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Q&A: Marc de Maar says UnitedHealthcare’s aiming high

In Argentina for the Tour de San Luis, the Dutch-born racer hopes UnitedHealthcare can make a bigger splash in a cleaner sport

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SAN LUIS, Argentina (VN) — Part of the journey to this Argentinian town — host of the eighth annual Tour de San Luís — is a three-hour drive from the Mendoza airport. It’s a trek familiar to most racers who have done the race before, although it’s a detail that one rider, UnitedHealthcare’s Marc de Maar, seemed to have forgotten over a long season of flights, transfers, and endless hotel rooms.

VeloNews shared the ride with de Maar, the 29-year-old two-time national champion of Curaçao, a small island of 173,000 in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the Venezuelan coast, which claimed independence from the Dutch Antilles in October 2010.

De Maar, 29, was born in the Netherlands and started his pro career with Rabobank, spending four injury-plagued years with the Dutch team, from 2006 to 2009. Frustrated by his lack of success and opportunity, at the recommendation of former Rabobank teammate Rory Sutherland, de Maar jumped across the Atlantic to the American UnitedHealthcare squad in 2010, winning the Mount Hood Cycling Classic. He returned to the WorldTour with Quick Step in 2011; his top result that year was 12th overall at the Volta a Catalunya.

A climber that can also time trial, De Maar returned to UnitedHealthcare for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, registering stage wins at the Tour of Britain and Tour de Beauce. He is opening the 2014 season with the team in Argentina, along with sprinters
 Carlos Alzate (Colombia) and Luke Keough (USA); climbers Isaac Bolivar (Colombia) and Lucas Euser; and road captain
 Jonathan Clarke (Australia).

Days before the Tour de San Luís started, the new-for-2014 UnitedHealthcare women’s team won two stages and the overall at the inaugural women’s edition of the Tour Femenino de San Luís.

VeloNews: You did the Tour de San Luís last year — what are your memories of the race?

Marc de Maar: Well, I forgot how far it was from airport to the hotel! Ha. I have good first impressions of the race. It’s a fun race to start the season off with. It has a little bit of everything — climbing, flat stages, a TT course. And the good thing about this race is that that the weather is really nice. It’s on the other side of the world. It was not that long ago we were really only racing in Europe, and starting off the season in Spain. These days, the season is starting in Australia (Tour Down Under), or Africa (Tropicale Amissa Bongo), or here in Argentina.

VN: Are you surprised at all by the field? Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen … it’s a strong field for a non-WorldTour event in January.

MDM: This race has everything in it, so for those guys, it’s good preparation for the rest of the season. Those Euro guys came over early to get in some training as well, because the weather here is better than in most European countries at the moment. And for some of those guys, who have been around cycling for a long time, they like to have some new adventures. They’ve been to Mallorca this time of year all of their cycling career. I’m sure that gets a little old.

VN: You’re looking pretty tan. Coming from Curaçao, you don’t really ever deal with winter, do you?

MDM: No, there’s no winter at all. It’s even warmer than here, plus it’s humid. There’s really not much time zone difference, but it’s a long way to get here. I flew from Curaçao to Bogota (Colombia), to Santiago (Chile), to Mendoza, plus the three-hour car ride.

VN: What are UnitedHealthcare’s objectives for this race?

MDM: The team is aiming pretty high this year; we want to step it up over the next two years. We’ve already applied for a few WorldTour wild-card invitations here and there, so it’s really important to show ourselves to race organizers. I’m aware we’re racing against some of the best GC contenders in the world, so it’s not easy to get a result, but we should be part of the race every day, and hopefully that will result in a nice, well … result.

We brought a very mixed team. We have two fast guys, in Luke Keough and Carlos Alzate. Luke is Jake’s younger brother, and he’s still pretty young (22 years old). Carlos has been kicking around the U.S. criterium scene for a few years, and he’ll be doing some real road racing this year. For both of them it’s going to be a learning process, and there’s also a bit of pressure, it would be nice to see those guys doing top-10, or top-five finishes. Then we have guys like Lucas Euser, and me, we should be able to do well in the mountain stages, or go in breakaways. Johnny Clarke will be our team captain. Tactically he’s pretty savvy. He’s the guy that, when there’s a stressful situation, he gives the orders. He never really panics; it will be good to have him around. Then we have Issac Hernandez Bolivar, a Colombian climber. I spent some time training with him over the last few weeks, in Colombia, to prepare for this race. It was funny, I booked plane tickets to Colombia ages ago, before the team had signed him, and at our training camp I found out that his mom owns a hotel in Medellin, so it all worked out well, and I stayed at this little family hotel at Medellin, at almost 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in altitude. I spent time with him training. We were able to communicate a bit — he speaks a little English, I speak a little Spanish. Every once in a while we had to use Google Translate, but working on communicating made our long training rides go by fast. He’s young, but he’s a strong climber. He has some potential for sure. This will be his first professional race, ever.

VN: As a Pro Continental team, the UnitedHealthcare team is in a funny position, where it’s really a little too strong, or dominant, for domestic NRC races — the team won almost every major criterium in the U.S. last year — but not deep enough to be guaranteed wild-card invites to WorldTour races.

MDM: Those American races are still important to the team. They bring big publicity, which helps to keep the sponsors happy. We represent an American company. I don’t know that much about the American crit scene, but I know a few races disappeared from the calendar, so of course we won’t be doing those races. At the same time the team is focusing on a bigger program, we want to step up, which is why the team applied for a few wild cards. Unfortunately we missed out on [RCS Sports events] Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d’Italia, but we received wild cards for Milano-Sanremo and E3 Prijs Harelbeke, which is a huge step forward. I’m really excited. I’ve done those races before, and I’m excited to share my experience with those teammates who have never done those races before.

VN: How will the team prepare for races like Milano-Sanremo and Harelbeke, without racing Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice?

MDM: It’s a hard thing, especially competing with guys who grew up in those areas, racing there from week to week. You just have to do them, and make sure you remember the tactical and difficult sections for the next year after. We have a Belgian director, [former Omega Pharma-Lotto director] Hendrik Redant, he knows every square centimeter in Belgium. He has a lot of experience in those races, as a director and also as a rider. We also have [former Garmin-Sharp rider] Martijn Maaskant, he’s a bit of a Belgian classics specialist. I’ve done those races but I’m not a specialist, I’m more focused on hilly stage races. I’m more of a climber, but I’ll have to do a few of those races, with this role on the team. At Rabobank and Quick Step I was just one of many good riders. Now I can share my experience, which makes me more excited to do those races.

VN: What’s it been like to see the new UnitedHealthcare women’s team this year?

MDM: We had a training camp in Phoenix, Arizona, a week before Christmas, and that included the women’s team — they are part of our team now. It’s been a men’s team forever, and all of a sudden, these women are there, and a few of our [men’s team] riders were suddenly a little more well behaved [laughs]. But when you just look at their focus and preparation, it’s not any different than ours. They are training hard, eating proper foods, worrying about all the same things we are.

VN: Seeing Alison Powers winning the women’s race, the team winning two stages, that has to be good for the morale coming into the men’s race.

MDM: It’s great, in terms of publicity in the cycling news over the last few days, it brings us in a good spot with the sponsor. We can get benefit out of each other’s teams. It feels like one big family. I think outside of the U.S. we won’t see each other much. This race [San Luís] is an exception. I know they’ll do the women’s Giro again, with [defending champion] Mara Abbott. Maybe in future they will do more races in Europe. Honestly, I was never too interested in women’s racing in the past, but now that we have a women’s team, I did some research, looked up some names, started looking at results. Now I’m very interested.

VN: How would you describe the differences in riding for a big pro team, like Rabobank or Quick Step, rather than a second-tier team like UnitedHealthcare?

MDM: On those big teams, they have been around forever, they have a huge amount of money to spend, they don’t even really look at the bills, and as a rider all you have to do is focus on bike riding and making sure you are doing well. On a team like ours, we are trying to get there, and I think we are doing a good job; you play with the cards you’re dealt. At races in Belgium, we have Henrik, who has been around big teams, and a few riders who have been on WorldTour teams. Our team management is absorbing all the information they can get, on multiple levels — logistics, racing, tactics, equipment — all that stuff. As a rider it gives you a different perspective.

On bigger teams, you are just thinking for yourself, and doing well for the team on the bike, but on this team, you’re thinking for the team as well. It makes it nicer. On those big teams I never met a sponsor. Okay, I met the owner of Rabobank, but I never met the engineers of Giant, or Colnago. But on this team, you get the chance to meet those people, the engineers of our bikes, or clothing, and it’s fun to be part of that process. All those brands that are sponsoring us, they’re trying to develop those products, they actually use our feedback, and it’s fun to be part of that process. It makes you realize why you are being paid every month. It’s not just a game we are playing, we’re part of developing business, and you feel responsible for it. It gives you extra motivation every once in a while.

VN: When you mention the UnitedHealthcare team wanting to step up … how far is the team looking to grow?

MDM: They’ve never really clarified it, but I think the fact that we are applying for wild cards shows the direction they want to go. The same with starting a women’s team. I think it’s the moment to try to step up. When you look at the last two years, a lot of teams disappeared. The sport is changing, it’s cleaning up, it’s a good moment if you are wanting to grow. [Team owner Momentum Sports Group] has been in the sport since 2003, so it’s also a nice and safe feeling to be part of that, it’s a very stable organization, I think that speaks for itself.

VN: What do you still want to accomplish in your career?

MDM: I’ve done basically every major bike race but the Tour de France, so that’s one of my goals. Hopefully I can do it with this team. When I’ve been racing on WorldTour teams, and then this team, there are things I miss on both. When I am on a WorldTour team, I miss the way this team is more relaxed. There are no big stars, everyone is more equal, even the staff, so there is a nice vibe, a nice atmosphere, everyone can say what they want to, and you can be critical of one another without having hard feelings. I like that I don’t do 130 days of racing any more, but every once in a while, you see a grand tour on TV, and you wish you were there and part of it. I know what I miss on both parts, but this team is going in a good direction, it’s a bit of both, and hopefully the program will continue to grow.

For me, for 2014, the Tour of Oman will be a bit of a focus, then Strade Bianche, and Milan-Sanremo, we want to do really well there. My program is changed a little since we just learned that we will not be doing Tirreno-Adriatico. I feel pretty confident after a good winter of training. Last year was not my best season, I was always stable and had good form all year long, but I had no big results. It was a learning experience.

Now that the Giro d’Italia is not happening for us, I’m going to focus on the Tour of the Gila and the Amgen Tour of California. Last year I did the Tour of Turkey, this year I want to do well at Gila. Gila was one of my first cycling experiences in the U.S. To come from Europe to Silver City, New Mexico, I felt like I had ended up in some western movie. I have good memories of that week. My dad came over to see the race, and he had the same feelings. That was when Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer were there, racing for RadioShack. I have special memories of that race. I’ve done it twice, and both times I’ve left, I’ve wondered if I will ever come back to Silver City. It looks like I will be back.

VN: You live in Curaçao, and you race for an American team that is eyeing European races. Where do you base yourself during the race season?

MDM: I spent this last off-season in Curaçao, plus in the U.S., for a team training camp, and in Colombia, for altitude training. After Tour of Oman I will go back to Europe and stay in Girona, Spain, until Gila and California. Then it’s a big question mark. The team is trying to get an invite to the Vuelta a España. Normally I’d plan on a big block of stage races in America — Utah, Colorado, and Alberta, but I could be racing at the Vuelta. That’s unknown. First things first — I want to focus on the beginning of the season.