Team SmartStop has added more firepower to its 2015 roster, signing former BMC rider Chris Butler for next season. The 26-year-old from South Carolina rode with Hincapie Sportswear in 2014, following two years at Champion System and two years with BMC.
Butler joins Evan Huffman from Astana on the 2015 team, along with returning riders Travis McCabe, who won USA Cycling's 2014 National Racing Calendar, US road champion Eric Marcotte and UCI America Tour winner Jure Kocjan.
“[SmartStop director Mike] Creed hit me up and I took the call,” Butler said. “I just started asking a lot, a lot of questions, and the more I listened and asked, it just sounded better and better. It looks like they're going to do California, Utah and Colorado next year. I'm pretty sure they have the invite to [Tour of] Langkawi. They're working really hard to get into [Tour de] San Luis. That right there, that's the platform I want to get the results.”
Butler, a gifted climber who finished 12th overall this year at the Tour of Utah, said his ultimate goal is to return to the WorldTour, the level he rode at in 2011 with BMC. Creed sold him on the idea that SmartStop would be the best place for him to make that happen.
“Creed said serious, he said it like 20 times when he was trying to get me, 'Oh Butler, I'll get you back into the WorldTour,'” Butler said. “You have to do the big races to get the attention. In this day and age, winning Redlands or Joe Martin is not going to do it. The more chances you get, the more opportunities you have.”
SmartStop's stated ambition of moving to the Pro Continental level for 2016 was also a big drawing card for Butler, who raced at that level with Champion System in 2012 and 2013.
“That was a massive carrot for me to come on board,” he said. “That's where I want to be. You get to do some of the biggest races, but yet you still get to race the big US races. So that's what they're building for, and I think they're pretty darn serious about going Pro Conti in 2016. You know, 2015 sounds awesome, but 2016 is pretty exciting, too. There are so many variables, it just made it sound like the right decision.”
Although Butler signed a one-year deal with the team through the end of 2015, he hopes to have his foot in the door if the program does jump from its current spot in cycling's third division to the next level. After all the team's success this year, there are going to be plenty of people knocking on Creed's door, Butler said, and those numbers will increase if the team moves to Pro Continental for 2016.
“And with the restructure of the WorldTour in 2017, with teams cutting back from 30 riders to, what is it, 22, there's going to massive cuts next year, and hell, it's going to be a dogfight for good contracts next year,” he said. “So I'd like to get in now and be taken care of. It just seems like the right chance. Every year they say it's a shit year, but next year is going to be one of the worst years with everyone cutting back.”
Butler views himself as a rider who can contest the general classification for the team, which has no shortage of horsepower for stage wins and sprint finishes.
“For the sprint train, they have Jure, Marcotte and McCabe,” Butler said. “There's a lot of horsepower there. So I think the gaps they were trying to fill was time trialist and maybe a climber. I guess that's me and Evan [Huffman]. They probably want Evan to win a few time trials, and for me it's to be that climber in the lead group and go for GC. I think that's what they needed, and that's what they addressed. I think we should have a strong team.”
Butler will target top-10 finishes at the major UCI races in the US, along with other select races like the Tour of the Gila, where he'll ride for the win.
“I'm realistic,” he said. “I don't think I'm going to win Utah or Colorado next year, but I need to turn the top 15s into something close to a top five. For the guys who step up from Continental to WorldTour, that's kind of what you need are those top 10s. I think we can do that with a good alliance. So I'm excited. I think Creed can give me that extra two per cent to help change the 12th place in Utah into a sixth or seventh place, which I think you need.”
The decision to move from Hincapie Sportswear to SmartStop also came with some personal baggage for Butler, who considers fellow Greenville resident George Hincapie one of his best friends. But he said Hincapie understood and supported Butler's decision to move to another program, even if the difference between the teams appears small.
“He is pretty darn genuine,” Butler said of Hincapie, who admitted performance-enhancing drug use during his time with the US Postal team. “He honestly wants what's best for me. And for him to want me to take this rather than just riding for his team just for image – deep down he's a good guy and he just wants what's best for me. We still ride all the time, and he's one of my best friends. He'll still be cheering for me and still working with me to get me better.”
Butler already has a local connection with Team SmartStop, which is based in North Carolina.
“It's a Winston-Salem-based team,” he said. “And at the moment I'm one of the few Carolina boys left.”