This season will mark another reshuffling for the 5-hour Energy-Kenda team as it adjusts to the loss of Francisco Mancebo, the three-time National Race Calendar overall winner who left for the Continental team Skydive Dubai. Director Frankie Andreu is hoping several key roster additions and a looser leash on the returning riders will provide the wins this year.
"We've been very one dimensional, and now this year I think our riders are going to have a lot more opportunities to ride for themselves and a lot more opportunities to showcase their own strengths and their own talents with an open style of racing," said Andreu, who in five years as director has weathered multiple sponsorship and management changes leading to the current 5-hour Energy-Kenda team.
This year, more than half the roster will be new. Aside from Mancebo, 2013 roster stalwarts Nate English, Shawn Milne and Max Jenkins are gone. Returning riders Christian Parrett, Jim Stemper, Bobby Sweeting, David Williams and Taylor Shelden will welcome six new additions, led by former Pro Continental riders Jake Keough from UnitedHealthcare and Chad Beyer from Champion System.
Andreu got a chance to check out his 2014 riders this week at training camp when the team gathered for the second straight year in Dahlonega, Georgia, a small college town on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains south of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Training rides varied from three hours to six hours and covered many of the climbs that were featured in the former Tour de Georgia.
"The biggest part of the reformulation is that we've got Jake Keough, who I think is a phenomenal sprinter," Andreu said of his 2014 team. "Having Jake changes things compared to how the team would ride before. We still have Chad Beyer, Gavin Mannion and a young guy named Jon Hornbeck, who are all good climbers and guys who can go for the general classification, but it's going to be a bit tougher and a bit more strategic in trying to put the team across the finish line first."
Last season's strategy will also need to be reformulated. No longer will the team forgo daily wins in favor of waiting for the decisive general classification stages and then defending the race lead. This year, Andreu's got a roster of "super aggressive" riders like Sweeting, Stemper, Williams and newcomer Bruno Langlois, all of whom can win from breakaways and also provide horsepower to set up Keough when it comes down to a bunch kick.
"Obviously, the mix will be a little bit different," Andreu said. "Instead of bringing, let's just say, a full core of stage racer guys who are all climbers to help support the GC threat, we have to do a little mixing and matching, a few guys to help support GC if we decide to go for that, and, obviously, I've got to bring three or four guys who have some horsepower to help with the lead-out for Jake Keough."
Keough was a prolific winner with UnitedHealthcare, where the former criterium specialist had been transitioning into a road sprinter with a steady diet of European and other international racing. Keough wracked up three wins in UCI races over the past two years, including the final stages at last season's Tour of Qinghai Lake (2.HC) and Volta a Portugal (2.1). He also took the stage 4 sprint finish at the 2012 Tour of Utah (2.1) in front of Liquigas-Cannondale's Marco Benfatto and Garmin-Sharp's Tyler Farrar.
With such a formidable force for the bunch finishes on the roster, 5-hour Energy has already started working on its lead-out train at the Georgia camp, Andreu said, and despite having to work out some early season bugs, he's confident the team will be able to put Keough into position to win races when it matters.
"You can line it all up on paper, but when it comes down to it, and it's every man for himself, things get messed up quickly," Andreu said of the sprint train. "It will definitely be a learning curve for the team in those first races, but I'm confident with the horsepower we have that they'll be able to hit the front and get the job done."
The team will get its first chance to test its learning curve against real competition March 4-9 at the UCI 2.2 Vuelta Mexico in a 15-team field that also includes fellow US Continental squads Optum Pro Cycling, Jamis-Hagens Berman and Team SmartStop. The US domestic elite BMW Development Team, formerly Stage 17 Racing, is also scheduled to compete in the Mexican tour. With domestic racing getting more and more competitive every year, Andreu said, it's almost mandatory now to get in some early racing to fill in the gaps before the US season starts in earnest.
After returning to the states, 5-hour Energy will ramp up its domestic schedule with the San Dimas Stage Race March 28-30, the NRC-opening Redlands Bicycle Classic April 2-6 and the Sea Otter Stage Race April 10-13. Then the team will head east for the Winston-Salem races and the Joe Martin Stage Race near the end of April.
The team missed out on an invitation to the Tour of California in May, but Andreu said 5-hour is targeting the NRC schedule and the national championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as the late-season UCI tours in Utah, Colorado and Alberta. The team plans to make stops in Canada - home of bicycle sponsor Devinci - and Venezuela along the way and then close out the season with a month of racing in Asia.
"I think we rode really well in California last year, and I thought we rode well in Utah and Alberta, so I'm hoping that the invitations will come," Andreu said of getting his team into the high-profile North American stage races in Utah, Colorado and Alberta.
"I think we still have a very good team with a lot of guys coming back, and I think we had a good showing [in California] last year from different riders," Andreu said. "So we're going to go out there, race hard and try to win races and do well. First we will target the results, and what comes after that is out of our hands."
The team's pre-season camp concludes Friday night with the official public presentation in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta.