The Optum Pro Cycling team thrived in Korea.
Photo: Aaron Lee
Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies finished strong Sunday at the eighth and final stage of the Tour de Korea (UCI 2.2), delivering Ken Hanson to his second stage win and Alex Candelario to second place overall after 8 days and 880 kilometers of racing. It was the team's third stage win of the week, and their collective efforts led Optum p/b KBS to the team classification crown.
Candelario, rolling into the final day of racing just three seconds away from reclaiming the yellow jersey he donned after his stage two win, finished seventh on the stage, narrowly missing the time bonus needed to place him on the overall podium's top step. Candelario finished second overall when all was said and done, just three seconds behind race winner Sung Baek Park (KSPO).
"It's great to cap things off with another stage win, and the team rode a fantastic race here in Korea," said Performance Director Jonas Carney. "Of course we wanted to bring home the overall for Cando, but we had a solid 8 days here. Any time the guys are able to compete in the aggressive, unpredictable races we see here in Asia, it makes our program that much stronger, and it's great for building fitness for a tough race like the Amgen Tour of California in two weeks."
Carney's plan for the team on the final day, which changed somewhat after the seventh stage was cancelled due to severe rain and wind conditions, was a relatively simple one - deliver Candelario to the finish line in a bid to score the time bonus necessary to reclaim the yellow jersey. Stage eight's short 48.6 kilometer course, running through the outskirts of Seoul, was unremarkable, offering little chance for aggressive tactics or elevation change to shake up the race. It was inevitable things would be decided by a field sprint and the accompanying time bonuses.
"We had planned to really mix things up in stage seven - it was a more selective race with some bigger hills, and we wanted to really break things open, but unfortunately the weather had different plans, and we had to save everything for the final sprint today," said Carney. "It couldn't have been any closer - if Cando could finish top three and beat Max Richeze of Team Nippo, who was in third overall, it was almost certain he would retake yellow. He was right there battling for it, but unfortunately we came up a bit short."
The race went to plan, but the final kilometers turned chaotic with team's scrambling for the final chance at a podium. After a series of fast, technical downhill turns, Chan Jae Jang (Terengganu Cycling Team) jumped away with 1500 meters to go and built a small gap on the charging peloton. Hanson, watching Jang closely from a few dozen meters back, took things into his own hands on the final straightaway, leading out the sprint and thundering past Jang at the line for his second stage win.
The team returns to American soil to compete in both the SRAM Tour of the Gila and the Amgen Tour of California in the coming weeks, two of America's largest and most competitive events.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE STATES...
First-year pro Jade Wilcoxson was uncatchable and untouchable at the Joe Martin Stage Race, winning Sunday's final criterium in emphatic fashion, closing out the overall win and the points competition in the process. The Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies women took home jerseys in every single category at the race - the top of the podium in the general classification, points competition, U23 competition, and team classification were all tinted orange and black.
"All of the team rode amazingly well in all phases of this race, and winning the overall plus all three jerseys shows how aggressive, team focused racing will always pay off," said Wilcoxson about her first-ever NRC win.
With four of the top ten spots occupied by the orange and black, the Optum p/b KBS women added the team classification crown to their long list of successes at the event. Performance Director Rachel Heal was once again impressed with the teamwork and toughness of her athletes as they continue to rapidly expand their list of victories.
"This is a great win for us, a team win, and shows how well things are coming together as we head into the heart of our season," said Performance Director Rachel Heal. "Every result we got this week was due to selflessness and the teamwork of our athletes. We were focused on winning the overall, but the points jersey was definitely a secondary goal. Winning the team classification was an unexpected bonus - it is great when the whole team gets recognition on the podium after racing so well here in Fayetteville."
At almost every phase of the Joe Martin race, Optum p/b KBS women could be found on the podium. Wilcoxson alone claimed five total podium spots at the event, with a stage win, two third place finishes, victory in the points competition, and the overall win. Small added two more with victory in Stage 2 and a runner-up spot behind her teammate on the final podium. Emma Grant, donning the U23 jersey, sealed the sweep.
With Sunday's final stage running across a difficult and technical criterium course with several time bonuses up for grabs, Heal knew the team needed to flex its formidable skills in the discipline in order to come home victorious.
"We decided the best way to defend the pink (leaders) jersey was to be as aggressive as possible," said Heal. "Kathryn Donavan was second overall, and she needed time bonuses to take the win. By getting a good break up the road that was fighting for the bonuses, we eliminated that risk. We have a team that is incredibly strong in criteriums, and so I was fully confident that they could execute an aggressive plan."
Wilcoxson pushed the pace from inside the three-person breakaway, dropping her 2 companions late in the race and forging ahead solo. Small was able to mark every move by the hard chasing Donavan, facilitating a top finish for the duo on the overall standings. The women's dominant performance at Joe Martin is added momentum for a team that has been steamrolling their schedule so far in 2012. The team next rolls into two of it's biggest goals for the season, New Mexico's Tour of the Gila and the UCI 2.HC ranked Exergy Tour in Idaho, the top women's race in the country.
Sebastian Salas Narrowly Misses Podium After Breakout Race
On the men's side of the coin at Joe Martin, Sebastian Salas narrowly missed his second podium in orange and black, finishing fourth place overall, just two seconds behind third place finisher Cesar Grajales (Competitive Cyclist). Salas was impressive in his NRC debut at Joe Martin, finishing second place in a difficult prologue time trial behind eventual race winner Francisco Mancebo (Competitive Cyclist).