Watson Lake cyclist Zach Bell can’t help but chuckle a little when he talks about his team’s progress so far this season.
“We’re beating teams that have significantly bigger budgets than us,” said Bell. “At the start of the year they were saying ‘good luck’ and now they are saying ‘How do we beat these guys?’”
Team SmartStop has taken a sharp change in course this season and Bell is one of the riders brought on board to help make it a success.
SmartStop has changed its focus from short criterium races to distance and stage-races and the transition has been remarkable.
“This team has been a smaller team focused primarily on criteriums for most of its history,” said Bell. “They took a big step this year with some of the hires they made – pretty much all the guys you see racing are from other clubs last year.”
Former pro rider and new team director Michael Creed has “taken the team in a new direction and it’s paying off for him pretty quickly. We want to be a one-day and stage-racing team and move away from those crits, and so far so good.”
The SmartStop team claimed five top-20 finishes and two podium spots at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic last Friday in North Carolina.
Bell, who was team captain, took bronze and teammate Travis McCabe won the 108-mile race.
SmartStop is now ranked second in the National Racing Calendar team standings. McCabe is ranked first in the rider standings and Bell seventh.
The team is also ranked fourth in the Union Cycliste Internationale’s Americas Tour that includes North and South America.
“It was a course that whittled out most of the field over the course of the day,” said Bell of Friday’s race. “We put five guys in the group of 15 at the end. In cycling terms, that’s pretty good team play.
“We put some guys to work to make sure things stayed together for Travis and I, who were both up there. Especially for Travis, who won. I covered the guys who were chasing him over the last kilometre or two in case he came back. When it was obvious he wasn’t going to I jumped around him and swept up the last podium spot. It was good team work for sure.”
The team stuck around for the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic Criterium on Saturday in North Carolina, where SmartStop is based.
Bell placed 43rd as his team took three top-15 placings including Shane Kline in sixth and McCabe in 11th. Kline currently ranked No. 1 in the USA crit series.
“The criterium was a smaller event for us. We still wanted to be there because it was the hometown of the sponsors and of the team, so we wanted to put on a good show,” said Bell. “My job was to shake things up in the middle and try to hurt some of the bigger teams.”
SmartStop took third out of 25 in the team event at the 30th annual Redlands Bicycle Classic two weeks ago in Redlands, California.
In the first event of the season, Bell took second place in Stage 7 of the 35th annual Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic at the end of February.
The SmartStop team is currently in Arkansas for a stage race and will be in New Mexico next week for another.
“The front end of the season has been pretty heavy,” said Bell. “Last year they eased me into it and this year I hit the ground running a bit more.
“I’ve still been home quite a bit. But there are two big pushes. There’s this one through to the New Mexico trip and they’ll be another long one involving a bunch of races in a few weeks.”
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