SANTA CLARITA, CA (VN) — Of all the contenders for Friday’s individual time trial in Big Bear, California, perhaps none have blazed such an improbable and circuitous path through pro cycling as Jelly Belly’s Serghei Tvetcov.
Tvetcov, 28, has endured a topsy-turvy career trajectory in his eight seasons as a pro. He raced the Giro d’Italia and begged for a job. He squared off against grand tour contenders and bagged groceries to pay his bills. Throughout the ups and downs, he’s managed to keep a sense of humor about his sport and maintain his desire to eventually graduate to cycling’s WorldTour.
“I still have my goals. I really enjoy just being focused on getting good results,” Tvetcov said on the eve of the Amgen Tour of California. “If I go to race on a big team in Europe, it happens. If not, it’s OK.”
The jumping-off point for Tvetcov’s story occurred in 2008. He still lived in his native Moldova and raced for the Romanian Continental team Olimpic Autoconstruct. Like many 20-year-olds, Tvetvcov was unsure of how to best chart his future in life, let alone pro cycling. One day, while surfing the internet, he submitted an application for the United States’s Diversity Visa Program, known by many as the Green Card Lottery.
The program grants permanent resident status to approximately 50,000 applicants each year. About half of those actually come and settle in the United States.
Six months after filling out the application, Tvetcov received a call from a representative from the State Department. He had won the lottery.
“He was like, ‘Hey, congrats, you have won!’ I am like OK, this is very strange,” Tvetcov said. “I had even forgotten that I applied.”
Tvetcov spent months contemplating his next step. Moving to the United States was expensive, and he did not have a job or any contacts. Tvetcov connected with a Moldovan cyclist in Alpharetta, Georgia, who offered to host him. In 2010 Tvetcov packed his bags and moved to Georgia. While he searched for a pro team, he bagged groceries at the local Kroger supermarket to make ends meet.
“I mailed letters to every pro team asking for a job,” Tvetcov said. “It was hard to get any response.”
The search lasted nearly a year, and in late 2011 he received an offer from team Exergy Energy for the 2012 season. During his search he also spoke with Jelly Belly’s team director Danny Van Haute, who showed interest, but did not yet have a spot on his roster.
The relationship proved to be valuable a year later, when Tvetcov found himself again looking for a job. In a surprise move, Exergy abruptly dissolved after the Idaho wind turbine company reneged on its sponsorship commitment. Tvetcov was looking for a stable job, having moved to Colorado and married.
“It’s the same thing I do every year,” Van Haute said. “I look at who doesn’t have a job, and I look at which guys among them can improve.”
In Tvetcov, Van Haute saw a powerful time trialist who was also comfortable riding in breakaways. Tvetcov had never been given an opportunity to ride as a protected GC rider, and Van Haute believed he had the skills to win domestic races.
Tvetcov raced with Jelly Belly from 2013 through 2014, and scored a series of impressive results. He won the Cascade Cycling Classic in 2014. Later that year, he finished third at Colorado’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge, racing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tejay Van Garderen and Rafal Majka up Colorado’s biggest climbs.
“Serghei is a steady climber, he’s not going to climb with Lachlan [Morton] but he can survive on long, steady climbs,” Van Haute said. “Time trials have always been good for him.”
Tvetcov had his eyes on the European peloton, and in 2015 he inked a deal with Italian squad Androni Giacattoli, hoping to use it as a stepping stone to the WorldTour. He raced the Giro d’Italia that spring, finishing a distant 137th place.
Tvetcov struggled with the European schedule. The team’s goals usually involved breakaways, not GC or time trials. The limited racing of the North American schedule allowed Tvetcov to train for specific events. In Europe, his team often threw him into races, even when he was on bad form. Tvetcov was disappointed when the team was not selected for the 2016 Giro d’Italia. He suffered a string of DNFs at one-day races toward the end of the year, and Androni did not renew his contract for 2017.
“They tried to keep me from what I know but there was also politics,” Tvetcov said. “The team wanted to hire young Colombian riders, twice as cheap they cost compared to me.”
In the summer of 2016, Tvetcov reached back out to Van Haute. He had seen Jelly Belly’s GC rider, Morton, dominate the domestic peloton that summer. The results earned Morton a spot in the WorldTour. Tvetcov believed a return to the domestic U.S. peloton and Jelly Belly could help him achieve the same goal.
That offseason, he agreed to come back. From the early part of the season, Tvetcov showed his renewed form, finishing second overall at New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila. After all of his ups and downs, Tvetcov still believes he can race at the sport’s highest level.
“If it happens, it happens,” Tvetcov said. “If it doesn’t happen I’m OK in the U.S.”