Local cycling team is a favorite in Nature Valley Grand Prix

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2013 - 11:57 PM

Optum Pro Cycling bikers head back in the Twin Cities to defend Nature Valley Grand Prix titles.


Charles Aaron led members of the Twin Cities-based Optum pro cycling team during a workout at the National Sports Center in Blaine.


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Over the past few days, team members have been arriving from just about everywhere. Colorado, California, Canada. Seems like just about everyone who will be here is from somewhere else.

And yet, it’s a homecoming.

The Nature Valley Grand Prix, with bicycle races on five consecutive days, will kick off Wednesday with the Riverfront Time Trial in St. Paul. The men’s and women’s teams from Optum Pro Cycling are heavily favored to repeat as the overall champions.

The men’s team has won the past two years. The women won last year.

Charles Aaron, 43, is managing director of the teams. Aaron, a native of St. Louis Park, does his work from offices in downtown Minneapolis. It is the first pro cycling team to be based in Minnesota.

“This is really big for us,” Aaron said of the Grand Prix. “It’s like a homecoming, even though I’m already here.”

By now, everyone else is, too.

Defending men’s individual champion Tom Zirbel, from Boulder, Colo., got here Monday. The 2011 champion, Jesse Anthony, is here, too. Among those on the women’s team are Jade Wilcoxson, Joelle Numainville, Denise Ramsden and Lauren Hall.

Zirbel is fresh off winning the U.S. National time trial championship in late May. Anthony and Numainville both finished second June 2 in the Philly Cycling Classic. Wilcoxson is the 2012 U.S. Professional National Road Race champion. Among the men and women competing for Optum this week are three cyclists who have competed in the Olympics.

For all that, the week of the Grand Prix stands out.

“We put a lot of importance on it, actually,” Zirbel said. “We have a lot of sponsors from the Minneapolis area. We know every year it’s going to be a big objective of the team. We try to bring our strongest squad here. It’s a big deal for us. We come excited.”

This year the schedule includes the time trial Wednesday morning and the St. Paul Criterium on Wednesday afternoon and evening. Thursday is the Cannon Falls road race. Friday, Minneapolis will be host to the Uptown Criterium. There is a road race Saturday in Menomonie, Wis., and the Stillwater Criterium on Sunday.

For Aaron, it is the best week of the year.

Aaron grew up riding and racing bikes. He left St. Louis Park for the East Coast, where he ended up running pro mountain bike teams for almost 10 years. But a divorce and a split with his business partner changed the direction of his career. Aaron moved back to St. Louis Park to be closer to his aging parents with the idea of starting his own racing team from scratch.

It took time. But in 2007 the men’s team, Kelly Benefit Strategies, was launched. Six years later there is a men’s team (directed by Jonas Carney), a women’s team (directed by Rachel Heal) and a cyclocross team. Both the men’s and women’s teams were ranked the 2012 domestic teams of the year by Velo Magazine.

At this point Aaron’s Circuit Global Sports Management business employs more than 60 athletes, mechanics and program support staff members. The team’s athletes have taken more than 100 podium placements at races this year.

Aaron is, of course, hoping for more visits to the podium this coming week. After all, it’s a homecoming. The title sponsors are local.

“For me, it’s being around a lot of old friends, supporters, people I met over my life,” he said. “Naturally, it’s a pretty big event.”

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