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Neil Shirley (Kelly Benefit Strategies) looking comfortable going into the climb.
'Home' race a season highlight for Kelly Benefit Strategies
In his second season with Kelly Benefit Strategies, Neil Shirley says that the team's tailored approach to 2010 could pay dividends in this weekend's Redlands Bicycle Classic.
The 31-year-old, who spent three years with the Jittery Joe's outfit, began the season with the Tour de Langkawi and recently finished 13th overall at the San Dimas Stage Race, ahead of riders such as Jason Donald, talented youngster Alex Howes and Australian climber Jai Crawford.
Shirley's good form can be attributed to starting the season in the tough conditions prevalent in Malaysia, where he said his legs felt better each day of the week-long event.
He said that Langkawi allowed him to get "a jump on the season coming into some of my bigger goals", one of which is Redlands. "I'd like to have a good ride at Redlands Classic," he said. "Langkawi will align me to have a decent ride there. It's kind of a home race for me - I'm from southern California."
Kelly Benefit Strategies made its first foray in Asian racing last season, riding the Tour of Thailand, and Shirley is anticipating another trip to the south east Asian nation. "From there [Redlands] we go back to the Tour of Thailand. We won the overall there last year and team classification, so we have ambitions to go back and ride well again," he explained.
It's then onto the team's biggest race of the year - the Tour of California - where he'll be up against some of the best riders in Europe and the cream of America's elite. While he won't be aiming for general classification heroics, Shirley knows where he can take his chances.
"I love being a breakaway-type rider; I've done that in the past in the Tour de Georgia. On some of the climbing days, if I can get up the road and go after a KOM jersey... that would be a huge accomplishment," he said.
"As the race gets closer we'll see who has form - I can see Andy [Bajadali] being the GC kind of guy and we'll see what he can do on days like the Big Bear stage. Hopefully I can then just be a little more aggressive," added Shirley.
Shirley also explained that while the ambitions of individual riders have reached a higher level in 2010, so too has the organisation and potential of the team in general. "It's a noticeable step up this year - it's not just budget. We had a great roster last year and we have solidified it even more, added a little more depth... and just the feel on the team," he said.
"Last year we were really trying to get our foot in the door with international invites and a lot of them came in late, so we really didn't know what our schedule looked like till late.
"Now, getting to start [the season] with races like the Tour de Langkawi, riding the Tour of California, we're getting some invites from France... there's just a good positive buzz with the whole team - riders and staff - it's a really good feel and an environment conducive to succeeding."