Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, had to make several risky moves on the road to two MLB World Series Championships in three years. Three years ago, Bochy started a rookie, Buster Posey, in the critical catcher position. Posey went on to become Rookie of the Year. Last year Bochey gambled again on players Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. He blended these new players in with established veterans. Again the payoff was a World Championship.
Team Director of the Women’s Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, Rachel Heal, approaches managing her women’s team no different than Bochy does with his MLB team. She scouts for new talent, takes risks by using these new riders, and blends the new riders into her veteran team always emphasizing team first. This is a winning strategy for the SF Giants and most definitely for Heal’s Optum Pro Cycling team.
“Obviously I am looking for riders that have something about them on the bike,” stated Heal. “Sometimes it will be seeing the riders and how they race. Sometimes it will be because of results. I do pick races that I take most notice of…like Nature Valley.”
In recent years, Nature Valley has become a prime recruiting spot for Heal and her management team.
“Nature Valley’s St. Paul Crit and Stillwater Crit…they are races where you can’t hide it. Races like that where I know the riders have to have something about them to do well. There are some races on the calendar where you know that if the riders are smart enough they can get through it. They can be strong but not have the ability to ride up front. I take notice of these type of races. Both Jade (Wilcoxson) and Brianna (Walle) won the amateur jersey at Nature Valley. It was not only about winning the best amateur, but also placing very well in the overall standing at the race.”
“I first met Rachel when I was doing Nature Valley,” said Wilcoxson. “I had the Best Amateur jersey for the whole race. On the last day I got fifth on the Stillwater Crit. I was waiting to do the podium and Rachel was backstage because her Colavita team did quite well. I initially signed with Colavita. Two weeks later Colavita pulled their sponsorship and I was in panic mode. Rachel completely took care of me. Got me on Optum.”
Wilcoxson was the breakout racer last season. In only her first year as a professional rider, She won the Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Elk Grove, and finished third at the Amgen Tour of California Women’s Time Trial Invitational. Adding Wilcoxson to the team was one of the risky moves Heal made that has paid off.
“There are riders who just sit on the front of the race for no apparent reason. They do not interest me. Riders who manage to keep themselves near the front, jumping on moves but not doing too much work are interesting. The riders who can make repeated moves and be there at the finish.,” continued Heal.
“It still is taking a gamble. I don’t just go on one race result. You are still not sure when watching a rider race one race. They could have been training all year to peak for that one race. Bike racing also has a bit of luck working so they rider may even have been lucky that day. There is still an element that you don’t know. You have to apply the same principle to picking a team as you do to racing a race. You have to take risks. If you play it safe the whole time you will not succeed. Each year I do have a rider that I take a risk on. It may work out really well but then it may not. You have to take those risks and so far it has worked well for us.”
Half the battle is recruiting talented new riders. Heal has been able to take new, raw talented riders and blend them with the established veterans. Her goal is always towards team harmony.
“It really is about half on the bike and half off. The riders that I keep on the team and the riders that I bring on are generally easy going. I look for people who will work well together on a team. There is no one on the team that is high maintenance. In a bike racing day you spend three maybe four hours racing. The remaining 20 hours of the day the riders need to spend time together. It makes life so much easier, and they race so much better, if the riders get on well. I do keep the team in mind when selecting riders. I let all of our riders know that the team is way more important than any one rider. I expect everyone to be 100% committed to the team goal. When I talk to potential riders about joining the team I tell them that I expect everyone to be committed to the team. If I find a rider working for themselves and not the team, they simply will not be doing any more races. It is very much that cut and dry. I respect that there are riders out there that prefer concentrating on their own goals. I do respect that, but don’t sign a contract with a team I am running because you are not going to do any races.”
“You have to keep bringing on new riders and new talent. It keeps the returning riders motivated. They are motivated to teach our new riders. Some our riders have been going to the same races for years. There is motivation for our veterans to stay up front because there is a new rider you need to teach good habits,” said Heal.
Wilcoxson added, “People would come up to me last year and tell me how lucky I was…how lucky I was to be working with Rachel. I think that is totally true. I talk with other riders and what it’s like on other teams, Rachel really provides a stable and supportive environment for her riders. I think that is her strong point and specialty. She hand picks rides that have personalities that will mesh. It’s huge because if you are on a team with riders who don’t get along with or respect it can be an entirely different experience. Our team was amazing last year and we really enjoyed hanging out with each other. We wanted to work our asses off for each other and Rachel fostered that environment. This year she did the same thing. We lost riders and picked up some new riders. I think we even mesh better this year. It makes it really fun to ride for Rachel and the Optum team. It is a complete family atmosphere. I have never heard her raise her voice and she is not a controlling person but year after year she puts together teams who want to race for each other.”
“Rachel is outstanding to work with. She’s one of the most organized directors I know,” added Walle. “She never over promises or under delivers. Rachel’s expertise has proven to be fundamental in my professional development and growth as a team player.”
Walle is new to the team this year and has been showing great results.
When asked what keeps her motivated Heal replied,” The riders keep it exciting for me. I feel lucky every year that I get work with a good group of riders. They are very appreciative of what you do for them, which makes it more rewarding. It makes me want to work hard for them. They are a fun group to hang around. None of this makes enough money for it be worth while. It has to be fun. At the end of the day it is just bike racing and you want to make it as fun as possible.”