As speculation over which team Chris Horner has signed with for next season reaches a crescendo, and with his own agent confirming the 43-year-old 2013 Vuelta a España winner has signed with an "up-and-coming" US team, mounting evidence points to the fledgling Airgas-Safeway squad as Horner's new home.
When Cyclingnews asked last week, Airgas-Safeway general manager Chris Johnson would neither confirm nor deny rumors that Horner had signed with the team for 2015.
"I can't elaborate at all on the roster," Johnson told Cyclingnews. "[Team rider] Matt [Lyons] asked me the same thing the other day, and I was like, 'Matt, how am I supposed to respond to something like that? Like honestly.' Because it's like, uh yeah, no, umm. [laughs]. But yeah, that's a dream situation, right?"
Johnson did not immediately respond to Cyclingnews' requests today for further comment.
Horner's agent Baden Cooke this week ruled out a WorldTour squad as Horner's new team, ending any rumours of a move to BMC Racing or Trek Factory Racing. Horner has also been linked to a number of domestic teams, including Jelly Belly, UnitedHealthcare, Jamis, SmartStop and Bissell.
Cooke would not comment which team Horner would ride for in 2015, but Jamis, Jelly Belly, UnitedHealthcare and SmartStop have previously ruled out signing the American. Astellas, another second-year US Continental team, confirmed to Cyclingnews today that it has not signed Horner.
Racing as D3 Devo-Airgas in its debut season in 2013, the Philadelphia-based Airgas development team has competed in national and regional events over the past two years, moving from an amateur domestic elite program to UCI Continental status this season.
Johnson told Cyclingnews that although adding Safeway as a sponsor boosted the team's budget "considerably", it will continue with a development focus but will not be restricted to U23 riders. The 12-rider 2014 roster was comprised of athletes who were all new to the Continental level. Johnson said the team will fill a 16-rider roster this year and will likely start its season with some racing in Asia.
In a press release announcing Safeway as a co-title sponsor, and during a conversation with Cyclingnews last week, Johnson said the team would be announcing "some very big news" this week that would change the scope of the program.
Johnson also said Airgas-Safeway would target invitations to America's biggest stage races next season despite not receiving any invitations to those races this year. Adding a marquee rider like Horner, a former winner of the Tour of California, would be crucial in ensuring a spot for a relatively unknown program like Airgas.
The team has also added a full-time director in Bart Bowen, who, like Horner, lives in Bend, Oregon. Bowen directed the team at the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend last year. Through conversations with Cyclingnews and posts on social media, the team has announced eight of its planned 16-rider roster. Riders announced so far include Tim Aiken, Griffin Easter, Kevin Gotlieb, Matt Lyons, Luis Lemus, Justin Mauch, Connor McCutcheon and Matt Rodrigues.
The Airgas company is the largest US distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases, as well as welding equipment and supplies, according to the company's website. With more than 1,300 locations nationwide, Safeway Inc. is one of the largest food and drug retailers in the US.