Alex Candelario has been cycling professionally for more than six years and is on his second season with the Kelly Benefit Strategies squad. The 34-year old sprinter started relatively late in the sport and feels that he has still many more years to contribute to his team.
After the team was passed over for the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, Candelario started the season at the Redlands Bicycle Classic followed by the 66th Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay where the KBS team dominated, taking home five stage wins and the overall classification. Candelario was the consummate team player at Uruguay, a role he repeated at the Bank of America Wilmington Grand Prix two weeks ago when he provided the perfect leadout for his teammate Zach Bell who sprinted for the win.
I caught up with Candelario a bit earlier this season to get his thoughts on working with Performance Director Jonas Carney, one of the most successful American riders of his era, the state of the US cycling, surfing and more.
What is it like working with Jonas [Carney]?
Jonas and I used to race together on Prime Alliance and Jelly Belly, obviously my first years I learned a lot from him in terms of sprinting and it’s kind of carried me throughout my career. It’s always a huge benefit to have Jonas directing especially with sprints and stuff like that.
Does he direct differently than guys who were not sprinters?
He raced most of his life, when he was a junior he had to ride out in the wind, do climbs, he knows how to do everything, he’s really good at tactics, he’s really good at information and on the radio, he’s really a good director.
Are you still learning while you’re racing?
I think if you don’t learn then there might be something wrong with you. Every day is different and every bike race is different, that’s what so great about bike racing. Anything can happen in a bike race and that’s the essence of it. You have your standard tactics but something can go wrong, something can go right that can change everything and you always learn something using that for the next race.
Did anything happen that really surprised you last year? Or did not happen?
Obviously, Philly was kind of a disappointment because we had a full team crash pretty much with a couple of laps to go and it took out one of our key riders, Reid Mumford. It’s one of those things trying to figure out how to do that field sprint at the end it was just Baj and me and unfortunately it didn’t turn out too well for us. Those sort of things are learning experiences. Maybe next time … Baj rode the front on the last lap but I might have tucked in a little further back, I was a little exposed when he pulled off and kind of lost position.
How long do you think about that? Does it stick in your mind a long time?
Oh yeah. You think about races like that.
Does it stick in your mind longer than wins?
Oh yeah. The could of’s
How do you not dwell on those moments?
You always focus on the current race but when you are training, it’s a big motivator for me, thinking about mistakes that happen, the missed opportunities and what nots, it’s definitely a big motivator for me when I’m training.
The team has many sprinters this year, many different types of sprinters. How would you classify yourself now?
I’m more of a strongman type of sprinter. Really hard day of racing that has hills and that sort of thing. Really big super fast field sprints I tend not do too well at, I need a really good leadout for those situations but I’ve definitely won a few field sprints here and there, just now and then.
So how do you teach the young guys to do leadouts?
(laughs) A lot of it is just racing, experience and having Jonas really clearly detail explain the full on this is what we are going to do at five laps, at four laps, he knows all the corners, most of the races that we do, he knows ‘you don’t want to be outside in this corner with three laps to go because…’ that helps a lot. Obviously, I’ve done a lot of these races too and know what line to take and not and transfer that information down. A guy like [David] Veilleux who is really strong but really fast at the same time, he’s really good to have because he can serve so many different purposes but he’s still fast enough to win sprints.
The team has a lot of young guys, fast guys. So I was curious, how do you manage the whole male ego with so young guys?
That’s an interesting question. I think Jonas does a really good job of choosing guys that are not going to be a problem, they’re going to approach the job as a professional and so this far we haven’t had any issues. Jonas and I talk about what’s going on and I’m really honest with him about how I’m doing or not doing and that will determine who we race for.
For example, the Redlands crit, [the plan was for me to] race for Jake [Keough] just because I know that crit so well, and it’s a really good corner for him and he had to get a good shot at winning it with me leading him out and vice versa it might be such a good shot even though I can win it too. It’s situations like that when you show guys that you are generous and willing to help them try and win a race because it’s a team win then you’re not going to have problems with young egos and stuff getting in the way. [The KBS team was caught up in a crash on the final lap at the Redlands crit derailing the leadout]
Do you point out mistakes to the young guys or just let them figure out themselves?
I really don’t have any problems pointing any mistakes, myself included. It’s like ‘hey I messed up’. Last year I crashed at Elk Grove in the last corner and almost cost Veilleux the win, my mistake I shouldn’t have fallen down but I did, it’s just the way it goes sometimes.
You’ve been racing for many years, how have you changed as you’ve gotten older as a racer?
I think cycling is a development sport, each year I felt that I’ve become more aerobically efficient and I can handle higher volumes, I tend to do better at longer races, anything over 200k I tend to do a lot better at.
Not many of those.
(laughs) that’s the problem. I think that’s just come over the years, my climbing has come up a little bit which is still middle of the road but you know for a sprinter I can get over those harder days and climbs and suffer a little bit, maybe make the 20 or 30 man group.
You’re 34 now, do you have still many years to go as a pro racer?
Yeah I think so. Obviously our team has a great opportunity with young kids, I think John Kelly realizes that and they have some pretty big plans for the team, I’d like to see the program grow and I’d like to be part of that as the years go on. I’m definitely getting older though, I started the sport late, I wasn’t 21 and racing pro. I’m getting older but I feel I’m getting better every year so it doesn’t really matter so much.
Do you think that the fact you started older is helping you now?
Certainly. I remember, Jonas was my age when he retired, he’d been racing something like 20 years, I definitely am eager to train, I’m pretty excited about the whole season in general, we have a great team. Jonas has done such a great job of putting together this team and personalities are such a big part of that so when you have a group of guys that you want to spend time with – because you spend a lot of time with your teammates – then racing is easy, that’s the easy part. Leaving home is the hard part.
Has cycling changed since you started?
Yeah, the depth of the US field has grown immensely, you have a lot greater international presence and unfortunately, I think promoters in the US haven’t recognized that as much and so courses haven’t changed to facilitate that. I think that there is tremendous opportunities in the US for racing but it’s so much easier to put on a 90-minute criterium in an office park somewhere as opposed to getting the roads closed and doing a proper race and sometimes it’s a little disappointing. With the depth of the field, we can have full pro races. There’s enough professionals in the US, you can have 130 guys every weekend in pro only races but the promoters and USA Cycling haven’t really coordinated that whereas maybe 8 or 9 years ago, you had three or four really big pro teams, you had other pro teams but they were pretty much amateur teams. Now this year, especially this year, I think the field is pretty even in terms of horsepower and squads. I think in the end of the day there are 10 teams that can win that day, and that’s pretty cool, it’s some good racing.
The [Redlands Beaumont] stage should be 200k instead of 156k, it’s a real pro field, make them race a real pro distance. A lot of guys can hang for 80 miles, 90 miles but when you go 125 miles that’s when you really start seeing guys that can handle the distance and step up.
What is your focus for you personally this year?
Philly is always the focus for me. We’ll see what happens with Pro Crit, I was second last year so it was kind of a disappointment to lose to Rahsaan [Bahati]. The way this season is, it’s a little different this year…. I kind of threw all my eggs into one basket for Pro Crit, I sacrificed a lot of other training that I could have been doing for Missouri, US Pro Road Races and stuff like that. I think this year I might change that a little bit and take a little bit more relaxed attitude towards Pro Crit, it might work out better. You know when you try really hard for something and it just doesn’t pan out, sometimes you have to let it go for it to work out.
Say you’re in October and you look back at your year, what needs to happen to make you say it was a good year?
I think a couple of stage wins at stage races, a podium at Philly and maybe a win at Missouri.
A friend wanted me to ask you about surfing. Where is your favorite break?
That’s a good question. I’d probably have to say in Bali, there’s a break called Impossibles and that’s probably my favorite break ever.
What are your favorite boards?
You know, I’ve never actually bought any boards. I’ve got probably like 6 boards. I used to have this JC board that I really like a lot, I had this other board this is called a Curvin, I just bought it randomly from this guy in Bali but I could never – he said it was a prototype – and I could never find the manufacturer of that board and I ended up breaking it, I still have it because I want to get a shaper to copy that but it’s really hard to copy a board exactly as no two boards are the same.
When did you start surfing?
I started surfing when I lived in San Diego, about five or six years ago. My off season is all about surfing for me.
Anything similar between surfing and cycling?
Not a thing really.
(laughs) Is that why you like it?
It’s actually really competitive, you’re competing with guys for waves in the water, there’s definitely a competitive aspect to it but at the same time, it’s really non-competitive in a lot ways and that’s nice. You can be anonymous in the water, just another guy in the water.