Earlier this week when the Amgen Tour of California announced 18 teams that will be competing in the 10th edition of the race in May, the Airgas-Safeway team of 2011 champion Chris Horner was conspicuously missing from the list.
As a UCI Continental team, Airgas-Safeway had no guarantees it would get an invitation to one of the most prestigious races in the US, but the team had hoped that signing the 2013 Vuelta a España winner would push it to the top of the list. As it turns out, Horner's presence wasn't enough to help the team make the cut.
In an e-mail exchange with Cyclingnews over the weekend, Airgas-Safeway principle Chris Johnson said he disagreed with the organizers' decision to exclude his team from the race.
“I'm not sure why the organizers would not extend an invitation to my team,” Johnson said. “I have a very strong group of young riders. Luis Lemus, for example, won the most courageous rider jersey in last year's race on the Mt. Diablo stage when he was riding for Jelly Belly, and for them to not want to include Chris Horner, who is a former winner of the race and a Grand Tour champion, is hard to understand.
“I also think including national brands like Airgas and Safeway would have been a great thing for the race as they would have helped bring in a fresh audience,” Johnson said. “I respect that the organizers are in a hard position and recognize that there are a lot of qualified teams and deserving athletes, but I still don't agree with their decision to exclude us.”
Horner, who no doubt had hoped a top result in California against WorldTour riders would prove to the world that at 43 he is still a force on the road, also expressed his frustration in an interview with Peloton Magazine.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Horner told Peloton. “I don’t know what the promoters are thinking. They’ve obviously done harm to the race by not bringing me. You left the only current rider with a grand-tour résumé who was going to show up, and I’m a past champion there.
“I figured we were already in,” Horner said. “Clearly they didn’t have to bring us, because we’re not a WorldTour team or anything like that. We needed the invite and it wasn’t a sure thing, but when you’re putting on one of the biggest races in the US, you’d think you’d want the biggest US rider to go, so I figured it was a given.”
Horner was recently the subject of an article in Velo magazine that revived some of the long-standing accusations of PED use that have dogged him throughout his career, but when Cyclingnews asked Johnson if he thought some of the baggage that accompanies Horner had affected the team's selection chances, Johnson pointed to an official Tour of California event that Horner participated in recently.
“The Amgen Tour of California included Chris in the Host City presentation in Sacramento a few months ago,” he said, “so I'm not sure now why they would not include him in the race.”
When Peloton asked Horner if he believed politics affected the organizers' decision, Horner admitted a lack of prowess for the political side of cycling.
“Clearly I’m old enough to know that politics exists and that it’s a possibility,” Horner told Peloton. “I’m not saying it’s there or not there, but I’m the No. 1 rider in the US and certainly the strongest and have the best résumé for stage racing.”
Tour of California owner AEG, which works with event organizers Medalist Sports on the team selections, is notoriously opaque about the process, but AEG's Michael Roth previously told Cyclingnews that the race bases its decisions on a number of factors, including “the make-up of the team, past performances, the current skill set and the outlook for their season.”
As a second year Continental team, Airgas has never been invited to one of the Medalist-run major North American UCI races in California (2.HC), Utah (2.HC), Colorado (2.HC) and Alberta (2.1).
And although Horner's racing resume is obviously extensive, only two other riders on the 2015 Airgas-Safeway roster have any professional experience outside of last year's inaugural team. Lemus, 22, a two-time Mexican road champion, rode for Jelly Belly for three years through the end of last season, and Alex Darville, 20, rode for Bontrager in 2013 and Bissell Development team last year.
Five riders competed at the Continental level with Airgas last year. Griffin Easter, the 2014 collegiate road race champion, Kevin Gotlieb, Matt Lyons, Justin Mauch, Conor McCutcheon and Greg Ratzell were all part of the original D3devo racing program that Airgas sprang from. The team also has five riders who are new to the Continental level this year. Excluding Horner, the average age on the team is 21, but there are riders as young as 18.
Of the six US Continental teams invited to the 2015 race, only Hincapie Racing and Team SmartStop will be competing in the Tour of California for the first time.
SmartStop exploded onto the road racing scene last year, earning a stars-and-stripes jersey with Eric Marcotte in the road race, and winning the National Racing Calendar standings with Travis McCabe. Jure Kocjan wore the yellow jersey in the Tour of Utah and led the UCI America Tour until late in the season.
Hincapie Racing has competed in Utah twice, Alberta twice and the USA Pro Challenge for the first time last year. Joey Rosskopf, riding for Hincapie in August, finished second to Cadel Evans during the queen stage of that race and signed with Evans' BMC team in the off season. Robin Carpenter, who is back with the team this year, won a truly epic stage at the USA Pro Challenge in wet and muddy conditions.
Other Continental teams at the Tour of California this year have long histories with the event, including Axel Meckx's Axeon Cycling Team, Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and Jamis-Hagens Berman.
Johnson told Cyclingnews that although missing the race is a disappointment, the team's sponsorship will not be affected, and Airgas-Safeway will continue forward in pursuit of other goals.
“Our sponsorship is not based on entry into certain events,” he said. “Nevertheless, not having the opportunity to compete in one of the largest races in the US is a disappointment to everyone involved in the program."
Teams for the 2015 Tour of California:
BMC Racing Team, USA
Etixx-Quick-Step Pro Cycling Team, Belgium
Team Cannondale-Garmin, USA
Team Giant-Alpecin, Germany
Team LottoNL-Jumbo, Netherlands
Team Sky, Great Britain
Trek Factory Racing, USA
Drapac Professional Cycling, Australia
MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung, South Africa
Team Novo Nordisk, USA
UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling Team, USA
Axeon Cycling Team, USA
Hincapie Racing Team, USA
Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, USA
Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, USA
Jamis-Hagens Berman p/b Sutter Home, USA
Team SmartStop, USA