This week's news that Chris Horner had signed a one-year deal with the fledgling Airgas-Safeway team started a mountain of speculation about how the deal came about, how the small team could afford the former Vuelta a España winner's services and what races Horner would target next season. Cyclingnews caught up with Airgas-Safeway principle Chris Johnson via email to try and get some answers.
CN: How did this deal come about?
Chris Johnson: I had reached out to Chris' agent, Baden Cooke, last winter when I saw the Trek program was not renewing his contract. Obviously Chris is still a world class athlete, so I understood when Baden said Chris' ambitions were to do the Tour de France again that summer, a race obviously well above our current level. This year, when I saw again that Chris was not signed, I reached out and really underlined how much of an impact he could have on my young riders. Chris' wife, Megan, is pregnant and expecting in January, so the timing this year just worked and I know that while Chris loves racing in Europe he was not anxious to spend months at the time there, especially with a young child at home.
CN: What was the reaction among your riders when they got the news? A bit of excitement, I imagine.
Chris Johnson: As the opportunity came together I had a conference call with my two captains, Griffin Easter and Connor McCutcheon, for their thoughts. Our team is really a family, and while I have to make decisions for the group I try not to do anything without talking to my riders. Griffin and Connor had the same positive reaction, although I think Griffin screamed and Connor was speechless. What was really cool was their initial response was the same as Chris' in many ways. Griffin and Connor both really point out how this would make everyone on the team better. When I went up to Oregon to meet with Chris before signing the contract, he said the exact same thing.
I have always tried to underline to my riders that it is important to have fun. Cycling is a beautiful sport that brings people together that might not meet otherwise. The young riders on my team are getting the opportunity to visit places they wouldn't probably go unless they're part of this the team, while pursuing an athlete dream. The addition of Chris Horner acts as an accelerator for our program in so many ways, and the riders really seem to realize the incredible opportunity they have before them.
CN: What races will Horner be competing in with the team?
Chris Johnson: We're still confirming our calendar for 2015, but we hope to receive an invitation to the Tour of California in May where I know Chris is motivated to go for another win. The National Championships in Chattanooga and the Tour of Utah will be focal points in our season. Philly and Bucks County are also big races for the team and always have great crowds. Despite our ambitious goals, you will also see the team at a number of regional events like the San Rafael Twilight. These types of races are important because they're a lot of fun and have great community involvement.
CN: Will Horner be targeting USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar with Airgas-Safeway or just the big UCI races?
Chris Johnson: Chris will be doing most of the races with the team, although I don't think we can sneak him into U23 Nationals in Lake Tahoe. Looking at our goals for the season, we're not really chasing the NRC series, but rather focusing on a couple of key events that we know we can perform well in and that our fans want to see us race.
CN: What will be his first race with the team?
Chris Johnson: We would love to receive an invitation to the Tour of Langkawi in March. Chris won the event in 2000, and starting the season off with a solid 10-day race would be a great experience for the young riders.
CN: How can you afford this guy? Did he bring along a sponsor, like maybe a clothing sponsor?
Chris Johnson: Haha, no, we're very happy with Vermarc! Chris is a champion athlete that has been paid very well in his career. We did not lure Chris with a big bag of money, but rather underlined what our program stood for and how a partnership with us could be mutually beneficial. Honestly, Chris seemed very excited from the start about working with the young riders, and when it became apparent that we shared a similar passion, we just figured out how to make it happen.