While Chris Horner has grabbed all the headlines and been the focus of most of the talk surrounding the Airgas-Safeway team this year, his young teammates have been preparing for their own 2015 campaigns with the second-year Continental team that began as the D3devo development program.
The addition of Bart Bowen as a full-time director will provide two experienced hands to guide the young riders through this season, when they hope to transition from being satisfied with making the major breakaways to putting themselves on podiums at some of the big US races.
Luis Lemus, 22, has three years of experience on the Continental level after having raced with Jelly Belly-Maxxis since 2012, but the majority of the remaining riders on the team count last year with Airgas as their only pro experience. Nevertheless, Bowen said he was impressed with his team's performance at training camp earlier this month in California.
“We've been doing some hard rides and these guys are right there, and they're fired up,” Bowen told Cyclingnews. “These guys aren't dying, they're like let's do some more, let's get to that next level. And I think even Chris is like, 'Wow, these guys are solid.' They just need to have confidence, they need to learn, they need to get that experience where they're making good decisions on the road and it's paying off.”
Griffin Easter, 23, and Justin Mauch, 20, are two riders hoping to benefit from the team's increased support and bolstered roster this year. Easter won USA Cycling's Collegiate Division 1 National Championship last year, while Mauch is part of the US under-23 development program. Both told Cyclingnews they're ready to step up with their team to the next level.
“[In 2013] I finished 4th on the last day of Cascade on Awbrey Butte,” Easter said. “I had attacked solo and I was coming into the last 250 meter turn when [Francisco] Mancebo and two Hincapie guys came around me. That was like the first time I kind of saw that, yeah, maybe I am one of the guys and I can stay here.”
Mauch said his goals this year are to represent the US at the U23 world championships in Richmond, Virginia, after learning as much as he can from Bowen and Horner.
“At my age it's all about learning,” he said. “I feel like I've been learning the last couple of years, and maybe start to get some more results, maybe a white jersey somewhere.”
Aside from the learning possibilities that will naturally come with being teammates with a Grand Tour winner that has more than two decades of racing experience, both Mauch and Easter said the attitude on the team has changed going into the 2015 season.
“It seems like there's more purpose and everybody is really geared up to race this season, including myself," Easter said. “So having Horner and Bart as our director is just going to be such a cool experience. I feel like I'm just starting out in cycling, so to have that in my second year as a professional, you can't even really put a value on that.”
Horner is one of the better tacticians in the sport; his ability to read a race is well-known. Bowen said having a road captain with Horner's experience and ability will not only provide great learning opportunities for the other riders, it will provide opportunities for results as well.
“At some point there's going to be guys afraid of Chris: 'What am I going to do to beat Chris?' Well, that means they might work and then Connor [McCutcheon], or Griffin or somebody else has the limelight,” Bowen said. “I call it chess or playing cards, well now we have a couple of aces. We've got a big ace and we've got a couple of guys who are real close to aces, too, that people don't know about.
“When you have that in your hand, now you can play cards. The last few years these guys never had any aces. Now you have some respect, and I know there are a a lot of directors who are thinking these guys are going to step up. Obviously they are going to wait to see that, but I think it's going to happen.”
Mauch, for one, is hoping to benefit from other teams' likely focus on his 43-year-old teammate.
“If he's going for the lead and I'm following right there with him on something, that could bring a white jersey somewhere,” Mauch said. “So that's what I'm looking forward to.”
Horner's presence on the team this year appears to have genuinely lifted the morale and the envisioned opportunities for the entire program, and both Mauch and Easter said Horner has fit right in with the team, despite being old enough to have children who are closer to them in age than he is.
“He's very young at heart, and he gets along with us great,” Mauch said. “I've made some old-guy jokes and some balding jokes, and he doesn't seem to mind. Someone made a joke about him being around for the dinosaurs. It doesn't seem to phase him. He laughs about it and jokes that we're babies. We were going around saying what year we were born, and he was just mind blown. Like someone's in '96, and he's like, 'What?' I mean he's been a pro since we were born.”
Like many riders of his generation, Horner doesn't come to the team without his own baggage. Allegations of PED use have grown along with Horner's palmares, but none of his teammates said that had been an issue with their new teammate.
“I wouldn't say that's come up,” Mauch said. “I look at Horner being on the team as a positive. We've talked about the positives he's bringing to the team, and that other stuff I really have no clue about. Everything's positive so far. It's been really great, and it gives us some opportunities. It will probably help us get into some other races. It's too bad we didn't get into California, but there's a lot more year left.”
Easter said that after the initial nervousness and anxiousness over meeting his new high-profile teammate passed, things began to fall into place easily.
“At first you get nervous and anxious, but once you meet Chris and you see just how easy it is to communicate with him, you remember that oh, yeah, I've been riding my bike, too,” Easter said. “Not that I have any palmares like he has, but I think we're just in a perfect environment and situation to really take advantage of. Nobody is not excited. Everybody is just champing at the bit to get a chance to race, to get out there and get dirty.”