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Editor’s Note: This piece is written by Sam Wiebe and Jake Erker on behalf of the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies team.
After 13 years in the pro peloton, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies captain Alex Candelario, 38, is hanging up the cleats.
The man known as “Cando” was an essential part of the team for the last seven years, from its foundations with Kelly Benefit Strategies to its current status as one of North America’s top teams. A catalyst in some of the team’s biggest wins, an invaluable behind-the-scenes presence, and a lifelong advocate for clean sport, his unique presence on and off the bicycle will be sorely missed. He recently finished his career at the Tour of Alberta, where, fittingly, he rode across his final finish line in Edmonton covered in mud and exhausted from one last hard day in the saddle.
Performance director Jonas Carney now finds himself in a tough situation — his most reliable rider, a former teammate and close friend, and one of the team’s most tactically savvy athletes is retiring.
“It’s going to be tough not having him around next year for sure. Cando is the best leadout guy in North America, and he’s not really someone you can replace,” said Carney. “Over the last seven years, I’ve watched Alex transform his body and his mind to become a very complete athlete. He went from a U.S. criterium sprinter to someone who, through dedication and hard work, contested stages in some of the world’s biggest races over any terrain.
“In the last few years, I’ve watched him blow past WorldTour teams inside 1k to go at races like Castilla y Leon, the Tour of California, and the Tour of Utah. Much of the team’s success has been a direct result of Alex’s leadership, selflessness, and ability on the bike.”
“Cando,” a surfing fanatic known for being calm, cool and collected, attributed much of his success to the team’s unique atmosphere.
“The team has always had a great family atmosphere. That has to do a lot with management working hard and bringing in people that become huge assets to the team — from mechanics to neo-pros, we have always had an amazing group,” he said. “I made the decision a long time ago to keep it real, and that has always been my ethos. Being able to work with people who share that ethos was a blessing. It made me successful, and I couldn’t be happier to finish my career with this family. I never imagined racing for anyone else.”
Cando and Carney share a long history in the peloton. The pair teamed up on the Prime Alliance team in 2002 and 2003, and again during Carney’s final season on the Jelly Belly team in 2004, where Cando helped Carney win his 18th and final U.S. national title. In the following years, Cando filled his close friend’s shoes well on Jelly Belly as the team’s go-to sprinter.
One of his most notable contributions from this era involved assisting his teammate and future Optum star Andy Bajadali. Cando helped “The Baj,” a longtime friend, to an overall victory at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. Overcoming North America’s top teams across a variety of courses, the assist helped Cando reach iconic teammate status — winning races, leading out sprinters, and climbing with lead groups. It would make for a lethal combination as the years rolled on.
When Carney began his sport directing career with the Kelly Benefit Strategies team in 2007, one of his first orders of business was to sign his former teammate and leadout man in 2008. The two shared a philosophy on clean competition that stood out in an era marred by scandal, and it became part of the fabric of the team.
“His value extended far beyond what he did on the bike. He was a rider who could have easily been successful in the WorldTour, but unlike many of his peers, he chose to race clean and did so for his entire career,” Carney said. “He has set an invaluable example for the young riders who’ve come through our program, and that is probably his most important contribution to the team.”
As the team grew in size and professional respectability, Candelario and his ever-changing facial hair continued to gather steam. He had his share of near-misses and top-five finishes against some of the best riders in the world: fifth at the Philadelphia International Championship in 2008, and sixth in 2009. He rode to second in a stage at the 2010 Tour of Langkawi, where he sprinted on a wheel stripped of most of its spokes by a rival’s pedal. A year later, he was second in the U.S. national championship road race.
In 2011, he delivered one of his greatest stage race performances at the Tour of Korea, winning a stage and finishing second overall, seconds away from the yellow jersey. Candelario’s on-the-fly tactical know-how became especially critical when race radios were banned from pro racing in 2010.
“Without direct communication with the riders in a hectic finale, you need a confident leader on the road, and he was a perfect guy for that,” said Carney.
His individual efforts were surpassed only by his teamwork. At the 2013 Tour of California, Candelario and teammate Tom Soladay stormed past some of the world’s best leadout trains to drop off Ken Hanson for a shot at the sprint, where he finished second behind Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar. Later that season, Candelario performed another textbook leadout, this time delivering Eric Young and Hanson to a 1-2 finish at the U.S. criterium national championships.
“We wouldn’t have won that without Cando,” Young said of the veteran sprinter and team captain’s efforts. “He just stayed right where we needed to be until one lap to go, and we just shot like a cannon down the right side of the course and took the perfect inside line. It was a flawless setup.”
In this his final season, Candelario led a charge against the WorldTour for the last time at the grueling Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Over the closing miles of stage 5, 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans and his BMC Racing teammates lined up, aiming for a stage win. Cando blew past them, opened a gap, and towed Young into perfect position. Young won the stage, one of the team’s biggest wins in history and one of Cando’s biggest moments on the bike.
“Utah was definitely a career highlight. In a bike race, things need to go exactly right to pull off a win against WorldTour teams,” he said. “It was special because it was a full team effort — Soladay, Jesse Anthony, and Mike Friedman chased so hard to bring back the breakaway, I hit out, and Eric finished it off with an incredibly long sprint. Those moments in the sport are rare. It felt great to contribute to such a big win in my final season.”
Candelario retires to enjoy family life with his wife Hannah and two young sons, Axel and Agustus. His family plans to retire to his wife’s native Hawaii, where he will keep bikes close to his heart and begin his next adventure.
“My 2-year-old just learned to ride, and now I take him to the pump track and along the river trail. He loves to ride. We’re not sure about the new one yet, but chances are he might like to ride bikes as well. But if not, then no big deal. I definitely won’t push them to race. Just to ride and enjoy it. After training on the Big Island for the past eight winters, I’m finally making the leap to begin operations on a lifelong dream, a touring company on the island we are calling Big Island Bike Tours. We hope to provide people with some access to areas that very few people get a chance to see, and a look at the Hawaiian culture that has been important in my life.”
Though officially retiring, Cando has dropped hints at returning to competing on mountain bike and cyclocross bikes — his first two-wheeled passion. Whichever road and type of pavement his new journey takes his on, we are sure he can handle the ride.