After racing for several years on the American Pro Road Tour, Michael Hernandez returned to his roots racing crits with his new team, Best Buddies Racing.
Through ups and downs — including losing his mother to cancer in May — he found his niche in racing and directing a troop of veterans he lured back from retirement for a good cause.
“People have given us some hate, calling us ‘Team Retirement,’ but I needed the big names to draw attention,” Hernandez said before the penultimate USA CRITS race in El Paso, Texas. “There may be faster, younger guys, but I was looking for professionals that knew how to act off the bike because of what we represent in Best Buddies.”
Hernandez earned several top-ten stage finishes at the biggest stage races in North America racing for Aevolo and the U.S. National Team before switching gears.
He learned how to adjust his training, leaving out those 5-hour solo training rides, making training more enjoyable. According to Hernandez, it’s easier for a rider to transition from road to crit racing where the race is much shorter and explosive than the other way around.
“We just had to back off the training and go a little harder,” he said.
After moving to Miami, a chance meeting with the founder of Best Buddies International non-profit organization Andy Schriver, kick-started what would become the Best Buddies Racing team. Hernandez took the lead in putting the squad together in November 2020, weeks after many riders have already penned their contracts for the coming season.
“Everyone on the team really bought into the mission of Best Buddies and supporting people with intellectual disabilities,” he said shortly after the season began. “It’s amazing to me that I found such a high caliber level of riders in November, until March with Danny Summerhill.”
The D1 USA CRITS team is one of the few elite teams that pay their riders, supporting their travel, lodging, and food, all managed by Hernandez, the youngest member of the squad. He officially began working for the Best Buddies organization full-time on the special events team last December. A unique opportunity that allows him to give back while continuing to do what he does best – racing bikes.
“It’s been good so far; I don’t have any complaints,” he said. “The team has come together better than I thought they would. It took a little time to get some traction and momentum, but we’re rolling now. I don’t see us slowing down.”
The team started slow out of the gates, with a rivalry building between them and L39gion of Los Angeles. With each race, they gained momentum until race number six of the series, in Birmingham, where Danny Summerhill broke the L39ion winning streak.
The L.A. outfit chose to skip the race in El Paso, where Best Buddies took advantage and increased their lead in the Primal Best Young Riders jersey with Hernandez who also moved into second in the Colavita race for orange. Summerhill was also a no-show in El Paso but maintained a healthy lead in the BikeReg lap leader blue jersey heading into the finals in Winston-Salem.
“I know there will be people who say we only won because L39ion wasn’t here,” he said before the start of the race. “They can talk all they want. We won in Spartanburg when they had their A team. We don’t just race to race L39gion; we race to win bike races. Obviously, the tactics change. It’s a much more aggressive bike race than most USA Crits because we’re not going to sit and ride the front like the L39ion train tactic.”
Gaining exposure for the team and its cause was another reason why the USA CRITS circuit was such an important focus for the team. An aspect of USA cycling Hernandez believes is the future and growth of the sport in North America.
All 10 races in the series are streamed online for free each season, something that has proven to be a big asset in spreading the important message the team is working hard to convey.
“Our goal is to raise funds and spread awareness for Best Buddies,” he added. “It’s great on-site to have a couple of thousand people there, but the live stream reach has really changed the game for us. We’re also the charity supporter of USA CRITS giving primes, so we’re trying to be involved as much as we can. With the live stream, you have endless opportunities. We’re grateful for USA CRITS. We’re planning on growing next year, with a bigger roster, more support. Whether L39ion comes back to USA CRITS or not, we’ll be here.”
Hernandez and the team will head to Winston-Salem in a couple of weeks’ time to fight for the finals of the 2021 series. After a thrilling battle with Butcherbox and Clif Bar Racing in El Paso, the squad nailed their plan in El Paso and is hoping to secure enough points in North Carolina for the Hello Fresh team competition as well.
“What’s really important for me now, as you know my mom passed away at the end of May. I’ve been able to go and race, it’s taken my mind not off of it because I think about her every day, but I know that she would want me to be here. Every time I perform, I know she’s looking down and is proud of me. For me, that’s everything.”