Velo Best Domestic Men’s and Women’s Team: Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies; Breakthrough Rider of the Year: Jade Wilcoxson

Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies is our Best Men's — and Women's — Domestic Team, while Jade Wilcoxson is our Breakthrough Rider of the Year

Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.

Best Domestic Men’s Team: Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies

Unlike their women’s team counterpart, the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies men’s team didn’t take top honors on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar team rankings. They didn’t take first place on USA Cycling’s National Criterium Calendar, either.

What they did, however, is place highly on both, proving their depth and versatility across a season-long calendar that included stage races, criteriums, and appearances at both the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge.

Led by Tom Zirbel, the team placed second overall in the NRC rankings. Zirbel, the tall, blond time-trial specialist, won the overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Also performing strongly in stage races were Sebastian Salas, KOM winner at the Amgen Tour, and Jesse Anthony, a stage winner at the Cascade Classic and the runner-up at the Tour of the Battenkill. On the criterium circuit, Ken Hanson led the team to fifth in the NCC standings with wins at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, Tour of Elk Grove, and a national criterium championship; he also won Vancouver’s Gastown Grand Prix.

As the third-ranked team in the UCI America Tour, Optum was invited to compete in the inaugural world team time trial championship. Consisting of Zirbel, Anthony, Scott Zwizanski, Mike Creed, Reid Mumford, and Mike Friedman, Optum’s TTT squad proved its class, finishing 20th — ahead of Tour de France squads like Cofidis and FDJ-BigMat.

Best Domestic Women’s Team: Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies

With Carmen Small at the sharp end of a multi-pronged attack, the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies women’s team won across disciplines in 2012. The team scored a dominant National Racing Calendar win, nearly doubling the points total of second-ranked Exergy-Twenty12, due in part to Small and Jade Wilcoxson scoring wins in stage races, road races, and criteriums.

Small was the individual NRC champ and our choice as Domestic Road Women’s Stage Racer of the Year. While veterans Janel Holcomb and Joelle Numainville lacked wins, Small and Wilcoxson more than made up the difference. The orange and black train tore through the national series, landing riders on the podium at every major event it contested, including overall wins by Wilcoxson at the Tour of Elk Grove and Joe Martin Stage Race, and for Small at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Small was also second at the SRAM Tour of the Gila (to Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong) and Cascade Classic. The team clinched the overall title before it even toed the line at the Tour of Elk Grove.

The team was second in the National Criterium Calendar standings to Tibco-To The Top, and landed crit wins that included the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge and stages at Joe Martin, Elk Grove, and Gila. For her part, Wilcoxson was second at the Sunny King Criterium, TD Bank Mayor’s Cup, and Grand Cycling Classic.

This was an Olympic year, of course, and had Exergy-Twenty12 or Tibco-To the Top focused on a domestic calendar with more intensity, the domestic picture may have looked different. To see former teammates Small and Megan Guarnier (Tibco-To the Top) go head-to-head in an NRC showdown would have been compelling racing, to say the very least.

But racing isn’t a game of would-haves and, as it were, Optum was clearly the most consistent domestic women’s team in 2012. The team set out with the aim of dominating the U.S. women’s peloton this season and it executed from start to finish.

Breakthrough Rider of the Year: Jade Wilcoxson

A little over a year ago, Jade Wilcoxson was working as a physical therapist in Oregon and dabbling in elite-level racing. A season later, she is Velo’s Domestic Road Breakthrough Rider of the Year.

At 34, Wilcoxson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) doesn’t exactly fit the mold for a neo-pro. Armed with a doctorate in physical therapy from Pacific University, the mountain biker-turned-road racer took aim at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2011, earning a spot with the Pro Ride amateur team after she won a regional qualifier in Oregon. From there, she’s shot to the front of the women’s peloton and shown herself as one of the most talented all-rounders in the country.

When Optum boss Rachel Heal came calling late in 2011, Wilcoxson decided to put her PT practice on hold, rent out her home, move into a suitcase, and fully dedicate herself to a new career. It paid off quickly.

Wilcoxson established herself fiercely in 2012, riding to an impressive fourth overall at the SRAM Tour of the Gila in early May, before winning the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race on the strength of her final-stage criterium victory. Podiums at big-time criteriums like the Sunny King in Alabama and Grand Cycling Classic in Michigan followed, as did wins at the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge, in Aspen, and the Tour of Elk Grove, near Chicago.

Wilcoxson finished the season third in the National Racing Calendar rankings, just 13 points behind second-place Alison Powers (NOW-Novartis for MS). She was a key piece of the team’s overall title and was instrumental in every one of Optum’s stage race successes in 2012, from the Gila all the way through to Elk Grove.

In Wilcoxson and the Pro Chase, Nature Valley organizers continue their history of exposing amateur talent — from National Criterium Calendar champion Erica Allar to world championship team member Amanda Miller.