Wilcoxson turns pro with Optum Health
TALENT — Southern Oregon’s Jade Wilcoxson will be taking her game to the professional level this season with the brand-new Optum Health/Kelly Benefit Strategies women’s team.
Although Kelly Benefit Strategies has been the title sponsor for one of this country’s top UCI Continental men’s teams for the past several seasons, this will be the first year the organization has fielded a top-level women’s team, with Optum Health taking over as the title sponsor and Kelly Benefit Strategies moving into the presenting sponsor role.
The new women’s crew figures to be one of the top three professional teams in North America. The 12-rider squad features four women from last season’s NRC-winning Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team. Kristen Sanders and Carmen Small will join NRC individual overall winner Janel Holcomb and runner-up Leah Kirchmann. Also returning from the Colavita program are team director Rachel Heal and mechanic Adrian Hedderman.
Wilcoxson said signing a deal with a pro team has been very exciting, and receiving regular packages of team issue shoes, trainers and other gear from sponsors can make it feel “like Christmas every week.” But the road to fulfilling the dream of testing herself at a professional level wasn’t entirely smooth for the rider from Talent.
She had originally signed at the end of last year’s road season with Heal’s Colavita team, which in 2011 was a combination of the North American contingent of title sponsor Colavita and the Italian riders, including world champion Georgia Bronzini, of presenting sponsor Forno d’Asolo. But when the partnership with Forno d’Asolo concluded at the end of the season and Colavita decided not to continue sponsorship through another year, the 2012 season was briefly up in the air. That’s when Circuit Global Sports Management, the company that owns the Kelly Benefits men’s team, stepped in to support Heal’s program with the promise of a new title sponsor. Suddenly the 2012 season was back on track.
“Before the news came out they had contacted us and said this is what’s happening and don’t worry because everyone who had signed a contract with Colavita was going to Optum Health,” Wilcoxson said. “So the Colavita people were really respectful of our contracts by not leaving us high and dry and making sure that we had a home to go to.”
So with a team in place and a 2012 contract signed, the 33-year-old physical therapist started to tackle the issue of making dramatic changes to her lifestyle. She made arrangements to quit her full-time job, converted a 300 square-foot shop into a studio apartment for herself, and then rented out her house.
“It’s a big change putting all of that on hold and knowing that I can come back to it when I’ve tapped out the racing,” Wilcoxson said. “I’m diving in head first and trying not to worry about how am I going to make it work. I’m just enjoying the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Wilcoxson got the attention of team directors last season by winning multiple elite amateur races and consistently placing in the top 10 at USA Cycling National Race Calendar events. She started her season in early April with an overall win at the Cherry Blossom Classic in The Dalles. Then she went to California for the Sea Otter Classic, which featured Olympic gold medalist and former world champion Kristin Armstrong’s return as part of the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 professional team.
“I got there and I was intimidated, and I was just hoping not to get dropped,” Wilcoxson said. “I did all four races down there and ended up second overall and won the circuit race. So then I’m standing on the podium next to Kristin Armstrong, and I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I could give this a go.’ That really inspired me for the rest of the season, trying to find more national opportunities to race.”
Wilcoxson followed Sea Otter with an overall win at Washington’s Enumclaw Stage Race, where she qualified to compete at the NRC Nature Valley Grand Prix as part of a composite “Pro Ride” team. She finished sixth overall at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic riding with a Mike Engleman-coached composite team that featured Canadian Olympic gold medalist and world champion Clara Hughes in a showdown with Armstrong and the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 squad.
Then Wilcoxson made the most of her Nature Valley Pro Ride opportunity, finishing seventh overall on her way to winning the Best Amateur jersey and grabbing fifth place at the difficult Stillwater Criterium stage.
“There were a lot of big teams there, and I was top 10 overall,” she said. “So a lot of the teams were wondering who I was.”
She followed that with a fifth-place overall finish at the NRC Tour de Toona, almost making the podium with fourth in the time trial and finishing inside the top 10 during all the stages. Riding as a guest with the Now and Novartis For MS team, she capped off her national results with a 10th-place overall finish at the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, once again finishing each stage in the top 10.
At the end of the season it wasn’t long before an offer from Heal and Colavita came in. Wilcoxson said her consistent results and knowing the right people paid off. She specifically credited Engleman’s help.
“He has a ton of contacts,” she said. “He and I really hit it off. He was my team director when I got to ride for Clara Hughes at Mt. Hood. Just before that I qualified for Nature Valley, and he was also the team director for the Nature Valley team. So he and I got to work together for two stage races in a row, and I did well in both of those. So having him in my corner and pushing for me and promoting for me was a big factor.”
Now Wilcoxson is looking forward to finding out what she can accomplish with an entire team in her corner. After five years of racing mostly by herself at the amateur level, the few glimpses she got of the pro life last year left an appreciation for the team game and the relative luxuries that can come with it.
“Having ridden solo for most of my racing career so far, it just makes huge difference having team support,” she said. “Having a mechanic is absolutely incredible. I am notoriously calling friends and family at the last minute before a race, and having to stress about all of that stuff saps your energy. Or having someone organize how you’re getting to a race. All you have to do is worry about getting up and eating, and then they’ll come pick you up and take you to the race. All those logistics when you’re riding by yourself are just so stressful.”
Those years of solo riding have also left a hole in Wilcoxson’s knowledge of tactical racing within a team, something she’ll have to learn quickly to fit in with her Optum/Kelly Benefits teammates and ensure she gets selected for races.
“When I was talking to (Heal) about joining the team, she was really upfront about it being all about the team and team results, and getting whoever up on the podium,” she said. “I’ve had some good results solo, but now I’m really excited to be a part of the team and just see what that feels like to really be like the key person who helps somebody else get on the podium. I think that will be really rewarding. So I guess my goal is just to be the best teammate possible, and to have a good consistent year.”
To that end, Wilcoxson has amped up her training from previous years, hitting the gym beginning early last fall and putting in a lot of base miles over the winter.
“Last year I was holding a full-time job and trying to train,” she said. “My training definitely suffered because of my job. So this January I cut back my job pretty significantly to about eight hours a week. And that will drop off even more when I start racing and traveling. At this point I feel like I’m a lot stronger than last year.
“It’s kind of hard, too, in Southern Oregon because there are only a few other female racers, and so it’s really hard to know how I measure up against other women,” she said. “I ride with the boys all the time, but that’s entirely different. So I never really know how strong I am until I go to my first race, and then it’s apparent.”
Wilcoxson should get that chance to see how she measures up soon. The official team presentation took place over the weekend in Minneapolis. Wilcoxson will head next for the team training camp in sunny Southern California. She said the team has a tentative race schedule that begins at the Merco Classic Stage Race in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the end of February, followed by the San Dimas Stage race and the NRC-opening Redlands Bicycle Classic.
It’s just a month away, but this race season can’t start soon enough for Talent’s talented new pro.
“I’m ready to get this party started already,” Wilcoxson said. “There’s been so much anticipation since September when I signed. I’m just ready for the anxiety to be done with and just start racing and see how it goes.”
2012 Team Optum Pro Cycling/Kelly Benefit Strategies Women’s Team
Director: Rachel Heal
Mechanic: Adrian Hedderman