Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article written by Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris for TheOuterLine.com about the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies team.
Several pro cycling teams have generated considerable buzz over the past few years by cracking down on doping, boasting new internal testing requirements and protocols, and promoting themselves as “the clean team” to potential sponsors. But few if any other teams have developed the stellar and consistent record of Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and its predecessor teams — going on almost 20 years now without a single positive test. While many teams over the years have boasted to be clean, “we actually are the clean team,” says team owner and managing director Charles Aaron.
In American cycling, Aaron may be one of the most influential people that you’ve never heard of. However, his teams employ more North American athletes, both men and women, than any other team, and he has sent numerous riders to the WorldTour. In 2014, the men’s, women’s, and cyclocross team raced to 70 wins and 157 podiums, including a stage win and the KOM jersey at the Tour of California, and a stage at the Tour of Utah.
Twenty years ago, Aaron was a hopeful amateur racer from the Minneapolis area who gradually got into the business of managing teams. He held positions with different teams and ended up running the Cadillac-sponsored Catera mountain biking team for several years in the late 1990s. Then, nine years ago, Aaron connected with John Kelly — head of Kelly Benefit Strategies, a $1.5 billion health benefits firm in Baltimore — and the two put together a plan to enter the domestic road racing scene. The duo later connected with the much larger Optum health services organization, which became the name sponsor four years ago.
Aaron and Kelly decided on day one that the critical thing in building a clean and successful team was to hire the right people to run the day-to-day operations — to find and screen the athletes, to oversee the training and performance, to manage the logistical operations of the team, and to maintain close relationships with sponsors. The first to come on board was Jonas Carney, who heads all of the performance and training aspects of the team. The Team Optum approach is pretty simple, says Carney. “If you want to have a clean team, it has to start from the top. You have to have a clean staff, and one which really cares about being clean — not just about winning.” In addition, says team general manager Jacob Erker, “Our policy is never to hire an athlete who has been coached by people whom we consider to be questionable. We ask a lot of questions and check into who the rider has worked with in the past,” he says. “We would rather lose, than win and have to wonder if one of our athletes was cheating,” says Carney.
Aaron takes a tough stance, even though he realizes that all dopers are not necessarily bad people. “I understand why some people make wrong decisions, decisions that they may later truly and whole-heartedly regret,” he says, “but nonetheless, we just don’t want those people on our team.” Erker reinforces this statement. “Some folks say that everyone deserves a second chance, but I don’t think cycling owes dopers a job. It’s more like the lawyer who gets disbarred; he can go do anything else he wants to, he just can’t be a lawyer again.” Erker adds that the team is in favor of lifetime bans for proven and premeditated doping positives.
Critics might point to Tom Zirbel who has raced for Optum the last three seasons after failing a test for DHEA in 2009 and serving a voluntary two-year ban before returning to racing in 2011. Zirbel consistently maintained that he unknowingly ingested DHEA in one of the numerous and generally unregulated nutritional supplements available on the open market — and after cooperating with USADA on his own and several other ongoing cases, his sanction was eventually reduced. Carney spent an enormous amount of time with Zirbel, looking into his situation and talking to many people who knew him earlier in his career, and says, “We became convinced that he was a clean athlete who failed a test due to a contaminated supplement.” Adds Aaron, “There are plenty of guys out there who have never failed a test who we wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and we never would have hired Tom if we didn’t believe 100 percent that he was a clean racer.”
The team takes a different approach in other areas as well. Aaron believes in a decidedly more integrated approach to dealing with his sponsors. In fact, he doesn’t really think of them as sponsors, or simply outside parties who are providing funds to run the team; that line of thinking almost seems to offend him. Instead, he says, “I think of them as business partners. We both have our individual business objectives, and we are trying to accomplish those objectives together, via a professional cycling team.”
The other way its approach significantly differs from many (if not most) of the top level WorldTour teams, is that Team Optum runs strictly in the black. “If we’re not in the black, then we’re out of business,” says Aaron. Team Optum has no wealthy benefactor behind them, writing checks to cover the difference every year, like many other pro teams. “I bankrolled this business early on with my own credit card, and I understand that I have to make a profit, or we shut down the shop,” he says.
At the end of the day, he just wants to create an environment where young riders can compete in a fair game and have fun. “We’re not perfect,” says Aaron, “but some of our ideas seem to be working.”