‘Jelly Belly saved my career’
The team was never invited to the Tour de France. Its annual budget was less the yearly salary of a WorldTour star rider. And this year it only won a single UCI race. Yet Jelly Belly-Maxxis has become one of the United States’s most important racing teams.
The team has operated for 19 years on the domestic racing circuit, unprecedented longevity in a sport where teams come and go with regularity. Now, Jelly Belly may be on its way out too. The team recently learned that its title sponsor, the California-based Jelly Belly candy company, will not return after the 2018 season. Team ownership is scrambling to find a new sponsor, but with time running out, the team may fold if a new sponsor cannot be found.
“We have built a strong team with the help of Jelly Belly as a sponsor for almost two decades, and I thank the Jelly Belly family for their support,” team owner Danny Van Haute recently said.
Should the team cease to exist, its absence will be felt by both up-and-coming riders and veterans. During its 19-year history, Jelly Belly became a key component of the American development system. It gave late-bloomers a stepping stone into the sport’s upper ranks. The team also gave a second chance to those riders who needed a job after a career setback.
VeloNews spoke with several Jelly Belly alums about the team and the role it played in their respective careers.
The stepping stone
Kiel Reijnen didn’t make waves as a junior racer. He had a shot with the under-23 national team but never saw breakthrough results in Europe. At the start of the 2008 season, he was riding for elite amateur team Waste Management, studying engineering at Colorado University at Boulder, and winning collegiate crits.
That June, at the now-defunct Nature Valley Grand Prix, he won the best amateur jersey, which caught Van Haute’s attention.
Reijnen proved himself as a stagiaire for Jelly Belly later that year. He was the team’s top finisher at U.S. Pro road nationals, 17th. He survived Tour of Missouri and wrapped up the season with a fifth-place overall result at Tour of Hainan in China, securing a spot on Jelly Belly’s 2009 roster.
“Danny [Van Haute] still remains one of the few people inside the sport who I really owe something to. I feel like he took a risk on me,” Reijnen said. “I hope he feels like I paid him back for that with results during my time there.”
In his final year with the team, 2010, Reijnen won Tour of Thailand, was third at the brutal Tour of Qinghai Lake in China, third at U.S. pro road nationals, and fourth at Hainan.
“Danny still remains one of the few people inside the sport who I really owe something to. I feel like he took a risk on me.”
Reijnen is now in his third year with Trek-Segafredo, twice a stage winner at the USA Pro Challenge and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
In his first few years as a team director, Van Haute was frustrated when talented riders moved on from his team to bigger squads. Now, he appreciates the niche that his team occupies within the wider cycling ecosystem. For him, developing riders like Reijnen for cycling’s big leagues is a major part of his job.
“I take pride in riders that move on to WorldTour or Pro Continental teams,” Van Haute said. “We’re development. So we need to take chances on some guys and sometimes you fail with those chances too.”
The list of Jelly Belly riders who have graduated to cycling’s top echelon is long. Jason McCartney started his career with two seasons on Jelly Belly in 2001 and 2002 prior to winning a stage at the Vuelta a España in 2007 while on Discovery Channel. Tyler Farrar raced for Van Haute’s team in 2003 before moving to Europe with Cofidis and eventually winning a stage at the 2011 Tour de France with Garmin-Cervelo.
McCartney and Farrar are now retired.
The second chance
Unlike Reijnen, Lachlan Morton was scouted as a top talent in his teenage years. The Australian rode for the Chipotle development team and found his way onto the Garmin-Sharp WorldTour team at the young age of 20.
After three years in Europe, Morton found himself depressed and unsure if he wanted to carry on in the sport.
He turned to Van Haute and the Jelly Belly-Maxxis squad for an opportunity to race in 2015. And he made a big ask — Morton wanted to race alongside his brother Gus. A Continental team on a limited budget can’t always add roster spots with ease but Van Haute didn’t bat an eye.
“For [Van Haute] to come back straight away and say, ‘Yeah we’d love to have you guys,’ straight off the bat that took a lot of faith in myself and Gus,” Morton says. “He was just like, ‘No let’s do it.’ Straight away it was a big show of faith.”
In the first year, Morton’s results were modest, highlighted by a fifth overall at the USA Pro Challenge.
Then, in 2016, Morton repaid Van Haute’s dedication. Morton won the opening stage and the overall at Tour of the Gila and then won two stages and the overall at Tour of Utah. At the finish line in Park City, Van Haute was ecstatic, telling reporters that the victory was the biggest in the team’s history.
Morton is now in his second season with Dimension Data. Van Haute said hiring Morton was an opportunity, not a risk.
“Jelly Belly definitely saved my career.”
“I didn’t know him or his brother that well but I had no problem, and I brought them on and look what happened. He’s now WorldTour,” Van Haute said. “Those are happy times bringing those guys on and making them successful again.”
For Morton, the two years with Jelly Belly played a huge role in his career. The years racing on the team persuaded him to continue racing his bicycle.
“Jelly Belly definitely saved my career,” Morton said. “It helped me reassess everything. That’s one of the things that still even today helps me. … Anytime I get too caught up in it, I’m like, ‘Well you need to be in it for the passion,’ and that’s what breeds success.”
Plenty of other riders have found second chances at Jelly Belly as well. American veteran Danny Pate raced for Jelly Belly in 2005 after his Prime Alliance team disbanded. Multi-time U.S. national champion Fred Rodriguez raced for Jelly Belly after his European career came to a close. The men who finished first and second at the Colorado Classic Sunday, UnitedHealthcare teammates Gavin Mannion and Serghei Tvetcov, both had stopovers on the team with the beans on their jerseys.
Mannion, winner of the Colorado four-day race, spent 2015 with Jelly Belly-Maxxis after 5-Hour Energy folded. Tvetcov raced for Jelly Belly on two separate occasions. After his team Exergy Energy folded in 2012, Tvetcov spent two years at Jelly Belly-Maxxis. He rode to third at the USA Pro Challenge in 2014 before moving to Italian team Androni-Giocattoli in 2015.
Two years later, Tvetcov returned to Jelly Belly for the 2017 season, earning the team a stage win at Colorado Classic and second overall in the race.
Once again, Van Haute is modest but proud, content to see his alumni move on to successful careers.
“Serghei, Gavin Mannion — we’re happy to see those guys move on and our partners are happy too,” Van Haute said.
More than a rung in the ladder
Jelly Belly’s disappearance leaves riders wondering how the next generation will navigate the sport’s ebb and flow without the safety net that the team provided. Development riders may miss out on a crucial step toward the top, and veterans may find themselves without a home after a bad season.
For Reijnen, Jelly Belly was more than a means to an end. It was a chapter that made him a better pro cyclist, that helped him value the sport and appreciate the privilege of racing a bike for a living.
You might not have seen Reijnen at the front of Milano-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke, or Tour of Flanders this spring, but he was there. He was an essential, hardworking teammate for John Degenkolb, and he learned some of that ethic while racing for Jelly Belly.
In his final season with the Continental team, 2010, a trip to the Tour of Qinghai Lake drove that home for him.
The pressure was on for a big result. Reijnen had trained hard and knew how to tackle the high-altitude nine-day race after abandoning with an E. coli infection the year prior.
But only two days in, two of his five teammates were out of the race due to illness. Instead of packing up and flying home, the ailing duo stayed on to help any way they could. They washed kits by hand in the shower, bought a rice cooker to make food in the room and minimize risk of food poisoning. And sometimes they just helped boost morale.
It worked. On the final day, with a podium result on the line, Reijnen sprinted for time bonuses and secured third place.
“That was a f—king team,” Reijnen said. “We were underdogs in a big way. It was just this heroic team effort. That’s always one of those results I look back on as a 100-percent team result. That particular result, it felt like everybody owned that result.”
Stories of the team’s unglamorous behind-the-scenes life are common within the U.S. domestic circuit. Jelly Belly did not pay its riders the biggest salaries or provide them with the best hotel rooms, or the most expensive meals. Team camps were often held at a golf course near Van Haute’s home in San Marcos, California, where he operated the team out of his garage and spare office. Instead, the team gave riders an opportunity to prove themselves in professional races.
Five years later, Morton felt the same pulse of unity that drove this plucky Continental team to exceed expectations. For him, the family environment was ideal. It supported him, encouraged him, and kept things fun after he struggled in the serious realm of the WorldTour. And happy riders tend to get results.
“It’s like a family environment, which I think was the most critical ingredient he had in that team,” Morton said. “The results, they came quite easily — when you got a result with the team, it felt bigger because everyone was involved in that result.”
Whether or not Jelly Belly can continue is yet to be seen. Van Haute told the media that he is operating on an August 31 deadline. If a sponsor cannot be found, he plans to take a year off from the team.
On the final day of the Colorado Classic, Van Haute confirmed his sponsor search was ongoing. He was talking to existing team partners, he said. He was also in preliminary conversations with potential new sponsors, although they are few enough to count on one hand.
The grim outlook did not dampen his spirits as his riders prepared to race. Van Haute greeted riders, fans, and friends, hustling around to set up folding chairs and distribute energy bars for his riders.
“Any candy companies out there? It’s a great sport to be in. It’s proven!” Van Haute joked.
Surviving 19 years in the topsy-turvy world of domestic road racing is confirmation that it, indeed, has been proven.