Small-budget teams finding success at USA Pro Challenge

The smaller teams are up against bigger budgets in Colorado, but they don't seem to mind

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado (VN) — Small teams. Small budgets.

Thus far, huge results.

Two stages into the USA Pro Challenge, it’s clear the lower-budget teams came to race. Smaller teams are two for two, with the heavy hitters stalled and waiting for the general classification.

It’s not easy for the little squads in Colorado. A single rider on one of the major teams can command more in a salary than an entire team budget. The big wheels are hard to follow, the lines unforgiving. It hasn’t mattered.

Hincapie Sportswear Development rider Robin Carpenter soloed to win Tuesday’s sopping stage 2 into Mt. Crested Butte after surviving a break and weathering a tense neutralization. In Aspen on Monday, UnitedHealthcare’s Kiel Reijnen worked over friend and brief foe Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp) to take the win and, briefly, the leader’s jersey.

This is a riddle that the smaller teams try to solve time and time again. Davids throwing stones at Goliaths, in fiscal terms.

“It’s a tall task. It’s a big ask of a team like ours to go up against teams whose individual riders have salaries bigger than our entire operating budgets,” Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies manager Jonas Carney told VeloNews. “Our men’s team, women’s team, ’cross team. I mean when we have to race against Peter Sagans and Mark Cavendishes, that one guy makes more money than our whole team. We’re trying to figure out a way to beat that guy? You know? It’s definitely hard, but we’re incredibly motivated at these races.

“These are the biggest races that we get to do. We just try to pick an objective that’s attainable. Racing for a stage win. We know that we can be competitive in the sprints. We know that we can be opportunistic. And part of it is just really taking chances. Taking risks. Sending guys up the road.”

Those risks do pay off. Optum won a stage at the Amgen Tour of California this year on the wings of Will Routley, for example. And though the big teams have big riders and big money, sometimes that can work against them, too. It’s the age-old story of lesser teams getting up for big games while the heavies are looking for breathers.

“We should use that against them,” SmartStop director Michael Creed said.

Sure, but how?

“On your toes. Be the first one to punch. … just don’t f— around. Just go for it. And we do it with respect,” Creed said. “We respect all these ProTour guys. And yeah, some of them don’t want to be here. And we have to use that against them.”

So far, it’s worked out for the smaller teams. It becomes increasingly hard in the coming days, though, as the GC fight picks up just like the road does. Certainly, the underdogs won’t stop biting.

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