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Outgunned domestic teams look for success in Colorado, minus the pressure

U.S. team managers say there's no pressure at the USA Pro Challenge, but they're hunting big results on one of their biggest stages of the year

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ASPEN, Colo. (VN) You would think this would be it for the domestic squads — the time to strike, the pressure its highest, management pressing down upon riders for results.

But, at least according to a few of the smaller teams here in Colorado at the USA Pro Challenge, you’d be wrong.

To a man, the domestic teams are outgunned by the larger teams here, the Garmin-Sharps, BMC Racings, and Skys. The eyeballs are on them here more than any other time, in turn increasing sponsor wants and the need to leave impressions on a short-attention-spanned cycling collective. But pressure doesn’t always equal results, so the managers of the smaller-budget teams are keeping it calm in Colorado, at least publicly.

“I don’t think it helps to put a lot of pressure on ourselves. This is a really difficult race with some stiff competition. But we want to have an impact on the race. We want to make our mark on the race,” said Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies director Jonas Carney. “So there’s some pressure, especially on these sprint stages. … It is nice to kind of come into a race where we can kind of swing at the fences and not be expected to contest the overall.”

UnitedHealthcare manager Mike Tamayo said he hoped for a stage win here, something that’s eluded the boys in blue at the major North American races this season. Kiel Reijnen rode to third in Monday’s opening stage in Aspen.

“We’re performing well right now… we don’t perform well necessarily because of the focus on the end of the season,” he said. “All of our sponsors are watching, Bike industry and UnitedHealthcare. All we can do is ride well. Our podium in [Amgen Tour of] California on the mountaintop desert, that was huge. Our [Larry H. Miller Tour of] Utah was really successful. So we’re hoping for another podium in Colorado. But yeah, you feel the pressure.”

The main goal? A stage win.

“The stage win keeps eluding us between California, Utah, and here. We’re in the hunt. We’re in the top five every stage we’ve done. We just need to win. We want to win.”

Omer Kem, Bissell’s director, said for his boys, the pressure is off thanks to results earlier this season.

“We won the king of the mountains jersey at California. We won the king of the mountains jersey at Utah. We were top 10 overall. I don’t feel any pressure, really, in terms of having to step up at this race,” Kem said. “We just need to continue the progression we’ve been on, and results are coming. We’ve been growing this program for the past four years.”

Then again, don’t expect any riders to lie down here, no matter their team or pedigree. Bissell, for one, has made a reputation for itself as arguably the most consistent breakaway team in the major U.S. races over the last half decade.

“We get to be aggressive. We get to go out and pick our battles. There’s no pressure or responsibility on us to dictate or control how the race is going to play out,” Kem said. “We get to go out and race.”

To hear a rider tell it, though, it sounds a bit different. The team management may not be barking “or else,” but the riders put pressure on themselves.

“There’s pressure at these races for sure. This is the biggest race in the country, or one of the biggest … so to perform here could be your entire career,” said Jamis-Hagens Berman rider Matt Cooke, who rode himself into the KOM jersey on stage 1, with a long breakaway. “So that’s what you train for, knowing going in, ‘Ok, I’m up against guys who have raced the Tour de France 10 times. I’m going to be outgunned, but I will use all the tools I have to compete against these guys.’ Hey man. I trained for months just for this race, just like everyone in the domestic teams.”

The USA Pro Challenge, and all its pressures, resumes Tuesday morning, with the 202km second stage, from Aspen to Breckenridge via Independence and Hoosier Passes.

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