Luis Lemus is hoping his switch to Airgas-Safeway in the off season will bring the wins he has come close to over the past three seasons on Jelly Belly-Maxxis. The two-time Mexican national champion is ready to move from team player to team leader for the 2015 season.
"The last years I've been saying that I want to learn, I want to help the team, but I think this is the year that I want to prove myself," the 22-year-old told Cyclingnews at the Airgas-Safeway team presentation last week. "I want to win races. I want to win an NRC race. I've won UCI races before, so I want to keep doing that."
Lemus will get his first opportunity when the team travels to his hometown for the start of the Vuelta Mexico in March. The team added the race to its calendar after learning it would not be invited to the Tour of California in May.
"The Vuelta Mexico is our first UCI race, and it's the first time I'm going to do it," Lemus said. "That's a big goal for me. The first race sometimes you don't know where your form is, but I've really marked this date, especially because it starts in my hometown. I'm excited for that."
At just 22, Lemus is already a journeyman professional, riding at the Continental level with Jelly Belly since he was just 19. Although he benefited from the experience of being on a team with one of the sport's most long-running sponsors, he said he was ready for a change at the end of the 2014 season, and overtures from Airgas-Safeway general manager Chris Johnson attracted him to the second-year Continental team.
"After the last race of the season I was looking for a change, so I started getting in contact with a lot of teams," Lemus said. "I contacted Chris [Johnson], and one of the things that made the relationship work better was that he really wanted me in the team.
"It's not like I was begging for a job," Lemus continued. "He really wanted me, so that just made me feel really good. When someone wants you to work for them, it makes you feel like it's not a job. It felt good since the first call we had."
Bridging the gap to Horner
During his three years with Jelly Belly, Lemus won a stage at the Tour of Haikado (2.2) and finished fifth overall. He's also ridden the top US races, including the Tour of Utah, USA Pro Challenge and Tour of California, where he earned the jersey for most aggressive rider on the stage that finished atop Mt. Diablo. He's hoping to build on those results with his new team, which he says has gotten off to a great start at the recent team camp in Marin County.
"The atmosphere around the guys and staff is so good," he said. "You can feel it, that everyone gets along well together. The rides are fun, dinner is fun, breakfast, hanging at the hotel, everything has been so good. Even though it's just been a week, you can feel that there are no fractures or anything between the guys. It's all really with the same mentality and the same goal, like a team."
Despite his relatively young age, Lemus is one of the most experienced riders on the team, although he knows that 2013 Vuelta a Espana winner Chris Horner is the undisputed leader. Lemus believes he is in a unique position to help bridge the gap between 43-year-old Horner and the team's mostly U23 roster.
"With Jelly Belly I did all the biggest races in the US and some races in Asia, and I've done Worlds twice," he said. "I think I do have some experience, but also I'm of the same generation of most of my teammates, so I think I can be that bridge from Horner to give the experience to the rest of the team. I know the way they think, the way the feel. Some of the questions they have now I had a few years ago – like Chris had 20 years ago. So I think I'm a good bridge to that."