Embarking on its fifth year with its title sponsor, the Bissell Pro Cycling Team is smaller; at only 11 riders, younger; with only four over 27, but has more depth according to directeur sportif Omer Kem.
"I am super excited about it," Kem told Cyclingnews on a chilly morning at the team training camp in Santa Rosa, California. "Last year we had a deep team in terms of having guys that could be three guys in the top 10 but I think this year we're looking better. The team looks strong and they're motivated, they know that they're going to get to race."
Kem and team manager Glen Mitchell added two new under 23 riders to a core of nine returning riders for the 2012 season for a total of 11 riders, five less than last year. Though the split of the USA Cycling road calendar to National Racing Calendar (NRC) and National Criterium Calendar (NCC) didn't have a major impact on the roster, Kem admits to looking at improving the sprint train especially with reigning US Pro Crit Champion Eric Young returning to the squad.
"We have never really been a criterium-focused team. It was really important to me to keep Eric, I think that he's a huge talent for the Bissell team and we want to see him develop as a sprinter and so in building a roster, even with the split happening, I added guys who I thought could be part of that lead-out. We showed at the stage races that we could control a race from the front if we needed to and when we wanted to. And I want to continue that progression as a team and win a lot of races." Kem explained.
Looking for a repeat in Michigan
Joining the team mid-way through last season, Young surprised many with his speed and wins, including taking the Stars and Stripes. But he knows that this year he will be racing as a marked man.
"I surprised myself," he smiled. "It's easy to spot me in the crits but in the road races, I'll be in the other jersey. It's going to be a great year, I'm very excited. Hopefully we can improve on last year."
The sprinter, who turned 23 at camp, is targeting both criterium and stage wins this year. "I definitely still have a focus on some of the bigger crits and I'd love to defend the jersey this year but I also want to expand my talents this year, get into some stage races and pop off some stage wins, that would be awesome."
With two consecutive US Pro Criterium Championship wins under his belt as a directeur sportif, Kem would love to three-peat, especially with the race held once again in its title sponsor headquarters of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"I felt - maybe not pressure because that is not the right word - I felt that it was important from the day after US Pro Crit last year for 2012," Kem said about US Pro Crit. "We're going to put a lot of effort into it."
The team likes the new date of the US Pro Crit on the schedule at the end of July, sandwiched between Cascade Cycling Classic and the Tour of Elk Grove. "I've got time to get through the first half of the season where it's very stage race heavy, got time to hit the reset button and then let the Americans do a lot of racing together and really work on being a unit. We'll see that throughout the entire year, I've only got two foreigners so I've got nine that can start US Pro Crit."
Young looks at the race as another opportunity. "Not so much pressure. We have a lot of fans there, a lot of support, you don't get that opportunity that often to race with so many people that you know. Looking forwards to it, it's not a negative pressure at all."
"It's a very important race," admits Kem. "Am I going to tell that to the guys every time I see them? No that's something for me to make sure that they are prepared for and they will be, we were last year, they'll give it everything they have, they know it's a big goal, we want to win, Eric wants to win it again, why wouldn't he?"
Smaller and faster in the hunt for wins
Starting his second year as a full-time DS, Kem wants to expand the team's focus.
"We've always been a GC-oriented team, I think winning stages of races is great for day to day media presence, it's great for the sponsors to continue see us being successful and we're still going to be a team that can contend for the overall at all the NRC stage races. I learned a lot last year as a directeur about the people that we're racing against, and we can't have that be the only feather in our hat, I think we need to diversify a little bit so I wanted to go smaller, I wanted to go to a faster team, and that's where I talk about the depth, a team with a bunch of different guys that can sprint and be up there with the lead-out."
The goal this year is to be "successful at every race" for the 2011 NRC Team Classification winner.
"I want to win a stage at every stage race we go to. I want to continue to focus on the team classifications, I want to make sure we have guys on the podiums at stage races, if we see an opportunity to take the overall, we are not going to discount that." Kem continued.
As the only continental US-registered team to receive invitations in 2011, Bissell lis looking forwards to the Amgen Tour of California, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
"And then at the big tours, California, Utah, Colorado, we change our mindset as a team and we race every day like there's no tomorrow, and that's I think where the invitations and our success at those races come from is the guys know that there is no individual leaders, there is no individual person, everybody has their day, everybody is going to have a chance to be in the spotlight and it's exciting for the guys to go to the races."
And for Kem, the already proven time-trialing talent with returning riders Jeremy Vennell, Chris Baldwin and Ben Jacques-Maynes also is expanded this season with the addition of Carter Jones and Chris Barton.
Barton joins the squad after three years with BMC. "He had a tough year but I'll tell you what, I had people call me and give him a personal recommendation that don't give recommendation for anybody, saying that he can be back to where he was in '07, '08. There was a year at Tour of Utah when he was in the top 10 and usually, top 5 of almost every stage including the time trial. A couple of years as a young guy in the ProTour level, racing the Giro on three days notice, that's good."
Kem also added Chase Pinkham as one to watch as a TT rider. "He was second in the prologue at Altoona and then he was up there again in other time trials that he's done. These are guys that maybe people don't think about as time-trialists but they've all been top 10 in hard time trials. So if I have a team of eight that can all go up there in the TT, that's the kind of depth that I want, I want to have cards to play."
Returning riders also include Frank Pipp, Chase Pinkham, Andrew Dahlheim, Patrick Bevin, and Andy Baker.
The team schedule will be similar to last year. "We'll do the normal NRC buildup through California." Kem explained. A schedule which includes Redlands Bicycle Classic, Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium , Tour of the Battenkill, Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Gila, US Pro Championships and TD Bank International Cycling Championship.
"That will be really then the first weekend off." Kem added. "Nature Valley is going to be a little different dynamic this year with a six-man teams but that's really a place to send the sprinters and start that process of building for six or seven weeks towards US Pro Crit."