Airgas-Safeway confirmed to Cyclingnews today that the team has received a late invitation to the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a 14-day UCI 2.HC race in China scheduled for July 5-18.
The invitation marks the highest-rnked race the second-year US Continental team has been invited to since signing 2013 Vuelta a Espana winner Chris Horner this season.
“We received a very late invitation to the race,” said team principle Chris Johnson. “We had reached out to them for some time now, but like the other races I think they wanted to see the depth of our team.”
The team and Horner were disappointed earlier this season when Airgas-Safeway didn’t get invited to the Amgen Tour of California, a 2.HC race in May. As the 2011 winner in California, Horner had thought he and Airgas were shoo-ins.
With that opportunity now passed, however, the team has turned its attention to a pair of 2.HC races in August: Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where Horner has finished second to Cannondale-Garmin’s Tom Danielson the past two years. Johnson is hoping the Qinghai Lake invitation is a sign that the team’s fortunes have changed.
“I hope that getting invited to a 2.HC race in Asia will help our chances of getting invited to a similar race or races here in the United States,” he said. “For us to be able to do a race of that level shows that the races in other countries are really recognizing our ability and depth as a team.”
Horner started the season with a top-10 finish at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the first event on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar. He was fourth on the final stage of the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and was ninth overall there. Airgas-Safeway was second in the team GC at Gila, placing three riders in the top 15 on the final day.
With no California on the Calendar, the team traveled to Eastern Europe for the Tour d’Azerbaijan, a four-year old 2.1 race that previewed some of the courses that will be used in the upcoming European Games. Horner was third on the second stage there and finished fourth overall, while Griffin Easter finished fourth on stage 4.
The US professional road race followed next at the end of May, with Horner playing a big role in the finale befoe former RadioShack teammate Matthew Busche took his second stars-and-stripes jersey. Connor McCutcheon helped animate the race’s breakaway and ended up finishing 15th.
From there the team traveled to North Carolina for the Winston-Salem Classic, where McCuctheon again played a big role in animating the race, finishing inside the top 10 at seventh. At last week’s Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, Horner tried to shake things up on the final lap, but it was McCutcheon who came through with the team’s best result in 12th.
“Week in and week out we continue to prove we’re more than just a one-man band,” Johnson said. “I think the races like Qinghai Lake, the fact that they’re recognizing that and giving us an invitation after the teams have been announced, is just a show of what we’re doing.
“We want to compete in the US. We’re a US-based team with US sponsors, but obviously getting invited to these international races is a real testament to the program and the quality of the riders we have put together.”
The 14-day race will be the longest all of the riders on the team – outside of Horner – have ever competed in. Johson said it will be a good opportunity for his young riders’ development, as well as providing some intensive training for possible races later in the season.
“It’s really important for the younger riders to compete in harder races,” he said. “The Tour of Qinghai Lake is known as one of the hardest races in the world. They’ve expanded it now to 14 days this year, so obviously the length is substantial.
“The whole race is at significant, significant altitude. I think the average stage is at 9,000 feet. So in terms of preparing to compete for the win in any opportunities we are given in August, my team is going to be ready.”