Jonas Carney has had a 30-plus year career in the world of cycling.
The former nine-time U.S. national champion moved from the bike to management 15 years ago and continued his winning ways.
What started out in 2007 as Kelly Benefit Strategies-Medifast has morphed into Rally Cycling and now Human Powered Health. As director of performance, Carney oversees the team’s campaigns in Europe, where they moved operations full time in 2020.
The move overseas has come with some changes.
“The biggest difference is the level of the racing,” Carney said. “It’s hard to be consistently competitive at this level. In the past we had Tour of California as our big target and Colorado[Cycling Classic], [Tour of] Utah, [Tour of] Alberta, and the U.S. championships as our other goals. We could focus on four or five objectives and prepare properly. Now we are racing four or five races per month that are at least as competitive as the Tour of California.”
Moving full-time to Europe also required major changes in the team’s infrastructure.
“We started from scratch about four years ago,” Carney said. “We didn’t even have one team car over here. We did not have European riders or staff. We didn’t have a business in Europe and nobody was living here. Now we have eight team cars, a bus, two campers, three mechanic trucks, two nine-passenger vans, and a sprinter van.
“We have a 7,000 square foot warehouse in Spain and another warehouse in Belgium. We have a business in Belgium, a European general manager, a full time logistics person, a service course manager, a trainer, a nutritionist, nine full-time soigneurs, seven full-time mechanics, etc … It has been a huge project and building most of it during COVID was very challenging.”
As a UCI ProTeam, one level below the top-level WorldTeam, they have to make do with a lower budget which means their selection of potential riders can be limited.
“We look for a lot of different things and every year we learn something new and make adjustments,” Carney said. “We are looking for experienced guys who can help lead and mentor the younger riders. We are looking for weapons — sprinters and climbers — who can compete for wins.
“We are looking for top young talents who are not ready to move to the WorldTour yet. We are looking for diamonds in the rough with lots of upside — guys who got a late start in the sport, had setbacks, or have not had the correct conditions to reach their potential.”
But motivating those riders to compete against WorldTour teams can be difficult.
“It really starts with hiring the right riders,” Carney said. “If they do not really want to be over here, fighting week in week out, there isn’t much you can do to motivate them. This sport is brutal and the people who succeed are usually the ones who just want it more. From there, we do our best to support the riders on and off the bike, give them the necessary tools, and create a positive environment,” Carney said.
It’s not all youngsters though. Human Powered Health has hired some riders who are nearing the end of their careers.
“This is an important part of building our team,” Carney said. “In general what we are looking for is experience and leadership. It can be a risk bringing someone from the WorldTour into a smaller team and it does not always go well. However, if you find the right ones, it can really help to elevate the team.
“Over the years we have had guys like Danny Pate, Svein Tuft, and Ben King. While they may not have won many races for us, they had a big impact on the younger and less experienced riders.”
Gaining respect of the WorldTour riders is also a challenge.
“Results help, but what they really need is time and resilience,” Carney said. “Respect has to be earned and that takes time. It starts with racing at the front, racing as a team, and not being easily discouraged.”
It’s undoubtedly bittersweet but part of the team’s goals is to prepare riders to move up to the WorldTour.
“It helps to have super experienced guys like Chad Haga on the team who can guide the younger guys,” Carney said. “It also helps to have a balanced race program. We need races where we can go for the win and races where we are over our heads. This gives the riders opportunities to hone their race craft while also experiencing racing at the highest level.”
The tactic has some success backing it. Riders like Sepp Kuss, Mike Woods, Brandon McNulty and Magnus Sheffield have all graduated from the team to WorldTour.
“For starters those guys possess a lot of talent and they are very driven,” Carney said. “I’ll use Mike Woods as an example. I still think Mike Woods is an alien. He was bound to be successful. Perhaps we were able to speed up the process by giving him good equipment, committed teammates, a positive environment, and a good race program with targets that suited him.
“We were the right team at the right time. But each situation is unique and our contribution is different for each guy. I don’t want to take credit for anyone’s successes. I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them and hope they continue to succeed.”
Choosing the right races goes a long way to maximizing the competitiveness of a team like Human Powered Health.
“We learned a couple years ago that we need to be racing at the [UCI] .1 level a lot,” Carney recalled. “At that level, we should be competing against our peers and be able to execute strategy and produce results. Then we bring that experience to the bigger races and try to execute against the WorldTour teams.
“Unfortunately, the UCI implemented their relegation system and now almost every .1 race has eight WorldTour teams. We are trying to adapt and our new approach is to focus more on sprinting. We believe we can be competitive week in week out at a high level in the field sprints.”
With field sprints a priority this season, there was one rider on the market who could have helped in that area.
“We did try bring Mark Cavendish to our team for 2023 and came quite close,” Carney said. “Mark is a legend of the sport and still performing at a very high level. We saw it as an opportunity to step up our performance, elevate the program, and gain entry into some big races. It also would have been a great opportunity to learn for our current athletes. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Looking forward, we will be looking for other opportunities to bring top WorldTour riders into our team.”
Competing against WorldTour teams clearly has its challenges.
“It is difficult to line up every week against teams who have exponentially more resources and individual riders who are being paid more than our entire team,” Carney said. “If you start to have success, the WorldTour teams take your best riders and you’re forced to rebuild. We are working hard to overcome the challenges, but it’s a process that does not end until you are in the WorldTour. And then you just have a different set of challenges.”
Given all the difficulties they have had to overcome to be successful, Human Powered Health has had some high profile successes.
“It’s hard to say which was the biggest [win],” Carney said. “We have had some really nice wins in Europe at the Four Days of Dunkerque, Tour of Sicily, Tour of Turkey, Tour of Denmark, Tour of Britain, Tour of Portugal, etc … But it still feels like our most important victories were the two stage wins at the Tour of California in 2017 by Evan Huffman. Our whole team was on fire that year and winning WorldTour races as a Continental team showed what was possible and set us on this path.”
With a smaller roster than WorldTour teams it can be a challenge to keep the riders healthy and fresh.
“This is always hard to manage,” Carney said. “Every person is an individual and we do our best to stay flexible. If they thrive, we do more. If they struggle, we ease off. But in the end it’s a grind over here, and when your teammates get sick or injured, you get called up.
“We try to plan our season as best we can and predict how many race days we need, but we cannot control how many guys get sick or injured. Sometimes it’s none, sometimes it’s eight guys all at once. It can be very hard to find the balance.”
But still, Human Powered Health can provide riders some things that a WorldTour team cannot.
“We offer a program that features mostly .1 and .Pro races,” Carney said. “For most riders, it’s important to avoid skipping steps in their development. The WorldTour is mostly a sink or swim situation. If you go too early and you sink, it can be hard to recover.
“The second thing is opportunities. On a WorldTour team, if you are not one of the star riders, you end up stuck in a role as a worker. After a couple years it can be hard to break that cycle and get some opportunities. Racing for our team, riders have a lot more opportunities to race for results and establish their value.”
Ultimately, Human Powered Health would like to be a WorldTour team and compete in the biggest races in the world, but for 2023 the team will continue to execute its short term goals.
“The main focus right now is to be consistently competitive at the .1 and .HC races,” Carney said. “I could talk about specific goals, but it’s more important that we focus on the process, do things the right way, learn from our mistakes, and always strive to improve. If we do those things, and create a stable and positive environment, the athletes will perform and the results will come.
“I am very proud of the progress that we have made and the team we have built. We have an incredible group of people — management, logistics, mechanics, soigneurs, directors, etc … Those people are the foundation of our team and I’m proud to work with all of them.”