The Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast pro cycling team is starting its sophomore year with US Olympian and 25-time US national champion Jonas Carney at the helm. In the summer of 2007, the team became the only first year team in US cycling history to win the overall at the USPRO Criterium Championships at Downer’s Grove Illinois. The team finished the season strong by having riders on podiums throughout the last part of the season.
The 2008 roster sees five new athletes added to the team: Andrew Bajadali, winner of the 2007 Redlands Classic, Alex Candelario, winner of the Tour de Nez 2007, Brian Bucholz in his first year as a pro, and the fastest young riders on either side of the North American border: Ben King Junior National TT and road race champion and U23 Canadian Time Trial Champion David Veilleux. Returning for a second year with the squad are Jonny Sundt, Dan Bowman, Reid Mumford, Justin Spinelli, Nick Waite, Martin Gilbert and Keven Lacombe, both from Canada.
The team chose to have a low-key beginning of the season and postponed the full team training camp including the traditional official photo shoots so the Tour of California squad could focus on getting ready for the big race.
During their short training camp in Oxnard, California, Jonas Carney provided insight into his team before the start of the 2008 season.
Building a foundation and adding horsepower
The team had a late start in its first year, as they were not able to hire the riders until the end of October which made it challenging. But for Carney, “it was a good process because we were able to seek out some great talent that needed some opportunity.”
For the 2008 season, they moved quickly to recruit the riders; as early as June, Carney was having serious conversation with some of the riders that made the team, and developed a new philosophy for the direction of the team.
“We had an awesome group of guys last year and we kept the majority, kept I think 8 of the 11 riders from last year and we brought 5 new on. One thing is that we wanted a larger roster, 13 instead of 11 and then we changed the philosophy a little bit, as far as what we are trying to build.”
The first year was just about having a good year and Carney was focused on building a foundation. The goal is to build a backbone so the team can expand, and then based on the successes and shortcomings of the team, Carney came up with “the idea of the style of team that we wanted to build.”
“We are this year, focused more on power and speed. For the American style of racing, and the type of things that we succeeded last year, the things that we did the best is what we wanted to build on.”
The roster additions were strategic “as far as hiring riders that time trial very well but also race criterium very well and are able not only be contenders in a general classification of a race because they time trial well, but also powerful riders that can handle their bikes well in criteriums. We have three field sprinters, that was a major goal for us to be able to win lots of races this year in field sprints.”
The first season was a learning experience, Carney learned quite a bit about what makes the team tick. “We had great camaraderie and a really positive atmosphere on the team last year and I was really happy with the way that came together. That comes from all, it’s not just the riders, but it’s the staff and the sponsors as well, we have a great atmosphere, it feels like a family.”
With a limited budget, the only way for Carney to win races is to have the correct atmosphere and the riders willing to sacrifice for each other. That can be a difficult thing to create when a team doesn’t have a lot money to hire star riders, so “you have to find the right types of characters and we did a good job of hiring the riders last year.”
“I was an incredibly happy with all the guys and the teamwork was incredible and the atmosphere was great so that’s why we kept the majority of the team because we didn’t have to change much but it was just adding a little bit more horsepower. “
Unlike a lot of other teams, “we have a great group of sponsors, we actually have 5 sponsors that are from outside the cycling industry.” Having multiple sponsors provides the stability to look ahead a few years, “I see much more longevity with this program than others and personally I’m looking ahead maybe one or two years.”
Carney hopes that the team grows enough in the next 3 years, that roster of riders also grows and that the riders don’t outgrow the team because “having those kinds of talent they could easily, if we stay where we are, they could easily outgrow the team and would want to move on to something bigger and so we just want to get bigger and faster every year but not an incredible leap in one season.”
“I think we made a good step for 2008 and then again, we’ll try to make a big step for 2009 but not, we don’t want to overstep our bounds we want to take our time.”
Hiring North-American riders and the French-Canadian connection
Carney takes a lot of price in recruiting riders, and he doesn’t hire outside of North America, and so far has no plans top change that hiring practice.
“I get a lot of resumes from overseas and those resumes look really good and those riders don’t cost a lot of money but the fact is I don’t want to jeopardize what we are trying to build and so I’m pretty picky in who all I welcome into the team. It’s not just based on resumes, a lot of it has to do with personalities and having references for these guys.”
The Quebec connection really started when Carney was working for the Kodak Gallery/Sierra Nevada team, and got to know the Quebecois riders on the team Martin Gilbert and Dominique Perras.
Carney was “impressed with Martin’s talent and potential as a sprinter.” As a sprinter himself, he saw something in him and it worked out that they were able to bring the duo over, very late, in mid-November 2006, and that was the beginning of the connection.
Carney works on recruiting all season and seeks out certain riders. He tried to bring three-time Canadian U23 champion David Veilleux on the team last year, but Veilleux decided to stay with Jittery Joe’s. Keven Lacombe was also in Carney’s sights, but Lacombe took some time to recover from a broken femur and then joined the team in mid-season last year.
“For me, a big part of our team is the young riders and we have probably the strongest group of young riders of any team in America, our three youngest guys are probably three of the most talented people that you’ll ever see. “
Carney has found that most young American riders, between the ages of 18 to 20 years old, to either to the US National Team or they ride for Slipstream, which makes it “difficult to recruit the best of the best young American riders.”
For Canadians, it they are from British Columbia, they typically sign for the Symmetrics team, and Carney “just been lucky enough to come into contact with riders like David Veilleux and Martin Gilbert and Keven Lacombe, Mark Hinnen. We have some incredible talent from that area, and I think we have a good environment for those guys too.”
Carney likes to recruit young riders with the expectation that they’ll be around for a long time, rather than just buying “new talent every year, I want to bring it up through the ranks of our team and there’s no better way to do that than to just bring in the best young guys and provide them with a positive environment.”
Looking forwards to the 2008 season
With a well-rounded squad build around a sprinting core, the team is focusing its energies on the races that are important to the sponsors, such as Tour of California, Tour de Georgia , Philly Week, all the major events in North America.
The second focus for the team are the mid-Atlantic races, with the two biggest sponsors Kelly Benefit Strategies and Medifast based our of Baltimore, “anything in the mid-Atlantic region or even on the East Coast is going to be a priority for us.”
For Carney, the USA Pro Cycling Tour calendar is a good schedule for is because of the big, large number of races that are on the Atlantic, and will not be paying much attention to the National Racing Calendar (NRC) races.
Carney’s personal goal is “that I want to have a much better season that we had last year and there are a few races that we are going to target but the goal in general is to win a lot of races.”
Last season, the team raced two International UCI races, the FBD Insurance Ras in Ireland and the Vuelta a Chihuahua in Mexico. Carney is hoping to repeat the international experience this season, with the Tour of South Africa scheduled in March, and they are currently entertaining some invitations for other races but nothing has been decided yet.
“Because the NRC doesn’t mean much to us there are some fairly large gaps in the calendar where, for example, there are periods where there are no UCI races in America, I think we get more benefit doing international events because longer races, more stages and the experience of racing against different competition.”
Carney sees the international experience as a draw for the riders, as “the guys get pretty excited about racing internationally against some pretty big teams.”
Rather than flying all the way to the west coast to do an NRC race, transporting all the vehicles and spending an amount of money to do a race that doesn’t benefit some of his sponsors as much, Carney sees more benefit in doing international events because of the longer races, more stages and the experience of racing against different competition. “It’s a great experience for all the riders on the team to travel internationally, gain the experience of racing against different competition, sometimes more difficult competition, sometimes no.”
In Carney’s opinion, “the NRC calendar could use quite a bit of revamping but we’re lucky to have another calendar, the USA Cycling Pro Tour calendar is actually a great calendar and that’s what we are going to look at.”
With their sponsors based out of the Baltimore and Minneapolis areas, it is better for the team to stay on the east coast and concentrate on wining races in our sponsors’ market.
“The NRC calendar is extremely expensive to chase because the races are scattered all over the country and the schedule is not set up very well at all. If we had a larger budget, and bigger staff and more vehicles, it would be easier but the driving the trailer and the van back & forth across the country all throughout the year is taxing on the staff, it’s taxing on the budget.”
Tour of California
Carney picked the team early on, as he just didn’t feel it was appropriate to have the guys coming into camp and having to race each other for their spots so he did my best to pick the team based on the courses at the Tour of California.
The roster includes Andrew Bajadali, Alex Candelario, Keven Lacombe, Dan Bowman and Jonny Sundt plus three riders injured in 2007 and now racing stronger and faster: Reid Mumford, Justin Spinelli and Nick Waite.
“We have two field sprinters, Keven and Alex, everyone else is for the most part is the sturdiest, most experienced kind of stage racers.. the courses are so hard I had to go in that direction with it. Jonny is a warrior, he’s very good at these races. I haven’t seen him as fit as he is right now, he’s really riled up that he’s going to have his best season ever, he has a lot of experiences racing in these big stage races.”
The team is going to go out there and be aggressive on every stage. “For a continental team, it’s going to be a tough race, it’s a hard race for any continental team but we’re going in there to try and make a mark and we’re going to be really aggressive and we’re not going to follow, and try to make our mark instead of trying to follow the big ProTour teams and be intimidated, we’re going to go on the offense.”
With a strong sprinter core, the team likes the first two stages with a good change of field sprint finishes. The fourth stage, Seaside to San Luis Obispo, is also in the cross hairs with a possibility of a field sprint finish, “ if there isn’t bad weather and wind.”
Then there is the third stage, the Modesto to San Jose stage. “Then obviously the third road stage is the hardest stage probably the one that will decide the general classification.”
“It’s going to be much harder than years past because in years past you could just get to the bottom of Sierra grade and then ride it in whereas there is going to be that whole extra climb which is big leading into Sierra grade. The one thing I noticed is just that the descent between the two climbs, there’s almost no flat and there’s almost no straight road in between the two climbs and so it’s very technical, fast, dangerous descent between the two climbs and it’s a very long stretch of road.”
The seventh and final stage, Santa Clarita to Pasadena, is “the big mystery, it’s the one that I don’t know, I heard that it’s going to be much harder, they’ve done the circuit racing longer, it’s got quite a bit of altitude , that’s the one big mystery stage.”
The team is ready for the Tour of California challenge under the guidance of Jonas Carney and newly appointed performance manager Ken Mills.
“Our team is going to race aggressively and I think it’s the style of riders that we have and it’s the way that I like my team to race is not to sit back and let other people animate, we want to animate.”
The 2008 Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast team roster includes: