The 2011 Giant Factory Off-Road Team was presented poolside in Santa Barbara, California, on Thursday night. With the addition of two new riders, including top World Cup contenders in downhill and cross country, the team will field its strongest line-up to date. South African downhill Andrew Neethling and British cross country racer Liam Killeen join British downhiller Danny Hart and three Americans: downhiller Duncan Riffle and veteran cross country stars Carl Decker and Kelli Emmett. All the riders, except for Killeen, who is training for the first World Cup in South Africa, attended the launch.
Riders were introduced one at a time by Giant's Global Product Marketing Manager Andrew Juskaitis, who noted the squad is the largest and most diverse thus far. "We have such a large team because our product line continues to grow. The reason we're here today is because we sell bicycles. In order to market those bicycles, we need the right target market," said Juskaitis to Cyclingnews.
"We value the professional riders' feedback to do product development. We can't just do that with cross country riders, we can't just do that with a downhill team. So we bring those athletes together on one team. This the first time we have an all encompassing team - cross country racers, downhillers, four crossers. It will drive product development, and we didn't want to sell any category short."
In a move unusual among pro mountain bike teams, Giant gave Carl Decker and Kelli Emmett a blank piece of paper on which to make their own racing schedules for 2011.
"For the first time, we allowed them to generate their dream schedule. In other years, we threw the schedule at them and said 'go get 'em tiger'. We didn't do that this year. We said to them: 'you've been on the team a long time, you've done all the traditional races, what do you want to do differently this year? ' They picked the events and told us what they wanted to do and what they could win - maybe they did them before, maybe not."
In 2010, Decker and Emmett both won the overall two-day All Mountain Championships in Downieville, California. Decker also won the Super D at the Sea Otter Classic while Emmett won the US Super D national championships.
"That dream schedule didn't include hitting every traditional cross country race on the schedule. If they didn't want to go to Fontana for the US Pro XCT because they want to do Downieville, that's fine with us."
Juskaitis explained why. "For us as a company, the traditional weekend after weekend regular series of cross country isn't that important to us - as opposed to hitting a market demographic at a race like Downieville - those events that are a little bit more inclusive than what we consider to be the hard core cross country races."
"Our customers are weekend warriors mostly - they want to relate to these racers, that's we have our riders doing more endurance races and all mountain races. Regular cross country races are so out of the realm of Joe Blow Average."
For that reason, in 2011 Emmett and Decker will hit a bunch of more mass participation focused races such as the Leadville 100 and various marathons and stage races.
They will still race some of the US Pro XCT series events, such as the rounds in Wisconsin and Montana, and it doesn't mean Giant isn't thinking about representation in cross country racing.
New addition and British Olympian Killeen will be a regular at cross country World Cups as he strives toward a 2012 London Olympics goal - it would be his third Olympic Games. Giant also sponsors a full UCI elite-registered cross country team based out of Europe, the Rabobank Giant Off-Road Team, presented last week in the Netherlands. The team includes former Giant Factory team racer Adam Craig and new signing Katie Compton.
The Giant Factory Off Road Team has been steadily building its downhill team. Last year's signings, Danny Hart and Duncan Riffle, return with the team for another year of racing World Cups and top North American Gravity events like the US Open, Crankworx and some US Pro GRT series events. South African downhiller Andrew Neethling is new to the team.
"Our riders are really going to be attacking the downhill World Cups," said Juskaitis to Cyclingnews. "That's why we brought on Andrew and we already have Danny and Duncan. Danny is beautiful to watch ride and Duncan is solid."
Last year in his first season as an elite racer, Hart raced to eighth overall in the World Cup and at the world championships. The only top-10 rider under age 20, he was widely recognized as the future of downhill racing.
"I am super happy to be a part of the Giant program for the foreseeable future," Hart said. "I had a great 2010 season, and this year is going to be better."
With a win at the March 20 Maxxis Cup opener in Portugal, Hart is already off to a great start in 2011.
Neethling, a consistent top-10 World Cup finisher and winner of the 2010 US Open, already has two wins this year. The newest downhill member of the team won both the South African National Championship and the African Continental Championship over the last two months.
"Giant has always had a great racing heritage and I'm excited to be part of the team," Neethling said.
New year, new sponsors
The Giant Factory Off-Road Team has switched from Shimano to SRAM components for 2011. That means the racers will be on SRAM drivetrains, Truvativ componentry, Avid brakes and RockShox suspension. Other new sponsors include DT Swiss wheelsets and Schwalbe tires, and Fox Head extended its commitment by supplying kits and apparel.
Cross country riders will race on Giant Anthem X Advanced SL and Anthem X 29er framesets with Maestro Suspension, as well as XtC Advanced SL and the all-new XtC Composite 29er hardtails. For downhill, the team will rely on the Maestro-equipped Giant Glory frameset.
2011 Giant Factory Off-Road Team
Carl Decker (United States) - XC, ST, Super D
Kelli Emmett (United States) - XC, ST, Super D
Danny Hart (Great Britain) - 4X, DH, DS
Liam Killeen (Great Britain) - XC, ST, Marathon
Andrew Neethling (South Africa) - 4X, DH, DS
Duncan Riffle (United States) - 4X, DH, DS
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for interviews with the team's riders.