Team SmartStop made its 2014 US debut last week at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, taking a stage win and spending two days in yellow on its way to staking a spot as one of the top teams in the domestic peloton. The results were a validation of sorts after an off-season that was spent transitioning from a focus on criteriums to an all-out stage racing outfit.
After the race, first-year director Michael Creed celebrated the team's success by posting a message for the rest for the peloton on Twitter. “To all the riders, teams and races who turned their nose up at us,” Creed wrote, “let me repeat myself. Hi, we're team SmartStop and we came to race.”
The team has been racing in its new configuration since February, when it traveled to the Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic. The team took three stage wins with Jure Kocjan and Eric Marcotte, and rider Rob Britton finished second overall.
The UCI 2.2 race was the first indication that Creed had assembled a squad that could compete with the very best of American Continental teams. SmartStop followed it up with a trip to Vuelta Mexico, where fellow US Continental teams 5-hour Energy/Kenda, Jamis-Hagens Berman and Optum Pro Cycling were also competing. Although SmartStop came away from that race without any wins [Kocjan's runner-up effort on stage 4 was the team's best result], the aggressive style of riding engendered even more respect.
“I was very pleased to see the way SmartStop raced,” said Jamis-Hagens Berman director Sebastian Alexandre. “They really stepped out, and Mike Creed put a good team together. It will be nice to have another team to compete against here in the US. It was very nice to see them running well there.”
The attacking style of racing, a reflection of Creed's own fondness for breakaways as a competitor, continued at Redlands. Marcotte got into the day-long breakaway that stayed away until the final kilometers of stage 1. Mike Torckler infiltrated the breakaway on the third stage and helped set up Travis McCabe for the stage win and his ascent into the yellow jersey.
SmartStop rode herd on the front of the field during the criterium and shut down any potentially dangerous moves, securing McCabe's lead heading into the final stage on the always difficult-to-defend Sunset Loop. Through repeated attacks, the team protected McCabe until the final trip around the Sunset Loop, when Hincapie Sportswear's Joey Rosskopf slipped away and bridged to a group already up the road. Rosskpof eventually won the stage and took enough time out of McCabe to slide into the final overall lead.
Nevertheless, as his Twitter post made clear, Creed was “really pumped” about his team's performance at the first National Race Calendar event of the season. McCabe's third place overall finish also marked the first NRC general classification podium for SmartStop.
“I've been on teams that come to Redlands and there were always two or three guys who are dragging ass,” Creed said. “But I think that was the most level, complete team that I've seen at Redlands for along time, maybe since the days of Mercury or something. I haven't seen a team where everyone was going good. Unfortunately there was just one guy who was clearly stronger. That's good for him, unfortunate for us. But Chapeau to Joey.”
For a team that had trouble recruiting riders during its off-season transition, the results so far this year have been crucial in earning respect – not just in the bunch, but also among sponsors and race promoters. Team SmartStop missed out on an invitation to the Tour of California in May – those invitations went out before the season started in earnest – but Creed believes the team has now made its case for inclusion in the remaining North American UCI 2.HC and 2.1 races in Utah, Colorado and Alberta.
“In our first two months of racing we have three UCI wins, an NRC yellow jersey and a stage win,” he said. “I mean that's pretty good. Obviously it's not done, but you could almost call the season a wrap already, a success. I think we showed that we are as deserving of a spot in California as every other team that got selected. I don't think it's even debatable.”
Aside from the respect the team has earned and will carry forward into the season, the team's success has also provided an early season pay off for the entire organization, which poured everything into this year's aspirations.
“I think there has been a big sigh of relief,” Creed said. “Everybody on the management and on the staff side have made a lot of sacrifices, with expedited gray hairs and hair loss.
“As we're talking, my soignee and mechanic are driving from Redlands to Charlotte [North Carolina] to pick me up at the airport three days later,” Creed said. “Everybody is really going full gas, and I think it's nice to be able to give them direct feedback. I mean, I don't want them to get used to it, because bike racing doesn't work like that, but it's like, 'OK, you guys have made sacrifices, and look at what we got; we got riders winning races.'”