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Candelario’s Korea win confirms veteran sprinter’s growth

Optum captain enjoys day in the limelight after four-year drought

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Alex Candelario confirmed his rise from gritty criterium sprinter to road veteran when he won the second stage at the Tour of Korea and took over the race lead.

Candelario, who holds a place amongst the most respected veteran riders in the U.S. peloton, has changed significantly since his last win, in 2008 at the Uptown Greenwood Challenge in Greenwood, South Carolina. The Nevada native built a career at Jelly Belly as a pure sprinter, racking up wins at Super Week and criterium stages at the Redlands and Cascade Classics. Twice a podium finisher at the U.S. Professional Criterium Championships, “Cando” began the shift many aging sprinters undergo when he joined Jonas Carney at what is now Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies in the team’s second season.

Despite losing the overall lead on Tuesday, the win in Korea was a final confirmation of Candelario’s rise from gritty sprinter to team captain.

“This is a great win for Candelario and the team — his toughness and determination today were phenomenal,” Carney said after Monday’s stage. “I have watched his skill set diversify and progress significantly over the past couple seasons, truly becoming something other than the field sprinter. I think we all knew.”

Candelario rode into the key breakaway late in the rain-soaked 197km stage to Gwangju. He countered a late attack and edged out the win, earning himself the overall leader’s jersey.

“It has to be one of the biggest wins of his career, and it gives the team a great target to shoot for as the race continues,” said Carney. “We are prepared to do whatever it takes to bring home yellow.”

If there is a heart and soul of the tight-knit Optum squad, it is Candelario. Steady and calm, the 37-year-old was among the early recruits to join Carney, in the team’s sophomore season. Since then, he has established himself as the road captain and has been key to the team’s presence in U.S. races and its philanthropic efforts with World Bicycle Relief.

Despite his near-four-year win drought, Candelario has landed results that included second-place at the 2010 U.S. Professional National Championships road race and fourth overall at last month’s Redlands Bicycle Classic. With his stage win and day in yellow, Candelario will lead Optum back to the States in May for the Amgen Tour of California.

But first, he will enjoy the Asian racing while he can — and help teammate Mike Friedman in his bid to return to the podium in Korea, where he won the overall in 2010. Optum’s Ken Hanson is also knocking on the door for a stage win and finished second on Tuesday.

“Our team has always considered it an honor and a great test of fitness to race over here, and its great leading up to our big goals back in the U.S. this summer. We take the Tour de Korea very seriously,” said Candelario. “Asian races are always aggressive. All day long people are hitting each other, attacks are flying, moves are going; it’s great. Plus I love Korean culture. Everyone treats us well, the food is great, and the stages provide a great glimpse of the beauty of South Korea. We are extremely motivated to keep the pressure on as the week rolls on.”