UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling manager Mike Tamayo confirmed to Cyclingnews Tuesday the signing of Lotto Soudal sprinter Greg Henderson on a one-year contract. The New Zealander will use his WorldTour experience and lead-out skills to support the team's new primary sprinter, who is yet to be announced, as the team continues to shift their focus from criterium racing to week-long stage races domestically and internationally in 2017.
"Greg Henderson has been a great lead-out at Lotto Soudal," Tamayo told Cyclingnews. "We have revamped our roster this year, and we are bringing Greg in to help with our sprinters. He will help us with those guys - when to jump, how to jump, when to do a lead-out, things like that."
Henderson, 40, was a member of the team in 2006 when it was the HealthNet p/b Maxxis team. He went on to join the WorldTour with T-Mobile and Team Columbia for three seasons before linking up with Team Sky for 2010 and 2011.
Henderson has since spent five seasons with Lotto Soudal, and as one of the faster sprinters in the WorldTour peloton, he was best known for being a key lead-out man for Andre Greipel during those years.
"Greg was a great hire," Tamayo acknowledged. "Especially because he has been a part of our team before. He has seen our growth since he left our program to join the WorldTour. And now he can bring that knowledge back home."
Henderson hasn't only been a lead-out rider, however, notching up stage victories for himself at Vuelta a Espana, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Eneco Tour. Although he has not had a win the last two seasons, his last triumph was at the Ster ZLM Toer where he won stage 2 in Buchten from a sprint ahead of Tyler Farrar and his teammate Greipel.
"He's a guy who can win races, especially on the domestic side here in North America," Tamayo said. "We see him as a guy who can win a race from a breakaway. He can race on ability too, and deliver for us at races like the Tour of California, by leading out a faster sprinter to try and get a stage win. He's multifaceted.
"He also brings experience. We've been around for a while now, but he brings us a lot of WorldTour experience. We need that experience when racing against the other WorldTour riders and teams at the bigger races in the US. We need players, like Greg, who can play in that kind of field, and that is why we brought him on board, and other riders like him."
The Tour of California has always been a top priority for UnitedHealthcare, but the team has yet to secure a stage win in their most coveted stage race. Although Tamayo is not ready to announce the full 2017 line-up, he did say that they have hired multiple sprinters, and one in particular will be the team's main man for bunch sprints.
Asked if Henderson was their main sprinter next year, Tamayo said, "No, not necessarily, honestly, we've hired another rider who is really fast, who we are excited about and we feel confident that with Henderson in front of him, they can be pretty dangerous together. We have also hired other guys that can be in front of Henderson, and we can use his tutelage to help our sprinter to propel forward.
"We've wrapped up our roster and we are excited about are signings."
Pro Continental team to re-build with a focus on stage racing
Tamayo detailed the type of roster UnitedHealthcare has assembled for next season as one that will be competitive in week-long stage races, doing away, almost completely, with their partial focus on domestic criterium racing.
"We had a mixed and matched team in the past - some criterium riders and some stage racers," Tamayo said "We've had a lot of older riders on the team who are retiring this year, so that has changed things for us too.
"We looked at where we were lacking in climbing, sprinting, lead-outs and the breakaway departments, and decided on where we needed to improve. We brought together riders for each collective group so that three or four riders could work best together in those areas. We've hired the best possible riders to achieve each goal."
The team made the jump into European racing in the last several years, receiving wildcard invitations to the Classics Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, La Fleche Wallonne, and others. They weren't able to reach their goal of acquiring an invitation to one of the Grand Tours – something that Tamayo says the team will re-build toward for the 2018 season.
"Over the years we have grown to a Pro Continental team, pursued Europe really hard, got to a strong level by doing big one-day races but we are yet to do a Grand Tour. That's the one kind of event that eludes us.
"We aren't shooting for that in 2017 because this year was a hard year for us in terms of results and success, and we want to improve on that in every way.
"We've re-started with a white-piece-of-paper-approach, and are figuring out what we need to do to get ready to be at a Grand Tour-level for 2018.
"We don't want to reach beyond our ability and then stumble back down. We're conservative. We like to take smaller steps, but we keep marching forward, and that is important."
UnitedHealthcare will pursue a full calendar of international and domestic stage races beginning with the Sun Tour in Australia and Tour de San Luis in Argentina, and other similar one-week events like the Tour of Turkey, while the Tour of California will remain the team's highest priority. UnitedHelathcare has decided to forgo much of their domestic criterium calendar in pursuit of better success in stage racing.
"We really are revamping the team in general," Tamayo said. "Our focus is going from trying to win a lot of criteriums in the US to focusing on one-week stage races. Criteriums have become tertiary, they've slipped down the list even further for us. We will do a criterium here or there, but not a full criterium schedule as we have done in the past. We won't be chasing a series like the Pro Road Tour, we just want to do good, quality stage races in the US.
"We need results at the bigger US races like the Tour of California and Tour of Utah, so any domestic, and international, stage races we can do, we will do it. We have built a week-long stage racing team for next year. That will be the building block for us to eventually do a Grand Tour."
Check back on Cyclingnews for UnitedHealthcare Pro Continental team's 2017 roster and details about the UCI women's team soon.