By Lyne Lamoureux
Time trial, finishing speed and aggressivity - the name of the game for the Bissell Pro Cycling team for the 2009 Amgen Tour of California.
We met with the squad during the training camp in Santa Rosa where the team, under the leadership of Team Manager Glen Mitchell and new Team Director Eric Wohlberg, were putting the finishing touches to its preparation for the big race. Seven of the eight names on the California roster had already raced either in New Zealand or South America to get their racing legs and get rid of the first race of the season jitters.
The team will be led by time trial specialists Ben Jacques-Maynes, who placed in the top 10 in the time trial for two consecutive years, and Tom Zirbel, who placed second at the US Pro Time Trial Championship in 2008.
"We're definitely going to go all guns blazing in the prologue and then it will probably take one or two stages to shake out who's doing what and then who's aiming for what with every team but then after that, we definitely will be targeting a few stages. Obviously trying to save Ben and Tom a little bit for the time trial," said Mitchell.
Returning from the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, B. Jacques-Maynes, who finished eight overall, has engaged in specific training in order to reach his goal of "stepping it up from previous years."
"I've done a lot more flat ground training to be able to ride hard all day, focusing less on climbing. I focused a lot on climbing last year to get over Mt Hamilton, Sierra Road , those big climbs are not in... there are a lot more climbing, a lot more shorter, punchier climbs that I know very well," said Jacques-Maynes, who is confident he can get over the 2009 climbs without needing to work on is actual fitness.
Zirbel who finished second at the Tour de San Luis before being side-lined by food poisoning made some changes to his time trial position last year and is "happy with the results."
"The team is riding very strong. It's the first time that we've ever come into the Tour with [almost] everyone on the roster having a race under the belt in 2009, that's great. It's the first that's ever happened, " said Zirbel who is obviously aiming for the time trial and maybe a repeat - this time to the finish line - of last year's memorable attack on the final stage in Pasadena.
Another weapon in the time trial arsenal is the newly crowned New Zealand Time Trial Champion Jeremy Vennell who also wants to do well in Solvang "especially wearing the national jersey."
"I am hoping that my legs are still feeling good. I have heard about the course. I heard it's not too difficult. I have raced against riders like [Fabian] Cancellera in Europe and it's always an awesome experience to race against the best," said Vennell who finished second that the Tour of Wellington in January.
Work horse Omer Kem has been getting ready for the 2009 season with long blocks on training and racing in New Zealand. He also feels confident in the team's chance in the prologue and stage wins. In his fourth year on the team, Kem is stepping up to a leadership role in the team when needed to "make sure that they guys are in the right place at the right time so they can do what they do best which is win bike races."
"I think that the stage into Santa Rosa is also a good stage for us. I think that Team Columbia is the team to watch because really you only have to ride as fast as Mark Cavendish if you want to be there at the finish," said Kem about targeting specific stages.
After 6 years of not racing together, Andy Jacques-Maynes is returning to professional racing and will join his twin Ben to launch the "jacquesmayniacs" aggressive style of racing familiar to many in the Bay Area cycling scene.
"It's more important to get it out there and get a stage result. That's what I'm thinking of, trying to be more of am aggressive one-day type rider instead of back in the pack, get top ten in the time trial and I've already done that," said Ben Jacques-Maynes. "I'm not particularly interested in that but bottom line I do whatever Glen tells me. I'm willing to ride in the breakaway, if he gives us the green light, I'm all for it. But if he wants me to sit in, make time, take my chance in the sprint, that might be good too."
The team is also bringing some finishing speed to the roster with the addition of new members to the team Kirk O'Bee, Frank Pipp and Peter Latham.
"They're not unbeatable." said two-time US Pro Criterium Champion O'Bee about going up against Mark Cavendish (Columbia-High Road) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step).
"I have the confidence and I'm going in with the goal of winning a stage and I know that the team is going to do what they can to help me out and we'll try to make it happen. Nothing is impossible, I don't look at those guys and get scared. I've raced with them before. It's a matter of being on good form and if I have a good day, it will happen," said O'Bee.
Adding speed to the team is Kiwi Peter Latham who finished second in the team pursuit at the Beijing Track World Cup in January. In his first road race in America, Latham who is "good at going fast." see his role as "helping out the sprints with the lead out with my track background"
The increased media attention around the return of Lance Armstrong to professional racing with Astana can only help the sport according to Mitchell.
"It's positive all the way around, that's what I see with Lance coming back. There are still some races being canceled obviously but for the most part there's more media attention with him being involved. We've seen it in the past with him being involved, it sparks a whole new round of interest in the sport and that can only be healthy if there's more interest in the sport because we need more money," concluded Mitchell who is counting on his team to perform in front of a global audience.
The Bissell team roster for the 2009 Amgen Tour of California is Ben Jacques-Maynes, Tom Zirbel, Jeremy Vennell, Omer Kem, Andy Jacques-Maynes, Kirk O'Bee, Frank Pipp and Peter Latham.