The script reads something like this: With 10 laps to go, six riders banded in blue and white start to muscle their way to the front of the field. If there’s a breakaway, the gap to the leaders begins to tumble. And once the prey is truly in site, the catch is usually made some seven minutes later. From there, the speed ramps up, and for those riders tucked in behind the “Blue Train,” few stand a chance of coming around them in the finale. These days the question is not whether UnitedHealthcare will win the (insert criterium name here), but how many of the team’s riders will end up on the podium. If it weren’t so impressive, it’d be almost boring.
“We’ve formed basically a truly dominating criterium team,” said team manager Mike Tamayo. “We have a super strong leadout and also know how to operate in a way that almost doesn’t even require directing any more. Those guys are dialed and curveballs can come their way and they can adjust.”
Tamayo contends that he knew prior to the start of the 2013 season that having success at U.S.-based criteriums would equal success for the UCI Pro Continental team’s sponsors, so he built a team that would do just that — again and again. With one notable exceptional, UnitedHealthcare has won every criterium it has turned a pedal stroke in, most recently this week’s BaseCamp International in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where Colombian sprinter Carlos Alzate took the top step of the podium. Two positions behind him was teammate Hilton Clarke, who’s simultaneously held the lead in both the USA Crits Series and the National Criterium Calendar for much of the spring.
“They’re having a great year, but we’re taking what we can from them,” said Pat Raines, director for the rival SmartStop-Mountain Khakis team. “And that’s difficult, but bike racing isn’t easy. They’re challenging us and they’re making us rise to the occasion.”
SmartStop sprinter Shane Kline has been one of the few consistent hopes this season for cracking the UHC code. His recent, dramatic win at the Dana Point Grand Prix proved to many that the 24-year-old sprinter can be the fastest man in the field when not in UnitedHealthcare’s shadow.
“He’s the guy we’re focusing on,” said Raines. “He’s the guy that’s going to be able to deliver for us. We want to be aggressive at races. We want to be off the front. We want to be attacking. But we also want to have enough guys at the end to put Shane in position [to win].”
“SmartStop has really raced against us well,” Tamayo said. “I think competing against us weekend after weekend has made them stronger and better because they’re having to tactically come together as a team. Because to beat us you’re going to have to come after us with a full team, and not just one rider.”
Unless, of course, you ask Kevin Mullervy. The Champion System-Stan’s NoTubes rider dealt UnitedHealthcare the sole blemish in an otherwise flawless campaign. Mullervy found himself in a three-man break with Frank Travieso (SmartStop) and Alzate at this year’s Terrapin Twilight Criterium in Athens, Georgia, when noticed that both sprinters were playing a bit too much cat and mouse with less than eight laps to go. Seeing his opportunity, the Champion System rider hit the gas and wound up coming away with the biggest win of his career. In Tamayo’s eyes, that loss in Athens falls on his shoulders.
“Athens was a combination of errors on our part,” Tamayo said. “I made a bad call as a director and whenever that happens, I take the blame right away. In a bike race, you have six guys and one dirctor, which is seven people thinking and making decisions. Once it got out of hand for us, we weren’t able to control it and win the race. A big mantra for us this year is, ‘We race our race.’ And in Athens, we raced everybody else’s race and that was a mistake. When Carlos finished Athens he was extremely bummed and the whole team was bummed. We were up until two in the morning reviewing the race and where we made mistakes. That’s something that’s really important in our team. Even if we’re successful and we win, we still sit down and debrief. It’s hard, because when you’ve been winning as many races as the boys have, there’s a certain level of expectation. It was a series of mistakes on all of our parts, but we’ve moved way on since Athens.”
Is a salary cap the way to parity?
Since Athens and coming into this weekend’s next USA Crits event at the Glencoe Grand Prix near Chicago, the background noise surrounding UnitedHealthcare’s streak is starting to take a more acrid tone. Worry over whether fans’ attention will shift from fascination to ennui has caused some to wonder whether the second-division team should be on the same playing field; there has even been suggestion that the series should consider the idea of a salary cap.
“You can’t really fault UnitedHealthcare for putting together a great team,” said USA Crits director Gene Dixon. “You can only hope other teams can step up and figure it out for themselves. But if we want to have teams be equal, we kind of have to put them into the same salary range. You don’t want to exclude UnitedHealthcare from sending riders. But maybe they can only send two instead of six.”
Dixon doesn’t foresee any sweeping changes, but within the context of his series, he would like to see more equality between squads whenever possible to keep the racing exciting.
“I don’t think we’re going to change the model across the board,” Dixon said. “But if we want American criteriums to be a competitive vehicle for spectators and cyclists, there’s got to be some parity to make it work. Otherwise it just turns into showcase bike racing.”
While Dixon admits the idea is only conceptual at this point, Tamayo for one, doesn’t want rider salaries in the public sphere. Dixon’s salary cap talk leads to bigger questions over the norm in cycling, unlike most major sports, to protect salary information.
“No offense to Gene, but I think the idea is pretty out there,” Tamayo said. “What the athlete makes as a salary should be between the team, the rider, and [the sport's governing body] the UCI. That’s private information. That would be like the Tour de France saying that a team like BMC or Sky can’t show up with their million dollar players because they’d have an unfair advantage over the other teams. U.S. criteriums are a staple of this country. I think a lot of teams would like to take them more seriously but they choose not to because of the stigma that U.S. bike racing has to pursue that of Europe. The message I’m sending is that you can do both. You can be true to American bike racing, which is 30 criteriums at a national calendar-level, and still pursue racing at the Amgen Tour of California, the USA Pro Challenge, and Europe as well.”
“We’re advocate of the riders and equal competition,” Raines said. “But you can’t limit the riders participating in these races. If UHC is willing and they want to send the best guys that’s up to them. We believe they should be there.”
Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s vice president of national events, has been at the center of a move to revitalize the national calendars, introducing the NCC, and include Pro Continental teams in U.S. criteriums.
“Unitedhealthcare kind of falls in between our definition of a domestic team and international team,” he said. “But the fact is, if they see value in creating a criterium team that races domestically and also a Pro Continental team that goes to international UCI events … we should support that. If we have a team that wants to raise the stakes in criterium racing, I don’t know why we should put a stop to that.”
Those stakes will once again be on display when the U.S. criterium field tackles the 1.3-mile, 10-corner criterium in Chicago’s Glencoe suburb on Saturday. For Tamayo, he feels that UnitedHealthcare has the necessary depth in its arsenal to be successful there, despite also sending a squad to participate in the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic a day later.
“I think what stands out in our mind about Glencoe is not so much the number of corners, but the course is slower,” said Tamayo. “You can do a race like some of the SpeedWeek races, where there are a lot of corners, but there’s also a lot of speed and flow to it, but this race is going to be heavier on the legs. But to be honest with you, that actually just plays in our favor a little bit more. We have a strong team and a deep team with guys like Karl Menzies, Carlos Alzate, and Brad White. So, the harder the course, the more successful it is for us.”