out together quite a lot.

“I think they started counting wins and podiums last year, but it’s a healthy rivalry. Right from the team presentation last year, it was very much like we’re one big team.”

Results, however — and, ideally, invitations to the Tours of California and Utah and the USA Pro Challenge — attract the sponsorship necessary to sustain the continued growth that last year propelled the team to second in the men’s National Racing Calendar rankings and first among the women. Of the latter, Carney is confident.

“We got into all three last year, and we have a really good relationship with the races as well as with Medalist Sports (in large part responsible for team selection),” he said.

Selander, too, is optimistic about the team’s form.

“We had a [time trial] and we had a mock race … after three or four hours. Rolling hills, sprinting, attacking,” Selander said. “Everyone’s going really strong. Everyone’s on a really good level right now.”

With names like Tom Zirbel, Friedman, Selander, and 24-year-old Chad Haga, strongest throughout the week’s training, that “good level” should be more than enough to sustain the team’s continued growth in 2013.

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