Olympian Rachel Heal will keep the reins of the Colavita-Forno D’Asolo women’s squad when the team transitions to new management and sponsorship in 2012. Heal and new team owner Charles Aaron, the man behind the men’s Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth squad, told VeloNews that the back-to-back National Racing Calendar champions would enjoy solid financial backing and improved technical support moving forward.
Heal’s program will move forward with a new, yet to be announced, title sponsor. The new team is owned by Circuit Global Sports Management, Aaron’s Minneapolis-based firm that also owns the KBS men’s program.
“After coming off an awesome 2011 season with our men’s program, we have an opportunity to field a women’s team and it is a great next step,” Aaron told VeloNews. “Professional women cyclists are an inspiration to anyone who sees them race.”
Heal joined Colavita in 2010 as co-director with Tina Pic and took the reigns on her own this year. Heal, an Olympian and stage winner at the Tour de l’Aude, led the program to back-to-back National Racing Calendar team and individual titles. In a sometimes challenging joint venture with Italian squad Forno D’Asolo, Heal welcomed world champion Georgia Bronzini to the U.S. roster in June; Bronzini stormed to a win in the Liberty Classic in Philadelphia.
There is a lot of emotional real estate between the high of winning the country’s biggest one-day race with the world champion to the low of a team coming undone, but Heal said the move to Circuit felt more like a transition than an ending. She expected most of the change, aside from the sponsor names on the jerseys, to be behind the scenes.
“I think it feels like more of a transition than a new project. I think it’s really positive,” she told VeloNews. “It’s a bigger change for Colavita than for us, than for myself, (mechanic Adrian Hedderman) and the riders. It’ll be the same for us, going to races and trying to put our best foot forward and going after top results.”
Heal said that she had planned to carry the Colavita program into 2012 with a continued focus on U.S. racing and that the partnership with Forno D’Asolo would not have continued after Bronzini signed with rival Italian squad Diadora-Pasta Zara. The realization in September that the team’s survival was in question was a tough realization.
“I think it was really Interbike where it started, where things weren’t going quite as smoothly as we had hoped. Maybe after such an amazing year our expectations were higher as far as what sponsors we would be able to get going forward,” said Heal. “In the pipeline was potentially for the U.S. squad to go en masse to Europe, but not in 2012.”
Those plans never had the opportunity to play out; Colavita vice president of marketing John A. Profaci called the situation “very difficult emotionally,” in a release on Monday.
“I thought the Colavita sport sponsorship would remain sound as we experienced the most successful season any Colavita pro team — men or women — has had over our 10-year span,” he said. “Without any intention of offending those many wonderful cycling industry companies who have supported our programs for many years, I must admit the direct cause of Colavita ending its women’s team title sponsorship was in fact losing key industry supplier support.”
After Interbike, Profaci reached out to Aaron, who was all ears.
“It happened that John reached out with an idea and it worked out for all of us,” Aaron told VeloNews. “This is something we wanted to do for the past six years and for the first time we were able to accomplish it.”
Aaron said Heal was cautious about the prospects of the new partnership at first, but she told VeloNews that she did not fear being overshadowed by the established men’s squad.
“No, honestly. I think that Circuit Global Sports Management are very keen to have a professionally treated women’s team,” she said. “And it’s no secret that the men’s side of sport is better sponsored than the women’s. We’ll get some support that we just wouldn’t get as standalone women’s team.”
Aaron said that the new women’s program wouldn’t run on a shoestring budget.
“What we’re doing won’t be overshadowed by our existing men’s program. We’re planning and budgeting appropriately so our women’s team can compete. This is a big initiative coming out of Circuit Global Sports Management,” he said. “This is very exciting. Everybody here is excited across the board about the women’s program.”
While she is expected to take a number of riders with her to the new team, the fresh start gave Heal an opportunity to reflect on her favorite moments at Colavita. At the top of the list: Theresa Cliff-Ryan’s criterium stage win at the Redlands Classics in 2010. It was the squad’s first NRC win with Heal at the helm and Cliff-Ryan’s breakthrough on the national level.
“That was the start to Theresa really believing in herself as a sprinter,” said Heal.
After that win, Cliff-Ryan, a former world champion inline skater, carried a new swagger in bunch finishes, nearly sweeping SpeedWeek, finishing on the podium in Philadelphia and winning the Tour of Somerville and Presbyterian Hospital Invitational. When Bronzini came to the States this year, Cliff-Ryan gave the world champion her wheel and delivered the Italian to the Liberty Classic win, another moment Heal pointed to as a highlight.
But the final two stage races the Colavita squad competed in topped Philly for Heal: the Cascade Classic and Tour of Elk Grove.
“We almost made a habit of taking stage race wins on the last day,” said Heal.
At Cascade, Holcomb entered the final stage 1:14 down on GC to Clara Hughes. She faced the decision of playing it safe on the Aubrey Butte circuit to close out the race in seventh and take the lead in the NRC standings or go for broke and try to win the race outright.
“We took the decision as the team that if we played it safe Janel would have been seventh and taken the lead in the NRC, but we decided to ignore that,” said Heal. “It was really shit or bust. We were going to win the race overall or go down in flames.”
Holcomb and teammate Andrea Dvorak made their way into a mid-race breakaway and Holcomb went to the line with stage winner Anne Samplonius. Behind them Hughes crashed and a constantly resetting chase could only watch as Holcomb gained 2:17 on the peloton, almost twice what she needed to take the overall from Hughes.
That attitude is how the Colavita team attacked races. Whether it was Dvorak smashing on the Sunset Loop at Redlands or Leah Kirchmann going for broke at Elk Grove, Heal’s squad was all-in. They won four NRC titles in 2010 and 2011, sweeping the individual and team races, and will look to do the same for their new sponsor and management.