Team SmartStop took another step to bolster its stage-race resumé last week by signing Slovenian sprinter Jure Kocjan to its 2014 roster. Kocjan became the first non-Basque rider to sign with Euskaltel-Euskadi, but his tenure came to a close after one season as he was set adrift when the 16-year-old WorldTour team announced it would fold at the end of the 2013 season.
SmartStop director Michael Creed told Cyclingnews his team can thank the social media site Facebook for the latest roster addition, or more specifically, the Tiger Woods golf game on Facebook.
"I had deleted my Facebook account, and I wanted to play Tiger Woods Golf," Creed said. "The only way I could play Tiger Woods Golf was to reactivate my Facebook account. When I went to do that, I had a few leftover messages there. One was from Jure."
The 29-year-old rider was looking for a spot for next season, and although SmartStop's roster was already in place, the US-based UCI Continental team came up with the resources to make Kocjan an offer.
"To be honest, we were more or less done signing riders, but we scrounged together what we had and gave him the offer," Creed said. "He's a rider who deserves to be taken care of financially, and hopefully we can get him back to that place. He can help us become a bigger team – or a more legitimate team in people's eyes – and we can provide him the opportunity to get back to the WorldTour, where he clearly deserves to be."
Kocjan has amassed seven wins in UCI races dating back to 2008, including three stage wins at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2008 and 2009; a stage win and second overall at Etoile de Besseges in 2009; two wins of the one-day Grand Prix Pino Cerami; and two stages of the Tour du Limousin in 2012. He also finished fourth behind winner Philippe Gilbert on the famed white-mud roads of the popular Italian one-day classic Strade Bianche in 2011.
"He's been second overall at Etoile de Besseges and he's won Pino Cerami twice," Creed said. "If you don't know Pino Cerami – it's one of those races that a lot of people don't know unless you've been to Europe – but that's a legit result. Sixth overall at Limousin and stage wins at Limousin, yeah, the guy's the real deal."
Kocjan's first season on the WorldTour this year with Euskaltel-Euskadi was slowed while he fought off a viral infection that sidelined him for more than two months. He had cracked the top 10 on stage 5 of Etoile de Besseges in February before the infection forced him from racing during Paris-Nice in March. He didn't post any notable results in the handful of races he competed in after his return.
Kocjan started his pro career in 2005 at the Continental level with Radenska, a Slovenian team. He raced there for three years before moving to the Perutnina Ptuj team, also in his home country. He signed with Italy's Carmiooro-NGC team in 2009 and then jumped to the UCI Pro Continental level with Carmiooro when it switched its registration to Great Britain.
He continued at the Pro Continental level with Team Type 1-Sanofi for the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and he experienced some of his greatest success there. He had 23 top-10 finishes in 2011, including one-day UCI races in France, Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia. He also notched top-10 stage finishes at the Amgen Tour of California, Coppi e Bartali, Circuit de la Sarthe, Brixia Tour, Tour of Denmark and Tour du Limousin.
Kocjan is the 13th rider announced to next season's SmartStop team, which has switched its focus from competing in USA Cycling's criterium calendars to gaining entry into North America's most prestigious stage races. Creed said Kocjan can expect a program of domestic events with some international racing mixed in when the team budget and schedule allows.
"Right now we're looking at trying to start the year off in the Dominican Republic and Vuelta Mexico," Creed said. "We'll do some domestic stuff like Redlands, Joe Martin, Gila, and there's also the Winston-Salem UCI races. A race like that, where it's really hilly and really aggressive, will be right up his alley.
"Philly would be another really, really good one for him," Creed added. "Any race that's really aggressive like Tour de Beuce, that would be a great race for him."
Kocjan previously finished fifth at the Philadelphia International Classic in 2011 behind Alex Rasmussen, Peter Sagan, Robert Förster and Ken Hanson.
Team SmartStop co-owner Jamie Bennett told Cyclingnews his team is "thrilled" that the Slovenian rider chose the US Continental team as the place to continue his cycling career.
"We feel pretty privileged to have a hungry, experienced guy who is capable of winning bike races," Bennett said. "We're looking at next year as a year where we really want to show all the race organizers on this continent that we want to go to every bike race, that we're going to take it seriously and have a roster that's competitive. By signing Jure, we're telling everybody that we're here to play and we want a chance."
In other team news, Bennett said SmartStop will continue to compete on Wilier bicycles in 2014. He said the team is "fully integrated" with Wilier North America, and riders will be undergoing bike fittings soon for their 2014 machines. Wilier of Italy recently announced it will be the bike supplier next season for the UnitedHealthcare men's and women's teams.