The first training camp of 2014 for the newly reformulated Team SmartStop is providing director Mike Creed an opportunity to see how the riders he's assembled will work together. And so far, Creed says, things are going well.
"I'm excited by how the team is gelling together," Creed told Cyclingnews this week from camp in Tucson. "We did a good job of balancing personalities and finding good people. I learned a lot from [Optum Pro Cycling director] Jonas Carney about how to pick a roster and people, and I think it's paying off."
The UCI Continental team has made no secret that it is targeting invitations to North America's biggest stage races, starting with the Amgen Tour of California in May. But the SmartStop season will kick off with two events outside of the US, first at the Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic in February, followed by the Vuelta a Mexico in early March.
"We want to do some quality racing without a lot of pressure, away from the sneaky American cycling media like you guys," Creed said. "We want to just do some really hard, really challenging racing without a lot of pressure. We're going to race hard, and it would be nice to be in the running for some stage wins and the overall if it comes about, but it won't be a make or break situation for us."
The team will return to the States for the San Dimas Stage Race March 28-30 before kicking off the National Race Calendar schedule at the Redlands Bicycle Classic April 3-6. The SmartStop program will focus on the NRC and the UCI stage races, as well as select criteriums and the national championship events in Chattanooga in May.
Since announcing the initial 13-rider roster late last year, the team has added two riders with extensive European experience, including Jure Kocjan, who comes to SmartStop from the Euskaltel-Euskadi WorldTour team, and Josh Berry, a US rider coming from French Continental outfit La Pomme Marseille.
Berry, 23, of Sun Valley, Idaho, started out racing in BMX, mountain biking and cyclo-cross, but his talent quickly spilled over onto the road. He signed with the UCI Continental team OUCH-Bahati Foundation in 2010, but he was severely injured in an early season head-on collision with a truck while training in Portland, Oregon, and he missed most of that season. He returned to the road in 2011 with the RealCyclist.com team of NRC overall winner Francisco Mancebo. He moved to Chipotle development team in 2012 and onto La Pomme for the 2013 season.
"He was a late addition," Creed said. "He contacted me pretty late. He's got a lot of solid results in some French one days, and he's fitting in really well. He's very carefree and young. He's exactly the type of guy I want to be able to help up."
Kocjan, 29, has amassed seven wins in UCI races dating back to 2008, including three stage wins at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2008 and 2009; a stage win and second overall at Etoile de Besseges in 2009; two wins of the one-day Grand Prix Pino Cerami; and two stages of the Tour du Limousin in 2012. He also finished fourth behind winner Philippe Gilbert on the famed white-mud roads of the popular Italian one-day classic Strade Bianche in 2011. Creed said the Slovenian has also been fitting in well with the team.
"He's a little under-trained right now because of the uncertainty of the season," Creed said. "But he's a really accomplished rider. He's extremely professional and he's gonna be the go-to guy in a lot of situations. He's able to race pressure free for the first couple months of the year. We'll send him to those early races and let him build his form, and hopefully, by Winston-Salem and Philly time we'll see him back on form."
Creed gave special nod to Julien Kyer and Rob Britton as riding well at the camp so far, but he said all of his riders are ambitious and anxious to start the season.
"I picked guys who want more," Creed said. "I didn't pick guys who are happy to be here with small ambitions of just making it. I feel like everybody on the team is genuinely ambitious to get to the top level or get back to the top level."
Aside from the team goals and providing his riders with opportunities to get results in the high-profile North American stage races, Creed has his own personal reasons for wanting to secure an invitation to the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado this August.
"That race goes up a climb that I consider my climb," he said. " The circuit race in Colorado Springs goes up a climb that I was going up when I was 13 years old. I lived maybe 500 meters from the bottom of it, and I would climb it all the time pretending I was Andy Hampsten or Bobby Julich or whoever.
"If we don't go to Colorado, I can't be in the state," he continued. "I'll have to be out of town. It would be too painful to see Ivan Basso riding up my climb with a crowd. For all the times I road up it without a crowd suffering by myself, to see the best riders in the world go up it without me would be a little death, that's for sure."