September 1, 2007 – Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast, a first-year America Tour UCI Continental Team based in Minneapolis, Mn., has been coming on strong lately led by Canadian Martin Gilbert’s recent victory at the USPRO Criterium Championships (Aug. 19). We caught up with the KBS team after that terrific win to talk with Gilbert, fellow Canuck Keven Lacombe who recently joined the squad, and team director, Jonas Carney to get the inside scoop and how and why the team is doing so well. It’s interesting to note that KBS has the most Canadians of any US squad – Gilbert, Lacombe, Dominique Perras, Ryan Roth and Mark Hinnen. Here is Part 1, an interview with Team Director, Jonas Carney. (click here to read a previous Amy Smolens KBS interview with Martin Gilbert, Ryan Roth and Mark Hinnen).
As a director of a first year team, how would assess this season for Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast so far?
Jonas Carney: I think that being a first-year team and having not solidified our sponsorship until the end of October last year it was very challenging to put the team together and find the right riders. I think that we did a great job and so far I’ve been really thrilled with the performance of everybody, given that all the other UCI teams in North America had already sort of had their pick of the riders and we had to go and get creative and work very hard to find these talented young guys just to be able to be competitive week in and week out with the big teams that have much more history and much larger budgets.
I’m really happy with the season. It’s been a little bit tough just because we go out there and we’re in the breakaways, and we make the splits in the groups and we ride strong, we’re a very competitive team and in a lot of races this year at the end of the day the final result hasn’t reflected how strong our team is. I see it every weekend so I know how strong my riders are and I know how good they are but I think that for the average person just looking at the results page they don’t know how good our team is and I think we showed this at the USPRO Criterium Championship, just how good we really are.
Given that, how big and how important was Martin Gilbert’s victory at the USPRO Criterium Championship?
JC: I think it was by far the biggest thing that’s happened to our team so far this year – it’s our first big win. But not only did we win the race, we dominated it. We really took control of the race and showed that we’re a force to be reckoned with. I think it would have been less impressive if it had just come down to a field sprint and one of our riders had crossed the line first, but we actually led the race for the final twelve laps and executed a perfect team leadout and everybody sacrificed their chances for Martin and I think it just gives our team a tremendous amount of momentum. It’s not just the win, it’s the confidence that we’re going to go into the rest of the races with. Every time we get on the bike we know what we’re capable of doing now and everybody feels that confidence.
Keven Lacombe had only been on your team a little over a month, did you expect him to play such an important part in Gilbert’s victory?
JC: I picked Keven for our team last year and unfortunately he was coming off a major injury (a broken femur) and he wanted to start slow. But I saw a pretty incredibly talented rider and when he was ready to come over to our team we were ready to bring him on. I’m not surprised at what he’s capable of doing but I’m just very excited that I was right, that this was the right decision to bring him onto our team. There’s numerous riders that we could have signed – he was the right decision and he’s made a big difference in the last four weeks of racing that we’ve done.
With Dave McCook getting a little old at 37, could Martin and Keven provide your team with a 1-2 sprinter’s punch later in this season and next season?
JC: Dave has been very hot and cold this year and he is the oldest rider on our team. We did a big leadout for him at the Elk Grove race recently (a circuit race in Illinois) and he finished second behind (Predictor-Lotto’s Fred) Rodriguez. Ideally you can’t just have one sprinter, you have to have two or three sprinters because somebody’s gonna be hurt or other reasons come into play. So I think Keven and Martin are very effective together. Also, I think that I know a little bit about sprinting myself (note: Carney was a 25-time U.S. national champion as a Junior and Elite racer) and I think that with the right group of riders we can win a lot of field sprints and we’re just starting to show that now. But with field sprinting in America nowadays it comes down to teamwork and that’s what really counts. There’s a lot of guys that are fast but the guys who are winning are the ones who have the best team, not necessarily the guys who are trying to freelance right now.
You were a terrific sprinter in your day – assess Martin’s talent and qualities as a sprinter and where he stands among the North American sprinters.
JC: I worked with Martin last year on the Kodak team and the first race we did I saw something with Martin, I saw this raw talent. He’s a very good bike handler, he’s got a lot of power but he also has a good aerobic capacity. He really has all the pieces that it takes to be a great sprinter, but he’s been a bit inconsistent this year. You know, he wins USPRO Crit, but two weeks before in Charlotte he didn’t do anything. While he’s somewhat inconsistent I still see him as being one for the best sprinters in North America right now. There aren’t a lot of really, really fast guys. There’s only one: Toyota-United’s Ivan Dominguez is the fastest rider in the country and then a step down there’s another ten guys that are fast but they’re all sort of in the same range. The advantage with Martin is he’s still a young rider, he’s only 24 years old, and he’s a fantastic guy to work with, I really enjoy working with Martin, he’s fun to be around, he’s a good person and he’s a good teammate.
As a former sprinter and two-time USPRO Crit champion yourself, what kind of pointers are you giving Martin and Keven in general and how did you help them specifically in that race?
JC: You know, every race is different, but to be able to go through the finish of the race with two guys who are very intelligent, and have great physical skills is important. They’re excellent bike handlers and they’re smart so they understand what I’m talking about. We spent a very long time talking about the field sprint at USPRO Crit and I actually rode the course with Keven before the race. Every race is different but we have to discuss those things. Bike racing is complicated and I think I that have the ability to say, “I’ve done this race fifteen times, I can tell you how the finish is and which side of the group you need to be on, when you need to go, and which corner you have to be in what place, etc., etc.
I’ve raced on the USPRO Criterium course every year of my career pretty much so I know how to race that course. Martin had maybe done it one time and Keven had never seen the course before. So I feel like I can help them avoid making mistakes that I’d made the first three or four or five times I did it so they don’t have to worry about that learning curve, they can just jump straight ahead and know I should not be on the inside here or I should be on the outside there, whatever it is on any given course.
You have five Canadians on your roster – how did that happen? You brought Martin and Dominique Perras with you from Kodak, but how do you explain the others?
JC: Well, we were building a team in late October, early November and I was trying to find some talented young riders and it sort of turned out that there’s quite a bit of talent in Canada right now and I just ended up finding riders like Ryan Roth and Keven. Mark Hinnen has had a really difficult season with injuries this year and illness but these guys are extremely talented, as talented as any American riders, but they were available at the time.
I actually had fantastic references for all of these guys because throughout the years I’ve raced on teams with Canadian riders who are great friends of mine. Symmetrics’ Svein Tuft is a very close friend of mine and I speak with Symmetrics owner, Kevin Cunningham, on a semi-regular basis and Eric Wohlberg and people like this. I respect their opinions, so if they give me a good reference for somebody then I have confidence in that. It’s easier for me to hire someone if I have a good reference from Svein or Eric than to just pick someone based on their resume. It just turned out that I had great references for these guys from Canada.
I want to support riders from North America and I’ve tried very hard, I really went out of my way not to hire riders from overseas. It would have been easy for me to hire Australians or South Americans or Europeans but I really wanted to try and stick with North America and so at this point we have five Canadians.
And three of them, Martin, Dominique and Keven, are Quebecers, how has that been?
JC: I’ve been really happy with the French-Canadian guys on our team and if I bring one more French-Canadian rider on board I’m going to have to start studying French again because I feel guilty that they always have to speak our language. But if I have thirty or forty percent of the riders from Quebec I might, just out of respect, have to start speaking French with them so maybe I’ll have to buy some cassette tapes this winter or something.
I’m joking around but at the same time all the guys try very hard to speak English with the team and I truly appreciate that and I wish that I spoke a little bit more French anyway, so maybe it’s time for me to start building on what I learned in high school which isn’t very much, but it’s a start.
There’s quite a lot of young talent up there, isn’t there?
JC: Yeah, I’ve been very surprised as there are a lot of really strong riders from that area. Actually, in Canada in general there are quite a few strong riders that are sort of under the radar. Unfortunately if you don’t see these guys in action and meet them, you don’t get to know them so you don’t really know what you’re getting. But I kind of have a little Canadian network going with friends up there I’ve raced with in the past so it’s worked out well for our team so far.
They have pretty miserable winters in Canada and Quebec in particular… does that make them tougher?
JC: (Laughs) I think it does! Yeah, I can’t even imagine trying to spend a whole winter up there, but most of the Canadian guys I know head down to Tucson or Southern California during the winter to train. But I think it does make you tough. I grew up on the East coast, in New Jersey, and I know that training in cold weather never bothered me because I grew up with it and it does make you tougher. I never enjoyed it and didn’t really want to go out but it wasn’t a big deal and I think those guys are the same way. It can be cold out there but they’re gonna train – however if you take someone from California and put them in a cold climate they’re gonna stay inside.
Look at Svein Tuft winning the US Open in the snow.
JC: Exactly, exactly. (Laughs.) Good old Svein!
Kelly Benefit Strategies renewed their sponsorship for next year – does that make you feel good that you’re on the right track and they’re happy with the way things are going?
JC: Yeah, I think that Kelly Benefit Strategies is very happy with the team this year. I think all of our three sponsors, Kelly Benefit Strategies, Medifast and MPC have all been very happy. They’ve all signed back on for next year and it validates what we’re doing, that they want to stay on board. I think that what we accomplished recently goes to show that we are doing things right. When you’re not winning races everybody is the Monday morning quarterback, everybody reads Cyclingnews and is a critic on Monday morning.
It’s a very difficult task to go out here as a first-year team and race against Toyota and Health Net and Navigators and Slipstream every weekend. It’s very hard, I don’t know if I can explain how hard it is but we ask a lot of our athletes and I understand how hard it is. It’s very easy for someone to sit at his or her computer and say, “Oh these guys aren’t winning, bla bla bla,” but we’re doing it the right way and we’re building our team slowly. We’re not going to take any shortcuts and I expect that next year we’re going to be much stronger, and the following year that much stronger again. The goal is to be the best team in America in a couple of years.
So looking toward next year and beyond, what kind of things will you do to build for the future?
JC: For next year we are going to try to keep the foundation of what we’ve built already because it’s just starting to pay off now. We’re going to continue to do things the way we’ve been doing them. Obviously we need to bring in new talent so the roster lineup will change a bit but I’d say for the most part we’re not going to have some mass exodus from the team, we’re going to retain quite a number of our riders that we have already and we’re going to add a couple of new ones.
We’re going to change our focus a little bit, and I think that we’ll end up doing a bit more international racing next year but the main goal is to just take one big step forward and start to be able to do what we did the last couple weekends and shoot to be able to do that on a semi-regular basis and go out there. I know it’s very difficult to beat some of these teams that have much larger budgets and have been running teams for ten years but I know that it’s possible if we ride like a team. If we ride like more of a team than all the others, I know we can win. We just need to make that one big step so we’re doing it on a regular basis instead of just pulling off a really great ride once in a while.