US Continental team manager Chris Johnson has strengthened his Illuminate squad for 2018 with the addition of Estonia sprinter Martin Laas and Colombian climber Camilo Castiblanco. Simon Pellaud and Cameron Piper have both extended with the 10-rider squad that will continue to race in its familiar all-black kit.
In 2017, Edwin Avila took stages at the Tour de Taiwan, Tour d'Azerbaïdjan, and Sibiu Tour but the Colombian has signed with the Israel Cycling Academy for 2018. Laas will spearhead the team's sprint ambitions in place of Avila with Johnston explaining to Cyclingnews that he believes his balanced squad can challenge for stage wins and overall victories.
"For 2018 I was really trying to put together a well-rounded team and build on the team we had a lot of success with this year," Johnson told Cyclingnews. "We kept some core riders from the 2017 team and added some really strong riders we were able to attract because of our results. From the 2017 team, we have Cameron Piper who had a really solid season and got a lot of experience racing internationally and he will be someone next year who is maturing as a rider and will see some opportunity at the stage races we are doing.
"We added a really strong sprinter in Martin Laas from Estonia and he is a young rider with three year's experience on the Delko team. I think he will fit into our programme really well personality wise. He is really hungry and looking for an opportunity to show how fast he is."
A former winner the 2015 Tour of Estonia, the 24-year-old Laas finished the 2017 season with four second place stage finishes in the Tour of Hainan, each time behind Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina), and was second in the points classification. He's earned the team's confidence for the coming season.
"Riders like Simon and Camilo are anxious to go for stage wins but I think everyone recognises what a talented sprinter we have in Martin. We have never had anyone on the team before who has the sprinting results that Martin has. I think we'll have a real strong fast-finishing team that will go for stage wins or overall races with a time trial."
"Camilo Castiblanco has previously placed 12th overall at the Tour of Utah and he is a strong climber but brings to the team his experience racing in Colombian and also in Europe on Team Colombia. He came highly recommended from Edwin [Avila] and we met him in person when we were racing at the Vuelta a Colombia last August. I am excited to have him on the team as he is a solid addition."
Connor Brown also joins the team, moving across from the Elevate-KHS squad, with the 21-year-old to be given opportunities to pursue young rider jerseys. American Rob Evans also joins the team.
With a racing programme that has included Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America, it is imperative for Johnson to find riders who embrace travel and are prepared to spend the majority of the season on the road.
"Every year I try to find a group of guys who can work together, and a lot of the time that is easier said than done," he said.
"The team is becoming known for racing all over the world so if you bring somebody on the team who isn't excited about traveling or doesn't want to live on the road for half the year, then you kind of know they won't be a good fit. There are a lot of riders with good results but the challenge is finding a group that wants to travel together and wants to experience all these things together."
The team will start its 2018 season in Colombia at the inaugural edition of the Oro y Paz in February. An opportunity for Johnson and his riders to test themselves against a strong lineup of WorldTour teams.
"We are doing a training camp in Colombia during January then we'll do the Oro y Paz after that," he said. "We have never had the opportunity compete against WorldTour teams like Sky and Quick-Step, so for us to race against these teams is a dream and we really want to honour that. That is why the guys are down in Colombia training at the moment. They are not taking it lightly. To go to a race where there are guys like Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana and Fernando Gaviria lining up, that is added motivation for us."
Team Illuminate 2018 Roster: Simon Pellaud (Sui), Cameron Piper (USA), Brad Neagos (USA), Connor Brown (USA), Martin Laas (Est), Camilo Castiblanco (Col), Rob Evans (USA), Nate King (USA), Manuel Cazzaro (Ita) and Connor McCutcheon (USA)