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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The Jelly Belly-Kenda team has struggled in recent years to attract invites to races like the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge. The pressure on domestic teams to attend the new UCI stage races has weighed heavily on smaller professional programs like Jelly Belly.
At the beginning of the year, Jelly Belly director Danny Van Haute knew he would need to make changes to his lineup in order to improve the team’s performance. Van Haute made two major acquisitions this spring, and so far they have paid off in the form of a national road race championship and two stage wins at the Nature Valley Grand Prix.
Van Haute’s first move was bringing on Serghei Tvetcov in April. Tvetcov was left without a contract after Team Exergy folded at the end of 2012. A former Moldovian time trial champion, Tvetcov immediately energized the team with a top-10 finish in the fifth stage at Silver City’s Tour of the Gila.
“We’ve been close to getting big results all year,” six-year Jelly Belly veteran Brad Huff said. “Just having them get some great results for us has shown the other riders it’s definitely possible.“
Shortly before the U.S. professional road race championships at the end of May, Van Haute made his second big move, which was bringing on veteran Freddie Rodriguez. Rodriguez rode smartly in Chattanooga, and immediately rewarded his new team by winning the national road race title.
“In May we picked up Freddie and the momentum has just continued since nationals,” Van Haute said of his team’s change in fortune. “It’s because we bring experienced guys on that want to race. It makes these guys want to race now too. I don’t know how that happens or why that happens. They should know, they are professionals, and that they should be racing every god damn day, and if they don’t, I’m going to bring on new guys.”
The changes electrified the squad and the results were apparent at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Tvetcov surprised many by winning the St. Paul Riverfront Time Trial, and Sean Mazich won his first major race one day later at the Cannon Falls Road Race.
A major victory had eluded Mazich since he turned professional with Jelly Belly in 2010. Mazich credited Rodriguez for setting up his victory on the closing circuits of the 90-mile road race, and was eager to call his parents and mentor, Chris Horner, to tell them the news.
“I don’t know what to say, everyone is just riding phenomenal,” Mazich said after his win last Thursday. “To finally be rewarded, after you’ve gotten beaten down your entire career, it’s emotional.”
The additions have helped other veterans like Huff and Ricardo Van der Velde, who won the points title at Nature Valley, focus their talent and energy. “We are riding the way we should have been earlier on in the year,” Van der Velde said. “Seeing Freddie win the nationals two weeks ago was really big. I was back home in Holland, and I was watching the live feed in the middle of the night, and it gave me quite a rush. I was like, ‘When I get back to the states I’m just going to smash it.‘ We have the national champion so we have to.”
Riders like Rodriguez bring a level of leadership and professionalism that only comes with experience. After the Cannon Falls Road Race, Rodriguez wanted to cool down, so he took a bag of Jelly Belly handouts and started giving them away. As a crowd of children collected around Rodriguez, he had his new fans promise to exercise in return for a sample package of Jelly Belly beans. It was a small gesture, but one that is appreciated by fans, team staff, and sponsors.
Most importantly for Van Haute, Rodriguez’s leadership has extended to his duty as road captain for the team. “Freddie is so good with the guys,” Van Haute said. “He’s an experienced guy at 39 years old. He’s not afraid to tell the guys in the peloton ‘Hey, you’re messing up.’”
Before the start of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, Jelly Belly received news of its invite to the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. The team still has a long way to go in order to accomplish its goals, but with new leadership and motivation, it gets closer every day.